As a recent graduate of the University of Chicago Divinity School with a PhD in Theology, my research illuminates how leprosy–as disease and symbol–is given tropic insight from exegetical resources and the medieval tradition before analyzing this perplexing bricolage of leprosy, theology, and public health structures among indigenous communities in the deeply colonized space of 19th and 20th century Molokai, Hawaii. Employing a novel, interdisciplinary approach, my book project, The Sacramental Sickness: The Symptomatic Correlation between Leprosy and the Sacraments in History Theology scrutinizes historical theologizing around leprosy (or Hansen’s disease: a moderately communicable and chronic infectious disease caused by Mycobacterium leprae). This project builds upon my dissertation which I completed under the direction of Professor Willemien Otten.
Illness has the uncanny ability to simultaneously disclose furtive internal processes and betray their innate unruliness—twin characteristics which make illness so symbolically fertile. The popularity of the medieval hagiographical topos wherein a veiled Christ assumes a leprous body testifies to the visceral allure of illness, i.e., fever, lesions, and effluvia herald a deeper, hidden reality. In my research I address how the construal of theological symbols affects the ethical status of people with an acutely stigmatizing and theologically fraught illness such as leprosy. I focus on the relationship between stigmatic illness and medieval sacramental theology, particularly the medieval Franciscan interpretation of leprosy alongside the sacrament of the Eucharist, and contend that this generative theological tradition promises fresh insights for crafting more nuanced, ethical responses to contemporary stigmatic illness, e.g., mental illness, HIV/AIDS, neglected tropical diseases, even COVID-19. I propose that “crucial fragments” (a term of theologian David Tracy) of the medieval and early-modern past are pregnant with novel constructive possibilities for addressing the moral problems latent in marginalizing illness. I also recognize the tragic sway the figure of the “medieval leper” stills holds upon the popular imagination and the unfortunate linkage between medieval leprosy and contemporary HIV/AIDS.
In my sources, leprosy operates as a site for moral and theological inquiry: it frames and manifests moral and theological questions about the nature of bodies, vulnerability, and social responsibility in light of corporeal frailty. Leprosy was interpreted within a system that assumed each creature was also a sign that pointed beyond itself, namely to its ordered relationship to its Creator. This illness was thus entangled in concerns about how bodies signified—whether sensory-knowledge could unmask furtive, internal realities—and a desire to properly “read” matter so as to perceive the divine behind this material veil. While the thought of Bonaventure supplies the core of the project, Gregory the Great, Angela of Foligno, and even John Calvin and Philipp Melanchthon are also heavily featured. These theologians promoted the art of medicine as an innovative handmaiden of theological inquiry and more importantly, these historical figures took the suffering of those with leprosy seriously.
My longer term research agenda considers the leprosy settlements on the Hawaiian island of Molokai and more specifically, the appeal to medievalism in global health policies as well as the theological and medical ethical contributions of Father Damien De Veuster, Mother Marianne Cope, and the indigenous Hawaiian community. I recently conducted unique archival research at the Damiaan Documentatie en Informatiecentrum in Leuven, Belgium. I had the privilege of viewing a number of Father Damien’s personal letters, as well as correspondence from Charles Warren Stoddard, Edward Clifford, and Mother Marianne Cope. The other document that I was especially eager to study is Ambrose Hutchison’s unpublished, handwritten personal memoir. Hutchison, a native Hawaiian, contracted leprosy and was exiled to Molokai as a young boy before eventually becoming the resident superintendent of the entire settlement (the first native Hawaiian to occupy the position). Hutchison worked closely with Father Damien, and was indeed dear friends with the Belgian priest. My work is increasingly influenced by Postcolonial Theology, especially works focused on the Pacific such as those by Kwok Pui-Lan and Makes Neemia. I also attend to the experiences and voices of the leprosy sufferers themselves–90% of whom were indigenous Hawaiians–by incorporating indigenous sources and concepts such as pono (“well-being, balance”) into my theological and medical ethical account.
Featured image: Letter from Mother Marianne Cope to Father Damien De Veuster (personal photo)