Between 1980 and 1996, more than 581,000 Americans were diagnosed with AIDS. Most were gay men, and approximately 362,000 of them would die from the disease. Those who survived carried the memories of those lost, bearing witness at once to the horrors of the plague itself and to the stigma born by its victims. Rejected by family, accused, and condemned by politicians and religious leaders, the men who endured the AIDS crisis often found themselves isolated and alone. But not always. Amid all the suffering and death, friends and supporters arose in unexpected—often religious—places. In a new book, Hidden Mercy: AIDS, Catholics, and the Untold Stories of Compassion in the Face of Fear, Michael J. O’Loughlin documents where these stories intersect with the Catholic Church.
O’Loughlin is the award-winning national correspondent for America Media and the host of the podcast Plague: Untold Stories of AIDS and the Catholic Church. His work has also appeared in The Atlantic, The Washington Post, Foreign Policy, National Catholic Reporter, The Advocate, and Religion & Politics.
Eric C. Miller spoke with O’Loughlin about the book over Zoom. Their conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Religion & Politics: The book documents “untold” stories of Catholics during the AIDS crisis. Why have these stories gone untold until now?
Michael J. O’Loughlin: I think a lot of the stories have gone untold because there is still a taboo within Catholicism about sexuality, especially during the height of HIV and AIDS, and there’s no natural way of sharing these stories within the Church. In the book, I talk about how it’s difficult to relay LGBT history in general because it’s rarely talked about in families or schools, and almost never in church or religious education. There was a very real risk that these stories would be lost to time, and my goal was to capture them and share them with an audience that might benefit from knowing this history.
R&P: Throughout these stories, there seems to be a tension between Catholic clergy and gay parishioners who were at once repelled by and drawn to one another. Can you speak to that?
MJO: What I found interesting about these stories is that they reveal the standard narrative to be far too simplistic. You have the Catholic Church on one side, the gay community on the other. That understanding was formed, in part, by the ACT UP campaign in New York City, where you had an activist group targeting the Church because of its opposition to same-sex relationships, and that confrontation created some clearly defined rivals. Even in that story, though, I was surprised to learn that about a third of ACT UP members in New York were Catholics. This clued me in that something interesting was happening in the overlap. As I started doing more research, I realized that there was actually a pretty large contingent of LGBT Catholics at that time who felt really torn over which side they belonged on. Sometimes they got in trouble with the gay community because they were Catholic, and of course they got in trouble with the Catholic community because they were gay. They inhabited this middle world. I wanted to hear from them what that experience was like, how they navigated that space. I think that, for a lot of LGBT people today, even though the stakes might not be quite as high, that tension is still there. They often don’t know quite where they belong.
R&P: The tension was internalized by gay priests, some of whom were closeted and some out. How did they cope?
MJO: I think it was very difficult. There were relatively few openly gay priests back then. I profile one of them, Father Bill McNichols, who decided pretty early on in his priesthood that he had to be honest about his own sexuality in order to minister effectively, at the time, mostly to gay men with AIDS. This openness came at great risk to his vocation. He took a fair amount of abuse from fellow Catholics, he experienced some professional setbacks, and in these ways he sort of validated the fear felt by other gay priests who had chosen not to come out. Interestingly, though, it was around this time that HIV and AIDS started to affect priests as well, so there was a sort of forced reckoning among gay members of the priesthood who now had to risk going public about their HIV status, perhaps revealing that they had not lived up to their vows or to the Church’s teaching on homosexuality. The result was this firestorm of identity and publicity. In the book, I talk about some priests who went public with their HIV status because they wanted to use their own lives to help others feel less shame, stigma, and isolation. But it was never easy, and I don’t think we ever got a full reckoning of what it meant to be a gay priest during the crisis.
R&P: What role did nuns play in the Catholic response to AIDS? Was their experience different from that of priests?
MJO: Nuns always seem to be the unsung heroes of the Church’s story, and during HIV and AIDS this was no different. They were staffing wards at Catholic hospitals throughout the country. They were leading outreach efforts. I write about one nun who really wanted to serve HIV and AIDS patients in her small city in Illinois, but lacked the education. So she moved to New York to immerse herself in the gay community, volunteer at the hospitals, answer calls at AIDS hotlines, and eventually returned to Illinois to serve as a strong advocate and ally for the gay community there.
As to whether their experience was different, I do think that nuns historically have had a little more freedom to engage in innovative forms of ministry. Sometimes their superiors grant them greater flexibility or less oversight. They’ve had a little more leeway to go out and serve in what Pope Francis has called the “field hospital of the church,” and I think we see that play out in the 80s and 90s.
R&P: Cardinal John O’Connor is kind of a villain in most stories about the AIDS crisis in New York City, but one of the priests you feature ends up concluding that O’Connor was actually a “prisoner” of his powerful position. How so?
