FEBRUARY 20, 1987/MONTROSE VOICE 5
Catholic Church's Fitful Response to AIDS
Opinion by Bill Kenkelen
Pacific News Service
As AIDS spreads in the Catholic priesthood, it will become increasingly difficult for the Church to treat AIDS as a
disease that afflicts "them" because the
epidemic has now hit home.
Sadly, the impetus is needed.
Individually, many Catholic priests,
nuns and lay people have responded
heroically to what may become the century's worst epidemic. But as an institution, the Church is still making only
fitful responses to AIDS.
But the fact that at
least a dozen, and
perhaps many more,
priests have AIDS or
have already died of
AIDS underscores the
human frailty within
the Church itself
Its failures are particularly glaring
because the Church prides itself on tradition. For centuries, the Church led
society in responding to disease. Some
religious orders were created to fight
particular diseases, and the Church
built the first hospitals to treat the great
mass of people who did not belong to the
aristocracy. Their legacy is the
Church's current worldwide system of
But AIDS has stifled what might
have been expected of the Catholic
Church, and many other churches as
well, because of the perceived moral
issue of its transmission through homosexual behavior.
Four years ago, for example, a priest
in San Francisco refused to give the sacraments to a dying AIDS patient
because he was a homosexual. And
Catholic bishops declined to heed the
pleas of gay leaders to counter the assertions of right-wing fundamentalist
preachers that AIDS is "God's wrath."
The changes that have occurred since
then are often due to close personal contact with AIDS patients. San Francisco
archbishop John Quinn became the
U.S. Church's most prominent defender
of AIDS patients after making regular
visits to an AIDS hospital ward.
One widespread, out little noted,
change has been the greater availability of priests who can, and will, minister
to dying AIDS patients. This is probably the Church's most important role:
Helping a person find goodness and
meaning in life as he or she struggles to
find peace at death.
In the earlier years of the epidemic,
many priests who have since learned to
minister to dying AIDS patients didn't
know any openly gay men. For them,
the issue of sexual orientation, and
hence sexual morality, was more important than people dying of AIDS. Today,
that issue is less relevant as more
priests experience the courage and love
of 80 many dying AIDS patients.
The fullest response to AIDS from the
institutional Church has occurred in
Sacramento, Calif. The bishop there,
Francis Quinn, has ordered all the diocese's agencies to provide services to
AIDS patients. The diocese held a
Church convocation on AIDS—the first
in the nation—last October, led by
Quinn and Sacramento Mayor Ann
Rudin. At a healing service during the
convocation, Quinn anointed an AIDS
patient. He then asked the AIDS patient
to anoint him.
And Quinn regularly visits the California Prison System's medical facility
in nearby Vacaville where California's
prisoners with AIDS are housed. He
celebrates mass there and spends afternoons with the AIDS patients and their
In a statement last May, Quinn issued
what may be the strongest statement by
any Catholic leader on the epidemic.
"Jesus' harshest words," he said, "were
reserved for self-righteous people who
condemned and rejected others .. -
Jesus was not controlled by a niggling
inner guilt that makes some of us come
down judgmentally on 'sinners' to convince ourselves that we are on God's
Other dioceses on the forefront of
Church response to AIDS include Milwaukee and New Orleans. Milwaukee
Archbishop Rembert Weakland is
chairman ofthe AIDS Resource Council
of Wisconsin. New Orleans Catholic
Charities is coordinating that city's
social service response to the epidemic.
In contrast, the Philadelphia Arehdi
ocese responded to a request late last
year that the archdiocese become
involved in AIDS ministry in a letter
written by Cardinal John Krai's secretary. Father Joseph McFadden. "Please
be advised that while the Church
opposes sin and sinful activity,"
McFadden wrote, "it nevertheless
extends its love and help to the sinner,
urging conversion to a life of virtue."
For Mark Pratner, a Philadephia gay
Catholic, the letter was actually "a
breakthrough. It's the first time we've
gotten any response from them at all.
We've had people die who wanted a
priest but couldn't get one because we
aren't allowed to have priests from the
The record of other large dioceses is
mixed. Last year, the archbishops of
three of the largest Catholic dioceses—
Boston, Los Angeles and Chicago—
issued detailed statements condemning
prejudice against AIDS patients and
insisting on, in the words of Boston's
Cardinal Bernard Law, "a spirit of loving care and non-iudgmental charitv."
Yet in each statement, Church leaders
felt compelled to preach about chastity
and marital fidelity. For critics like
Larry Kessler of the Massachusetts
AIDS Action Committee, such statements only underscore the distance
between heterosexual people and gay
people—a distance that must be bridged
before there can be an effective AIDS
Late last year, the Vatican issued a
strongly worded letter to all bishops
warning against support for homosexual groups, and describing gay people
as instrinsically disordered. Some
observers believe the Vatican felt com
pelled to issue such a statement precisely because of the limited
rapprochement that was occurring
between gay people and many Catholics sparked by the AIDS crisis.
Since the end ofthe year, four dioceses
have responded to the Vatican statement by expelling gay Catholic organizations from parishes in Buffalo,
Pensacola, Atlanta, and Brooklyn.
But the fact that at least a dozen, and
perhaps many more, priests have AIDS
or have already died of AIDS underscores the human frailty within the
Church itself. For the growing number
of lay people and clergy within the
Church attempting to address the AIDS
crisis, that might mitigate the arrogance that leads to condemnation and
enhance, instead, the humility that
leads to service.
PNS commentaior Bill Kenkelen. a correspondent for
the National Catholic Reporter, wrote Ihe first
national story on priests with AIDS
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