Field Hospital for the Wounded

I was tremendously impressed by Pope Francis’ recent interview. It’s so full of wonderful insights. Here I’m going to expand on his idea that if, as a Church, we focus excessively on a small handful of sins then the moral edifice will fail, and that the Church should be a field hospital for the wounded.

The difficulty is not with telling the truth about sexuality, it’s with telling that truth in a way that hurts and alienates people. There are two things that I’ve heard repeatedly from other Christians that I think, to a certain extent, illustrate the problem with a lot of the “truth-telling” that goes on in the Culture Wars. The first is the assumption that when I go to speak I must meet with a lot of resistance and persecution from the LGBTQ community. I’ve had a number of Americans suggest that, living as I do in ultra-liberal Canada, I must be on the verge of being jailed for hate crimes. This is untrue. There have been situations where I’ve faced resistance but on the whole I’ve found those situations to be fruitful and instructive. Those are the situations that have taught me how to listen and how to present what I have to say in a constructive and respectful way. Generally once I actually start talking a lot of the anger goes away — and in the cases where it hasn’t, I can see what I did wrong.

The second, related, phenomenon is that of well-meaning straight Christians who have the experience of bringing up homosexuality—perhaps while teaching in the classroom, or in Catechism class, or in Bible study—and who find that they are accused of being homophobic and bigoted. This reaction is often presented as evidence that gay people and their supporters just aren’t willing to listen, that dialogue has been completely and summarily shut down by the word “homophobia.”

Let’s contextualize this second experience in terms of Francis’ notion of the Church as field hospital. I happen to have handy a little text-book on military triage, and I find in it two principles that I think are relevant. The first is that if you don’t know what you’re doing and the patient is badly injured but not at the point of death you should do nothing. Hold the person’s hand, talk nicely to them, reassure them until the doctor gets there. The second is that there are some kinds of wounds that can be treated by anyone who knows first aid, but many can only be treated by a specialist. Even if the wound is potentially life-threatening an unskilled medic may do more harm than good and they may make it difficult, or even impossible, for effective treatment to be applied once the patient receives more qualified medical care. Note that this is a book on military medicine: these caveats are addressed to people who are trained to work in field hospitals.

Relations between the Church and the gay community involve a lot of very old, very deep wounds—some of them infected, most of them involving severe complications. Someone with a superficial knowledge of the subject matter cannot address it effectively, particularly in a single presentation. Words like “bigot” and “homophobe” are the gay community’s way of saying “Ow! You’re hurting me. You don’t know what you’re doing. Just leave me alone.” Nor is this an irrational response. We all have the right to insist that amateur medics not attempt emergency surgery on us, particularly without anaesthetic.

The anger that Christians so often seem to feel when they receive this rebuke is, I think, instructive in telling us part of what’s wrong with the approach that tends to be taken. If I go to help someone, and they refuse my help, I shouldn’t be mad. In so far as their refusal makes me angry, that anger is evidence that my help is in some way self-serving. Maybe I’m helping because I want to feel like a good person. Maybe I’m sick of hearing the other person groan and I want to help them to be quiet so that I can have some peace. Maybe I’m worried that if I don’t do something and they get worse, I’m going to be blamed for it later. Their refusal to accept my help then becomes, by extension, a denial of whatever good I hoped to gain for myself.

A lot of Christian outreach to the LGBTQ community is ineffectual because it is coloured more by concern for the Church than by love for gay people. Christians are afraid that acceptance of gays and lesbians will further undermine faith in the church. They’re afraid that their own kids might become gay, or might lose their faith. They’re afraid that they might end up being persecuted or suffering for their convictions.

The irony is, that by addressing homosexuality for the sake of the church or the culture, rather than addressing homosexuals out of a genuine and heart-felt love, Christians end up bringing about the very problems that they most fear. People are not scandalized so much by the church’s teaching on homosexuality as they are scandalized by the attitudes that people who believe in that teaching display towards homosexual people. In so far as the church’s position on homosexuality is motivated by a concern for the needs of straight Christians, the church will be seen as a group of self-serving hypocrites hiding its homophobia behind a very thin veneer of cold moral solicitude.

