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Sister Teresa Forcades

Sister Teresa Forcades -

Sisters in Dissent

HOT columnist Sean O’Shea discusses the background and beliefs of the Catalonian rebel nun Sister Teresa Forcades. He demonstrates how her stance is part of an ideological and practical struggle happening in society at large as well as within the religious orders of the Catholic Church.

There is in our times a dearth of public intellectuals – whether in the Church, health, education, politics, the media and the economy – who are willing to challenge dominant ideology and contribute to the struggle for social justice.

At the best of times it requires a considerable amount of courage to put one’s head above the parapet and depart from prevailing groupthink. But our current age of austerity makes it even more difficult for those critical of the status quo to step out of line or blow whistles. The risk of losing one’s sense of belonging, status, privileges – and sometimes one’s livelihood – remains a powerful stimulus towards conformity.

A refreshing exception to this trend is the Catalonian Benedictine nun Sister Teresa Forcades, referred to by the Guardian May 17th, 2013, as Europe’s most radical nun. She has been making a nuisance of herself in a number of respects and is fast becoming a stone in the shoe of Pope Francis.

She has described the Catholic Church as a misogynistic and patriarchal organisation which is in need of urgent modernisation. She dissents from orthodox teaching on abortion and contraception and is an advocate for women priests. She has been called to order by Cardinal Rodé, Prefect of the Congregation for Religious Life (now retired), for her activities and beliefs.

She has got on the wrong side of some very powerful interests including the pharmaceutical industry and the World Health Organisation.

For example during the global swine flu outbreak in 2009 she criticised the pharmaceutical companies for putting profit before people and not adequately testing that the vaccinations they supplied were fit for public use.

An article published in the centre-left news paper El País labelled her a “paranoid conspiracist” and “hoaxer-nun” (Nov 2009). This article produced a high level of complaints from the readers of El Pais, and its objectivity and quality were put in question by the paper’s ombudsman.

There is plenty of evidence to demonstrate that this nun is no hoaxer, opportunist, cynic or moral relativist, and that she abides by high standards of intellectual, scientific and moral probity.  Moreover she is committed to being an instrument of God’s love and to standing up in very practical ways for the oppressed, the marginalised and the excluded.

She argues for an alternative to capitalism and has managed to annoy the political supporters of the Spanish government’s austerity measures which in her view are having a devastating effect on the lives of ordinary people and threatening the very fabric of society.  She is also an advocate of Catalonian independence. This is quite enough to get anyone into trouble nowadays, not only within the Church but in the wider society.

Petitions have been organised by the great and the holy to have her suspended from her role as a nun. However, she also has backers and reportedly has collected 14,000 signatories endorsing a political manifesto compiled in collaboration with Spanish economist Arcadi Oliveres.

Pyramid of Capitalism

Pyramid of Capitalism -

Pyramid of Capitalist System, Industrial Worker poster 1911, identifying those who rule you, those who fool you, those who shoot you, those who eat for you – and those who work for all and feed all.

This manifesto includes proposals for genuine participatory democracy, an end to corruption, public control of banks, public services and utilities – including energy companies, decent housing for all, an end to spending cuts, fairer wages, pensions,  shorter working hours and the right to control one’s own body, including a woman’s right to decide over abortion.  It also recommends Green economic policies, placing public media including the internet under democratic control, international solidarity, leaving NATO and the abolition of armed forces in a future free Catalonia.

Sister Teresa is not intending to run for any public office herself but she has become a strong advocate for social and political change, and participates fully in public debate locally, nationally and internationally on the above issues both on television and through social networking sites.

Background, ideas and influences

Sister Teresa Forcades was born in Barcelona in 1966.  She studied medicine at the University of Barcelona and thereafter went to the USA and completed a residency at the University at Buffalo. She obtained a scholarship from Harvard University and went on to Cambridge University graduating with a master’s degree in Divinity. She joined the monastery of St Benet in 1997 and in 2004 obtained a PhD in Public Health.  She followed that up with a degree in Theology and in 2009 was awarded a doctorate by the Faculty of Theology of Catalonia.

She has been inspired by the ideas and values of Mahatma Gandhi, Hugo Chavez, Karl Marx and Leonardo Boff as well as the Gospels.

