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The Church is a Field Hospital

by Tony M.

It is a common phrase in Pope Francis’s mouth, that metaphor invoking the image of a field hospital. And it is an apt metaphor, for the Church does minister to those in severe straights, gravely damaged by sin.

But is there any reason to suggest that this metaphor is complete? That it describes the entirety of what the Church is and does? No, of course not. Even keeping to the tenor of usage in which the metaphor originates, we could make use of many more descriptors.

The Church is a Field Army. Yes, this Church that Christ founded: the one of which He said “the gates of hell shall not stand against it”. That’s a metaphor Christ himself gave us. And it is a field army that attacks a city’s gates. This is (among other reasons) why we call the Church here on Earth “the Church Militant.” This Church goes out and takes new territory: With its missionaries it attacks Satan’s holdings to recover from Satan what really belongs to God. It claims new souls for God by preaching Christ crucified to pagans and atheists and unbelievers of all types.

The Church is a Medic on the field of battle. Even before you get a wounded soldier into a Field Hospital, you need a medic to collect him off the battlefield and into the ambulance. The Church reminds its own members of grave sins that they would rather think are perfectly fine behavior. These soldiers, though Christian, are dead to God because of those grave sins, and they need their condition to be brought to their attention before they can be readied for emergency surgery. They don't need a missionary, they need a medic.

The Church is a Regular Hospital. A field hospital only treats the emergencies that arise from being in the field. Once the emergency is stabilized, the soldier is moved to a regular hospital. Regular hospitals deal with lots of non-emergency care. They deal with systemic infections, with surgery you can schedule in advance, etc. The soldier who has begun the process of turning away from grave sin, but still needs much more care before he is healthy, doesn’t need “Field Hospital” treatment, he needs ongoing and intense medical treatment on a stable basis. The sinner who has accepted that his addiction or habits are sinful and recognizes his great need of amendment, and wishes to turn away from sin, has already achieved what the Field Hospital is there for. Now he needs another kind of care, the ongoing steady care of regular medicine.

The Church is a Rehabilitation Center. After a soldier has been wounded, and treated until the wound is no longer an ongoing threat, he still has to recover full function. He may be missing a leg, or may need massive therapy before using that leg again, before he can walk. The soldier who has repaired his basic relationship with God by contrition and forgiveness still needs to re-learn how to walk without falling down every step of the way. He needs a Rehabilitation Hospital.

The Church is a Teaching Hospital. The Field, Regular, and Rehabilitation hospitals all need staff. They need professional doctors and nurses capable of seeing and recognizing spiritual illness for what it is and how to treat it. The schools and colleges, seminaries and monasteries of the Church train many of our “spiritual health professionals” for their work.

The Church is a Nutrition Specialist. Just as a sick man needs the right medicine, a healthy man needs good solid regular food. Food that will provide him the nutrition he needs. The Church provides the Bread of Angels, the Food that keeps on giving, for one who feeds on this bread is never hungry. The Sacrament of sacraments is THE work, par excellence, of the Church.

The Church is an Olympic Gymnasium. In addition to the regular health professionals, the Church also trains up the super-athletes of each generation. She is home to the St. Pauls, those who “have run the good race, who have fought the good fight”. The star athlete may have been unhealthy at one time, and (if he falls to injury) may once again need a hospital, but by and large he needs other kinds of attention than medical care. He needs coaching, he needs whirlpools and rub-downs and so on (and a cheering section sometimes). The saints and the nearly-there holy people in this world don’t need a field hospital (or any hospital), they are not gravely, critically ill any more. They need coaching and holy friendship in support, while they display top-level holy living.

Too narrow a focus on the Church under only ONE of these roles will distort the Church’s whole. Yes, the Church needs to minister to those in dire moral straits. But she cannot do so as if all possible needs are “dire moral straits.” This would be treating those in need of rehabilitation as if they still need emergency surgery, when they don’t. It would be NOT treating those whose role is as a good, healthy foot-soldier ready for battle, leaving them to shift for themselves – which is a sure way to make sure that they become injured foot-soldiers, as Napoleon realized. Starve your regular foot-soldiers of the heavenly bread received in liturgically sound, reverent, well-sung Mass, and pretty soon you’ll have your soldiers in a rout by the enemy. So, providing this isn't just "fussy nonsense", not for those soldiers being made ready for regular battle. It is core function for what the Church is.

