Through the eye of the needle exchange...

I imagine this story will gin up some controversy--or perhaps not?In short, Catholic Charities of Albany, N.Y., in the diocese of Bishop Howard Hubbard, who has a reputation as a social justice liberal, has launched a new program to provide free syringes to intravenous drug users. Catholic Charities studied the program for five years before agreeing to work on it. Project Safe Point will be funded by $170,000 in grants from New York State.Religion News Service has the best write-up I've seen:

Albany Bishop Howard Hubbard approved the needle program, according to the diocese. In a statement, the diocese acknowledged that it may appear to be complicit in drug use, but argued that providing disease-free needles is the lesser of two evils.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 Churchs standard moral principles, the diocesan statement reads.While a number of secular social service agenciesincluding 17 in New Yorkmaintain syringe-exchange programs, the project is thought to be a first for a Catholic Charities agency. A request for information from Catholic Charities USA, the national headquarters for 1,700 Catholic Charities institutions and agencies nationwide, was not answered immediately.Medical studies have documented that needle-exchange programs effectively reduce the spread of blood-borne diseases such as HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C. According to New York State Health Department studies cited by the diocese, in 1990, 50 percent of new AIDS cases were caused by drug use. By 2004, after the introduction of needle-exchange programs, just 7 percent of new AIDS cases were linked to intravenous drug use.

The story goes on to note, however, that the Albany policy seems to contradict a 1990 statement on AIDS from the U.S. conference of bishops (re-printed in 1997) which says: Although some argue that distribution of sterile needles should be promoted, we question this approach for both moral and practical reasons.It appears some of those practical reasons may have been superseded. But the moral reasons? Calling all ethicists (and moralists).

David Gibson is a national reporter for Religion News Service and author of The Coming Catholic Church (HarperOne) and The Rule of Benedict (HarperOne). He blogs at dotCommonweal.

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