In order to be effective in outreach, we have to concentrate on healing—and on healing first the wounds that have been inflicted on others in the name of Christ. The Pope is calling us to do this. To sincerely listen, to understand why people have fallen away, to enter into their pain with them, to lead them back to the Church by walking alongside them over the long journey of reconciliation. Those Christians who are willing to commit to doing that work for the LGBTQ community must start by learning, by listening, and by purifying their own hearts of selfish motivation. Those who aren’t willing to commit a lot of time, and love, and tears to this project are best to do nothing. Step back. Focus on something else. Let the wounds heal.

Melinda SelmysMelinda Selmys is a Catholic writer, blogger, and speaker. She is the author of Sexual Authenticity: An Intimate Reflection on Homosexuality and Catholicism and she blogs at Sexual Authenticity. Melinda can be followed on Twitter: @melindaselmys.

17 thoughts on “Field Hospital for the Wounded

  1. Very true. It is much easier to just throw the catechism at people than it is walking with them. However, moral clarity is necessary and I fear people using the Pope’s words to just numb their conscience and continue on. This is such a complicated subject. The field hospital analogy is great but the treatment we can offer gays is very unattractive. I don’t know how we get over that. A gay person trying to live the Church’s teaching is a hero in a way that a chaste straight Christian just can’t be. They will always have a legitimate outlet for their needs for affection and sexuality. Gays can’t have that. We can’t get around that fact. Celibacy is a beautiful sacrifice for the sake of the kingdom when freely chosen. When you have to be celibate forever because of things outside your control it’s a lot less beautiful at first.

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  3. I think this is a good essay, with lots of good insights, Melinda. I loved his comments about the Church being a field hospital. I don’t like the whole language of the Culture War, because it always seems to me to be turned upside down: we’re not battling our fellow man, we’re battling our enemy, and I think the mission of the Church, especially with homosexuality, is like the U. S. Marines: no one gets left behind. We should view ourselves as being on a rescue mission, and if we’re the Church Militant, we need to militant not against our fellow man so much as we need to do battle with powers and principalities. I like too the insight that if you’re not a specialist, perhaps you should wait until a specialist comes along.

    Good stuff here.

    My only thought on this is that sometimes, I think accusations of “homophobe” and “bigot” don’t always come from a place of “ow, you’re hurting me” though. Sometimes they’re done to intimidate and to shame people in the Church into silence, don’t you think?


    • Hi Dan!
      w/r/t the “homophobe” and “bigot” thing, it’s one of the pitfalls of any exclamation of pain that it has the capacity to be misused as a weapon. The “crocodile tears” phenomenon is the oldest example of this. In general though, I think the best practice is to start with the assumption that I am guilty of hurting the other person, and only if I’ve thoroughly eliminated that possibility should I assume that they’re trying to shame or intimidate me unjustly. It’s sort of an elaboration on something that Ratzinger said that really struck me — it was in one of the interview books with Peter Seewald — he was asked how he dealt with all of the bad press and he said something to the effect that he used it as an opportunity for self-reflection and humility. At the time I was one of those Catholics who constantly whine about the chicanery of the secular press, so that passage had a huge impact on me. I couldn’t even imagine being personally subjected to the kind of attacks that he faced, and the idea that through those attacks he was trying to listen to the people who attacked him was just… wow.

    • I’m not sure that it’s a question of either-or. I think that it can feel intimidating and shaming to those of us who embrace the traditional teaching when someone who has been hurt by that teaching expresses their pain. They don’t have to be trying to intimidate for their expression of pain to feel intimidating.

      I also think that the reverse is true: things Christians say with one intention can come across as intimidating and shaming to a same-sex attracted person who hears them.

