"The institutional Church shouldn't advertise itself": An interview with Teresa Forcades (I)

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Interview by Xavier Casanovas, Oscar Mateos, Santi Torres and Nani Vall-llossera.

Procés Constituent (Constituent Process) is one of various movements and platforms that have emerged in recent years in Spain, following the enormous upheaval that marked the 15M Movement and the so-called Spanish Revolution. It has a membership of about 50,000 people and dozens of local assemblies and sector working groups. Among its demands is the opening of a constitutional process in Catalonia that would culminate in the replacement of the current economic, institutional, and political model. Perhaps what causes surprise and breaks stereotypes the most is that one of its promoters wears the Benedictine habit and continually strews multiple biblical and theological references in her meetings and speeches. She is Teresa Forcades, a Benedictine nun from the Monastery of Sant Benet de Montserrat, who was characterized in an extensive report that the BBC devoted to her as intellectual, leftist, separatist, revolutionary and anti-capitalist. Teresa also has PhDs in Public Health from the University of Barcelona and Theology from the Faculty of Theology of Catalonia. Restless and searching, she currently combines her dedication to politics and Procés with teaching at the Faculty of Theology of the University of Humboldt in Berlin. She wrote for Cristianisme i Justícia Los crímenes de las grandes compañías farmaceúticas ("Crimes and Abuses of the Pharmaceutical Industry" -- no. 141, 2006). We have come to her to ask about her commitment and her view of the current political times.

The first question is obligatory. What has led a contemplative nun to political commitment and to leading a democratic radical protest movement like Procés Constituent?

I read the gospels for the first time at 15, and around that same time a Jesuit lent me my first theology book, Jesus Christ Liberator by Leonardo Boff. In my family and environment, little about Christianity had been explained to me. There was no animosity but the view was that it was an outdated structure of no interest. And, on the other hand, I suddenly found myself with people who were committed not only in theory but in practice, to tending to the poor, to those who were suffering the most. So the experience of God was presented to me not as something abstract, but identified with the relationship you have with the most vulnerable people in your community. Without implying that to serve the Gospel one has to be active in a party, for me it's obvious that the political dimension is an essential component of how I've understood the Gospel from the beginning. That said, my current political commitment stems from a proposal certain people from the social movements made to me to put my credibility at the service of a project for a peaceful and democratic rupture. After discerning with my community, I got in.

At the level of Christian communities, religious ones, and the institutional Church, the assistance aspect, especially at times of crisis, seems obvious. How do we regain or stir up the more clearly political aspect?

Under current circumstances, I wouldn't encourage anyone to get into politics, unless it's to promote a rupture. I don't think the intuition of Christians who would rather "give a pack of rice" than "tie themselves to a political party" is so bad, since the current framework aborts any attempt to change, however good and laudable your intentions may be. That's why from movements like Procés Constituent we are pushing a program of rupture -- we need to dismantle the current system and organize so that the necessary conditions for a dignified exercise of political action are achieved.

On the other hand, the Church at the hierarchical level -- and especially in the case of Spain -- is making policy, lots of policies...

But what policy? A policy of collusion with power and protecting the interests of the institutional Church itself, a policy of defending ideological interests that I believe are not gospel ones. The institutional Church shouldn't be protecting itself, it shouldn't advertise itself, it shouldn't be self-referential but must always be energized by the mission, and the mission is the kerygma -- proclaiming the Good News to the poor.

In fact, that theme is key in Pope Francis' recent Apostolic Exhortation Evangelium Gaudium. Could this new pontificate help the recovery of the political dimension of faith?

In a review I did of the Exhortation, I said that this pope is moving from dogma to kerygma. That doesn't mean he's forgetting the dogma, but that instead of thinking of faith formulations that encapsulate the message, he's focusing on the proclamation of the Good News. Kerygma comes from kerysso, and we find it in Luke 4 where they give Jesus the Isaiah reading in the synagogue and it says, "The Spirit of God rests upon me because I have come to proclaim Good News to the poor and proclaim liberty to the captives." This "proclaim" is kerysso, so kerygma is the focus of the Gospel. The Pope is doing nothing but moving from dogma to kerygma and from magisterium to mystagogy -- how to help, how to seduce, how to invite people to have their eyes open to the transcendent dimension in personal and community life.

