Today’s post is from guest contributor Jason Steidl. Jason is a gay Catholic theologian and assistant teaching professor of religious studies at St. Joseph’s College (New York). He is active in Out @ St. Paul, the LGBTQ ministry of St. Paul the Apostle Church in Manhattan, and serves on the board of directors for Fortunate Families. In December 2022, his book, No Longer Strangers: A History of LGBTQ Ministries in the U.S., will be published by Paulist Press. In January 2022 he married his partner, Damian Jack, and they reside in Brooklyn.
A few years ago, I planned a World AIDS Day service for my parish’s LGBTQ ministry. I didn’t know how challenging it would be. To younger Catholics, the epidemic was ancient history. To survivors, the trauma was still real. Few had the spiritual or relational tools needed to process it.
We all could have used a copy of Michael O’Loughlin’s therapeutic book, Hidden Mercy: AIDS, Catholics, and the Untold Stories of Compassion in the Face of Ear, which was released on World AIDS Day in 2021. It’s a stirring tribute to those who died, those who survived, and those who ministered, but also an invaluable resource for anyone wanting to better understand the legacy of the Roman Catholic Church’s role in the HIV/AIDS epidemic. O’Loughlin’s careful reporting draws on hundreds of interviews and archives to build a story from the grassroots up. He expertly weaves personal narratives into broader histories of activism, doctrine, and the often-conflicting forces of piety, polity, and policy that drove HIV/AIDS ministries in the church.
Hidden Mercy is a nuanced telling of a complicated history. It is neither a diatribe against nor an apology for the institutional church. O’Loughlin introduces us to people like Sister Carol Baltosiewich, who left the Midwest to serve those affected by the AIDS crisis in the heart of New York City. But we also meet Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI), the Vatican prelate who called for the expulsion of gay and lesbian Catholic organizations from parishes, and who argued that activists brought homophobic violence upon themselves. Lay people such as David Pais, who belonged to Dignity/New York and, later, Manhattan’s St. Francis Xavier parish, play a significant role in O’Loughlin’s account, but the experiences of priests and women religious are the strongest threads binding the book together.
As is the case with many recent histories involving the U.S. Catholic Church, women religious emerge as underappreciated heroes because of their creativity, pastoral sensitivity, and ability to adapt to new challenges proportionate to their distance from patriarchal power. O’Loughlin helps us empathize with openly gay priests such as Fr. Bill McNichols, whose healing ministry in hospitals and parishes overcame the suspicion that many gays had toward the hierarchy. Catholics who served the LGBTQ community in the 1980s and 1990s had to negotiate competing identities while sharing in the virus’s stigma and pain. Ministry on the front lines required heroic compassion and courage.
Other Catholic leaders left behind more mixed legacies. John Cardinal O’Connor, for example, showed great compassion toward toward people with HIV/AIDS—but that compassion was expressed only after they had contracted the virus. A tragic irony is that while the hierarchy supported hospitals, hospices, and community centers that cared for the sick and dying, many bishops condemned the condoms that could have prevented the virus from spreading in the first place. Here, the disconnect between the church’s injurious ideologies and its gospel-inspired mission to care for marginalized is most apparent. O’Loughlin holds both elements of the church in tension.
O’Loughlin is the right author for this work. He is a married, openly-gay Catholic reporter for America Media, the Jesuit conglomerate that has long supported his research and advocacy. Despite his rare privilege, O’Loughlin is honest about his struggles with the rest of the church. His quest to uncover the histories of those affected by HIV/AIDS doubles as a quest to discover his own LGBTQ Catholic heritage, which has been obscured by an institution eager to hide and/or exclude queer believers. While reading, I was haunted by the feeling that if I had been born a generation earlier, my name would be among the unknown dead. O’Loughlin does not let us forget those who preceded us, or those who seek to know and remember them today.
O’Loughlin’s reporting is honest, and he is not afraid to share stories of heartbreaking loss. I wept when I read the dreadful details of sickness and death, but also the stories of life-giving love and intimacy. O’Loughlin notes that many Catholics, such as the elderly parishioners at San Francisco’s Most Holy Redeemer parish, were transformed by their encounters with gay people. Stereotypes and myths evaporated when straight Catholics witnessed queer love. Hidden Mercy models that same spirit of encounter for Catholic communities discerning their relationship to LGBTQ people today.
O’Loughlin’s writing is full of the urgency that many historians feel to preserve quickly fading memories related to the HIV/AIDS crisis. I was struck by the large number of names and personalities that O’Loughlin rescued from oblivion, as if trying to save as many as possible from the shipwreck of time. Hidden Mercy, like other histories of the HIV/AIDS crisis and LGBTQ Catholicism (my own included), centers white, cisgender, gay men as agents and victims of the epidemic. Those building on extant research might highlight the experiences BIPOC, trans people, straight folks, and women.
From cover to cover, Hidden Mercy reveals the great need for Catholics to acknowledge, process, and grieve the HIV/AIDS epidemic. O’Loughlin’s work is an important step, but it cannot be the final word. Parishes might encourage discussion groups, book clubs, and annual AIDS Day remembrances. A national Catholic shrine in memory of HIV/AIDS victims could provide a place of prayer and pilgrimage. As O’Loughlin makes clear, Catholics possess innumerable liturgical, theological, spiritual, and pastoral resources to promote healing.
The history narrated in Hidden Mercy does not just belong to the past. O’Loughlin reminds us that HIV/AIDS still steals lives around the world, just as the church’s teachings and practices continue to harm LGBTQ people. Many who ministered to gay and lesbian Catholics during the epidemic left the church, worn down by decades of homophobia and ignorance in the hierarchy. Wounds inflicted years ago are still felt by the Body of Christ.
Hidden Mercy is a timely work, and its stories call us to action. As theologian Johann Baptist Metz explained, remembering the dead and preserving the memory of their suffering is a profoundly Christian task. Calling to mind the pain of the past inspires us to work for change in the present. In the Christian worldview, death does not have the final word, but gives way to resurrection and transformation. O’Loughlin’s work provides hope for a new future—one in which LGBTQ people are full members of a Church that affirms, loves, and cares for them, whether in the midst of an epidemic or not.
Bondings 2.0 previously reported on Pope Francis’ letter in response to receiving a copy of Hidden Mercy. In that letter, the pope commended Catholics who ministered to AIDS victims in the 1980s and 1990s, writing to O’Loughlin, “Thank you for shining a light on the lives and bearing witness to” the ministers.
For more information on Hidden Mercy and how to order a copy, click here.
—Jason Steidl, February 21, 2022