Wherein Fr. Z rants about the Church as “field hospital”. Brutal horror, heroic wonder.

In his preaching and writings, St. Augustine of Hippo (+430) frequently presents Christ as Medicus, or doctor/physician of the soul. Christ heals the ills of man brought upon ourselves by sin. This is hardly a surprise, given that in the Gospels Christ conspicuously heals people and forgives their sins.

Christian polemicists before Augustine dealt with the pagan attacks on the faith through their claims about the healer god Aesclepius.

St. Ambrose, to whom Augustine listened with fixed attention, referred to Christ as the Physician in whom we find shelter, whose grace is medicine. For Jerome, Christ is verus medicus, solus medicus, ipse et medicus et medicamentum. He is the true healer and medicine, as opposed to the false.

In his Ennarationes in psalmos 35, Augustine has a stark image of the process of healing which the sinner undergoes under the ministrations of the True Doctor.  Keep in mind ancient medicine, which didn’t have anesthesia, etc.

For a Physician He was (medicus enim erat), and to cure the insane patient He had come.  Just as a human physician does not care whatever insulting remarks he may hear from an insane patient, [not necessarily “crazy”, but, “sick”] but how the mad person recover and become sane; nor even if he receive a blow from the insane patient does he care, but while the mad person inflict new wounds upon him, he cures the patient’s old fever: so also the Lord came to the sick man, came to the mad man to pay no heed to whatever He may hear, to whatever he may suffer, by this very example teaching us humility that, being taught humility, we might be healed from pride.

You’ve seen scenes in movies and read in books about how the wounded in wars would scream and beg as the doctor in the field hospital or the below decks on the ship prepared to saw off a limb ruined beyond saving.

Before Augustine, Tertullian in Ad scorpiacem also uses the image of a doctor being cruel to be kind.  Defending the moral value of Christian martyrdom against the errors and attacks of the Gnostics, Tertullian writes that God only seems to be cruel when He cuts and cauterizes.  He says in Adversus Marcionem 3 that it is wrong to find fault with God’s ways of healing sin, just as it is wrong to fault the cauterizing iron, the blade, the saw.

And for those of you who are timid in confessing some embarrassing sins, Tertullian describes in De paenitentia 10 how some people die because they hesitate to reveal a problem with their more private areas.

In a nutshell, the patient has to reveal the truth before the healing can begin and the doctor doesn’t stop cutting just because the patient is screaming at him to stop.

These days there is some talk again about the image that Pope Francis used for the Church.  For example, a new article in First Things brings it up.   Francis described the Church as being like a “field hospital after battle”.   BTW… Professor of Divisive catholic Studies at Villanova, Massimo “Beans” Faggioli weaponized that article in order to widen the gap even more:

Sad. No?  Did that really help?  I guess it depends on what you are trying to accomplish.  The bread of his buttering seems to be precisely in the conflict he is stirring.

Of course the Holy Father is exactly right!   “Field hospital” is a great image for the Church, even though it isn’t terribly original.  As a matter of fact, Pauline Phillips (aka Abigail van Buren, aka Dear Abby) quipped that, “A church is hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints.”  And we have seen that the medical image is nothing new in Christian thought.  No matter.  It can be brought back out and made available, as the master of the household’s things both old and new.

But let’s now think about a field hospital.

For natural disasters and for battlefields alike field hospitals are set up.  These are temporary places (while the Church is enduring).  Many wounded, not all wounded, are admitted.  A process of triage takes place either outside or just inside, to determine the likely prognosis before time and effort is applied in sometimes frenzied conditions.  Triage is rather cold-blooded when it is going on, though afterward it is heart-rending for the doctors who perform it.  They’re task is to determine the truth of the patient’s condition in the here and now, with an eye on future recovery, resources, etc.  They have to be realistic.

Inside the field hospital, there’s a lot of screaming.  In modern times, the screaming is a bit reduced because of modern drugs, etc.

It doesn’t smell very good.  The combination of charred flesh, burnt clothing, blood, bowel, fear combine for … an intense experience.

Some people have to be patched up so they can be sent along to a better facility.  That’s the point of a field hospital.  After the medic in the field, it’s only the first stop.   Patch the guy up here, get him stable, move him to a better facility.

Medic, field hospital, trauma center, rehab facility, counseling, etc. We have a continuum of care for the wounded.

The brutal stuff happens in each of these places, medic in the field, field hospital, trauma center, rehab gym, counseling, with as much compassion as possible, but not at the expense of the truth.

And of course, at a field hospital some people have to kept as comfortable as possible because they are, in fact, not going to make it.

People die in field hospitals.  It a fantasy that everyone makes it out alive and intact.

Is the Church like a “field hospital”?  Yes.

AND … not everyone in the Church will, in fact, be saved.  Nor is their contact with the Church always going to be daisies and sunshine.

