Catalan nun sees independence as a chance to implement radical change

In the past, Teresa Forcades’s views have drawn Vatican reprimands

Spanish nun Teresa Forcades, who has become an increasingly prominent European intellectual. Photograph: Lluis Gene/AFP/Getty Images

Spanish nun Teresa Forcades, who has become an increasingly prominent European intellectual. Photograph: Lluis Gene/AFP/Getty Images

 

Teresa Forcades is in a hurry. That’s hardly surprising when you take a look at the diary of this campaigning Catalan nun and qualified doctor. She has just had a meeting with members of her Constituent Process social movement, as well as attending an anti-capitalist event. This weekend she will take part in an acupuncture conference in Barcelona, before flying to Berlin to give an address in German.

And minutes after talking to The Irish Times in Barcelona’s French Institute, Forcades (48) will discuss feminist liberation theology in the building’s conference room.

Given the range of her activities, it’s easy to wonder which role is most important for her: religious, political, or medical? “I’m a nun,” she says firmly. “That’s clearly my primary identity, because that gives me the sense of belonging, the sense of stability. According to the monastic rules, we say ‘six hours of work and five hours of prayer’. Many days I don’t have those five hours of prayer – but I wish I did.”

Stylish scarf

Since the global economic downturn of recent years, she has become an increasingly prominent European intellectual, vigorously campaigning against capitalism while also maintaining her involvement in medicine. But this Sunday, she has a more immediate concern: her Catalan region is due to stage a vote on independence.

Two questions will be put to voters: Do you want Catalonia to be a state? If the answer is Yes, do you want that state to be independent?

The build-up to this vote has been deeply divisive, generating arguably the biggest political crisis in Spain since its return to democracy in the late 1970s. The Spanish government has twice attempted to block the referendum, which will not be legally binding. The first time, it appealed to the constitutional court, arguing that the vote would be illegal.

The appeal was accepted, but the regional government of Catalonia, which is organising the referendum, scheduled an “alternative” vote, on the same date, with the same questions. Again, the Spanish government successfully appealed against it, the court’s decision being made on Tuesday. The regional government’s involvement is still not definite as it appears to be mooting the possibility of defusing the tension with Madrid by handing supervision of the vote to civic groups.

“Why forbid what we are going to do on Sunday?” asks Forcades, who says she will disobey the central government and the country’s highest court by voting, in her case Yes to both questions. “It’s an attempt to prevent the people of Catalonia from expressing themselves and I think it’s a fear of ascertaining that in Catalonia today a majority wants independence.”

In fact, polls show that Catalans are split fairly evenly on the issue of independence, although around 80 percent want to the right to decide via a referendum. This week, the regional premier, Artur Mas, laughed off the suggestion that he might be arrested on Sunday for defying the Spanish state. Forcades is equally bullish.

“Of course, I could quote Gandhi and Martin Luther King as the most respected figures, but I’m a feminist and I think of the suffragists, the women who opposed a law that was unfair,” she says, citing the American activist Dorothy Day, who staged a hunger strike while in prison. “That was in the 1920s. Well, we are now in 2014 but still, what is not being allowed this Sunday is to express your thinking or your opinion about an issue like the independence of Catalonia.”

Low turnout

Forcades uses commonly heard arguments to justify a break from Spain, such as that Madrid has constantly interfered in Catalan affairs, failing to accept the northeastern region’s distinct culture and language. However, she also believes that a Catalan nation of 7.5 million inhabitants would be easier to run than Spain’s 47 million.

“In a smaller country I find that a better link between grass roots and political decisions is possible,” she says. “Having the representatives closer to the people, not only can you get to know them personally, but you can know the issues they are talking about.”

This belief in scaling down extends to her economic convictions, which include the nationalisation of larger enterprises and guaranteeing fairer wages and housing for all. In the past, Forcades’s outspoken views have earned her reprimands from the Vatican – such as when she has spoken out in favour of the “self-determination of the woman” with regard to abortion. But Pope Francis seems to have got off on the right foot with her due to his stance on economic issues.

“Capitalism is the system that is organised for the freedom of the few. I want a system that’s organised to foster freedom for everybody,” she says. “What I mostly applaud about the new pope is that he has been ready to criticise the capitalist system for what it is: a system that is incompatible with the gospel.”

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