      • Yes, I do agree on both points here. I think these conversations need to be guided by that distinction of Aquinas: Rarely affirm, never deny, always distinguish. I do like what Pope Francis said about dialog awhile back–the exact phrase escapes me, but the thing he communicated is that the important thing is to listen first. But I think challenging people a bit too is OK, if after some prudent discernment, it’s clear someone’s at a talk, or calling in on an interview, for example, to raise a ruckus. I don’t assume that right away, but I’ve experienced it on a few occasions, and I think at times, it’s OK to push back a bit, since I don’t believe (as I know you don’t, either) that the core teachings of the Church are bigoted or homophobic, but that some people in the Church are asses when they talk about it. That’s an area where one can “distinguish,” in the sense of Aquinas.

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  5. I think I only half agree with this article. Yes, certainly, there are people who are very hurt, but there are also people who are manipulating that hurt for their own gain. It’s like any revolution. Take the French Revolution for example. Yes, there was huge injustice in pre-Revolution France and a lot of old wounds, but once people are convicted of the righteousness of their cause (that they’re making a better world) they will happily guillotine anyone in their way – without trial.

    I think there’s something in the Courage claim that LGBTQ organisations train their members to read everything short of complete unquestioning acceptance of all their values as complete rejection.

    The fact is (and this is tangential to the LGBTQ political angle) my experience of churches who subscribe too strongly to the ‘people only do bad things because they’re wounded’ theory is that there’s a lot of bullying and selfishness because all people’s energy goes into trying to heal the wounds of the immature people instead of telling them to grow up. The people who are ready to receive healing actually get brushed aside because they’re not pushy enough.

    I guess what I’m saying is that we need to be discerning in whose wounds we choose to dress.

    • I kind of see what you are saying Rozanne however if we go along with the analogy in the current vein, you are saying there are good patients and there are bad patients, and that we should not treat the bad patients. I don’t think hospitals do that and yes we might be able to discern an immature Christian but they are only ‘immature’ not undeserving of our attention. Is that what you were indicating or did you mean something else by your comment?

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  8. I agree that Christians should try to make their message more caring and helpful to those who have a same-sex attraction, but I don’t see why this post seems to assumes it is always Christians who are overbearing and that those with same-sex attraction are always blameless in their interactions with Christians. I’m all for recognizing and correcting the flaws and self-servingness of some Christian approaches to the issue. But let’s recognize that all humans will tend to have flawed self serving approaches that may need to be recognized and corrected.

    • It’s not a matter of assuming that Christians are always the overbearing ones, but rather of assuming that Christians need to take the initiative in the practice of charity and forgiveness. There’s nothing in secular, liberal doctrine that says “Love your enemies and pray for them,” or “Love is patient, love is kind” or “Turn the other cheek.” The church can’t say “Let’s all be nice to each other and practice Christian virtue — you first.” That’s like a doctor crying “Patient! Heal thyself.”

  9. Their cry of pain, is to me a dagger into my heart. I no longer believe civil marriage to be possible. Not for heterosexuals, not for homosexuals. Civil marriage is a complete attempt by the government to control religion, and needs to be eliminated.

  10. When Pope Francis first came into office he expressed that the Church must become poor. And I truly think that he means literally poor: financially, spiritually, etc. We already are spiritually poor, whether we know it or not, but when we are financially poor then we truly start healing. You might be wondering how this relates to this post. Everybody’s in the same class in the field hospital. The rich and the poor are all laying together. Our masks and facades are torn from us and we see the truth of who we are. This happens when we are poor and classes are refused. When we are rich we can expand the falseness of our personhood and classes separate us. We become a lie. We learn important truths that are unavailable to us when we are rich. We re-learn the meaning of sex, and as this blog seems to point out, we learn what true love is: friendship, which is agape, the Lord Jesus’ love. When we re-learn what true love is, then we no longer search for love in sex, because we have the highest love in our friendships. We must be poor. We must learn how to befriend the agonizing, sick world. Come, Lord Jesus, and show us the way.

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