Where the analogy breaks down, and all analogies break down, is that whereas the patient often has no control over his bodily wounds, he does have control over his spiritual wounds.

Whereas the field hospital is mostly concerned with wounds inflicted in disaster or war, the Church generally contends with wounds to the soul that are self-inflicted through sin.  Field hospitals are temporary, but the Church will endure to the end of the world.  Parishes are temporary, however, and on the front lines or in the places where they are needed.

Perhaps Catholic parishes are the Church’s field hospitals?  So, the analogy is not perfect, but it is still pretty good.

The wounded soul comes to the Church’s field hospital, which might take the form of a rectory door, a soup-kitchen where there’s a smile and a friendly ear, or the ultimate, the confessional.

That’s when the triage and truth must be explored: What is the true condition of the suffering soul?

Another problem with the analogy.

In a field hospital, you might find the kind nurse or doctor or fellow warrior holding the hand of the dying man, saying during his last few minutes of life, “You’re okay.  Everything’s going to be alright.”… when it really isn’t.   You do nothing except comfort, because there’s nothing else to be done.

You can’t do that in the Church’s field hospital.  You can’t “hold the hand” of the person dying in self-inflicted sins and say, “Don’t worry.  You’re okay.”   No.  Everything is NOT okay.

It is true that, if the penitent is ready to get to work and suffer a bit, things will be okay down the line. The fact is that, right now, things are kind of awful.  The person is spiritually dead in mortal sins.  But it doesn’t have to be that way!   Conversion is possible and God is fire-hosing grace at the person even while the cutting and clamping is underway.

Remember. Christ the Doctor and alter Christus must cut, even if the patient screams.

In no way am I advocating harshness in the confessional.  As St. Alphonsus Liguori teaches in his advice to confessors, tough medicine is sometimes to be applied, sternness, but not often and not by the hands of the “intern”.

Harshness, no.  TRUTH, yes.  Application of the truth can result in screams.

Sometimes, for a wound to heal, you have to remove the necrotic tissue which would cause problems and slow the healing process.  Debridement of wounds is a careful and gentle process.  Only in the most extreme cases of necessity – as in the environment of a field hospital? – does one just go in and scrape and cut, never mind the screaming.  The usual approach is, in a stable environment, to work carefully, slowly, gently.

But debridement must be honest, just as triage must be honest, just as diagnosis and prognosis must be honest.

Lying and fantasy does no good.  Before you can really treat the wound, you have the dig out the shrapnel and cut off the burned or jellied stuff.

Debridement must be a gentle as possible, but it must be done.  For individuals, this involves hearing the truth, serious examination of conscience, and then a program of life to overcome vices through self-denial and suffering.

For the larger Church, this involves applying censures, such as excommunication, which are always “medicinal”.

Telling people that they can receive Communion if they are in the state of mortal sin and they have no firm purpose of amendment is a lie and a fantasy.

Telling people that they can receive Communion if they don’t believe what the Church teaches about Communion, is a lie and a fantasy.

NOT applying necessary medicines or tools as a doctor is to betray the oath to heal and to do no harm.

NOT to apply censures in the Church, is a betrayal of her discipleship with Christ the Doctor.

NOT to deal in the truth is diabolical.

The Church is indeed a field hospital and field hospitals are simultaneously places of brutal horror and heroic wonder.  They are as real as life gets. To quote the poet, life is real, life is earnest, and the grave is not its goal.  We have souls to save and that involves more than just present, earthly comfort.

The Church is not a comfy Lord of the World euthanasia resort.


About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Andreas says:

    Father Z; You wrote, “NOT applying necessary medicines or tools as a doctor is to betray the oath to heal and to do no harm. NOT to apply censures in the Church, is a betrayal of her discipleship with Christ the Doctor. NOT to deal in the truth is diabolical”. To take the medical analogy further, would these then not be examples of “spiritual malpractice”?

  2. Credoh says:

    The introduction of alternative medicine..?

  3. TonyO says:

    Some people have to be patched up so they can be sent along to a better facility. That’s the point of a field hospital. After the medic in the field, it’s only the first stop. Patch the guy up here, get him stable, move him to a better facility. Medic, field hospital, trauma center, rehab facility, counseling, etc. We have a continuum of care for the wounded.

    I made the exact point in a post, here: http://whatswrongwiththeworld.net/2016/01/the_church_is_a_field_hospital.html

    Not only is the field hospital just the first stage, there are other facilities for other needs: you need a teaching hospital to teach the doctors and nurses, etc. The Church militant – the healthy foot soldiers going out to do battle with Satan and to take the gates of Hell – they need good food and exercise, not hospitalization. The Church may be a field hospital, but it is so much more than that. To pretend that the Church ONLY needs to administer to the needs of those on the very point of eternal death is to leave out most of the Church.

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