Patron Saint of AIDS/HIV To Be Canonized

The very notion of a Roman Catholic patron saint of AIDS/HIV seems paradoxical. Pope Benedict XVI, in his former life as Cardinal Ratzinger (and prefect of the Doctrinal Congregation) was known for his 1988 Letter on “The Many Faces of AIDS,” in which rejection of condom usage was a key point; the Church’s active rejection of safe—or safer—sex was (and is), of course, centrally important in the American experience of AIDS. Indeed, such views have global significance given that Catholicism offered (and offers) much of the social and health infrastructure across significant portions of Africa. To reject widely recognized prevention strategies, not to mention contraception, places lives at risk.

That was then, this is now, you say? No. In his current role, Pope Benedict’s views remain deeply problematic. And yet, on October 11, 2009, the Catholic Church, led by this same Pope Benedict, will canonize a man some have called the patron saint of people with AIDS/HIV. In this, the Church both avoids its own horrifying history and brings closer those many men and women who are Catholic and yet refuse to follow the hierarchy into some of its excesses. Those, that is, who are not only not homophobic or sexist, but actively work to claim the Church as their own just Church (like the women and men of ACT UP in the late 1980s who argued they WERE the church). Not my view, as a secular person, but certainly the other side of the paradox of a church that canonizes (and ministers) while reviling.

Who is this surprising saint? Father Damien de Veuster (1840-1889), also known as the Blessed Damien of Molokai (an island in Hawaii). The patron saint of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Honolulu and Hawaii, Damien was a Belgian priest of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, known for his missionary work with lepers beginning in 1873. He himself eventually died from Hansen’s disease, known then as leprosy. During his lifetime, some vilified Damien for his association with persons who suffered from a disease seen as the result of undue sexual licentiousness on the part of Hawaiians. (He was defended by Robert Louis Stevenson from claims of his unworthiness in 1890.)

We have, of course, come to understand Hansen’s disease, and colonial attitudes towards indigenous peoples such as Hawaiians, (we hope) in new ways. So, too, have we many moved beyond the Protestant anti-Catholicism, to which some of the contemporary criticism of Father Damien has been attributed. Pope Paul VI recognized Damien as “venerable” in 1977, and John Paul II beatified him in 1995. At the latter ceremony, the Belgian people returned a relic, the right hand of Father Damien, to Molokai. (His heel, though, will be shown at a church in Detroit shortly after the canonization, and in San Francisco thereafter.)

Today, there are institutions organized to address AIDS/HIV that are named after the Belgian missionary, including Damien Ministries. Indeed, Damien Ministries is celebrating its 20th year of caring for persons with AIDS/HIV.

And, what some claim to be the world’s only Roman Catholic chapel memorializing persons who have died from HIV/AIDS, at Montreal’s Eglise Saint-Pierre-Apotre, is consecrated to this same soon-to-be saint. (An Episcopal memorial chapel is also named for him.)

Father Damien’s canonization will occur October 11 at a ceremony beginning at 10 a.m. in St. Peter’s Square. As the Catholic World Service has noted, eleven lepers and nine Boy Scouts from the Saint Damien Boy Scouts of Oahu will be in attendance. (Yes, paradox arises yet again: lepers and a boys from a notably homophobic organization). So, canonization. On the one hand, critiques of the use of leprosy as an analogy for HIV/AIDS, beginning at least as early as Susan Sontag’s influential work, AIDS and Its Metaphors; and on the other, increasingly literal links between the two diseases, including evidence of leprosy itself as an opportunistic infection associated with AIDS and a connection between “AIDS drugs” and leprosy.

On the one hand, decades of caring for people with AIDS and HIV. On the other hand, ringing words not of canonization but of the exclusion of many, many, people. On the one hand, a history of stigma and confusing of disease with identity; on the other hand, human rights. On the one hand, the use of biblical argumentation about leprosy to direct those who take that text seriously to treat persons with AIDS humanely—and of the parallel to improve the situation of people who too often say they are “tired of being treated like a leper” (as a doctor early in the pandemic reported in his article entitled “When Fear Conquers: A Doctor Learns About AIDS from Leprosy”). And, on the other hand, well, Pope Benedict XVI.

On the one hand, an official saint of lepers and Hawaii. On the other hand, an unofficial saint of HIV/AIDS.

Canonization as metaphor? As hope? As disfigurement? As cover-up?

What would Father Damien think?