By Cardinal Justin Rigali

On Friday, Nov. 5, a one-day Conference on Addictions, based on a book I have written will take place. Obviously, not everyone can attend this event, so I will take this important subject as our topic this week. A great deal of the information contained in this article is taken from: “Let the Oppressed Go Free: Breaking the Bonds of Addiction,” part of the “Shepherds Voice Series,” published by Basilica Press, Dallas Texas, 2009.

What is an addiction?
In the Old Testament, God proclaimed His closeness to those who are suffering. As in all things, Jesus continued and fulfilled this message of compassion, and we find many passages in the Gospels showing us His special care for the suffering and afflicted. Addiction is itself a form of suffering and illness, but it often arises out of a misdirected reaction to personal hurt and affliction. As with so many things, a person looks to what seems to be a momentary relief or escape from heartache and suffering, and if this is sought in an unhealthy manner, it can result in an addiction, which only compounds the initial suffering.

We sometimes refer to “being in control.” This expression can have a positive and negative connotation. The positive connotation indicates effective leadership or a reasonable control over the passions and human weakness common to us all as sons and daughters of Adam and Eve. The negative connotation would indicate a manipulative sense of control or the mere pursuit of power.

In addressing the question of addiction, “being in control” is an important concept. Very often, the addicted person can try to believe that he or she is “in control,” when it is necessary to admit that this is not the case. Addiction actually indicates the loss of control in the face of the misuse of those things which may not even be wrong in themselves.

Addiction is characterized by insistent cravings and urges, which can consume a person’s energy at many levels. The addiction can lead to isolation from healthy relationships and meaningful interaction with the world around us.

There is often a process involved which is called a cycle of addiction. An inspanidual is driven by a compulsion, feels that the only relief will be found in acting upon it, and then is filled with a humiliating and self-hating sense of regret for having given in to the compulsion.

The ease with which so many addictions can be fed in our modern society is truly dizzying. In many cases, we are dealing with urges or temptations which may have always been present in many inspaniduals, but the very variety of these urges that can be easily accessed can eventually lead to a crisis of addiction.

One simple example: gambling has long been a temptation for people, but the availability of Internet gambling and the proliferation of casinos has brought the problem to an entirely new level of possible addiction. To differing degrees, the same could be said of sexual compulsions; shopping compulsions; substance abuse and unhealthy, and even harmful human relationships.

In many cases, the object of the addiction may not be an evil in itself, although it sometimes is, but the misuse and uncontrollable use of it, is what makes it an addiction.

Addiction is a particular danger for our young people. The young have a wonderful sense of curiosity and adventure. They also often think that they are invulnerable. Those characteristics, along with the greater freedom that comes at a certain age and the unfortunate collapse of the family in many instances, can be a dangerous ground which is perfect for the breeding of addictions. The exercise of a misguided freedom and the desire for what seems to offer a “high” or an escape from family and school pressures have led to addictions which have often had tragic endings.

Were people more virtuous in the past?
This is obviously a difficult question to answer because we cannot judge the interior dispositions of a person; only God can judge the heart. However, it would seem that we can agree on the ease and availability with which those things which can lead to addictions are obtained in our present society. While the interior urges may have been there as part of our wounded nature, the ease of acting upon them has certainly increased.

Let us take the example of compulsive shopping. This may have always been present in some way in certain inspaniduals, but the present reality of shopping networks on television and the ease with which credit cards can be used has certainly increased the presence of this addiction.

Pornography is a common area of temptation, especially for men. However, the necessity of purchasing images in a public place, paying for them and storing them is no longer there. The Internet has placed this temptation within frighteningly easy reach and is a source of addiction for many people today. Gambling is not an evil in itself, however the proliferation of casinos, the possibility of Internet gambling and the ease with which one can even purchase lottery tickets sold by the state can turn this practice into an addiction.

We may ask: Is it sinful to act upon an addiction? As part of her moral teaching, the Church has always considered the concepts of habit and diminished freedom. A person may become involved in actions which are habitual and thereby decrease that person’s responsibility before God. This is because the total freedom that is necessary for someone in order to be morally responsible for an action may be compromised by the presence of an habitual action or addiction.

We believe in both mortal sin, which destroys God’s life within us by means of an act of the will, and venial sin, which is less serious but sinful nonetheless. While the sinfulness of acts may be lessened because they are addictive, this does not necessarily absolve a person from all responsibility. We must also look to the initial acts, when greater freedom may have been involved, leading to an eventual addiction.

Recourse and consolation
The beautiful understanding of who and what a human person is, which God has revealed to us, is most consoling to anyone involved in an addiction. There should never be any self-loathing in one who believes that he or she has been created by God with love and for a purpose. As Christians, we have the added consolation of knowing that Jesus loves us with an inspanidual love and died for love of us and to bring us healing of our sins. While sorrow, humility and a firm purpose of amendment must be part of the Christian life for anyone, shame is not.

The person suffering from an addiction who wishes to be freed from it can be assisted by mental health professionals and many fine groups that specialize in this work. “Twelve-Step” programs, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, Al-Anon and Alateen have done marvelous work in helping inspaniduals with their addictions and their foundational principles are generally in conformity with our Christian beliefs.

We are all aware of the famous passage in the Scriptures in which St. Paul refers to a “thorn in the flesh” that he had insistently begged God to take away (2 Corinthians 12:7-10). Over the centuries, there has been much speculation as to the nature of this mysterious “thorn.”

Paul asks that it be taken away, but instead he is given the reply: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” Perhaps it is best that we do not know the exact nature of Paul’s “thorn” so that we can put in its place our own particular weaknesses and, in the case of some, their own addictions. We cry out to God with the same insistence of Paul, that this weakness be taken away, and He responds to each of us in the same way: “My grace is sufficient for you.”

The person suffering from an addiction must not forget the sufficiency of this grace. It is present in abundance if we seek it where it may be found: in prayer and, most especially in the sacraments, especially the Holy Eucharist and Penance. These sources of strength will help each of us in our own particular area of weakness, while we also take advantage of the human means I mentioned in the previous paragraph.

While I assure all of you suffering with addictions that Jesus loves you and is close to you, I wish also to affirm my own closeness to you. At the same time, I wish to encourage and commend the loved ones of those suffering with addictions. They suffer so much in seeing their loved ones tormented by their addictions and, very often, their love is heroic because it is expressed in very challenging circumstances.

Each period of history has its own challenges. God has willed that we live at a time when addictions seem to be present as never before. Let us show love and patience toward those who are afflicted and let those suffering with addictions make every effort to make use of the means offered them for their encouragement and relief. We must be conscious of God’s personal love for each of us.

4 November 2010