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Harden Not Your Heart: The Place of Conscience in the Catholic Church’s Response to the HIV/AIDS Epidemic
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This thesis explores the place of the Catholic theology of Conscience with the Catholic Church’s responses to the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Conscience theology, as first identified by St. Thomas Aquinas in the 1250s, suggests that a layperson of the Catholic faith has the ability to interpret Church teaching and the bible and make their own decisions about their actions and behaviors. Essentially, the theology of Conscience protects the autonomy of the laity in interpreting Church teaching in their own way and making their own choices about whether they believe that any specific action or behavior is a sin or not. Throughout the twentieth century, conscience theology has influenced many social movements, finding a place within the fight for contraception, anti-war and anti-conscription movements, and the fight for (and against) abortion. This theology of Conscience is relevant within more extensive conversations about sexual morality and sin and is particularly significant when examining the Catholic Church’s responses to the HIV/AIDS epidemic. During the early days of the epidemic, HIV/AIDS was seen as primarily a “gay disease.” One of the key tenets of the Catholic faith is to care for the sick and those in need, while at the same time, the Catholic Church views homosexuality as a profoundly immoral act and a grave sin. Whether aware of it or not, the theology of Conscience enabled these Catholics to participate in AIDS care work via opening AIDS wards in Catholic hospitals, the creation of hospices, working as home health aides, bridging the gap between communities of Catholics and the gay community, or even advocating for the use of prophylactics against the word of the Vatican. In the contemporary era, the legacy of Catholic care work during the HIV/AIDS epidemic, coupled with the Catholic theology of Conscience, present approaches for creating a more accepting space for LGBTQIA+ Catholics, or LGBTQIA+ people within the Catholic Church.