Albany, N.Y., diocese defends needle exchange; some Catholic scholars disagree

By Daniel Burke
Saturday, February 13, 2010

In launching a needle-exchange program recently, the Catholic Diocese of Albany, N.Y., said the decision came down to choosing the lesser evil. Illegal drug use is bad, but the spread of deadly diseases is worse.

The medical evidence is clear, the diocese said when it began Project Safe Point in two Upstate New York locations through the local branch of Catholic Charities. Public health studies document that exchanging used syringes for new ones can reduce the spread of blood-borne diseases such as AIDS and even lead drug abusers to treatment and recovery.

"To guide us, the church provides us with the principles of licit cooperation in evil and the counseling of the lesser evil," the Albany diocese said in a statement. "The sponsorship of Catholic Charities in Safe Point, then, is based upon the church's standard moral principles."

In citing the "lesser evil" argument, the diocese is drawing on a tradition of ethical reasoning that dates to Saint Thomas Aquinas, the 13th-century theologian, said the Rev. James Bretzke, a professor of moral theology at Boston College.

"When you cannot reasonably expect a person to avoid the moral evil itself," as might be the case with some drug addicts, "you can counsel them at least to lessen or mitigate the potential damage of their action and can even help them in doing that," Bretzke said.

But some Catholic scholars question the diocese's moral calculus and say the Church should never be involved -- to any degree -- with the sin of drug abuse.

"Enabling someone to do an evil act is, in no way, shape or form, ever to help that person," said Edward Peters, a professor of canon law at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. "This is elemental moral theology."

"Regardless of your motives (which might be benign, though quite misguided)," Peters said in an e-mail interview, "you can't engage in action that you know to be evil, and helping drug addicts to do illegal drugs is evil."

Needle-exchange programs have become fairly commonplace in Europe and elsewhere since their inception in Amsterdam in 1983. But in the United States, they have often been a source of deep controversy. Even amid mounting medical evidence of the positive effects of such programs, Congress and successive presidents refused to fund them for fear of seeming to condone illicit drug use.

But the tide is turning. Last year, Congress voted to allow needle-exchange programs to receive federal funding, a move that President Obama echoes in his 2011 budget proposal, according to a White House official. The Albany program will be financed by $170,000 in grants from New York state.

Catholic scholars who study the morality of needle exchanges say they know of no other U.S. diocese that offers such a program. Catholic Charities USA's national headquarters said it did not know whether any of its 1,700 regional affiliates maintain needle exchanges.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, in a 1990 statement reprinted in 1997, questioned the morality and practicality of needle exchanges, expressing concern that they might lead to an increase of drug use, contribute to the spread of disease through poorly monitored programs, and "send the message that intravenous drug use can be made safe."

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