In a few weeks, I have to go for my annual physical. Last year, it was such a great appointment because I had followed the doctor's orders and had done amazingly well both in regards to fitness and diet. Alas, the past few months have not been so disciplined, so I know that an uncomfortable lecture awaits me. And, worse than that, simply acknowledging his rightness about these matters will not be sufficient. No, he won't let me off that easily. For every excuse that I come up with, he will propose a solution. And then he will ask specific questions on how I plan to rectify the situation. I'm not looking forward to it at all.
Wouldn't it be better if the doctor would just affirm me as I am? Wouldn't it be better if instead of pressuring me to live in a particular way, he just let me do what I wanted? I mean really, who is he to judge me? Who is he to tell me what I should and shouldn't do? If he really cared about me, he'd not insist upon imposing rules on me. If he continues down this path, he risks pushing me away, doesn't he?
Why should I even bother going if all the doctor is going to do is tell me that I need to change certain things? I go back because I know that there is a truth that lies outside of myself. I go back because I know that the doctor actually cares about me. I go back because I know that deep down, the doctor prefers to encourage me in my positive behaviors than he does in challenging me about my lack of exercise. But, he cares enough about me to challenge me. When I call him, he always returns my calls. When I need something, he always responds. When he corrects me about something, I see it in terms of my total health. I don't see it as a personal attack.
Our Holy Father, Pope Francis is fond of referring to the Church as a field hospital. I've always liked the imagery of the priest as a physician of souls, and so the image of the Church as a hospital is appealing to me. These days, however, it feels as though our field hospital is located in the middle of a mine field and is under heavy shelling!
I remember once hearing a friend of mine who is a doctor saying that it is important when treating a patient to remember that you are treating a person and not just an illness. In other words, you don't reduce the person to a particular affliction. That disgusting wound is not what you are treating. You are treating a person who happens to have that disgusting wound. For me, it's a great reminder about the spiritual life.
Recently, I've watched--and participated--in some debates surrounding moral issues and the Catholic Church. It seems like oftentimes these debates are fixated on the wounds rather than on the patients. And, to be clear, we are all patients in one way or another. There seems to be, at least, three unsatisfactory approaches taking place: Focusing solely on the wound, conflating the wound and the wounded, and ignoring the wound.
Some people want to focus entirely on fixing the wound. They speak about the wound to the exclusion of remembering that there is actually a patient attached to that wound. They are experts on the wound, but they seem to have no regard for the wounded. This is the doctor with no bed-side manner. The wound to him is like a challenge. If he can just fix this particular wound, he'd be done with you.
Another issue is the conflation of the wound and the wounded. This is where we attach "being" to the wound. "I am this wound." If the physician calls attention to the wound, then he is attacking me personally and assaulting my dignity. "I have been this way for a long time. I've always done this." The wound and the person are seen as one and the same. They are allies. An attack on one is an attack on both. This approach ultimately denies that there is any wound at all and to suggest otherwise is portrayed an act of hatred.
Lastly, there is the approach of ignoring the wound. This approach suggests that since the person is wounded but doesn't want to discuss it, it's better to just act as though the wound doesn't exist. Let's avoid that awkward conversation because . . . well, it's awkward.
If the Church is, in fact, a hospital, its hospital staff needs to be experts in treating persons and wounds. It means learning how to get the person to keep coming back even though the physician might say, "You haven't been exercising and you need to do so." But, to do that, the Church also has to be willing to be rejected. There are things that are good for our spiritual health and there are things that are bad for our spiritual health.
The fact is, sometimes people are going to smoke even though the Surgeon General insists that smoking causes health problems. Similarly, even though the Church is going to teach that we must worship God every Sunday at Mass, forgive those who have harmed us, and support the works of the Church, some people won't. Even though the Church is going to teach that marriage is permanent, that sexual activity is only moral between a man and a woman united in matrimony, that cheating in business dealings is immoral, and that welcoming the stranger and feeding the hungry are obligations, some people will ignore these things. It may make us squirm. It may make us uncomfortable. It may make us indignant. But, that doesn't mean the Church shouldn't teach them. If she is truly a hospital, then she needs to be comfortable in identifying spiritual health risks and epidemics.
I suppose my physician takes a risk every time I show up and he gives me the lecture. He risks on my freedom. He risks that I am going to keep returning to his office because I trust that he sincerely cares for my well-being. He risks that when he speaks to me, I know that he sees more than just my cholesterol levels. He sees a person.
Where does all of this leave the spiritual hospital staff (which is all of us)? Ignoring the wound, seriously endangers the patient. Focusing exclusively on the wound is an injustice to the person. That leaves us with loving the patient and addressing the wound as best we can under the present conditions. We shouldn't kill the patient in our attempt to heal the wound. And at the same time, we shouldn't kill the patient by ignoring the wound.
There is a lot of pressure these days placed on Catholics to be silent about the moral life. Some say, "Don't talk about sin because it turns people away." This approach takes far too lightly the deadly nature of sin. Then, some angrily respond by talking only about sin. They appear obsessed with shaming people about their sins.
But then, there is the Catholic way. The Catholic way is with tranquil and joyful confidence to affirm that we are all wounded and in need of Jesus, the Divine Physician. And Jesus practices medicine at the Hospital of the Catholic Church.