God’s Wrath? : AIDS: Rigid Church View Is Fading

Times Religion Writer

A young AIDS patient who became a Christian through Chaplain Robert Bird’s ministry at the Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Los Angeles recently wanted to be baptized by immersion at a local evangelical church.

But the members turned him down, fearing the virus of acquired immune deficiency syndrome would spread in the baptismal water.

A doctor then assured church elders that the disease could not be transmitted that way--but, just to be safe, on the baptismal day they could submerge the man last, following the other converts. Then, the physician said, he would drain and sterilize the tank.


The elders still refused.

“The church wasn’t ready for this. . . . Lay people are a little paranoid about that kind of thing,” said Bird, who has counseled AIDS patients and their families for three years.

“And the patient had to go through some pretty tough feelings.”

Near-Panic Situation

AIDS has caused near-panic and a re-evaluation of practices in a variety of professions, whether it be morticians worried about coming in contact with body fluids or actors having second thoughts about on-screen kissing.

Although the range of religious response to the growing AIDS epidemic does include compassion, AIDS sufferers most often experience rejection, judging from interviews with church leaders, chaplains, social workers and persons with AIDS.

There is fear of catching the disease. There is ignorance about how it spreads. And, despite signs that judgmental attitudes are slowly waning, the perceived moral issue of its transmission through homosexual behavior makes the AIDS crisis especially difficult for the religious community.

AIDS is “a tragically divisive disease,” declared Cardinal Bernard Law in a policy statement for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston. “What is obviously a human health problem has become electrically charged with fear, outrage and suspicion.”

No Known Cure

Statistics show that about 75% of people who suffer from AIDS are male homosexuals with numerous sexual partners. But AIDS can also be passed through blood transfusions, contaminated hypodermic needles and heterosexual contact with infected persons. There is no evidence that AIDS is transmitted by casual contact.


More than 21,000 cases in the United States have been reported to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta since AIDS was first officially diagnosed in 1981. About 55% of all people identified with AIDS since then have died; the disease, which destroys the body’s immune system, has no known cure.

“Those who predicted homosexuality would be the most challenging topic facing the church in the ‘80s were right,” said the Rev. James L. Lowder, pastor of a small Baptist church in a heavily homosexual district of San Francisco. “AIDS has forced this into the forefront.”

Because Lowder said on a San Francisco television show last November that he believed that Scripture did not condemn homosexual relationships that are “faithful, loving . . . and caring,” the Peninsula Southern Baptist Assn. voted to “withdraw fellowship” from his Dolores Street Church.

Later, the denomination’s California Executive Board yanked $15,000 in funds earmarked for Dolores Street’s inner-city ministries, which include caring for AIDS victims. Lowder also was removed from a seminary teaching job.

Lowder, married and a father, admits that his views do not coincide with those of the president of his denomination, the nation’s largest Protestant body.

‘God’s Displeasure’

In a widely reported speech in San Francisco in January, the Rev. Charles Stanley of the Southern Baptist Convention said that homosexuality “is a sinful life style, according to Scripture, and I believe that AIDS is God indicating his displeasure and his attitude toward that form of life style, which we in this country are about to accept.”


But other religious voices are increasingly departing from the theme that AIDS is God’s wrath on homosexuals.

If God punishes people through sickness, quipped Episcopal Bishop Paul Moore of New York, “Don’t you think those who perpetuate nuclear war . . . would at least get herpes?”

Church coalitions are forming to help parishioners overcome “homophobia”--the fear of homosexuality--counsel AIDS patients and their families, provide health-care facilities for them, and conduct funerals for those who die, often in lonely isolation.

“Even a year ago, this wouldn’t have been possible,” the Rev. Tom Reinhart-Marean told a recent conference of more than 100 local religious leaders called to consider a unified approach to the psychological and spiritual needs of AIDS victims. Reinhart-Marean, a Methodist, is chairman of the Spiritual Advisory Committee of AIDS Project Los Angeles.

The American Union of Hebrew Congregations, the Reform arm of Judaism, is preparing packets of educational materials and sermons on AIDS to be sent this summer to its 1,000 rabbis.

Call for Action

“We are calling on all congregations to rise to the challenge to create a loving, caring atmosphere for persons with AIDS and their families . . . to educate our young people . . . about prevention . . . and to seek adequate government funds to deal with AIDS,” said Rabbi Richard Sternberger, staff director of the organization’s AIDS task force in New York.


The Roman Catholic Church administers a 14-bed hospice for dying AIDS patients in New York, a second is scheduled to open this fall in San Francisco and Archbishop Roger M. Mahony has announced that a 14-bed AIDS hospice in the Los Angeles area will be staffed by brothers of the Missionaries of Charity, the order founded by Mother Teresa of Calcutta.

