Institutions Mark Silk: Spiritual Politics Opinion

Church as field hospital v. Church as firewall

Vatican Coat of Arms
Vatican Coat of Arms

Vatican Coat of Arms

Halfway through the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the family taking place in the Vatican, the details of the discussion have sometimes been mystifying. Where does doctrine (immutable) end and its pastoral application (flexible) begin? What the heck is “the law of gradualism”?

Yet the core debate is clear enough. On one side are the Franciscans — those who follow Pope Francis in seeing the Church as a field hospital caring for wounded souls. On the other are the Burkeans — those personified by Cardinal Raymond Burke, who want the Church to serve as a firewall against the moral corruption of the age.

Here’s how Francis put his position in that famous interview with the editor of the Italian Jesuit journal La Civiltà Cattolica a year ago:

I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds…. And you have to start from the ground up.

To be sure, the pope wasn’t suggesting that the Church’s ministry of mercy means jettisoning fundamental teachings.

The confessor, for example, is always in danger of being either too much of a rigorist or too lax. Neither is merciful, because neither of them really takes responsibility for the person. The rigorist washes his hands so that he leaves it to the commandment. The loose minister washes his hands by simply saying, ‘This is not a sin’ or something like that.

But there is no question that, for Francis, the merciful approach is one that accompanies people on their journey and adapts to their needs.

At the Synod, the opposition comes from the rigorists. Their foremost spokesman has been Cardinal Burke, the head of the Vatican’s high court who was booted off the Congregation of Bishops by Pope Francis last December. Burke has made it clear, both in speaking to the assemblage and in interviews with the media, that he he wants no part of anything pastoral that undermines, for example, the doctrine that homosexual conduct is “intrinsically disordered.”

The Church’s struggle with rigorism goes back to days when it was persecuted by a non-yet-converted Roman Empire. In the middle of the third century, followers of the Roman priest Novatian opposed Pope Cornelius for being to ready to accept lapsed Christians back into the church; the Novatians also opposed second marriages. In the early fourth century, the Donatists held that sacraments were invalid if they were administered by priests who had handed over the Scriptures to the authorities as an emblem of their rejection of Christianity during the persecution of Diocletian.

In both cases, the rigorists took the position that the Church was a place for saints, not sinners. Appropriately, the Novatians called themselves Catharoi — Puritans. In Antiquity, their approach was rejected by the Church. The interim document issued this morning by the Synod’s drafting committee suggests that, this time too, the tide is running in favor of accommodation. In dealing with the vexed question of whether to make Communion available to Catholics who have divorced and remarried outside the Church, the document is sympathetic to allowing it on a case-by-case basis. And with respect to same-sex marriage, there were these remarkable sentences:

Without denying the moral problems connected to homosexual unions it has to be noted that there are cases in which mutual aid to the point of sacrifice constitutes a precious support in the life of the partners. Furthermore, the Church pays special attention to the children who live with couples of the same sex, emphasizing that the needs and rights of the little ones must always be given priority.

Calling this “a pastoral earthquake,” veteran Vatican observer John Thavis reports that the pushback is already underway. No doubt this contest will continue at least until the questions at hand are resolved at the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia next September. In the meantime, it’s worth recognizing that contemporary rigorist-accommodationist struggles have been important for those outside Catholicism as well as those within it.

After World War II, the ex-Communist Jewish writer Will Herberg saw the Church as a bulwark for society at large against secularism, nationalism, and socialism — “the spirit of the age.” For that reason, he took a dim view of the Second Vatican Council’s commitment to aggiornamentowarning young people gathered for the golden jubilee of the National Newman Federation in 1965, “Do not sell your birthright — the great heritage of Catholic truth — for a mess or modernist pottage, no matter how fashionable or attractive it may seem.”

Similarly, a group of conservative Catholic and non-Catholic “marriage experts” wrote a letter to the pope a few weeks ago urging that the Synod take various steps to strengthen the family in the contemporary society, including providing support for efforts “to restore legal provisions that protect marriage as a conjugal union of one man and one woman.” Like Herberg, they want the Church to be a firewall.

