As a recent graduate of the University of Chicago Divinity School with a PhD in Theology, my research details how leprosy–as disease and symbol–has been historically inseparable from a hyper-religious milieu informed by supple theological frameworks and a complex (and occasionally ambivalent) exegetical tradition. I track the perplexing bricolage of leprosy, theology, and public health structures from medieval Europe to contemporary America while centering the experiences of Native Hawaiian leprosy sufferers in the deeply colonized space of 19th and 20th century Molokai, Hawaii.
Leprosy, or Hansen’s disease, is a moderately communicable and chronic infectious disease caused by Mycobacterium leprae. Yet for over 100 years, more than 8000 leprosy sufferers fell victim to a draconian policy of permanent segregation–over 90% of whom were Indigenous Hawaiians who renamed the disease “ma’i ho’oka’awale ‘ohana (the sickness that separates family).” My book project, A Horror of Moral Beauty: Leprosy, Catholicism, and Indigenous Health on the Hawaiian Shores of Molokai, illuminates the theological and public health contributions of this Native Hawaiian community, Father Damien de Veuster (the Belgian priest who volunteered to work on Molokai before eventually succumbing to the disease himself), and Mother Marianne Cope (a Franciscan nun and former hospital administrator who was a key driver of medical care for leprosy in the Hawaiian islands). I argue that the theologies of Father Damien and Mother Marianne–and the public health policies of the colonial Board of Health–were creatively responsive to the practical realities of leprosy and the insights of Native Hawaiian epistemologies. 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 The other document that I was especially eager to study is Ambrose Hutchison’s unpublished, handwritten personal memoir.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.
Given the enduring appeal to medievalism in global health policies during this time (particularly true in the case of leprosy), this book project builds upon my dissertation, “The Sacramental Sickness: The Symptomatic Relationship between Leprosy and the Sacraments in Historical Theology,” which I completed under the direction of Professor Willemien Otten. In my dissertation, 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. I then propose that “crucial fragments” (a term of theologian David Tracy’s) 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 dissertation, 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.
Illness has the uncanny ability to simultaneously disclose furtive internal processes and betray their innate unruliness—twin characteristics which make illness so symbolically fertile. By looking to the historical theologizing around leprosy as a “crucial fragment,” I 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. Ultimately, I view the reality (and even symbol) of leprosy as triggering a hermeneutical frontier: a space of supple interaction where medical epistemologies, metaphysics, and Indigenous epistemologies renegotiated boundaries.
Featured image: Letter from Mother Marianne Cope to Father Damien De Veuster (personal photo)