Comments (9)

Love these analogies, Tony. It's a helpful new perspective (for me) in thinking of the various roles of the Church. It is easy to start taking all her work for granted (and forgetting to be grateful, to partake in both giving and receiving) until one is brought up short for a moment with a new image.

Excellent post, Tony. The listing of various roles for the Church is completely right. And most people, even those who struggle with sin, are looking for ways to live their lives. Being "in the hospital" of any kind is, in a sense, a time when one's ordinary life is on hold. But people need help with getting on with their lives in a godly fashion.

It seems to me fairly evident, sadly, that "the church is a field hospital" metaphor is being used in a deliberate fashion to serve an agenda of "not being too hard on people." And even so, the metaphor doesn't serve that agenda if the metaphor is understood in a strongly normative sense. Suppose, for example, that a person is in a sexually active homosexual relationship and becomes a Catholic convert. Let's suppose that his conversion is sincere but that his Christian teaching has been so dreadfully poor that he has not been told that he has to stop engaging in homosexual acts. A priest who instructs him, let's say, tells him that it "has to be decided on a case by case basis" or some nonsense like that.

This, then, is a person with a mortal wound. He's living in mortal sin. It is terrible cruelty not to tell him to stop and even to tell him that it's okay not to stop. It would be like a medic in a field hospital who left a wound uncleaned to develop gangrene. It isn't even _acting_ like a field hospital.

Now, maybe I'm wrong about the type of scenario for which this metaphor is being thrown around, but I hear things even among some of my allegedly orthodox Catholic friends that lead me to think this may be the type of scenario. One prominent Catholic blogger has even said this about (apparently) sexually active homosexual relationships:

And if somebody embraces this particular form of concupiscence and indulges it, I will say what I say about all such choices to sin: God forgives sin so who am I to judge? Indeed, I have talked to priests who tell me that there are people they counsel in gay relationships for whom it best to allow the relationship to continue for the time being since, for reasons specific to that relationship, it would result in something more destructive to end it. I can completely believe this (which will no doubt shock some of my more conservative Catholic readers for whom scorched earth is always better then accomodating human weakness). There is, after all, often real love present in homosexual relationships, however disordered, and love should be strengthened and perfected, not crushed with contempt.


So, if this is what's in view, that would be a very bad field hospital.

"I can completely believe this (which will no doubt shock some of my more conservative Catholic readers for whom scorched earth is always better then accomodating human weakness). There is, after all, often real love present in homosexual relationships, however disordered, and love should be strengthened and perfected, not crushed with contempt."

Oy, this is such a distorted understanding of tolerance that I don't know where to begin. Tolerance always pre-supposes an evil that one is willing to permit, for a time, for the sake of a possible better good, but there are two points that go against this in the case of a sexually active homosexual relationship:

1. Such activity is intrinsically evil and there is no way to strengthen or perfect an intrinsic evil into a good,

2. Love means to will the authentic good of another for God's sake. A sexually active homosexual relationship can never be an authentic good, so, in a proper sense, in such a relationship, true love does not exist, no matter what the feelings say. Making love into a feeling was one of the mistakes of the Free Love Movement of the 1960's.

It is true that God forgives sin, but only after repentance. If, by "something more destructive to end it," Mark means the threat of suicide, well, that is because at least one person in the relationship is not seeing things clearly. One does not continue in the evil until they do, because they might never do so. One must stay with the truth and let things fall out as they may. In no way would the person leaving the relationship be morally culpable for the suicide attempt. The priest, if this were the case to which Mark is referring, has given bad counsel. This reminds me of the movie, The Days of Wine and Roses. Jack Lemmon had to leave Lee Remick because her alcoholism would have dragged him back to the bottle.

The Chicken

Now, maybe I'm wrong about the type of scenario for which this metaphor is being thrown around,

No, no, Lydia, you are completely correct about it. The phrase is being used to justify just the kind of behavior you pinpointed in the quote.

The "field hospital" metaphor is invoked to mean something like "I can't deal with ALL the damage and ill here, I have to do triage and just deal with the first stuff." For people who are not even Christian, or who are only Christian in the remotest sense but have not been going to church for years, the FIRST step is just getting them back in connection with the Church. Get them talking, get them seeing that their spiritual condition is important, worth taking trouble over. Get them thinking that maybe the Church has something real to offer them. You don't, at this initial stage, hit them with 1000 bricks of all the various things that they are doing that is sinful. You don't, at this stage, delve into "homosexual behavior is gravely sinful" because they can't even hear what you mean by those words in a light that makes sense to them, all they can hear is something like your saying "air is bad for you, you'll have to learn to do without air".

