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Priests with AIDS: Flawed Humanity or Flawed Church Policy?

By: Marianne Duddy, Executive Director, DignityUSA

Recently, the Kansas City Star ran an eleven-part series on Roman Catholic priests with AIDS. These highly controversial articles were based on a survey sent to 3,000 priests across the country, which was responded to by just over 800 of the recipients. Among the findings:

  • Fifteen percent (15%) of respondents identified as homosexual, and an additional 5% as bisexual. The remaining 80% identified as heterosexual.
  • Six in ten of the respondents reported knowing at least one priest who has died of AIDS.
  • One-third of the priests said they know a fellow priest who is currently living with AIDS.
  • Based on the respondents' answers, the rate of HIV infection among priests was estimated to be 1 in 114, nearly four times higher than the US national average of 1 person infected in every 300-420.

The series has evoked passionate responses of all kinds, from compassion to fury. One reader testified to his personal experience as a Catholic whose pastor had AIDS. He wrote of the admiration he held for this man, his leadership, and his gifts, sorely missed by the parish since the priest's death. Another e-mailed a response asserting that AIDS is a plague sent by God to punish men who have anal sex. Others repeat the infuriating myth that gay priests are pederasts, ignoring all the evidence that child molestation is perpetrated almost exclusively by heterosexuals. Perhaps most telling, though, is the response of Bishop Raymond J. Boland of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph. Bishop Boland commented that the AIDS deaths show that priests are human.

"Much as we would regret it, it shows that human nature is human nature," he said. "And all of us are heirs to all of the misfortunes that can be foisted upon the human race."

In this comment lies the crux of the matter. It pithily demonstrates doctrinal Catholicism's disdain for sex and sexuality, and is a clear example of the "blame the victim" tactic too often used to place the burden of a problem with the individual, instead of acknowledging the role of policy or polity in creating unlivable situations. Bishop Boland's remark fundamentally contradicts Genesis' characterization of God's creation of humanity as "very good." It also demonstrates the arrogance of one who believes his moral rigidity has spared him from the disgrace visited upon normal humans.

The Kansas City Star articles feature comments from people who held priests with AIDS in high regard. These men come across as highly spiritual and accomplished, good people and good priests. My own experience of knowing over a dozen priests with HIV or AIDS indicates that, nearly without exception, they receive support from family, colleagues, parishioners, and even their religious superiors. I am aware of only one contradiction to this trend. A bishop in the northern Midwest withdrew all support from a priest who told him he had AIDS, and the priest died, poor and alone, in Florida.

This discrepancy between pastoral practice and official policy underscores a fundamental fault line in the Catholic Church. On issues from birth control to homosexuality, both members and official ministers of our Church find themselves in conflict over how to integrate Church teaching into real, human, day-to-day life. Over and over, people of deep prayer, informed conscience and blood loyalty to their Catholic identity find that their experience and personal sense of right and wrong bring them to make choices that violate the letter of church policy.

In many denominations, this conflict between pastoral care and policy has led to dialogue and openness to examine the sources and validity of positions that people of faith can no longer live with. However, the Pope, Cardinals and Bishops of the Roman Catholic Church have remained resolute in insisting that their apostolic heritage and teaching authority give them the final hold on "Truth." There is no room for discussion or reexamination of these teachings, despite the evidence of science and sociology. Their only response to the cries of the thousands who find themselves in conflict is to robotically reiterate weary platitudes about God's ways being wiser than ours.

So, our Church leaves us with pat answers to complex moral questions-answers that are, in some cases, literally deadly. From its refusal to support distribution of condoms or needle exchange campaigns, to a prohibition against homosexual acts so strict that many seek only anonymous sex because of their shame, the Catholic Church has set up conditions leading to high rates of HIV infection and death from AIDS among its priests and practitioners. Yes, individuals hold some responsibility for their actions. Yes, priests who have taken vows of celibacy-both heterosexual and homosexual-violate those vows and betray public expectations when they engage in sexual activity. However, the larger sin rests on the shoulders of those who refuse to look at a pattern of abuse and take action.

I am reminded of the folk tale in which the people of a village notice many animals struggling for survival in the river that flows through their community. They dive into the water, and pull out as many animals as possible as they pass by. They are able to save some, but many drown. They work for days, struggling to save more and more animals. Finally, a few of the villagers decide to walk upriver, to see where the animals are falling in. They build a barrier, and end the drowning.

Rather than standing by and lamenting the tragedy of priests and others dying from AIDS, or worse, piously implying that those who contract this disease are reaping the results of their nature, leaders of the Catholic Church should be working to fix the problem at its source. It is time to admit that antiquated views of sexuality and ministry are killing people, and deserve serious reconsideration. And when new guidelines are established, they must take into account the experience of the faithful and those who most closely minister with us.

At the root of Catholicism is belief in redemption. Perhaps the tragedy of priests-and too many others-dying of AIDS can be redeemed through a renewal of the Church's views on sexuality, sex and ministry. I work and pray for the day this happens.

DignityUSA is the nation's first and foremost organization of out and proud gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Catholics, their families and friends. Through 75 local Chapters and its national organization, Dignity offers pastoral resources and advocacy on behalf of its members on social and ecclesial issues.

You may request an original copy of Marianne's op-ed through our national office at 800.877.8797 or info@dignityusa.org.

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