This Podcast Will Challenge Your Understanding of AIDS and the Catholic Church

"There were a lot of individuals who had a foot in each [world], who were both active Catholics and also part of the gay community."

Pictured above: AIDS patient Paul Keenan is assisted by volunteer Lorna Kelly at St. Clare’s Hospital in New York City, 1988.

Conventional perception of the relationship between the Catholic Church and the gay community during the HIV/AIDS epidemic is a simplified one: Dying queer people were cruelly turned away by an institution committed to helping those in need. But for every public condemnation of homosexuality by figureheads like Cardinal John O’Connor, there were devout believers like the Sisters of Charity at St. Vincent’s Hospital, individuals who took great risks to disseminate condoms and promote safe-sex practices.

Plague, a new podcast from America—a Jesuit-affiliated publication—examines and challenges the history of HIV/AIDS and the Catholic Church. Hosted by reporter and openly gay Catholic Michael O’Loughlin, the series includes interviews with prevalent activists and health care practitioners who lived through this fraught moment in time, adding shades of gray to an often black-and-white understanding.

NewNowNext interviewed O’Loughlin about Plague, the tensions between the Catholic Church and HIV/AIDS community, and why, at a moment when equal access to health care is continually challenged, this story is an essential one to tell.

Why is a religious-affiliated publication taking on this history?

As a gay Catholic, I felt like it was my own history. I was born in 1985, so the AIDS epidemic was going on, but I don’t remember it. I was interviewing a lot of gay Catholics who lived and worked through that time and getting their stories. And when I presented it to America, they were more familiar with [what happened] because a lot of them lived through it. They knew already that the Catholic Church was intimately linked to the HIV/AIDS crisis in the early days, whether through hospitals or pastoral care clinics. So they were onboard pretty early and understood the connection in a way that I hadn’t yet.

Michael Ward/Getty Images
AIDS patient at St. Mary’s Hospital in London, 1985.

You’re also the host. What was that turning point for you, personally, when you decided you wanted to head this up?

I was having dinner with a priest friend one night—he’s a little bit older than me and he’s been doing LGBTQ work for a while—and I asked how he got started. He said back in the 1980s he was a university chaplain and the HIV/AIDS epidemic was really starting to affect the campus. So he started a support group with mostly gay men and he got in some trouble for it. But he stood firm and said, “We have to do this. It’s important that these people have a place to go and feel safe.”

That got me thinking: There’s this whole other generation of people who have lived through this challenge of trying to reconcile being a part of the LGBTQ community and being religious. And so I started reaching out to people like him and realized that there was this whole history I didn’t know.

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Sister Robyn Kelly (R), unit nursing manager at St. Vincent’s, and Stacey Hall (L), nurse in charge of the holding ward, 1988.

Before you started, did you think the history between the Catholic Church and the HIV/AIDS epidemic was black and white?

Yes, in my mind, it was black and white. There was the gay community that felt under siege and then there was the Catholic Church, a powerful institution, which was not doing such a great job on LGBTQ issues, especially at this time. But as I started to talk to more people, I realized that there were a lot of individuals who had a foot in each community, who were both active Catholics and also part of the gay community. And they were really struggling to figure out how to make that work during a really difficult period. I wanted to capture their stories.

In the first episode, you talk about the first Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) meeting, which took place in a church. Such a neat piece of trivia. What other surprising facts did you come across?

This isn’t so much a fact, but it has stuck with me. I was out in San Francisco and we were doing a profile of this Catholic Church right in the middle of the Castro, called Most Holy Redeemer. It was a dying parish until a pastor came in in the ’80s and said, “We’re in the middle of this gay neighborhood and we don’t have any gay parishioners. We’re not serving our community well.” So they made an effort to transform it into a gay-friendly church. … They’d have these drag Christmas parties in the church basement. Even though it was a time when people lost their friends and partners, there were these lighter moments, too, where faith helped them get through it in a not-so-serious way—in a more joyful way.

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GMHC office, 1980s.

In Episode 1, we learn how the Church refused to distribute condoms in Catholic hospitals, which, at the time, was the only way to protect oneself from contracting HIV. Was this a key breaking point?

The common question is how the narrative has been framed historically. There was the gay community, which felt access to condoms was the only thing that was going to slow the spread of HIV; and then there was the Church that controlled the big health care networks, and ran a bunch of hospitals in New York and around the country. They say that condoms aren’t allowed; they prohibit artificial birth control.

In the podcast, we looked at how some of the protest groups like Act Up targeted Catholic hospitals. And it wasn’t the condom issue, actually, that brought the two groups together: Gay men felt they were being disrespected at the hospitals, in the waiting rooms. So, in Episode 2, Act Up takes over an emergency room.