My money’s on the field hospital.

About the author

Mark Silk

Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college's Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life. He is a Contributing Editor of the Religion News Service


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  • It’s good people talk about gay marriage and/or abortion but other sins seem
    to be getting swept under the rug. 1 Corinthians 6:9-12 lists swindlers,thieves,
    slanderers/gossips/liars,coveters/the greedy,idolaters,the sexually immoral
    and drunkards along with homosexuality as people who will not inherit the
    kingdom of heaven unless they Repent! We must Repent! Ephesians 5:18
    says don’t get drunk and 1 Corinthians 6:10 says that all drunkards go to
    hell. The wine Jesus made was from the fruit of the vine/new wine/diluted
    and the Bible says don’t get drunk on strong wine so people who get drunk
    with wine are also wrong/go to hell unless they Repent! We all must Repent!

  • Mark, I am all for loving your neighbor, tolerance, and diversity, but some things must be unacceptable or you stand for nothing. Simply put, the Catholic Church is a fraud and its hierarchy are racketeers. The claims of special authority, interposition, power over a future life etc., not to mention the Church creating new gods (Mary) and generally wielding magical powers is not respectful of others (unethical) nor respectful of the teachings of the Historical Jesus.
    Academics like yourself know all this and much more besides, but are cowed by the sheer power of the organization.
    Pope Francis is a refreshing change of manner and tone at the top, but he is not prepared to be candid and renounce the mountain of lies that built (and still build) the wealth and power of this very earthly organization. How can Pope Francis claim he wants to “heal the wounds” when he heads an organization that continues to do injury by subterfuge?

  • As a non-Catholic and a no longer practicing Christian, at least in the sense of supporting these extreme right wing fundalmentalists, I also stand firmly with the Pope in viewing the church as a field hospital. I’m more & more impressed with this Pope when he takes a stand in the direction of Jesus words of love, forgiveness, and reconcillation over hatred and the pious religious fundy crowd putting burdens on those whom Christ never intended a burden to be put upon in the first place. I say “Right on, Pope Francis! Keep speaking truth to power, and perhaps you might just be able to change the minds of those whose hatred of the poor, sinners, afflicted, is a thorn in their side, not those whom they view as somehow less than them. Remember the words of Jesus about this: The first shall be last…

  • Firewall is definately the right answer! That is the whole point of religion. Helping people is only desirable to the extent that it recruits new souls for His kingdom. Helping is not an end in it self.

  • I have decided to reserve the word “Pope” for Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. The word “Pope” is no longer usable or useful, for me, in terms of describing Mr. Francis. So, from now on, Mr. Francis is simply Mr. Francis.

    Even if you weren’t Catholic, you could trust Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict to do the right thing, and stay within the Official Catechism of the Catholic Church. You didn’t have mass-confusion-on-the-installment-plan like you do with Mr. Francis.

    With those two in charge, JPII and Benedict, you at least had a general idea about what Catholics believed as truth, even if you were Protestant or of another religion.

    Alas. The Catholic world’s first Gay-Marriage standard-bearer, Mr. Francis, is ripping apart the foundations in broad daylight, and you know what happens to the house once the foundations are gone.

  • Mark,
    “My money’s on the field hospital.”
    I hope and pray that you are correct. However, I have this nagging concern that Pope Francis’ life could become in danger. There is much intrigue in the hierarchy of the church they will not give up the “wall” against change. I have followed him since his election. My view of him is, of course, distant, since I observe him through the eyes of a protestant minister. It would seem, to me, that the Catholic Church has a opportunity to forgive and welcome back to the church thousands if not millions of divorced and remarried members. Especially important is the welcoming of the children of divorced and remarried parents. To me, it is not only forgiveness, love and acceptance, it just makes sense.

  • By the way, I DO like the “Field Hospital” concept. America needs a heavy lot of healing and field hospitals, and the world needs the same.

