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 teaching.
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, Goldfarb said.
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 abusers.
“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.”
Prominent 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 of cooperating.”
He suggested a better case could be made for the diocese to support drug rehabilitation programs and initiatives that help abusers overcome addictions.
Goldfarb 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.
Father Thomas Berg, executive director of The Westchester Institute for Ethics & the Human Person, also disagreed with the diocese’s Project Safe Point project.
He 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.”
Instead, 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 treatment programs.”
In 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.”
Father 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.”
“When 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.”
Carlos Briceño writes
from Naperville, Illinois.