At St. Vincent’s in Greenwich Village.

Yes. And what I admired about the Catholic sisters who ran the hospital was that, rather than get defensive and say, “We’re going to press charges, they vandalized our property,” they said, “We need to do better and listen to what’s going on.” They formed an ad hoc committee to share concerns on both sides, and eventually, St Vincent’s becomes this hospital that’s synonymous with AIDS care—it’s really important to the LGBTQ community.

Catherine McGann/Getty Images
Act Up protest, 1988.

Is there something about the nurses’ extension of compassion or empathy that you felt made this story particularly relevant to tell right now?

There seems to be this lack of willingness to listen to people on the margins today. It’s probably been the case for a long time, but as a reporter covering these stories, I see that a lot. But there were these people in the ’80s and ’90s who were willing to reflect on their own beliefs, their own actions, and listen to people who felt like they were marginalized. I think some of those lessons carry over well to today.

You show acts of resistance by both health care practitioners, as well as activists. Is there one that you felt was particularly impactful or effective?

In Episode 2, Dr. Ramon Torres—the doctor who ran the AIDS clinic at St Vincent’s—was confident in stating his disagreements with the Catholic Church’s teachings on sexuality and condoms. But he also recognized it was an institution that was doing a lot of good for people who were homeless and for immigrant populations. Rather than walk away or challenge the institution, he said, “I’m going to find a way to make this work.” So he, along with the staff who worked in his clinic, came up with the solution where they would get condoms to the people who needed them. And it seems like the sisters who ran the place turned a blind eye to it because it was reported in The New York Times that this was happening. That willingness to cooperate for the greater good, stuck out to me about Torres and his team.

Photo by Ed Clarity/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images
St. Vincent’s Hospital School of Nursing, 1960s.

It put Torres in a position of vulnerability—he was going against Church instructions.

He knew what he was doing was not following hospital policy, but he felt it’s something that had to be done. But he also did it in a way where he didn’t make the people in charge feel like they had to confront him about it. He was willing, I think, to be a little more sophisticated in how he went about his work.

Early episodes focus specifically on New York City. Did you feel the Catholic-run hospitals in New York were a leader in the AIDS-health care space?

New York, historically, has been a Catholic hub in the United States. So it makes sense that the Catholic hospitals are here; it was a big network that was doing a lot of work, and there was this legendary conflict between Act Up and [Cardinal O’Connor]. There was a lot going on here.

Getty Images
St. Vincent’s Hospital in New York City.

But what’s as interesting, if not more interesting in a way, are the places where the spotlight wasn’t as bright, but where there was still a lot of interesting work going on. In the fifth episode, for example, there was a Catholic nun at a hospital in Bellville, Illinois, which is a small city outside St. Louis. She starts getting people coming through the hospital who have HIV and AIDS and realizes she doesn’t know what to do. So she moves to New York for six months, learns a lot, then goes home and opens the first HIV/AIDS drop-in center clinic in that part of the state. She was motivated by her faith, by her health care background.

Cardinal O’Connor had a tense relationship with the LGBTQ community and can easily be painted in a negative light. But I liked how you shined more shades on him.

It’s hard because I think there will be some people who aren’t thrilled with the podcast because he was such a target of anger and fear. But we include those voices—they’re important. [In addition to his] public role, he was making sure that the Church’s money was going to health care centers for people with AIDS and he was visiting patients. There were people who were doing all sorts of good things and bad things at the same time.

Roland Neveu / Liaison Agency
Cardinal John O’Connor, the Roman Catholic archbishop of New York, 1984.

Did you face any external resistance from the community when you were searching for subjects?

There are some Catholics who I think are proud of how the Church responded to [the health care] needs at the time, but who are still very uncomfortable with the question of homosexuality and don’t want to explore that side of things. So when you have someone like David [in Episode 1] who is unabashedly gay and unapologetically Catholic, I think that’s hard for some people in the Church to embrace. That’s where there’s been a little resistance, I think, to plumb too deep into this topic.

If there’s a singular lesson a listener can take away from Plague, what do you hope that is?

That this time in our history is a lot more complicated than we understand it to be and that these stories are worth listening to. A lot of subjects we interviewed said that people don’t want to hear them, that people don’t ask about this time even though they have a lot to say. I think it’s especially important for younger LGBTQ people to replay their history. It’s ours to own and we should make an effort to reach out to the people who are a little bit older than us and learn what they went through.

New episodes of Plague will be released every Sunday through January 5. Listen on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or Google Play.

Brooklyn-based writer, editor, and professional cake-eater.’90s horror movies calm me down.
@JesseSteinbach