Samuel Ernest reflects on HIV/AIDS and the study of the Catholic Church since the 1980s
In Christian theology, HIV/AIDS has been considered primarily within the context of ecclesiology, or the study of the church, the body of Christ. The expression ‘the body of Christ has AIDS’ emerged in the late 1980s and early 1990s, as international church organizations mobilized in response to the pandemic. It is an image with a purpose: to confront the church with the presence of people with HIV and AIDS amongst the baptized, the faithful next to you at the communion rail and continents away, all sharing sacramentally in the one body and one blood of Christ.
Adriaan van Klinken, a scholar of religion and African studies at the University of Leeds, has written a number of articles that trace usages of the body of Christ with AIDS. The language of ‘the body of Christ has AIDS’ is intended to break the church’s silence on HIV/AIDS and to invite compassion (van Klinken 2010). He quotes the Botswana feminist and postcolonial biblical scholar Musa Dube, who writes, ‘If one member suffers, we all suffer with him/her. If one member of the church is infected, the church cannot separate itself. If one member is suffering from AIDS, the church cannot separate from his/her suffering’ (Dube 2007, 76; van Klinken 2010, 450). The appeal to the collective body of believers is an appeal for Christians to act as the united body they already are in a metaphysical sense. Emmanuel Katongole, a Catholic priest and theologian from Uganda, shares the call to ‘proclaim that the body of Christ has AIDS,’ while noting that the slogan has ‘tended to lead to calls for advocacy and humanitarian assistance as the way of getting involved’ (2007, 167, 175).
The image of the body of Christ with AIDS has not challenged the inequities between Africa and the West, nor has it shaken the church’s sense of its own power. In response to AIDS, the church has pictured itself as ‘another NGO’, an image of self-sufficiency, rather than questioning its own ‘illusion of power and self-sufficiency, indeed her very ministry and existence’. Both Dube and Katongole see AIDS as revealing and working within economic and colonial structures of oppression. Katongole says the church must be interrupted and moved to reverse these social histories (174). He writes, ‘the challenge that HIV/AIDS imposes […] is essentially an ecclesiological challenge. It is about the deep interruption through which HIV/AIDS has raised so many unanswered questions about sex and community, about life, about God, indeed about the church as a sign of God’s salvation’ (170). The body of Christ with AIDS is a fractured body, and according to Katongole, theologies of HIV/AIDS have failed to address the fractures. Although the body of Christ is an image of unity and wholeness, the body of Christ with AIDS reveals where the unity of the church is strained.
Katongole on the interruption of AIDS calls to my mind a lay, gay Catholic theologian in the United States named Kevin Gordon. Gordon is largely unknown, in part because he died of AIDS-related complications in 1992, midway through his theology doctoral program at Union Theological Seminary. Gordon is mentioned in a collection of essays called The Church with AIDS, published in 1990, which van Klinken cites as an early appearance of the body of Christ with AIDS. Gordon played an important role in the World Council of Churches’ Consultation on AIDS in Geneva in 1986 as chairperson of the committee that drafted a document called ‘AIDS and the Church as a Healing Community’. In 1987, he participated in another conference on the church and AIDS held in Toronto.
The book that emerged from the Toronto consultation, AIDS Issues: Confronting the Challenge, includes Gordon’s paper, ‘The Sexual Bankruptcy of the Christian Traditions’. Under the heading, ‘Is Theology Possible After AIDS?’, he asks:
Will AIDS mark the unbroachable chasm between the time that faith and theology was possible and is now no longer possible, or will AIDS mark the boundary situation for the creative analysis, criticism, and imaginative construction beyond wooden gods that is the theological task? What are the religious options, if any, After Hiroshima, After Auschwitz, After AIDS? It is too early to say about AIDS. The question is literally premature, but I signal it here as [an] inevitable and inescapable agenda. For the time being, the immediate, consuming tasks of comforting the sick and burying the dead preclude us from systematically raising as a community the larger religious questions of ultimate meaning and meaninglessness, but the time will come. (Gordon 1989, 197)
Gordon references the necessary pastoral care of tending to the sick, but here, his proximity to AIDS becomes the basis for questioning what theology can do, not just because care takes energy otherwise expendable on theology, but because AIDS provokes a crisis of meaning. If, as Katongole says, the questions raised by HIV/AIDS regarding sex, community, life, and God have gone largely unanswered in theology, this is not only due to a lack of adequate theologizing, as he suggests, but to the way that AIDS, as a cataclysmic event, throws a wrench in attempts to provide a coherent account of God and existence. In short, HIV/AIDS marks a cusp of theological understanding.
Katongole’s ‘interruption’ and Gordon’s ‘inevitable and inescapable agenda’ resonate with themes of the impossibility or disintegration of meaning (variously scientific, philosophical, social, spiritual, etc.) in theoretical and literary texts written in response to AIDS. For example: William Haver’s assertion that ‘AIDS poses an essential threat not only to our commonplace assumptions about the capacity to manage or control the pandemic, but also to our equally commonplace assumptions about the nature of the world, the social, the economic, and the political—and thereby to the assumption that it is possible to posit the world as an object of knowing’ (1996, xviii). It is a challenge not only for epidemiology, but for epistemology. AIDS was seen as a threat to what Haver calls the ‘clean and proper body politic’ (8), or what Thomas Yingling named ‘the national body’ (1997). Mark Doty, the poet, calls AIDS ‘a vacant / four-letter cipher // that draws meanings into itself, / reconstitutes the world’ (1995, 50).