So might we speak of a certain inevitability of the political dimension for believers?

Yes, in this sense of a link with poverty, of understanding that the heart itself of a God who is love cannot fail to be present where suffering is greatest. It's our job therefore to be concerned and find ways to organize ourselves collectively to protect the weak -- that should be the basis of the law. I who have an anarchist streak would prefer for everyone to do what they want. When? Always! Up to what limit? No limits! But reality is different, and when this liberty without law is the rule, abuse of power starts to appear. I'll try to explain it briefly...

Go ahead. We have time...

The ideal of human life seems to be that we would all have the same qualities, but that's precisely the capitalist ideal -- only when we have the same can we be the same. I don't believe that's the Christian ideal. The parable of the talents that still disconcerts us today explains that the Lord of the vineyard gives 10 to one, 5 to another, and 1 to the third one. We start out badly and we sense it will end badly. But the presupposition of the parable is that the fact of beginning with 10, 5, and 1 is intrinsic to God's plan, because what it means to love is demonstrated and experienced when there's this power differential, or rather when, being that there's this power differential, the relationship isn't one of abuse of power. It's exactly what God does with us -- being able to invade and trample on you, I retreat and give you space. That's fabulous. If that isn't love, then what is? That's the Jewish Kabbalists' notion of tsimtsum that Simone Weil and others wrote about in the 20th century, the act of creation as an act of retraction, like an act of saying "so that you can be, I'll make room for you." Or the Christian concept of perichoresis with respect to the Trinity -- giving space. When you leave a person space, that's loving that person. You give them air and if someone does that with you, it's because they love you.

One thing that worries many Christians is consistency in political mediation. For example, I might feel close to some rupturist parties but on the other hand, their positions on certain issues, their way of expressing themselves, violence, anticlericalism, or aversion to religion in society...stall or retract the willingness to get involved. In sum, I want to get involved but there's no party or mediation in which one can be consistent.

Well, here we get into the subject of realism. So either we put together something new in which we feel completely comfortable -- which is difficult -- or we support the lesser evil, a concept that's also present in church social doctrine and teaching. The lesser evil not as ideal but as a way of getting out of paralysis and inertia. This happens too in couples and in religious communities. You enter a community and can spend years asking yourself how, instead of proclaiming the gospel, we're focusing on little domestic arguments. Until one day you become aware of the commandment that's engraved on your ring -- "Love one another as I have loved you", Jesus' commandment. And you find out that you've come here to learn to love, and that you can do this even under adverse circumstances. We have come to bear witness to love in real circumstances, not in ideal circumstances.

But in this realism, can't we end up giving up too many things?

It's something that's easy to understand. My mind thinks "to be able to begin, I need A, B, C but since I don't have them, I'll wait," but you can spend your whole life like that. On the other hand, the gospel inspires something new -- although you don't have A, or B, or C, you can do it, in fact you can even do it from the Cross, without having anything or stripped of everything. In fact, we Christians say and believe that on the cross, Jesus performed the most important act and he didn't have anything.

I should run the risk of making mistakes, because it's getting wet that I make mistakes. Even if you have no guarantee, go ahead! Also, what does it mean to have guarantees? We must face increasingly the radical nature of human freedom. We must learn to make decisions constantly, and we don't make them in an ideal world but in the real world, where the things that are possible are not the ones you would like. You are the one who chooses -- getting involved and making changes within those conditions, or waiting forever.

There's also the issue of freedom of conscience and opinion, especially when, like you, one belongs to a religious order.

Every time they ask me about any subject, be it abortion, women in the Church, etc., I try to say what I think. I can't say what I don't believe. It's impossible. Whether I have the truth is another issue, and in fact, I never say I have the truth, because stating that would be ridiculous. But no one -- not the Church or Procés Constituent -- can force me to say something I don't believe. That was the argument with my bishop. He acknowledged that "obviously, I can't make you say something you don't believe." What the Church can do is force me to shut up. That hasn't happened yet but if it happens, I'll see what I'll do because my words aren't so essential for the world either! Making me be quiet I could accept, but making me say something I don't believe? No way. It's very obvious, but that's how it is. Without intellectual integrity, the gospel message can't move forward and the Church should be very aware of that and be the greatest defender of that personal integrity and freedom.

It's hard to hear this kind of freedom spoken about in our context.