The Episcopal Church last fall passed a resolution that repudiated “any and all indiscriminate statements which condemn or reject” AIDS victims; another statement adopted in February said that fear of AIDS should not cause Episcopal churches to stop using the common cup during Holy Communion.

The nation’s Roman Catholic bishops approved a similar statement in December, and the Greek Orthodox Church is also on record favoring continuation of the common cup and spoon.

In the Los Angeles Episcopal Diocese, four Masses for persons with AIDS and AIDS-related conditions have been held in the past year, most recently in St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Tustin, this month.

Prayer Vigil

The Los Angeles-based Metropolitan Community Churches, a fellowship of 203 congregations made up almost exclusively of homosexuals, is sponsoring a 50-hour international, interfaith AIDS prayer vigil in September. The fellowship has widely distributed a pamphlet, “AIDS, a Christian Response,” written by the Rev. Stephen A. Pieters of the North Hollywood congregation, who has AIDS.

The Metropolitan churches, founded by the Rev. Troy D. Perry in 1968, include 15 Southern California congregations. Although AIDS has not stopped the slow growth of the congregations, the Rev. Sherre Boothman, dean of the Metropolitan churches’ seminary in Los Angeles, acknowledged “an enormous amount of burnout” in MCC clergy because of the AIDS crisis.


Metropolitan church leaders won’t say how many of their parishioners or clergy suffer from AIDS. But Rabbi Janet Ross Marder, who heads Beth Chayim Chadashim, a predominantly homosexual Reform synagogue of 250 in Los Angeles (there are about 15 such congregations throughout the nation), says nearly everyone in her congregation has lost a friend to the disease.

“It’s a heartbreaking time,” she said. “Many people are so frightened that they can’t even talk about it. . . . The AIDS impact has been unquestionably negative. . . . The only positive outcome is that it’s causing some gay people to reconsider their life styles.”

Helpful Trend

Canon Oliver B. Garver, suffragan bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles and organizer of the Los Angeles AIDS Interfaith Council, similarly said that “the degree to which the homosexual community is cleaning up its practices” is helpful for churches “wrestling with this issue.”

“We can now say things about promiscuity that were unpopular with the gay community (but) . . . may now find greater acceptance,” Garver said.

A Los Angeles Times Poll published in December indicated that 28% of Americans believe that AIDS is God’s punishment for homosexuals and 23% said that AIDS victims were “getting what they deserve.” But the poll also discovered increased tolerance for the gay life style. While 73% said they believed homosexual behavior was wrong, 41% described themselves as “sympathetic” to the homosexual community, compared to 30% in a 1983 poll.

AIDS clearly has the reputation of being a “sleaze disease,” conceded the Rev. William Leeson, an acknowledged homosexual Episcopal priest who works with AIDS patients in the Los Angeles area.


Appealing Logic

Although many church members would agree with Leeson that forgiveness, love and compassion should be shown to persons with AIDS, they also find an appealing logic in the words of Edward Dobson, editor of the Fundamentalist Journal, a monthly magazine published under the aegis of television preacher Jerry Falwell:

“While I would not, and could not, conclusively state that AIDS is the judgment of God, it is clearly one of the terrible consequences of a chosen life style,” Dobson wrote recently.

“If the homosexual community would stop doing what they are doing, they would stop getting what they are getting.”

Father Michael Lopes, a Dominican priest appointed to coordinate the response to AIDS by the San Francisco Roman Catholic Archdiocese, said people with AIDS “want to be reconciled with themselves, in who they are and what they’re facing; with their families and with God.

“The church, too, wants reconciliation--with itself and with society. We all need healing. The bottom line, of course is love--unconditional, irrevocable love. But charity as a first principle is often difficult to live with, especially when it runs against our opinions and prejudices.”

The Rev. William Doubleday, a full-time chaplain to AIDS patients at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital in New York City, said he sees an increasing number of clergy willing to help persons with AIDS, although, as yet, very few devote full time to this work.


“There is still fear that if you get helpfully involved you might be branded as gay, or a drug user, or hostile to . . . the tradition of the church,” Doubleday, an Episcopalian, said in a telephone interview. “What’s needed is to go back to the biblical material and ask who Jesus would be ministering to if he should step into our midst . . . the lepers, prostitutes, tax collectors--whoever didn’t fit the socially acceptable standards.”

Traditional View

In Judeo-Christian tradition, Scripture has almost always been interpreted as disapproving of homosexual activity and drug abuse, the two main means of AIDS transmission. The Mormon Church considers homosexuality a sin in the same category as adultery and premarital sex. A Mormon bishops’ court in Ogden, Utah, recently excommunicated an AIDS patient, who subsequently died of the disease.

Orthodox Jews vehemently oppose homosexual practice, and most Conservative and Reform Jews also disapprove, citing two references in the Torah that call homosexuality an “abomination” (Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13).

