William CAVANAUGH, Field Hospital: The Church’s Engagement with a Wounded World. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016. Pp. 260. $24.00 pb. ISBN: 978-0-8028-7297-5. Reviewed by David CLOUTIER, The Catholic University of America, Washington, DC, 20064.


If the Church is to be a field hospital, William Cavanaugh might take on the job of chief of surgery. At least he could be seen as a master of precise diagnoses of the wounds in need of healing, as is illustrated by every one of these collected essays. Building on but extending his previous work, Cavanaugh takes Pope Francis’s metaphor as an opportunity in particular to challenge the critique of his work as “sectarian” or involving “withdrawal from the world.” A field hospital, he says, is “visible, but does not claim its own territory… It neither withdraws from the world, sect-like, nor resigns itself to the world as it is.” It is not “concerned primarily with gaining influence among the powerful in order to change the world from above.” (3) Thus, the image “helps…to confound one of the standard dualities used to discuss the church’s social engagement: the church either engages with ‘culture’ and ‘the world’ or withdraws from them.” (4) Instead, Cavanaugh seeks “a deeper critique of social, political, and economic institutions, and the attempt to imagine and enact new and more humane types of social, political, and economic practices.” (4)

This description of the overall project nicely comports with Cavanaugh’s overall approach in nearly all the essays: to challenge the given terms of a debate in order to seek a deeper “vision” that is not distorted by the oversimplified dualisms on offer. It is amazing how powerful repeated applications of this procedure can be. In chapter 1, he challenges the Citizens United debate not by taking sides for or against corporate personhood, but instead advocates for a Christian understanding of corporate personhood that is at odds with that of large business corporations. In chapter 2, he uses the example of a small Catholic town in Iowa in the 1950’s to complicate Charles Curran’s progressivist narrative of the Church moving from isolated, closed structures toward an openness to the goodness of the created world. In chapter 3, he challenges the terms set by the modern discipline of economics, particularly a dualism of fact and value, in order to advocate for a thoroughly “embedded” economics that cannot be separated from culture. Chapter 6 is a detailed study of subsidiarity in light of Caritas in Veritate, in which Cavanaugh outlines two different existing understandings of the word in CST, then suggests that Benedict means something other than either one, insofar as the two interpretations each focus on what subsidiarity means about the “size” of the nation-state. Instead, Caritas in Veritate is more interested in “dispersed political authority:” by dispersing the possibilities for “quota of gratuitousness” throughout the society’s operations in ways that cannot be simply market outcomes or state-administered programs. In each of these cases, Cavanaugh convincingly suggests that these debates are shaped by a “choose-A-or-B” dichotomy that in fact leaves the crucial wounds unhealed.

A last set of essays returns to and deepens the theme prevalent throughout Cavanaugh’s previous work, the problem of so-called “religious violence,” once again indicating how we reinscribe problems precisely through the terms we adopt to understand the debates. Ultimately, the most problematic term is “religion” itself, which, on the one hand, is identified as the problem which must be removed from a peaceful politics, and then, on the other, suggests an (illusory) “secular” space which is unproblematically a-religious. Attempts to invoke religious freedom to protect the practice of Christianity against the state, Cavanaugh warns, are dangerously close to giving the state the ability to define what a “religion” must be. The real danger here is to imagine that there can be a “secular,” given what human beings are said to be in the Bible: worshipping creatures. Given that humans will seek to worship something, Cavanaugh notes, a putatively “secular” sphere will instead be one where idols are found in humanity’s creations. Fittingly, the final chapter analyzes Dorothy Day as a kind of exemplar of “field-hospitalism,” insofar as the Catholic Worker is not a matter of retreating from the world, or scorning it from a superior position, but rather recognizing one’s own complicity in and solidarity with the sin of the world, even as one commits to resist it and opening up other ways of living.

The essays should be required reading for all who work in areas of Christian social ethics, simply because Cavanaugh’s critiques enable us to get past stale arguments that are seemingly interminable. Perhaps most importantly, Cavanaugh’s extended critique of John Howard Yoder’s construal of “Constantinianism” as the problem should persuade readers that he is no sectarian. The collection is stronger on critique than in proposing ways forward. He appropriately reads the proposals of Caritas in Veritate as a call for more robust intermediate associations, and certainly there seems little doubt that the preferred practice of the Church – and one that can in fact be instantiated in some ways – is the undertaking of micro-political and micro-economic projects that can be animated by the vision (often referred back to the work of Henri de Lubac) of a holism of nature and grace. What still seems lacking is a more thorough analysis of how such micro-associations are meant to interact with the market and state institutions that actually exist. In another work, Cavanaugh suggests ad hoc co-operation. Here, in some places, he points to the proponents of “radical democracy” (e.g., 139). But ought we to reject government funding, as Dorothy Day did? What of the corporate sponsorships and connections with the military that not only fund Catholic colleges and universities, but take many of our graduates? So while Cavanaugh’s overall critique of top-down politics that focuses all attention on influencing national partisan politics and policies is sound, and while he is right to challenge many stale terms of discussion in social ethics and call for a more robustly theo-political imagination and practice, the question of what to do with our existing institutional arrangements has yet to be worked out.