Personal freedom is the only possible locus theologicus. Without freedom, God can't create anything. And notice that I'm not just talking about freedom of choice since that still isn't freedom. It's the Augustinian issue of free will -- I can choose between right and left and therefore I'm already free. No! To be free I must be able to choose -- it's obvious -- but the fact that you can choose is still not freedom. Freedom is choosing well. And what does choosing well mean? Choosing without fear. I have the ability to choose -- I can choose to do something or not do it -- but sometimes I choose not to do it because I'm afraid. So I exercise my power of choice, but I'm not being free. Or I can choose between two things and I choose one to look good. I'm exercising my power of choice but I'm not being free. I'm only free when I choose well. Deuteronomy explains it very clearly: You can choose life or death. To live loving is to choose life. If instead you choose to live hating, you die and kill. The existential tessitura of the individual is this. Freedom is real, but you are not a being created without an image -- you are made in the image of God that is foundational. If you go against goodness, you go against yourself. If you violate another's freedom, you die...You are only free when you act out of love, because you only stop acting out of love when you're afraid.

Fear grips us...

One is only fulfilled when one acts fearlessly. In fact, I think everyone has experienced it at some time -- when you aren't afraid, what you do is an act of love. We only stop doing acts of love towards whomever because of fear -- fear of being ridiculed, fear of losing a privilege, fear that they'll hurt us, fear of wasting time, big fears and sometimes small fears too. But the only reason we stop doing acts of love always and constantly is fear, and therefore, how can those acts be free? What we do out of fear are always acts of slavery -- the only free act is the act of love, which everyone makes concrete in their way. When you act freely, you accomplish an act of love, and that is precisely being free.

Finally, let's come back again to Pope Francis. [Spanish theologian Fr. José Ignacio] González Faus is always recommending that we tone down the papal euphoria.

I agree. That's my opinion too. Change comes from the bottom to the top, and that's how it will happen in the Church too. Someone will say, but what about John XXIII? Well, John XXIII allied himself with a great multitude that for years had been working for those changes to take place -- the nouvelle theologie people, the liturgical reform ones, the biblical reform ones...Throughout the whole 20th century, there were theologians and non-theologians, Catholic Action activists, groups, movements...who were working hard and against the tide to update the very outdated "old regime" Church structures. And in the end, after all this grassroots movement, it's true, there was a pope who agreed with them. But the power came from below.

However, does this grassroots movement currently exist? It seems rather that it's the Pope who's going against the tide...

There have been and are a growing series of grassroots movements that have created the conditions for this reform to be possible, after years of involution since Vatican II. The agent of change is in the grassroots. You can't trust in reform from above. For example, on the subject of women which is key for me. I've already heard the Pope say "no" to the women cardinals proposal, a decision I thought he would make since there aren't any theological arguments against it or any previous papal statements as in the case of priestly ordination. He had a petition on his table from European theologians which I also signed. In the past, there have been lay cardinals, because the cardinalate isn't joined to ordination. I thought that on this point a possibility of change, a possibility of access to a decisionmaking position in Catholic Church governance that wasn't linked to ordination, might open up.

But maybe the grassroots weren't prepared for those changes either?

Yes, it's true. In my community there are many sisters who can't hear talk of women's ordination. There's a lot of historical inertia, but we should go on taking steps to change those sensibilities. It's what we're trying to put into practice as well in the Procés Constituent -- if the base says no, it will be no, and there's a need to continue to work so that in the future change might be possible...

But something is moving however...

It's obvious the language has changed -- we'll see...I'm also very pleased with the synodal survey on the family since it puts on the table problems that up to now the bishops have preferred to deny. Now they have to know how many people in their diocese are in irregular unions and if there are children of homosexual couples who are asking to be baptized. A bishop should know all this, because the fact of knowing it in itself may put some bishops in touch with a reality that they had preferred to ignore. However, I would emphasize the issue of euphoria...It happens at the political level too. It happened with Chávez -- now we have the leader! But it's not in a change of leaders that deep change plays out, but in claiming a political role, a personal role, empowerment...That's the only thing that's revolutionary in the long haul. The other is changing one structure for another, one leader for another, and that doesn't help anything. We should, then, be careful about papolatry.

By Cristianisme i Justícia      April 2, 2014