But Rabbi Lennard Thal, the Union of American Hebrew Congregation’s regional director in Los Angeles, said the Reform movement does not believe that God handed down the Torah directly and that it contains human opinions and cannot be interpreted literally.

“The Torah also tells us (to) stone a rebellious son to death, and we haven’t done that in a long time, if ever,” Thal said in an interview with Israel Today, a Southern California Jewish newspaper.

Within the evangelical community, according to Richard Mouw, professor of Christian philosophy and ethics at Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, it generally “boils down to the minimal view that genital intimacy of persons of the same sex is disapproved of by the Scriptures.”


Pastoral ‘Accommodation’

That view is also officially held by most major Protestant denominations, although pastoral “accommodation” and leniency are often followed by church leaders in dealing with cases involving homosexuals.

“The best approach is not a detailed life-style critique,” Mouw said, “but a humble recognition of the extreme common vulnerability of us all as sexual sinners.”

In recent authoritative statements, the Roman Catholic Church has distinguished between homosexual “orientation,” or attraction, which it considers morally neutral, and homosexual “acts,” which are held to be “intrinsically disordered.”

Father Arthur A. Holquin, a Catholic priest in the Diocese of Orange, said such fine distinctions, though helpful, “are virtually meaningless when I . . . visit a young man who looks up from his bed of pain and unspeakable suffering, abandoned at times by family and friends, and he says to me, ‘Father, I have AIDS, I’m gay, I’m dying. Please help me.’ ”

Leeson, the homosexual Episcopal priest, cites “modern biblical theologians” to support his position that the “few passages that have been understood in the past to condemn homosexual acts . . . certainly do not deal at all with loving, nurturing, mutually beneficial same-sex relationships.”

Biblical References

Rather, he wrote in a draft chapter of a manual being prepared by the Spiritual Advisory Committee of AIDS Project Los Angeles, these passages (Genesis 19:1-26; Leviticus 18:22; 20:13; Romans 1:27; I Corinthians 6:9-10, and I Timothy 1:9-10) “all deal with coercive, violent or selfish sexual gratification.”


Part of the problem of helping AIDS patients--contrasted with persons suffering from other terminal illnesses--said the Rev. Lee Hancock, associate pastor of Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village, is “dealing with attitudes--the ‘homophobia’ of persons who regard AIDS patients as modern-day lepers. . . . Cancer has a lot of stigma, but it’s not attached to an individual, like AIDS is.”

Chaplain Nancy Adams of St. Luke’s Hospital in Bethlehem, Pa., noted that “some pastors out there are doing a doggone good job, but I’m not sure their churches know about it,” because of the social stigma and fear associated with AIDS. Adams, a United Church of Christ minister, added that there is “more ignorance and less tolerance” concerning AIDS in the smaller cities and rural areas than in urban centers.

But even in big cities, more than a few pastors remain cautious, and sometimes secretive, about their involvement with AIDS issues and homosexuals.

Names Withheld

When an AIDS prayer vigil was held in San Diego in January, many pastors who planned to attend did not want their names mentioned. Several persons interviewed for this story asked to move out of the hearing of associates when they talked to a reporter. Father John McEnhill, AIDS ministry spokesman for the Los Angeles Catholic Archdiocese, asked that all his remarks at a community conference on AIDS (to which the press was invited) be kept off the record.

And the Rev. Daniel E. Smith, pastor of the West Hollywood Presbyterian Church, called back after an interview to ask that his church not be identified as “a gay church” because some members “hadn’t come out yet, especially on their jobs” and feared disclosure.

Smith said the church has a minority of “straight” persons and sponsors the Lazarus Project, a mission shared with the regional Presbyterian synod to integrate homosexual men and women into church life.


Situations involving homosexuals, their lovers, parents--and, sometimes, spouses and children--can get sticky, religious professionals acknowledged in interviews.

“What if someone gets AIDS . . . and goes back to the bosom of the family to die?” asked Garver of the Los Angeles AIDS Interfaith Council. “That family has to deal with the fact that their son is probably homosexual, as well as to deal with his lover who wants to spend time with his special friend during that time of great pain and death. . . . The local priest may have to deal with hostility on the part of the family, and deal with the presence of the lover.”

Word at Workshop

“Family” is not defined by marriage licenses when dealing with bisexual relationships and homosexual lovers who may also have wives, Leeson said at the recent workshop for people giving pastoral care and counseling to AIDS patients.

Helping a homosexual lover cope with guilt over having infected his partner with AIDS requires consummate skill, akin to counseling a remorseful drunk driver who has killed someone, workshop leaders affirmed.

Harold Ivan Smith, a Nazarene layman in Kansas City who heads a counseling organization called Tear Catchers, said that AIDS is causing the church “to put all the stereotypes under the microscope” and take a fresh look at homosexuality.

“We don’t have the option of going back to the 1950s. This is an opportunity for the church to come forward and be the church at a level of compassion we’ve never demonstrated before,” he said.