But this FIRST meaning of "The Church is a field hospital" is then taken by some (perhaps many who toil in the trenches) to mean "and that's enough, I don't have to worry about anything else." I.E., no picture of a regular hospital, much less developing healthy foot-soldiers for Christ. Their entire panorama consists simply in "make sure this person keeps talking to the Church, so don't ever bring up unwelcome matters like homosexuality."

Now, I do not think that everyone using the phrase is using it that way, or intends to. But what they are doing (perhaps inadvertently, albeit imprudently) is giving aid and comfort to those who DO use it that way. But what they buy into is this notion that you will turn away people by making the Church look "too hard" or "too narrow". But that's just the milquetoast church that created the problem to begin with: not expecting or even asking for the heroism of Christian virtue from Christians, because 'it's too hard". Well, for the Apostles it turned out that preaching Christ crucified was attractive enough to have turned the Roman world around in 300 years. Sure, there were large numbers of people who turned away. Let them. Christ never said "make disciples of every person of every nation, no matter what it takes. When Christ sent out the disciples in twos, he warned them of towns that would have nothing to do with them. His instruction wasn't "water down the message of 'repent' until they listen to you," it was "shake their dust from your feet." Walk away.

Christ did not tell tax collectors and such "only steal half what you are used to stealing." He told them to stop stealing. The Apostles did not tell soldiers "it's ok to terrorize and extort from people for now, as long as you keep coming to Sunday school to talk to us", they told them to be satisfied with their pay.

There is, after all, often real love present in homosexual relationships, however disordered, and love should be strengthened and perfected, not crushed with contempt.

I hesitate to deal with something this complicatedly wrong, but someone who says this should never be left unopposed. As Chicken points out, the homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered, and so a relationship built on such acts must be gravely wrong. You cannot change mortal sin into slightly less serious mortal sin, and then into venial sin, and then into mere imperfection, and eventually into positive good, by a gradual perfection of such a relationship. There is no such thing as a good same-sex sexually active relationship.

However, I want to be cautious here: a person afflicted with same-sex desires is never fundamentally identified by his disordered desires. What he is, is a person, with bent desires. He is not a "gay person" as if that states his permanent nature. As such, he can in theory have a non-sexual relationship with other men, including other SSA-suffering men. Likewise, even in a gay sexual relationship, there is more to the relationship than JUST the sex. We need not say that every aspect of the relationship is equally evil. What we must say, though, is that every aspect of the relationship that is derived from the sexual relationship is gravely damaged by that disordered sexual situation. Every act of 'love' that arises from that sexual desire accepted and willed, is an act of love vitiated by the intrinsically evil nature of those willed acts. Such acts are not true acts of love, because they spring from corrupted concupiscence. Therefore, THESE acts of so-called love cannot justify tolerating the disordered sexual relationship.

The priest or missionary in the field hospital doing triage with persons like this must walk a fine line. He must "be Christ" to these people, calling them by witnessing to the truth. There are layers and layers of "the Truth", not all can be conveyed at once. While he need not explicitly condemn every kind of evil act that he sees, he must never explicitly condone them either.

If a priest is actually counseling a person in such a relationship, a person who claims to be Catholic, he definitely has to tell the person to stop doing these sexual acts.

But I think he needs to go further. Two people who have been homosexual lovers and have been identified as such shouldn't go on living together, anymore than a man who is married to someone else should go on living with the woman who has been his mistress. For a whole host of reasons, chief among them scandal, in the technical sense.

If a priest is actually counseling a person in such a relationship, a person who claims to be Catholic, he definitely has to tell the person to stop doing these sexual acts.

Yes, he does, certainly. He cannot remain forever silent about this. It's his duty to teach the whole truth.

But, not necessarily the very first time he meets them for counseling. He is allowed to use prudence to time his teaching them on this point to a time when he has prepared the ground for this teaching. Maybe after he has taught them to have hope in God's grace to change even deep-seated evils in their souls. That might be the 3rd or 4th time he meets with them.

And, by the way, I think this quote from Shea is even more telling:

If memory serves, I expressed to my reader a deep lack of interest in that fact since a) Not. My. Business and b) merely living with his partner (and, by the way, I don’t even know if they lived together) is not proof of anything anyway, either about his relationship with his partner, nor about his relationship with God. (Update: since writing this Perry’s friend has confirmed that they did, indeed, have a completely chaste relationship.)

