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Catholic Charities of Albany, N.Y., plans to give drug users fresh needles as a way of preventing the spread of AIDS.
BY Carlos BriceñoRegister Correspondent
ALBANY, N.Y. — Bishop Howard Hubbard
of Albany, N.Y., has long been interested in helping drug addicts. In the late
1960s, as a young priest, he founded the first drug rehabilitation center in
upstate New York.
But his approval of his diocese’s
Catholic Charities’ plan to start handing out free syringes to intravenous drug
users has some Catholics wondering if his decision respects Catholic moral
Run by the diocese’s Catholic
Charities AIDS Services, Project Safe Point will provide IV drug users with
free syringes at two neighborhood sites in Albany, joining 17 other
needle-exchange programs across the state. The office studied the program for
the past five years and received $170,000 in grants from the New York State
Department of Health before implementing the project in early February.
According to Kenneth Goldfarb, the
diocese’s director of communications, the $170,000 is to cover all the costs
related to the program. He said that previous efforts by Catholic Charities
AIDS Services to study this matter was supported entirely by funds provided by
Community AIDS Partnership of the Capital Region, the New York State Department
of Health AIDS Institute, and state legislative appropriations. No money has
come from the diocese for exploring or implementing Project Safe Point,
In a press release, the diocese
cited state health department studies that showed that 50% of new AIDS cases
were due to IV drug use in 1990. But, by 2004, that figure had fallen to 7%
after needle exchanges were introduced.
“The department believes it is
largely syringe access that caused the decrease,” said health department
spokesman Jeffrey Hammond. “It’s a combination of syringe exchange and the
Expanded Syringe Access Program, through which syringes can be purchased without
a prescription at approximately 3,200 pharmacies across the state.”
Officials at Catholic Charities
praised Project Safe Point.
“We expect that this program will be
lifesaving for many,” said its executive director, Angela Keller.
“We view this new direction as an
extension of our mission to serve the poor and vulnerable,” said Sister of
Mercy Maureen Joyce, CEO of the diocese’s Catholic Charities office.
Realizing the move might be
controversial, the diocese crafted a statement defending the project. It said
it did not condone illegal drug use and was not trying to enable substance
“By providing sterile needles and
syringes to limit the spread of HIV/AIDS among addicts, it may appear to some
that we are complicit in the evils of drug use,” the statement said.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church
has this to say about illicit drugs: “The use of drugs inflicts very grave
damage on human health and life. Their use, except on strictly therapeutic
grounds, is a grave offense.
“Clandestine production of and
trafficking in drugs are scandalous practices. They constitute direct
cooperation in evil, since they encourage people to practices gravely contrary
to the moral law” (No. 2291).
Catholic Charities contends that
“the Church has long recognized that it is impossible to completely
disassociate oneself from evil in all forms and still participate in the world
and offer meaningful help to those in need. To guide us, the Church provides us
with the principles of licit cooperation in evil and the counseling of the
lesser evil. The sponsorship of Catholic Charities in Project Safe Point, then,
is based upon the Church’s standard moral principles.”
ethicists objected that Catholic Charities’ statement condones the
“proportionalist” position — weighing actions purely in terms of their
consequences and judging which will bring about less evil — which Pope John
Paul II specifically repudiated in the encyclical letter Veritatis Splendor (No. 75-83). Certain acts, like drug abuse, are “intrinsically evil,”
he wrote, “on account of their very object, and quite apart from the ulterior
intentions of the one acting and the circumstances” (No. 80). The Pope quoted
Paul VI’s Humanae
Vitae instead: “Though it is true
that sometimes it is lawful to tolerate a lesser moral evil in order to avoid a
greater evil or in order to promote a greater good, it is never lawful, even
for the gravest reasons, to do evil that good may come of it” (No. 14).
Father Tadeusz Pacholczyk, director
of education at the National Catholic Bioethics Center, pointed to the
principle of “theological scandal,” which, he said, means that “even if
cooperation in a particular evil might be
licit — which is rather dubious in this case — there might still be the concern
about grave scandal arising, which itself will often preclude the possibility
suggested a better case could be made for the diocese to support drug
rehabilitation programs and initiatives that help abusers overcome addictions.
said Catholic Charities offers a residence for people with substance-abuse
issues, and four of its agencies offer education, prevention and counseling
services to substance abusers.
Thomas Berg, executive director of The Westchester Institute for Ethics &
the Human Person, also disagreed with the diocese’s Project Safe Point project.
noted that a 1990 document written by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops,
entitled “Called to Compassion and Responsibility,” affirmed that, “although
some argue that distribution of sterile needles should be promoted, we question
this approach for both moral and practical reasons.”
the bishops wrote, “education and treatment aimed at changing behavior are the
best way to control the spread of HIV among intravenous drug users.” At the
same time, they called for “increased government support for outreach and drug
its statement, the diocese said it is not trying to “skillfully craft loopholes
in our moral obligations or provide cover to those caught in violation of
morals but to illuminate how we should act to minimize our participation in
evil while still discharging our ministry to others in an imperfect world.”
Berg responded that the needle-exchange program is in fact morally problematic
because “it constitutes an illicit instance of cooperation in the moral evil of
drug abuse” and that such a program “cannot be justified by touting supposed
effects of the program, such as reducing the incidence of HIV or lowering crime
rates in the area.”
such collateral effects are offered as reasons to justify needle-exchange
programs,” Father Berg said, “I would suspect that advocates are employing a
proportionalistic type of moral analysis, which has been discredited and
refuted by the Church’s magisterium.”