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Vatican Bans Catholic Workers From Drug Programme

Vatican Bans Catholic Workers From Controversial Australian Drug Program

A Vatican decree this month effectively bans the Australian Sisters of Charity from participating in an 18-month trial of Australia's first medically supervised injecting service for heroin addicts.

The six-page ruling, prepared by the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), orders Catholic organizations not to participate in the pilot project sponsored by the New South Wales government while the Roman Catholic Church prepares a manual advising church members who work with drug addicts.

Deaths from heroin overdoses continue to set records in Australia, prompting some government officials and church leaders to advocate a pilot project in which addicts would be given free heroin and safe rooms in which to inject the narcotic.

Dr. Peter Carnley, the Anglican archbishop of Perth, has argued that providing safe injecting houses, short-term heroin prescriptions, and professional counseling could be useful in a broader strategy to resolve Australia's drug problem. Last year 46 percent of Australians tried drugs and more than 800 people died of heroin overdoses, according to government figures. That is nearly twice the number of homicides reported.

Sister Annette Cunliffe, congregational leader of the Sisters of Charity, said the ruling puts the Vatican at odds with many Australian Catholics. "I don't believe most Catholics are opposed to supervised injecting services. We received over 170 letters of support, many from Catholics," she said.

The CDF, the Catholic Church's most powerful doctrinal tribunal in Rome, said in its ruling that despite its good intentions the pilot program comes too close to supporting "the grave evil of drug abuse and its foreseeable bad side effects." The committee expressed concerned that although legal injection services are aimed at saving lives and promoting rehabilitation, they could make the situation of drug users chronic when they see that their decision to inject illegal drugs is neither obstructed by medical personnel nor punished under the law. The CDF believes lives can be saved in other ways and promotes rehabilitation that involves less cooperation in evil with equal or greater promise of success.

The decree came six months after the Sisters of Charity presented the Vatican with a detailed description and ethical defence of the nation's first proposed injecting centre in Kings Cross, Sydney's prostitution district.

Many Catholic bishops and health workers in Australia have endorsed the plan, contending that it is not inconsistent with Catholic teaching. Melbourne Archbishop George Pell has consistently spoken out against legal injecting rooms, however, maintaining that the issue is to get people off drugs, not stabilise their addiction.

The CDF drugs manual, currently in its second reading, will offer advice in line with church teaching, according to Mexican Archbishop Javier Lozano. The archbishop, who also is president of the Pontifical Council for Health Care, said that all drugs are dangerous. "The real problem is the person who takes these substances, because he manifests symptoms of grave malaise," the archbishop said. "He is a person we must help, because he lives in a world devoid of values and lacking in love."

Cunliffe said she was "pleased to note there was no disagreement in moral principle between the Sisters and the CDF, though there are differences of emphasis and a different final conclusion."

Two state governments -- Australian Capital Territories (ACT) and New South Wales (NSW) -- have passed legislation to provide injecting rooms but are still waiting for them to open.

The Australian Uniting Church's Wesley Central Mission had hoped to open Melbourne's first supervised injecting room, but the City Council rejected it in June. The church expects to start a trial of an injecting room in Sydney by the end of the year.

ENDS

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