Field Hospital

The Church's Engagement with a Wounded World

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William T. Cavanaugh
  • Cambridge, UK: 
    Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
    , February
     276 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


William Cavanaugh borrows his title—Field Hospital—from Pope Francis’s now-famous metaphor for the church. As a field hospital, Pope Francis says, the church’s priority must be to heal those wounded and dying among us. In response to this charge, Cavanaugh crafts his essays as theological attempts to bind up the various wounds, both material and spiritual, that continually wrack creation with pain (2). Yet the church-as-field-hospital, which binds up and revivifies the dying, is neither confined by “working within the given political and economic structures of the world,” nor necessarily interested in garnering power and influence on the church’s behalf. Rather, as an agent of restoration, the church acts “from below” by participating in the suffering of others, which Cavanaugh understands to be the work of true solidarity (3). He intends, moreover, that solidarity has the “first and last word” of Field Hospital: solidarity with those poor, suffering, and disenfranchised, most in need of a healing balm (5). In lieu of a formal thesis that Cavanaugh systematically defends throughout the text, the recurring tropes of church-as-field-hospital, wound, and solidarity weave a cord that unifies his work.

Cavanaugh, who teaches Catholic studies at DePaul University in Chicago, did not write a book only for Catholics. Field Hospital is ecumenically generous in tone, and Cavanaugh attempts to draw non-Catholic Christians and non-Christians alike into his conversations. He divides the book into three sections: “Markets and Bodies” (chapters 1-4), “Dispersed Political Theology” (chapters 5-8), and “Further Explorations in Religion and Violence” (chapters 9-13). Each section corresponds to a particular kind of wound for which Cavanaugh seeks a remedy: economic, political, and bodily wounds, respectively. Economic wounds are those that corrupt and stratify true corporate personhood (chapter 1), and that perpetuate harmful church/world dualities at the expense of Christian participation across economic and religious divides (chapter 2). Mainstream economic practices inflict harm to corporate bodies, individual persons, and creation at large by insisting that markets and the “science” of economics are value-neutral, and dispossessed of substantive theological commitments, thereby legitimating systems of “social obligations based in debt” while eroding personal and institutional “confidence and trust” (69, chapter 3). Finally, some infected economic wounds have poisoned our sense of vocation, keeping us from really knowing who we are, what we want, and what kind of life is worth working for (chapter 4). The “marketization of vocation,” we might say, prevents us from knowing how to coherently narrate our story within God’s ongoing story.

Section 2 is the most conceptually rigorous part of the book, and therefore, challenging for a non-specialist audience. Cavanaugh argues that theology’s modern segregation from political theology constitutes a political wound, the anodyne for which is “an incarnational and sacramental theology [that] can open avenues for a radical democratic practice of postsecular politics” outside the confines of liberal nation-states (100, chapter 5). Chapter 6 offers especially helpful remarks on how to read and use the tradition of Catholic social teaching: while it is “easy to fault papal encyclicals for their generality,” we must remember they “are not meant to be blueprints for the reconstruction of the world order”; rather, “they open up different ways of imagining the world” (121). The encyclical Caritas in Veritate, in particular, helps us imagine how a more subversive interpretation of the principle of subsidiarity (a principle that proposes how to allocate various kinds of political and social power) allows us to critique homogenizing state and market powers, a tool that could help develop a more meaningfully “dispersed political authority” (126). Both Augustine and Sheldon Wolin become Cavanaugh’s interlocutors as he explores the potential for radical democratic politics to promote such dispersed political spaces (chapter 7). Perhaps the most important essay of section 2 is the final one, in which Cavanaugh persuasively frustrates Peter Leithart’s disconcerting defense of Christian violence in his recent book Defending Constantine (IVP Academic, 2010). Cavanaugh fairly notes important points of agreement with Leithart, especially on the significance of a pedagogical reading of salvation history, though Cavanaugh disagrees that this reading ultimately legitimates Christians’ use of the sword (chapter 8). It is an important contribution to what can, nonetheless, become a tedious theological debate. After all, real, bodily wounds are at stake.

Finally, Cavanaugh begins section 3 by addressing critics of his well-known thesis regarding so-called “religious violence”: namely, that “there is no good reason for thinking that so-called religious ideologies and institutions are more inherently prone to violence than so-called secular ideologies and institutions,” since there “is no essential difference between religious and secular to begin with” (178). This argument, while simultaneously convincing and repetitious, rests on a constructivist, rather than substantivist or functionalist, interpretation of the categories “religious” and “secular” (chapter 9, 181). Chapter 10 contends, contrary to Mark Lilla, that the alleged “Great Separation” between the religious and the secular is, in fact, a dangerous and “bad” piece of political theology. This bad political theology promotes a false bifurcation that enables us to fanatically denounce “religious” violence, while conveniently ignoring, or implicitly idolatrizing, “secular” violence (chapter 11). This bifurcation also obfuscates the nature of religious freedom in America, making Christians’ appeals to such freedom “a double-edged sword”: is their allegiance ultimately to the body of Christ or the nation-state (chapter 12, 235)? Field Hospital closes with an analysis of Dorothy Day’s political and theological allegiances, and her ability to model a gritty Christian faithfulness while recognizing and continuously repenting of her perceived complicity in murderous social orders (chapter 13).

Cavanaugh’s essays offer cogent, lucid accounts of his subjects that can be read fruitfully by both novice and expert. Chapters 1 and 3 are particularly timely, as they attend in unique ways to the nature and condition of, and theological contributions to, the continued exploitation of human labor under current conditions of late capitalism. Cavanaugh reminds us that much more work must be done on the theological nature of corporate personhood if we are to have any sense of what the corporate body is actually for—if it is not for the corporate body’s domination of political and market desires, and the greater stratification of political life.

About the Reviewer(s): 

David D. Berka is an independent scholar of theology and the philosophy of religion. He holds a M.Div. from Duke Divinity School.

Date of Review: 
September 29, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

William T. Cavanaugh is director of the Center for World Catholicism and Intercultural Theology and professor of Catholic studies at DePaul University. His other books include Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire and The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict.


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