As more is understood about HIV from a scientific perspective, HIV and AIDS continue to generate epistemological crises (Treichler 1999). In Don’t Call Us Dead, Danez Smith’s speakers figure condomless sex as a matter of faith and HIV diagnosis as a matter of knowing and desiring not to know (2017, 37, 56–59). In Robb Hernández’s book on archives of queer Chicanx art, he writes, ‘AIDS breaks down all that it touches—bodies, social ties, material culture, archival bonds, record wholes. Powerful is its human devastation; wide is its field of debris’ (2019, 12). For these writers, the virus’s relationship to the individual body leads to the fragmentation of knowledge, social bodies, archives, and other wholes.
The HIV/AIDS crisis continues, interwoven with many global crises (as examined, for example, in Cheng et al.’s recent edited collection, AIDS and the Distribution of Crises). Is it, then, still premature to attend to Kevin Gordon’s ‘inevitable and inescapable agenda’? Is theology possible ‘after AIDS’? If, both due to innovations that make HIV manageable and due to the living histories of racism and colonialism that prevent the already vulnerable from receiving adequate healthcare—if there is no immediately foreseeable period ‘after AIDS’, what does theology look like in the time of AIDS’s distributed crises?
Adriaan van Klinken recently published an essay in which he speaks of his own diagnosis and treatment. He writes, ‘The new phase in which the epidemic has become manageable raises new ethical and theological questions. Where initially theologians stated that the body of Christ has AIDS, this later changed into the body of Christ being HIV positive; and in the current situation we may ask whether the body of Christ has become undetectable’ (2020, 26). Following van Klinken’s call, I would ask: how ought theologians think about the corporate body when the one body’s members have various relationships to HIV/AIDS? This is a pressing question when pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) and antiretroviral therapy (ART) are made available to some but not all—that is, when some members of the body of Christ are HIV–, some HIV+ and detectable, some HIV+ undetectable, some dying of AIDS-related complications.
By the logic of the body of Christ with AIDS, if one member has AIDS, all have AIDS. The image is used to highlight and counter the global disparities that allow some to die while others live. Van Klinken’s question raises the paradoxical possibility that, until all members of Christ’s body have access to PrEP and ART—until AIDS is prevented for all—the undetectable body of Christ has AIDS, as would the body of Christ on PrEP. It is possible for constructive images of unity in the body of Christ to eclipse the body’s fractures. If the image of the body of Christ can continue to be helpful for HIV/AIDS theologies, it must point us to the body’s fractures, precisely as sites where political and ecclesial solidarity is necessary. Wherever theologies of HIV/AIDS may go, they begin with ruptured realities.
Samuel Ernest is a doctoral student in theology and American religious history at Yale University. More of his work may be found in Literature and Theology and at homodoxy.com. With thanks to the Yale AIDS Studies Working Group and Linn Tonstad. @samuel_ernest
Cheng, Jih-Fei, Alexandra Juhasz, and Nishant Shahani, 2020. AIDS and the Distribution of Crises. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Doty, Mark. 1995. Atlantis. New York: HarperCollins.
Dube, Musa. 2007. A Theology of Compassion in the HIV and AIDS Era: Module 7 of the HIV and AIDS Curriculum for TEE Programmes and Institutions in Africa. Geneva: WCC Publications.
Gordon, Kevin. 1989. ‘The Sexual Bankrupty of the Christian Traditions: A Perspective of Radical Suspicion and of Fundamental Trust.’ In AIDS Issues: Confronting the Challenge, edited by David G. Hallman. New York: Pilgrim Press: 169–212.
Hallman, David G. 1989. AIDS Issues: Confronting the Challenge. New York: Pilgrim Press.
Hernàndez, Robb. 2019. Archiving an Epidemic: Art, AIDS, and the Queer Chicanx Avant-Garde. New York: New York University Press.
Katongole, Emmanuel. 2007. ‘AIDS in Africa, the Church, and the Politics of Interruption.’ In Heil und Befreiung in Afrika: Die Kirchen vor der missionarischen Herausforderung durch HIV/AIDS, edited by Francis X. D’Sa and Jürgen Lohmayer. Würzburg: Echter. 167–83.
Russell, Letty M. 1990. The Church with AIDS: Renewal in the Midst of Crisis. Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press.
Smith, Danez. 2017. Don’t Call Us Dead. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press.
Van Klinken, Adriaan. 2020. ‘Stories Telling Bodies: A Self-disclosing Queer Theology of Sexuality and Vulnerability’. In Vulnerability and Resilience: Body and Liberating Theologies, edited by Jione Havea. Lanham: Lexington Books/Fortress Academic. 15–29.
Van Klinken, Adriaan. 2010. ‘When the Body of Christ has AIDS: A Theological Metaphor for Global Solidarity in Light of HIV and AIDS’, International Journal of Public Theology, 4. 446–65.
Yingling, Thomas E. 1997. AIDS and the National Body, edited by Robyn Wiegman. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.