On the church as field hospital

William T. Cavanaugh suggests the church has often done its best work when not in power. 



William T. Cavanaugh suggests the church has often done its best work when not in power. 

The church has always thought that part of what it needs to do is attend to the needs of the world. Pope Francis has called the church a field hospital, in which we need to be out on the battlefields of the world binding up people’s wounds. And by this, of course, he means both spiritual wounds and physical wounds. And throughout most of history the church has not made a kind of strong distinction between those kinds of care. And so to care for the body is also to care for the soul, and vice versa. 

I think the church has been best at attending to the needs of others when it’s not concerned about ruling. There are times, of course, where being in power will help you establish the kinds of institutions of care for people that have become very important in the world, you know. Several people have said … Charles Taylor has said that the modern welfare state is in some ways the heir to the Christian church – but there’s an ambivalence there as well, is that the more institutionalised, the more impersonalised care becomes. And so I think the best kind of care that the church has provided for the world is when it’s out of power and it’s not worried about ruling but more worried about being on the ground, taking care of the poor and the vulnerable. 

In this regard I think especially of women’s religious orders, who have often been excluded from power within the church – and often excluded from power outside of the church as well – but have done tremendous work. The story of the church in the United States is really the story of the faithful women, the nuns who have established hospitals and charitable organisations and orphanages and schools, all kind of under the radar of both church and state.