Hidden Mercy – A Conversation with Michael J. O’Loughlin

Michael J. 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 appeared in The Atlantic, The Washington Post, Foreign Policy, National Catholic Reporter, and The Advocate. In his new book, Hidden Mercy: AIDS, Catholics, and the Untold Stories of Compassion in the Face of Fear, O’Loughlin documents where these stories intersect with the Catholic Church.

ECM: The book documents “untold”stories of Catholics during the AIDS crisis. Why have these stories gone untold until now?

MJO: 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. 

ECM: 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.

ECM: 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. 

ECM: 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.

Read the whole thing at Religion & Politics.

About Eric

Eric Miller teaches in the Department of Communication Studies at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania.
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