Field Hospital


Field Hospital – the church’s engagement with a wounded world
By William T. Cavanaugh
Eerdmans Publishing – £16.99

The Introduction of this book opens with the question: ”what kind of church do you dream of?” And it’s interesting to note, that in as much as the church he’d personally like to see, Pope Francis famously responded (in 2013) with: ”I see clearly, that the thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal the wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the church as a field hospital after battle […] Heal the wounds, heal the wounds. And you have to start from the ground up.”

Having ”to start from the ground up,” is, if nothing else, a most appropriate premise from which to embark on any journey.

It also suggests a cleansing of the spiritual palette, which, somewhere along the line, may well have become obstructed or distorted by an array of bad teaching(s). Bad feeling(s). Or at the very least, bad information.

So in a round-a-bout kind of way, this is what initially drew me to Field Hospital – the church’s engagement with a wounded world to begin with. Apart from being a most frank, literary charismatic and rather to the point sort of title, the book neither dithers nor deludes – as is often the case with publications of a theological persuasion.

They can so easily become something of a saccharine induced obstruction in themselves, although such is most definitely not the case here.

The mere fact that the second part of the title is all in lower case, could be viewed as something of an invitation to the reader – as in: there is nothing highbrow with regards what is contained herein. If such be the thinking (and I suspect it is), it’s a welcome perspective to say the least.

Reason being, it covers an array of possibilities that transcend the very idea that the church is somewhat philosophically or economically sacred. To be sure, William T. Cavanaugh – who is the Director of the Centre for World Catholicism and Intercultural Theology – touches on as much in the fourth chapter, under the sub-heading, Economics and Theology Intertwined, where he astutely writes: ”Poverty is that state and condition in society where the individual has no surplus labour in store, or, in other words, no property or means of subsistence but what is derived from the constant exercise of industry in the various occupations of life. Poverty is there a most necessary and indispensable ingredient in society, without which nations and communities could not exist in a state of civilization. It is the lot of man. It is the source of wealth, since without poverty, there could be no labour, there could be no riches, no refinement, no comfort, and no benefit to those who may be possessed of wealth.”

Such thinking would also entail there would be no Donald Trump, which, apart from being an exceedingly good thing; substantiates the fact that there are those who have no shame whatsoever when it comes to accumulating enormous amounts of wealth, usually at the expense of other peoples’ grinding misery and expense.

Naturally, so far as the actual Vatican is concerned, there is nothing sacred to be gleaned in relation to its menagerie of tumultuous, taboo finances.

Yet, as Cavanaugh continues: ”The process by which some come to ”be possessed of wealth” and others own nothing but their labour is known as ”primitive accumulation.” Karl Marx famously wrote that we are taught to think about this process through the lens of the theological notion of original sin. We tend to think that, way back in the misty past, some people were hard-working and frugal and others were lazy and dissolute; the former became the owners of capital, the latter relegated to work for others” (‘Actually, You Can’t Be Anything You Want’).

Broken into three sections (‘Markets and Bodies,’ Dispersed Political Theology’ and ‘Further Exploration in Religion and Violence’), these thirteen chapters are quintessentially lucid and instructive in as much as they portray the church as being somewhat (socially) crestfallen – if not vulnerable.

This may go some way in partially explaining why William T. Cavanaugh has evolved into one of the most innovative and idiosyncratically interesting of theological voices (of our time).

David Marx


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