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How The Catholic Church Aided Both The Sick And The Sickness As HIV Spread


The Catholic Church has had a fraught relationship with the LGBTQ community. This was particularly true at the height of the AIDS epidemic. By condemning the use of condoms, critics of the church's policy say millions were needlessly infected. Yet in New York in the 1980s, when thousands of young gay men were dying from the mysterious illness, it was Catholic caregivers who responded to the crisis.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: The only people to stay behind and take care of the dying and the sick at that epidemic were the Sisters of Charity following their Christian mission.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The podcast "Plague" chronicles the untold stories of AIDS and the Catholic Church. And it premieres today, World AIDS Day. The host of the series, reporter Michael O'Loughlin, joins me now from the studios of New Hampshire Public Radio in Concord, N.H. Welcome.

MICHAEL O'LOUGHLIN: Thanks for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Take us back to the 1980s when AIDS begins to ravage the gay community. What was the church's attitude then towards homosexuality?

O'LOUGHLIN: So the church in the 1980s was very adamant that homosexual acts were intrinsically disordered. The Vatican released a letter in 1986 - and this is at a time when 25,000 Americans had already died from AIDS-related complications - saying that homosexuality itself was sort of a defect. And this set off some soul-searching among gay Catholics who felt like maybe they were at home in their parish and they felt welcome there. But the institutional church was condemning who they were - that's what they told me - at a time when they already felt under siege from the illness and from society as a whole.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Right. And at the time, the only thing that could prevent the transmission of the virus was condoms, which the church opposed. How did this stance divide congregants?

O'LOUGHLIN: The question over condoms - the church banned the use of artificial birth control, including condoms. And you had some Catholics saying, well, using them to prevent the spread of HIV is not a birth control method. People who felt under siege and they knew that this could stop the spread of HIV - they were angry that they couldn't use these, especially in Catholic health care centers.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. I mean, New York's powerful Archbishop John - Cardinal O'Connor fought to stop the distribution of condoms. He called their use a sin. And protesters targeted the church and specifically O'Connor. Let's listen.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: This is Jesus Christ. I'm in front of St. Patrick's Cathedral on Sunday. Inside, Cardinal O'Connor is busy spreading his lies and rumors about the position of lesbians and gays. We're here to say, we want to go to heaven, too.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But you found it was too simplistic to cast Cardinal O'Connor as simply anti-gay.

O'LOUGHLIN: That's right. A number of people we spoke to said that while he did use his political clout to fight against the use of condoms, especially promoting them in public schools and fighting against gay rights, he did devote a lot of the church's resources to caring for people with AIDS. And he's reported to - visited more than a thousand people living with AIDS in those hospitals over the number of years he led the church in New York.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: As you mentioned, one of the episodes explores how Catholic hospitals were among the first to care for gay men with AIDS. And you focus on St. Vincent's Hospital in Greenwich Village, which is now closed. What role did that institution play in the history of AIDS?

O'LOUGHLIN: You had this Catholic hospital that had been around for a long time, figuring out how it could respond to this community that it didn't really have much interaction with before. And the Sisters of Charity who ran the hospital - they didn't get it right at first. And they realized that when a number of protests took place, including one in the emergency room, by people who said that the staff at the hospital wasn't treating gay patients with the respect they deserved. But rather than kind of retreat and get scared and say, we don't know what we're doing, the sisters were really proactive in working with the gay community to figure out, how can we be better?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You profile Sister Karen. Tell us about her.

O'LOUGHLIN: Sure. Sister Karen Heflestein (ph) is a Sister of Charity. In the '80s and '90s, she worked at St. Vincent's Hospital as the vice president for mission. And she was the one who - when protesters took over the emergency room and one protester put condoms on an image of Jesus, there was a group of security guards who wanted to press charges against the group. And she said, no, no. Let's stop, and let's think about what they want. Why are they acting this way? Something's going on here.

And she set up a series of meetings between hospital administrators and gay activists. And over the course of those meetings, they figured out that the hospital needed things like sensitivity training and staff who understood the gay community. And she's emblematic of this group of sisters who said, let's look at how we're running the hospital and see how we can do better.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Why did you want to chronicle this period?

O'LOUGHLIN: For the last number of years, I've been reporting on the challenges LGBT Catholics face in staying part of the church. And I started to realize pretty quickly that there's a whole lot of information here that I just didn't know and people who have struggled with these issues of what it means to be gay and Catholic and kind of came out OK on the other side. So I wanted to ask them their advice. And a lot of it came down to, you have to take your place in the church and not wait for the approval of other people. And those are some of the lessons I've sought to get with this podcast.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Reporter Michael O'Loughlin is the national correspondent for America, The Jesuit Review. The podcast series "Plague" debuts today. Thank you so much.

O'LOUGHLIN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro is the host of Weekend Edition Sunday and one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. She is infamous in the IT department of NPR for losing laptops to bullets, hurricanes, and bomb blasts.

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