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

The Rev. Jon Fuller, a Jesuit priest and medical doctor, treats AIDS patients in Boston, many of whom, he said, became infected through sharing needles. "It's been 20 years since the bishops' statement," he said. "It's time to come to a new reflection."

Catholics who oppose needle-exchange programs argue that they could cause scandal, which in Catholic moral theology essentially means that the Church is sending a message that might lead to confusion about its stance on an issue -- in this case, that the Church sanctions drug use.

"But scandal can cut both ways," said Fuller, an associate professor of medicine at Boston University School of Medicine and a staff physician at its Center for HIV/AIDS Care and Research. "If we know programs are scientifically validated to save lives, then condemning them can be more scandalous than the possibility of being seen to condone drug use."

Supplying addicts with clean syringes is not necessarily wrong if the intention is to limit the spread of disease, said Germain Grisez, a prominent moral theologian and emeritus professor of Christian ethics at Mount St. Mary's University in Emmitsburg, Md. But, Grisez said, because of its caretaker role in society, the Catholic Church should not be involved in needle-exchange programs.

"The question is: What would you do if it was your children? You'd go all out to get them off drugs. Think of what Jesus would do. I think the Church should do what Jesus would do."

In 2000, the Rev. James Keenan, a theologian at Boston College, successfully pushed the Society of Christian Ethics, a nondenominational association of scholars, to pass a resolution in support of needle-exchange programs.

"It's about mercy, love of neighbor, the common good, human dignity and responding to human suffering," Keenan said. "The question is: What are we doing for the IV drug user? And I think Catholic Charities just gave an answer."

-- Religion News Service

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