The Media
Priests still die of AIDS as Church postpones needed dialogue
By A.W. RICHARD SIPE, October 27, 2000

It has taken 88 deaths out of a population of millions to launch a congressional investigation into the safety of automobile tires and related issues. Rightfully the investigative spotlight focuses on those responsible for the manufacture and distribution of the product causing harm.

How many priests, out of a population less than 50,000, must die of AIDS before the church launches a serious investigation of the problem? Any serious consideration of priests with HIV/AIDS must be inspired by the suffering and deaths of these men and lead to a consideration of those responsible for priests’ education, employment, supervision and support. Full and open discussion of the celibate/sexual agenda facing priests is absolutely necessary for adequate and effective response to their crisis. The dialogue must include the process of celibate development, the nature of homosexual orientation, the place of masturbation in emotional health and more.

It would be tragic if the dialogue surrounding issues of priests with HIV/AIDS, which was spearheaded by the Catholic press in 1985, were suspended because of public relations maneuvers. Equal harm will result if real discussion of issues is buried by debates that center on numbers, statistics and methodologies and lose sight of the fact that men’s lives -- priests -- are central to the dialogue.

The first time I visited a priest with AIDS was in 1988. My wife and I stood at his bedside a month before he died. At the time of our visit, he was too weak to speak. He responded by a squeeze of his hand.

The familiar medical context was antiseptic, regulated and subdued -- medication bags, evacuation and oxygen tubes, morphine drip and the Hickman port visible in his upper chest. The noises in the room were somber and soporific -- modulated hisses, blips and pings from the machinery. The constricted ambience was jarring since it stood in such stark contrast to the vibrant atmosphere and animated exchanges we had shared in the past.

In the heady and exhilarating years following Vatican II when he was rector of a seminary, he hired me to develop a sequence in pastoral theology and to lecture first-year theologians. Later, when he was president of a small Catholic college, he became a frequent visitor, and even a cook, in our home as he traveled the country to attend meetings and raise money.

A parallel experience during Holy Week 2000 startled me into a renewed resolve to help direct constructive dialogue on priests dying with AIDS onto a cool, reasoned and productive track.

In the process of visiting hospitalized patients -- part of my routine two days each week -- I encountered a priest dying of AIDS who was a former student of mine and graduate of a pontifical seminary where I taught for 12 years. We shared memories of the place and exchanged accounts of mutual friends and acquaintances.

He said he was ready to die. He recounted the pleasure of his ministry and his favorite pastoral projects during a quarter century of productive and loving service. He was clearly at peace. He was grateful to his bishop who had been kind, understanding and personally attentive to him during his illness.

Before I left the room, I asked for his blessing. Discounting my objections, he insisted on getting out of bed. It was a laborious task. He fumbled to maneuver himself around the tangle of tubes that, like an umbilical cord, connected him to his intravenous medication monitor. He adjusted the oxygen tubes in his nose. He secured himself at the edge of his bed and he stood proudly. I knelt at his feet. He put his hands on my head and called down a blessing on me and my work, remarking on my efforts to aid priests. He moved me to tears, and I understood as never before the meaning and significance of priests with AIDS and the need to face the issue squarely.

He was the most recent of 13 men, all graduates of his seminary, whom I knew had subsequently died of AIDS-related illnesses. Several of my former students kept up periodic contact and shared the progress of their lives and illnesses. The parents of a few priests sent me notification of their son’s death. I discovered the death of one former student from a newspaper obituary. The name of another former student on the AIDS quilt brought me to my knees when the quilt was on display in Washington in 1996.

These men, without exception, were good, productive priests. They are not ciphers to be argued about or denied, but lives to be celebrated and registered because they count. They are of value. The lives and voices of these priests, their ministry and identity should not be lost in an anonymous grave marked only by the stigmatized acronym -- AIDS.

By avoiding dialogue about priests with AIDS, the church is not protecting itself or its priests. Even worse, examination of records shows that the church is devaluing and betraying its own priests. Two odious methods are prominent: One involves changing the occupation on a priest’s death certificate. For example, Bishop Emerson Moore was recorded as “laborer” and his employment “manufacturing.” Salesman, travel agent and teacher are also abhorrent falsifications to record a life dedicated to the church and ministry.

Another ruse to cover the death of priests with AIDS is to obfuscate or dissimulate the cause of death on the death certificate, or if AIDS is listed on the death record, simply to omit the priest’s name from the official necrology.

Beyond the dignity and value of priests noted above, being honest about the number of priests with HIV/AIDS is important for three reasons: to contribute to the prevention of illness and suffering; to de-stigmatize this medical condition; to deal more effectively and honestly with human sexuality and celibacy and priests’ relationship to love and Christian life.

If motivated, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops within 30 days could assemble a remarkably accurate count of the number of priests who have died of AIDS. These numbers shared with the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta could make a significant contribution to the demographic and epidemiological studies of the disease in this country. In no way would such action compromise the confidentiality of any family or the anonymity of any priest. But it would be a tribute to all the priests sacrificed to this virus.

Such candor would form a solid basis for continuing dialogue.

Richard Sipe is a researcher and the author of Celibacy: A Way of Loving, Living and Serving. He is currently working on a book about priests with AIDS.


National Catholic Reporter, October 27, 2000


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