A new podcast on AIDS and the Catholic Church is being lauded for its honest, challenging engagement with a harrowing period for American society and the for the LGBTQ community in the 1980s and 1990s.
Launched on last Sunday, World AIDS Day, Plague: Untold Stories of AIDS and the Catholic Church is a project of Michael O’Loughlin, a gay Catholic who is currently the national correspondent for America magazine, and who has covered LGBTQ issues in the church for more than a decade.
The podcast focuses on the stories of ordinary people whose lives were affected by the AIDS crisis, highlighting both the positives and the negatives of the church’s engagement. A press release explains:
“In 1986 a Vatican department released a letter that described homosexuality as ‘a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil.’ The letter caused a great deal of suffering among people who were already grappling with the largest, most devastating public health crisis in a generation. Yet while the church continued to uphold traditional teaching on human sexuality, pushing back against the sexual revolution in the public debate, it also responded in an unprecedented way to the suffering on the ground during the AIDS crisis. At the community level, the gay community and the church, which managed its own vast health care network and wielded immense political influence, began to work together. Many of the stories from that complicated time have gone unreported until now.
“‘For those of us who are too young to remember, the scope of that suffering can be difficult to comprehend,’ O’Loughlin wrote in a story for America magazine on the secret history of Catholic caregivers during the epidemic. ‘More than a few Catholic priests, sisters and brothers, and laypeople confronted the stigma by responding pastorally to the H.I.V. and AIDS epidemic.’
“Plague captures the stories of ordinary people responding to suffering in extraordinary fashion, as O’Loughlin talks with people who worked on the frontlines of the AIDS crisis, those whose lives were upended by it, and those who believe there are lessons from that time still unheeded.”
An editorial from America said the podcast reveals “there is hope in even the darkest moments of tragedy and that the people of God closest to the ground can and do take the initiative in helping and comforting the afflicted.”
The stories told in Plague are complex. Speaking with National Public Radio, O’Loughlin noted that the podcast covers the controversial actions of New York’s Cardinal John O’Connor who both adamantly opposed condom use but visited with hundreds of AIDS victims, too. There are also the stories of St. Vincent’s Hospital, New York, and Catholic healthcare who worked to get AIDS treatment correct. At one point, O’Loughlin focuses on the story of Sister of Charity Sr. Karen Heflestein, an administrator at St. Vincent’s who organized meetings with activists who had protested the hospital’s mistreatment of lesbian and gay patients, advocating for improved care. In short, O’Loughlin wants us to hold both the institution’s deep failings and the faithful’s pastoral work in a healthy tension.
In a reflection on World AIDS Day for Bondings 2.0, theologian Emily Reimer-Barry explored the contemporary situation in which the Catholic Church finds itself in relation to AIDS. She asks in the end:
“The story of HIV/AIDS is not over yet. Our faith community can still make a difference for people living with HIV. What kind of difference will we make?”
Michael O’Loughlin does the church a great service by presenting Plague. The series is both a mirror in which to reflect and a contemporary call to action. In remembering, Plague helps the church today find its path forward in making a difference on HIV/AIDS, learning from and repenting for its failures while building on successes. O’Loughlin has made a difference. It is up to the rest of us to do likewise.
To listen to Plague’s first episode, click here. You can also find it on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Google Play.
—Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, December 4, 2019