Much to the Vatican's consternation over the centuries, the notion of papal infallibility has often bumped up against dissent from within the Church. Sometimes, papal pronouncements are quietly and widely ignored by the masses, as with John Paul II's teachings on birth control and premarital sex. On other issues, some members of the Church community feel so strongly that the pontiff is mistaken that they are willing to differ publicly with his teachings. Although church leaders tend to support progressive criminal justice reform (such as repealing the draconian mandatory minimum sentencing laws), legalization itself is an issue on which the Pope and some Catholics have taken different sides.
Last week, DRCNet reported on the release of a Vatican pastoral manual restating the Church's position on drug policy. (http://www.drcnet.org/wol/214.html#thepope). In it, the Pope took a hard line in favor of prohibition, writing that "we must all fight against the production, creation, and distribution of drugs in the world, and it is the particular duty of governments to courageously confront this battle against 'death trafficking.'"
While acknowledging that prohibition could not eliminate drug use or the drug trade, the Pope call for "repression" along with prevention and treatment to fight drug use, which the manual called "incompatible" with Church moral teachings. Our article cited Father Miguel Concha, head of the church's Dominican Order in Mexico, as one prominent Catholic who disagrees with the Pontiff's pro-prohibition stance. Concha is not alone.
Father John Vogler, associate minister at Our Lady of Good Counsel in St. Louis, Missouri, told DRCNet that while he agreed with the Pope that it should not be easier for people to use drugs, there has to be a better way. "The Holy Father, like most good people, abhors drug abuse, but he is trying to control something that cannot be controlled," said Vogler.
"We as a church keep saying it shouldn't be legalized, but making something criminal isn't influence, that's force and fear," Vogler continued. "I think he is mistaken. Government cannot control an illegal business worth billions of dollars; it can only make matters worse. If you legalize it, there's always somebody willing to make a buck on human suffering, so let them make it, but we'll have reduced violence tremendously and put the drug lords out of business overnight," he argued.
"He says that drug use is against our moral teachings," said Vogler, who devotes much of his ministry to jail and prison inmates. "There are many things that are against our moral teachings, but we do not use fear and the force of government to combat them. The truth is our weapon. The Church needs to operate with truth and persuasion, not use the force of the government to twist people's arms. That harms government and it harms the Church."
Minnesota layman and drug reform activist Paul Bischke has a few theological bones to pick with the pontiff, too. "The Holy father needs to consult with that great doctor of the Church, St. Thomas Aquinas, and particularly his whole formulation of the four cardinal virtues [prudence, justice, temperance, fortitude]," Bischke told DRCNet. "If you analyze the drug war in light of the four cardinal virtues, it fails every test. "It is imprudent, in that it fails to be realistic about what it can accomplish and fails to recognize its unintended consequences. It is unjust, for its symbolic, disproportionate punishments fail to give each man his due. Instead of temperance, it imposes abstinence. And it fails the test of fortitude because it is cowardly," explained Bischke.
Bischke also recommended St. John Chrystostom. "He said about alcohol that it was disrespectful to God to blame drunkenness on wine, for the vine was a creature of God," Bischke noted. "We need similar thinking about drug policy from a Catholic perspective. This is something that the social justice requirements of the Catholic faith demand, and that's where I come from."
Bischke, a professional writer in St. Paul, doesn't just talk the talk. A member of the Drug Policy Reform Group of Minnesota, he speaks to congregations around the area about drug policy. "Some folks get it," he said, "and faith-based activism can be really dynamic. But because the drug warriors have lied for so many years -- a real violation of justice -- many people make their decisions about drug policy based on false premises."
Swiss theologian Thomas Walliman backed up Bischke and added more ammunition for the heterodox. Walliman, director of the Institute of Social Ethics of the Catholic Workers movement of Switzerland (http://www.sozialinstitut-kab.ch) and author of "The Drug Policy Controversy" ("Drogenpolitik kontrovers" -- in German only), told DRCNet that there is room in Catholic theology for drug legalization or regulation.
"This is nothing new within Catholic theology, even if it is not the position of the Pope or the magisterium," Walliman wrote in email correspondence. "Not everything that is undesirable has to be forbidden by the church or the state, because it is possible to create more evil than good by forbidding something rather than regulating it. This is the case with your drug policies. Prohibition creates many more problems than drug use and addiction itself," he said.
Individuals have to answer their own ethical questions about drug use, wrote Walliman, but societies too must focus on reducing harm: "What form of regulation by the state best minimizes the evils of drug use, abuse and addiction?" is the question that must be asked, he wrote.
For Walliman, neither prohibition nor unregulated legalization are an ethically legitimate course. "It's necessary to regulate and have some controls, but not like now when everything is illegal," he wrote. "The proper legal instruments should fit the danger of the respective substances. Thus, for example, cigarettes would require showing an ID card because of the danger of addiction, while beer and cannabis teas would require lesser controls and hard alcohol and heroin would require greater controls," he suggested.
"Just as it is not possible to create heaven on earth or erase terrorism from the planet, neither can we erase drugs," Walliman wrote. "We have to learn to live in balance."