Along with: "Who am I to judge" and "it't not my business what they do with their spare time" and so on.

He completely ignores the sin of giving scandal. In 1960, a young man and a young woman living together without marriage would have been giving scandal to all those around them, EVEN IF THEY WERE CELIBATE. It's not true that "there was nothing going on in private, and nobody's business what they do in private anyway" works as a defense against scandal. That there was nothing "going on" does not prevent giving scandal. It is the mere fact of embracing a lifestyle of near occasion of sin, near occasion that was avoidable but you choose not to avoid. For, in fact it is a public act to visibly live with easily avoidable occasion of sin. This is not "private". Ignoring social norms of moral propriety concerning relations between persons, merely because you think you ought to be exempt from the public implications of your actions and how they relate to those social norms, is actually an act of pride AND a public act of defiance of moral norms as they bear socially on others - i.e. the sin of scandal. People don't get to choose the social implications their actions bear.

For a SSA-suffering man to live with another man bears the same problem, if and when his SSA problem become public. Shea may claim " Perry’s friend has confirmed that they did, indeed, have a completely chaste relationship" but the problem is that this testimony is gravely dubious. So might any man and woman living together say "but it's just Platonic". The problem is that that the known proclivities of fallen human nature and its temptations imply NOT EMBRACING a life of near occasion of sin, even if you "intend" never to actually give in to such temptations. Chastity in full does not mean merely not engaging in sex outside of marriage, it implies all those ancillary acts of virtue in support of a chaste mind and heart, including avoiding situations rife with moral danger when that is avoidable. Such as, for one afflicted with SSA, living with someone who even COULD become a temptation to impurity.

The problem with relying on a certain sort of "who am I to judge" is that it is out of place in evaluating your own behavior in order to make prudent decisions. Prudence just is the virtue in charge of "judging" what consequences your possible actions may have, and choosing well in that light. It is thus the virtue in charge of actions chosen in order to avoid scandal, because you judge that "If I do that I might cause another to sin, and that would be bad". The same moral and intellectual integrity by which we evaluate our own actions to avoid scandal through a perception of the act's social implications is, automatically, the very same moral and intellectual integrity by which we apprehend that another person's actions are giving bad example. You can't exercise one and not have the other. Prudence requires of us that we limit, and sometimes avoid, interacting with people who are bad examples or bad influences (when doing so will not constitute uncharity), and in order to do so we MUST apprehend who are setting bad examples - i.e. who are more likely to cause scandal. A pretense that "I am not to judge" meaning that "I am not to think about scandal, bad example, and bad influence" is just to say "I am going to violate the virtue of prudence". It is to misunderstand our social nature.

Yes, and the even worse part of it in the case he is discussing there is that *all* of the language surrounding this person and his "friend" was *precisely* the language of homosexual lovers. The obituaries listed him as one of the man's surviving family members. He was spoken of as his "partner," which has a clear meaning in a homosexual context. The "friend" stated to the newspaper that they had their "first date" by going to church and told the newspaper that they were "monks in love."

It's problematic enough from the perspective of scandal for, say, a man and a woman to live together when they *might* (in today's world) say that they are "just roommates" or "just housemates." But if they start telling the whole world that they are "in love," that they are each other's family members, and that they go "on dates," then that has a _clearly_ scandalous meaning. To coyly say later, "Oh, no, our relationship was completely chaste" is simply absurd from the perspective of scandal. And it is of course equally absurd in the homosexual case.

The fact is that the language used was *unambiguously* scandalous and would be taken *unambiguously* to mean that there is a sexual relationship. So much so that I would say that people who talk that way are pretending to the world at large that they are in a sexual relationship.

But, y'know. It's none. of. our. business.

Oh, golly. I didn't know about the "partner" references. You cannot use the notion "partner" with reference to 2 gay men without invoking at least the connotation of a sexual relationship. Hence using the expression approvingly would constitute scandal even if the two were celibate. At the minimum, it seems likely that they were attempting to borrow the "my sexual framework is a positive gift to the Church" line that you discussed before, here:


And perhaps that by being partners in "dealing" with SSA, they were living Christian love. But love entails noting and doing something concrete about being an occasion of sin to another. Such as, ya know, not living with them. I.E. taking seriously the possibility of failing when temptation comes knocking.

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