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HIV in the Classroom: What Would a Good Catholic Do? Bioethicist Helps Students Wrestle With Theology and HIV

An Interview With Professor Robert Doyle of Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles

February 21, 2013

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HIV in the Classroom

HIV in the Classroom: A Spotlight Series

No, we're not all HIV positive. But we all are at risk for acquiring HIV. In recognition of this fact, theologian and bioethicist Robert Doyle teaches a graduate course that examines HIV not as a moral issue in itself, but as a major global epidemic with moral questions embedded in the ways communities respond. He's also the author of a forthcoming paper entitled "We Are All HIV Positive: A Catholic Social Teaching Response to the HIV/AIDS Epidemic."

While many in the HIV community have have had mixed-to-negative experiences with the Catholic Church as an institution, Doyle is invested in showing the positive points Catholic theology can bring to a conversation around treating those living with HIV. In his course, "Theological Ethics and HIV," Professor Doyle asks his students to articulate the reach and scope of the HIV epidemic; identify current political and religious responses to the epidemic; and wrestle with the epidemic's moral implications for faith communities.

Professor Doyle is a visiting assistant professor and the graduate program director at the Bioethics Institute at Loyola Marymount University. He sat down with to discuss teaching HIV in a classroom setting; what theology and ethics can bring to a discussion of HIV and health care; and how an "us vs. them" mentality is fueling the HIV epidemic.

Read other articles in this spotlight series.

How did HIV become a part of your academic life? Did you have any previous experience as an HIV advocate?

Professor Robert Doyle

Professor Robert Doyle

The interest began when I took a class as a graduate student earning a master's degree in theology. I took a class in HIV/AIDS, probably five or six years ago. It was fascinating to study it from an academic standpoint. I was asked about three or four months ago if there was any class I'd like to introduce, and I thought that it would be really interesting to teach a class like that on my own.

I don't have any personal experience with HIV/AIDS. But as a theologian, I found that religions have various approaches to the epidemic, and I was fascinated with the responses -- some being more positive than others. I thought, by offering a course based in theological ethics, it would give me and students an opportunity to examine just what these positions are, why some of these positions are positive, why some of the positions are negative, and begin to analyze and to unpack some of the theological responses to HIV/AIDS.

I looked at it from a Catholic position, particularly because that tradition has a body of teachings that are more organized than other traditions. It was easy to see the various responses within that particular tradition. So that's where I'm coming from, particularly in a course like this.

At the very beginning of your paper, which is titled "We Are All HIV Positive: A Catholic Social Teaching Response to the HIV/AIDS Epidemic," you talk about the "us/them" mentality that's driving the epidemic. What do you think inspires the "us/them" mentality in people? Do you think it's just a natural human response?

The interesting thing about HIV/AIDS is that somewhere in our thinking, there is still a sense that this is just a disease associated with gay men and intravenous drug users. For whatever reason, there's this idea that morality is attached to it. You get this disease for doing an "evil act." Because of that, I think it paints a different picture than other diseases. When you talk about someone with cancer, it's not "us vs. them." Because we somehow still attach this sense of morality to HIV/AIDS, it's "Oh, you must've done something wrong, and that's why you have this disease and I don't." There's still that separation there, and that's the focal point of that paper, is trying to debunk some of those myths by examining women, African Americans, impoverished people in this country. It's recognizing that it's not just an issue of morality, or just an issue of gay men and intravenous drug users.


Some people I know call what you were just talking about the "dignified diseases." That there's a sense of dignity attached to certain diseases, especially certain types of cancer. Even within cancers, there's a kind of hierarchy, like breast cancer is very dignified, but if you smoke and get lung cancer, it's less dignified. People would ask, "Why were you smoking?"

Yes, and I think that's exactly what creates the "us vs. them" mentality.

What are some of the course objectives for this class? What do you hope students will absorb? What are some potential real-world applications of this information for students who are bioethicists?

I have a few goals. One is to raise awareness of the HIV/AIDS crisis. To really see how it's impacted people in this country. Not just the typical groups that we were just talking about. But that it's far reaching. And it's unlike any epidemic that we have ever seen in this country. It is not confined to a particular gender or a particular race, or a particular socioeconomic group. It really encompasses all of those. The first thing is to raise awareness that it's not just something we can throw money at, or throw drugs at, and realize that it's an epidemic that has consequences among all different types of groups.

The other thing that I want to explore in the course is the diverse responses to the challenges posed by HIV/AIDS, so that we begin to see, as I mentioned at the start of the interview, how some groups within the Catholic Church have responded positively and reached out to those with HIV/AIDS, and why other groups have responded differently, let's say. Also, I want students to be able to analyze critically what's been presented. Why have groups responded in different ways? Why has there been an "us/them" mentality? Why is it that various groups and socioeconomic classes don't receive as much support? They can begin to see that this is a unique epidemic that requires extraordinary responses.

The four principles of Catholic social teaching are extremely important to your paper, and to being a Catholic today. One of them is "solidarity." In what part of your class will you address the history of activism, especially that of ACT UP and Treatment Action Group, which were about solidarity during the darkest times of the epidemic?

We're certainly going to explore those. I have a couple of weeks built into the course where we look at the gay community's response to HIV/AIDS, but I think that's just a small part of activism, particularly today. By and large, the gay community has done a good job of handling the HIV/AIDS epidemic, raising awareness, promoting health within the community, promoting testing. I think it's other communities that haven't done as great a job.

Part of what I'm talking about in terms of solidarity is not looking at one particular group, but looking at all these groups where HIV/AIDS has had an impact and exploring how those communities have engaged, or perhaps not engaged, with the epidemic.

"The underlying principle is this idea of human dignity. ... If someone else is suffering, then we have this duty to respond to them in solidarity."

You talk about how the four principles of Catholic social teaching must work together to address the HIV epidemic. The four principles are: "dignity of the human person," "preferential option for the poor," "responding to structural sin," and "solidarity." Can you talk about how they're all interconnected, for someone who may not know?

The underlying principle is this idea of human dignity. If we recognize that, by our very nature, all of us have human dignity, then the other principles fall into place. If someone else is suffering, then we have this duty to respond to them in solidarity.

A disease like HIV/AIDS hits poor people hardest, so standing in solidarity -- recognizing the human dignity of people living in poverty with HIV/AIDS -- we certainly should have a preferential option for them. When we talk about the distribution of health care resources, for instance, whether it's pharmaceutical drugs or access to testing, we need to make sure that communities that are poor receive these resources. I think, in that sense, they're all connected, starting with the idea of human dignity.

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This article was provided by TheBody.
See Also
HIV in the Classroom: A Spotlight Series
More on Roman Catholicism and HIV/AIDS

Reader Comments:

Comment by: Lyn van Rooyen (Johannesburg, South Africa) Fri., Feb. 22, 2013 at 4:40 am UTC
Interesting article - touches on many aspect of HIV competent faith communities. Any idea where we could access the paper referred to: ""We Are All HIV Positive: A Catholic Social Teaching Response to the HIV/AIDS Epidemic,"
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