The Catholic Church and the global HIV/AIDS crisis

By Michelle Martin
Wednesday, December 15, 2021

The Catholic Health Association of the United States marked World AIDS Day Dec. 1 with a virtual discussion with Michael O’Loughlin, Chicago-based author of “Hidden Mercy: AIDS, Catholics, and the Untold Stories of Compassion in the Face of Fear” (Broadleaf Books, see book recommendations page 15), which was released Nov. 30.

The book tells the story of Catholics, women religious, priests and laypeople, who were motivated by their faith to offer care and compassion to people with HIV/AIDS in the 1980s and early 1990s at a time when doing so could put their reputations and, in some cases, their religious vocations at risk. It is based on his podcast series, “Plague: Untold Stories of AIDS and the Catholic Church.”

It comes at a time, O’Loughlin said, when one challenge for HIV/AIDS ministry in the United States is the idea that the crisis is over.

“We think of HIV and AIDS as something that happened and we moved on from,” he said. “There are still tens of thousands of people in the U.S. who struggle with HIV and AIDS.”

Paulo Pontemayor, CHA’s director of government relations who helped facilitate the discussion, noted that HIV is still a crisis.

“It’s still a major global public health issue,” Pontemayor said. “In the U.S., it disproportionately affects people of color, people at the margins.”

In the 1980s, it was often seen as a disease of gay men, a group that was very much on the margins. O’Loughlin said that was a challenge for many of the people who ministered to HIV/AIDS patients.

His book includes the story of Carol Baltosiewich, a former Hospital Sister of St. Francis, who traveled from Belleville, Illinois, to New York to learn how to care for patients with AIDS and ended up becoming an advocate for them.

“One of her challenges was confronting her own prejudices and biases, and she wasn’t really aware that they existed,” O’Loughlin said. “She was able to transform to someone who was able to listen first before offering help and offering answers. She engaged local leaders and asked what might be needed. It was essential to serve patients and serve the community without coming to conclusions about who these people were based on prejudices and preconceived notions of communities.”

The now closed St. Vincent Hospital in Greenwich Village, one of the health care facilities where Baltosiewich worked, followed a similar path.

“It sort of transformed itself from a Catholic hospital that served the neighborhood to a world-class leader in HIV and AIDS care,” O’Loughlin said, crediting the Vincentian sisters who ran the hospital for making the change.

“There was a lot of tension early on. There were somewhat regular protests at the hospital by the gay community, groups like ACT UP, who didn’t think they were getting the kind of care they deserved,” he said. “There was a temptation to sort of crack down on the protests. They were invading the waiting area of the emergency department and doing things they shouldn’t have been doing. … Instead of calling police, they held a series of meetings with the protesters. It was that commitment to the Gospel. They said, ‘We’re called to serve and this is the community we’re serving. We need to listen to them.’”

O’Loughlin, a Catholic journalist who is now the national correspondent and an associate editor of America magazine, said he was led to the story after reporting on issues of interest to young adults in the church, including LGBTQ issues, in the 2000s and 2010s.

“As a gay Catholic, I found this to be an interesting topic to be covering,” O’Loughlin said. “What does this mean for me, someone who is working in the church world? What does it mean to uphold church teaching in a world that is becoming more open and more accepting? I know that readers were yearning for thoughtful conversation about these moral questions.”

A priest friend told O’Loughlin about forming a group for people who were affected by AIDS when he was a campus minister. The group met in secret.

“I hadn’t thought about the Catholic Church as a major provider in HIV and AIDS ministry,” O’Loughlin said, although he was aware that the church has been a leader in global care for people with HIV/AIDS. He began his research with the archives of the National Catholic AIDS Network at Loyola University Chicago, and then began interviewing Catholics who worked in AIDS ministry in the 1980s and 1990s.

“The medicine early on, there wasn’t much to do,” O’Loughlin said. “It was managing people’s pain and helping them die with dignity. It was things like holding people’s hands, or inviting people in and listening to their stories. At places like St. Vincent’s, they set up buddy programs, accompanying patients to doctor appointments, running errands, etc. Something as simple as finding a dentist, that was a major challenge early on for people with HIV. There were many examples of people responding with compassion and care, and it all goes back to something quite simple and profound, this Gospel call to love our neighbor as ourselves.”

O’Loughlin sent a copy of “Hidden Mercy” to Pope Francis and received a letter from the pope in reply, praising the book and the work of the people profiled in it.

O’Loughlin said he was most pleased to share the pope’s letter with the people he interviewed. “They were receiving validation from the very highest levels of the church,” he said.


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