    But any Catholic (and/or Protestant) church or clergy or congregation that has poisoned itself via buying into the Gay Marriage Cult Religion, will be too weak and dying to do much of any field healing. (Just ask the Methodists!!)

    So Mr. Francis is doing great and serious damage to his own church. He’s openly destroying his own field hospitals, on the installment plan.


    There is no upside to Terminal Cancer. There is no upside to Ebola Virus. There is no upside to Drinking Drano. And most of all….


  • Somehow I think you completely missed a few chapters of the Bible where Jesus pretty much said helping is the entire point and something about being every sick, poor and tired person who you gave your coat to.

    Helping because you expect a favor (them joining your church) isnt helping. Its serving your own ends for extremely selfish and self-righteous reasons.

  • Your remark is deceitful. Divorced and remarried Catholics and their children have always been part of The Church. The Church is full of people with disordered lives. The Church exists for such people. By pretending that they have somehow been excluded because of their sin is utter nonsense and does not help this current debate.

  • Nathan and Chaplin, Bingo! It is nice to see Christians, real Christians stand up for the words of Jesus and not the condemnation and hatred of the Pharisee’s and scribes, for in 2,000 years not much has changed, has it? There are still those who would be happier in condemning the whole human race rather than see the human race healed by love, forgiveness and oh yes, love! Funny how Jesus talked much more about those things, and did them as well, rather than condemning the lost souls to hell. Nope, I’ll still take what religion I still do believe in as the field hospital variety while hopefully also creating a firewall against those who love to hate! I get the feeling the Pope wants that too. Therein lies the danger to his, and ours, lives. It is not the average non-religious person I fear either, it is the ultra religious ones who use the Bible as a weapon of hate, and mark my words, when these people start losing more and more of their hold on their various religious entities, it is then that they will react with violence. They did it to Jesus then, they will do it now. Nope, not much has changed in 2,000 years.

  • helenahandcart,
    “Your remark is deceitful”
    Note: I wrote from the view of a protestant minister observing the writings of several articles. I’m thankful that I may be wrong.
    I will defend my “remark is deceitful” charge. I don’t see any way that I was deceitful. Dictionary definition: “intended to deceive; misleading; fraudulent”.
    It is one thing to disagree and another to make a charge aimed at the very personage of the writer.

  • If the saints need a firewall, they’re doing it wrong.

    If they’re more worried about the world infecting their souls than their love being salt to the world, then they’ve lost their way.

    I remember a warm September night, forty-four years ago, when my world changed. I was told that the love of God was stronger than everything the world could throw at me. And I believed.

    It was true then, and it is still true today. It was certainly true for the early Christians in the book of Acts, so it’s not like this is some new, personal bit of revelation. And Jesus himself – did he do firewall? Quite the opposite.

    We Christians need a firewall like we need a hole in the head. All it does is keep us from realizing our safety lies in the presence of God within us, rather than in any worldly, exterior defense. Things like that keep us from finding who we are in the Lord. They are worse than useless.

  • helenahandcart:
    Refusing communion, accusing the remarried of adultery, selling annulments,
    etc. is hardly “pretending that they have ‘somehow’ been excluded because of their sin” .

  • In other words, you like rigidity and the rule of law, not the rule of love. St Paul speaks of the letter of the law killing; it would appear that you disagree.

  • …Argument as strawman. Why should the church take advice from Prof Silk when he freely admits that he does not support the Pope/Catholic’s church position on gay marriage?

  • So your comment that Pope Francis’ life could be in danger was not motivated by some form of bigotry?

    The church is not refusing to “forgive” divorced and remarried people. If you bother reading the catechism the church calls divorced and remarried people to attend Mass with their fellow Catholics and make a spiritual communion. Do you invite unforgiven sinners to celebrate the Lord’s death and resurrection with you?

    Mercy without beauty, goodness and truth is simply indifference. If you don’t believe me, ask the old line Protestant churches.