US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Church-sanctioned needle sharing?

Meghan Murphy-Gill | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare

The diocese of Albany, New York has recently begun a needle-sharing program, reports the Washington Post, where drug-users can exchange used needles for new, clean ones. It's a controversial measure, certainly, but the diocese is defending Project Safepoint. From the Post article:

"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.

My interest in studying moral theology is minimal at best.The reference to a 13th-century "tradition of ethical reasoning" pretty much sums up the reason for my lack of enthusiasm. Catholic moral theology relies so heavily on one particular tradition that, in my opinion, it suffers. Sure, it's intriguing and interesting and it makes a lot of sense--if you've grown up in a relatively stable environment, have been faced with few serious moral dilemmas, and can organize your life according to a set of flow-charts. Frankly, in the few classes I've taken devoted entirely to ethics, I've found little room for plain old common sense, compassion and consideration of real experience outside of the "priority of conscience" argument, which I find to be just another head game that can be "rationally" argued for or against.

In other words, it's not the argument that the diocese is making that intrigues me, it's the concrete action they're taking in order to combat a real problem. The story really only cites two main arguments against a Project Safepoint: it is scandalous (i.e, it might confuse people into thinking that the Catholic Church sanctions drug use) and as Basic Goods Theorist Germain Grisez argues, the Catholic Church is the "caretaker of society" and therefore should not participate in such a program.

Really?! We're worried that people might think the Catholic Church sanctions drug use? I'd be worried about the faithful, too, if I thought we were that stupid. Which I don't. Because we aren't. And how can you be a caretaker of society without actually engaging real problems in society?

Of course, this whole issue of participating in a lesser evil in order to transform a situation begets the question of whether or not it is morally prudent to provide contraception to AIDS-torn Africa. If there's a scandal surrounding the needle-sharing program, it's not that it might cause confusion, it's that it says we're OK with preventing AIDS among drug-users, but not preventing AIDS among the poor in Africa.


More church and drug-related news.

A non-drug-related, but great article on "intrinsic evil" by Cathleen Kaveny.