MJO: Father McNichols was a young Jesuit priest at the time, engaging in HIV and AIDS ministry in New York, and there is a scene in book where he suspects that someone in Cardinal O’Connor’s office has effectively cancelled a talk that he—Father McNichols—was scheduled to give on HIV and AIDS. So he sets up a meeting with Cardinal O’Connor to discuss it, and the cardinal assures Father McNichols that he doesn’t know anything about the cancellation. Father McNichols comes away from that conversation thinking that, if Cardinal O’Connor were younger and not in this position of authority and leadership, that he would be out there doing HIV and AIDS ministry as well. Though Cardinal O’Connor didn’t talk about it much publicly, he was known to visit AIDS wards in local hospitals and meet personally with patients, so he did have this pastoral inclination to serve suffering people. Father McNichols wonders if, maybe, he is trapped in this system that took a very firm stand on sexuality and compelled him to hold the line in the public square.
Now, I’m not trying to rewrite history. The cardinal was very clear that he was opposed to gay civil rights, he tried to undermine public health campaigns, he kicked gay groups like Dignity out of Catholic parishes, and this is all a matter of public record. But Father McNichols is a very generous person, open to seeing the best in people, and so he was open to the possibility that Cardinal O’Connor may have been bound by forces larger than himself. Maybe others in the Church hierarchy were as well. I try to leave it up to readers to decide what they think.
R&P: In many ways, the Catholic Worker movement and the legacy of Dorothy Day have been important to the Catholic Left, but they couldn’t quite rally to the cause of gay Catholics. Why not?
MJO: This was a really complicated scenario, but you had this organization in the Catholic Worker that was attracting many young, progressive idealists, that sponsored all kinds of social-justice-oriented charities, that provided shelter and meals to homeless people, and when HIV and AIDS came on the scene, there was a sense that of course the Catholic Worker would respond well because it was a social justice issue. There was hardly any group more marginalized in the 1980s than gay men with HIV. But as I discovered, Dorothy Day’s own views on homosexuality were quite orthodox. She believed in Church teaching on sexual morality generally, including its dim view of homosexuality. That spirit sort of animated the Catholic Worker even after Day’s death in 1980. There was a sense among her followers, some of whom were gay, that they should try to respect her views and honor what they imagined her wishes would have been. This created a tension in the community.
At the same time, there were other Catholic Workers throughout the country, including gay Catholic Workers, that simply forged ahead and did the work. They believed this to be a testament to Day’s life and work as well—getting done what needs to get done. (I did a podcast episode once where I visited a Catholic Worker house in Syracuse that was started by a gay couple, and I get into some of these issues in more detail.) The tension was real, but I think there is something about this woman born in the late nineteenth century who inspired all of these young LGBT people to live out their faith in the world that I think is very inspiring and challenging, and I tried to capture some of that in the book.
R&P: Does the AIDS crisis teach us anything in particular about the Catholic commitment to love and compassion, on the one hand, and orthodoxy and doctrine on the other?
MJO: There is another tension within Catholicism—and we see this in a host of other issues as well—by which there is a clear doctrinal rulebook prescribing how to live one’s life in accordance with Church teaching, but also an openness to confronting reality, acknowledging that life is very messy, and conceding that even committed and well-meaning individuals and groups will rarely end up living perfect Catholic lives. And so you deal with that. I think there is a sense in the Church that certain cultures are inclined to emphasize the second part, while others—especially in the United States—are more focused on orthodoxy and doctrinal adherence. That tension was explicit in the 1980s and 90s, when there was very clear church teaching against homosexuality, against gay sex, in favor of monogamy and priestly celibacy, but also a candid recognition of the reality of life. In that moment, many Catholics decided to dig in on the rules while others chose to acknowledge the situation and respond to the suffering as well as they could. Interestingly, both sides cited the Gospel as their motivation. So you have two factions in one religion moved by the same texts to act in very different ways.
R&P: How would you characterize the relationship between the Catholic Church and the LGBT community today? What kind of a legacy has the AIDS crisis left within that relationship?
MJO: The relationship between the Catholic Church and the LGBT community today is undoubtedly strange. When I interviewed Father Bill, who first came out in the mid-1980s, I asked him whether he thought it was easier for LGBT people today, given the societal advances and a pope who at least stylistically seems more open to dialogue with LGBT people. Bill told me that he thinks it’s actually harder to be gay and Catholic today because of the backlash against the civil rights advances, changing demographics in the Church, and other factors. I was surprised by that, but I understand what he’s saying.
At the same time, I’m encouraged because there are visible LGBT Catholics in Church leadership around the country. My colleague, Father Jim Martin, has been ministering to the LGBT community for years and has received words of support from the pope. I have written to the pope myself to tell him that I am a gay Catholic and to introduce these stories to him, and received a warm response thanking me for doing this. So I sense that there is some openness. As to whether ordinary LGBT people feel that, I don’t know. We’ve seen the statistics that many young people are leaving religious institutions, including the Catholic Church, over their stances on LGBT issues. I’m encouraged, but I also think that there is a big challenge ahead for the Church to make LGBT Catholics feel welcome.