Amongst the traditions that have influenced Sister Teresa was the Liberation Theology movement of the sixties – an unorthodox branch of Catholicism that sought to empower the poor. This movement was seen by the mainstream Church as a Marxist inspired aberration associated with sixties leftism, and along with the pedagogy of the oppressed has been dismissed by some as a spent force with limited relevance to mainstream religious and educational practice.

There has been speculation within the Catholic community that, given growing inequality, the repeating crises of capitalism, the sorry state of the Church and the Pope’s South American origins, Liberation Theology may have a second wind. However, Pope Francis in spite of his apparent distaste for pomp and ceremony, his liberal veneer, and his pronouncements on behalf of the poor, remains politically and doctrinally orthodox. And much to the disappointment of left wing Catholics, he is not about to rock the boat at the Vatican in matters of organisational substance, or go jogging with Jesus the “revolutionary” any time soon.

But what of love?  Though she has described herself as having been “in love” on a number of occasions,  Sister Teresa seems as critical of prevailing models of love as she is of prevailing models of political economy, and neither in her view has led to universal human flourishing. She maintains that love is not proprietorial but is primarily about openness, honesty and compassion. It is for everyone. (Heart and Soul, BBC World Service, 16th Sept 2013)

In summary Sister Teresa seems, up to now at least, to have integrated a life of writing, study, contemplation, cultural criticism, social networking and activism in a manner which is quite unique. And in all of this she is backed to the hilt by some three dozen prayerful but powerful sisters in the celestial environs of a mountain retreat which is surely as near to the gates of heaven as it is possible to be on this side of infinity.

Not an isolated voice.

Sister Teresa Forcades

Sister Teresa Forcades - news/May17/Teresa Forcades

Sister Teresa is not an isolated voice. There has been a longstanding conflict between women’s religious communities and the Vatican. Indeed the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) was recently commissioned to investigate what the sisters were up to in the USA and a report mandating reform of these communities was published in 2012 and scheduled for the attention of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) which represents 80 percent of Catholic nuns in the United States.

This report viewed the doctrinal and pastoral situation of the LCWR as “a matter of serious concern,” and was described by one commentator as long, thorough and condemnatory. It accused the LCWR as projecting a vision of religious life that “does not conform to the faith and practices of the Church.” It depicted some of the nuns as not so much “faithfully dissenting,” but as being entirely off the rails and guilty of apostate beliefs. These apostate beliefs included radical feminism, aversion to patriarchy, corporate dissent and challenging the positions taken by the Bishops in matters of faith and morals. The report concluded with a plan to help and “re-educate” the sisters and “support” them with getting back into line.

It is difficult to predict at this juncture whether it will be the Church’s plans to reform the nuns or the nuns’ plans to reform the Church which will ultimately triumph.


Monastery Sant Benet

Montserrat Abbey







Montserrat Abbey: &

Failure to learn

The failure of the Catholic Church to update its mode of governance, as well as its approach to gender relations and sexuality, has had tragic consequences for many priests and nuns as well as members of the laity and has led to institutional sclerosis.

The Holy See’s tradition of calling to order and ultimately excommunicating dissident voices, particularly those who are perceived to take the struggle for social justice too seriously, may hasten its own demise. Women constitute more than half of the Church community and have played a crucial role in sustaining an organisation which has for some time now been in terminal decline. By stamping on their sisters the patriarchs in the Vatican may be unplugging their last remaining lifeline.

As to Sister Teresa, I don’t know if the Spanish equivalent of Ladbrokes is taking any bets on how long this passionate, intelligent and exceedingly courageous woman will survive before she is given the boot by the Holy See, or just happens to have an “accident” as she drives around the Spanish countryside in her small Peugeot waving at, and expressing her solidarity with, the precariat.

However, if I were in her shoes I’d be taking some deep breaths in the clear mountain air, and savouring each moment of my remaining days in the peaceful cloisters at the beautiful monastery of St Benet Montserrat.  Mejor de las suertes, Teresa.

SOS, Sept 2013


Posted 15:41 Wednesday, Oct 2, 2013 In: SOS

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