The Sacramental Sickness: The Aesthetic Interplay between Leprosy and the Eucharist in Historical Theology

“I explore the fascinating historical interaction between leprosy and theological symbols and argue for the relevance of this tradition to how churches today respond to stigmatic illness. ”

Team Members/Contributors

Mark Michael Lambert The University of Chicago Contact Me

About this dissertation fellowship

In my project, I appraise the relationship between stigmatic illness and historical sacramental theology, especially the medieval Franciscan interpretation of leprosy alongside the sacrament of the Eucharist. I then demonstrate that this historical theologizing of leprosy has practical, ethical ramifications for how American churches today approach stigmatic illness, e.g. HIV/AIDS, mental illness, or neglected tropical diseases.

Franciscan theology, I argue, is notable for its aesthetic insistence upon the revelatory fecundity of creation with a challenge to properly "read" even decay-prone matter so as to perceive the presence of the divine therein. This explains the provocative coupling of Eucharistic piety and leprosy in Franciscan thought, notably the 13th-century theologies of Francis of Assisi, Bonaventure, and Angela of Foligno—who famously consumed a leprous scab that then transformed into the Eucharistic Host. I then probe two case studies. First, I demonstrate that John Calvin's medical humanism is responsible for his biblical reinterpretation of leprosy and subsequent reevaluation of the traditional understanding of confession. Finally, I turn to the practical setting of the Molokai leprosy settlement (in late 19th-, early 20th-century Hawaii) and how Father Damien De Veuster and Mother Marianne Cope adapted their theologies to meet the spiritual needs of their leprous exiles. Father Damien incorporating the words "We Lepers" into the performance of the Mass and handling the Eucharist while infected with leprosy himself literally embodies this synthesis with immediate ethical consequences.

These theologians are productive models for imaginatively and sensitively rethinking theological symbols in order to address the ostracization of stigmatic illness. These examples confirm that stigmatic illnesses such as leprosy can be a unique resource for enriching the work of theology, with potent ramifications for contemporary medical ethics and church communities.