A Catholic approach to Substance Abuse
Below is a paper by Fr. Larry Young, on a Catholic approach to substance use
A Catholic approach to Substance Abuse
“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). Our Lord continuously employs the strategy of awakening in us an enlightened self interest. He exposes the “father of lies” and draws us to himself (John 8:44).
Jesus boldly declares, “I am the way and the truth and the life” (John 14:6). These words of our Lord are particularly powerful in the context of substance abuse which is ultimately a lie. To effectively combat this plague on God’s people we must expose this lie and winsomely attract them to the way, the truth, and the life.
Everyone is seeking happiness, even when we choose something that is self-destructive. It is this God given desire for happiness that we must appeal to. Negative scare tactics aim at exposing the destructive nature of drug and alcohol abuse. This represents an important first step, but on its own it has proven to be an inadequate response to the problem. To put forward a positive vision of the human person fully alive is a critical second step that is often sorely lacking in the effort to stem the rising tide of substance abuse.
Secular governmental agencies are limited in their ability to offer a comprehensive vision of the deepest identity, purpose and destiny of a human person. Fundamental human questions of meaning are integral to both combating the lie of substance abuse and then displacing that lie with what is ordered to our greatest happiness and human fulfillment, which is ultimately to know our Creator and live according to his ways. This accounts for the growing awareness of secular government that they need to work collaboratively with faith based organizations to combat substance abuse. A first step in this outreach is the Catholic Church with its worldwide infrastructure which enables it to be an effective partner with government.
The Case for Reality
The underlying thesis of this paper is that the path to true happiness and human fulfillment is found by engaging reality, or plunging into the real. The state of consciousness induced by the abuse of drugs and alcohol for recreational purposes is a flight from true reality to a cheap counterfeit reality that is ultimately unsatisfying and destructive. Underneath this flight from true reality we find a despair in regards to the quest for truth, and particularly the highest truths where we discover the meaning of our being and existence. Behind the use of drugs and alcohol is often a crisis of meaning.
The meaning of our lives can only be attained when our confidence in our ability to discover truth is established or restored, which we will deal with in the next chapter. Next, we will address the spiritual longing in the human heart as it relates to substance abuse. Lastly, if we are to make the case for reality from the standpoint of both reason and faith, we must deal with the question of suffering for those who seek out substances to cope with the pain in their lives.
Towards a Realist Philosophical Worldview
Modern philosophical approaches to epistemology (the study of how we come to know) have permeated popular thinking and detached many from their moorings in reality. There is often an underlying despair of grasping a reality outside themselves. This can lead to a deep down anxious feeling that they are adrift in this world without hope for discovering real truth and meaning. It seems that an important piece in the war on drug abuse is anchoring people firmly in reality by restoring their confidence in the pursuit of truth and meaning that exists objectively or apart from their own thinking. This means restoring or reconstructing a philosophical worldview based in realism.
The Catholic Faith begins from the starting point that all of reality in both the spiritual and material realms is one, and that it is intelligible to the human person. This is an extremely important point because it undergirds any subsequent assertions regarding the origin, meaning and destiny of the human person. The Catholic Church maintains a fundamentally realist standpoint, in that, truth is the conformity of the mind with objective reality. This is the case both in the pursuit of knowledge in the physical order, where she has often been a pioneering leader in human history, as well as the metaphysical, moral, and spiritual orders. All of reality is one, it stands apart or exists objectively on its own, and it is discoverable and knowable by us. We ought to be fundamentally receptive to reality in all its fullness and open to all the various disciplines and methods of inquiry to discover it.
The openness to scientific inquiry into the physical universe provides a bridge between the Catholic Church and the secular world. However, in the modern secular world there is often a tendency towards skepticism and subjectivism regarding questions related to the metaphysical, moral, and spiritual realms where an inversion takes place. Instead of the attitude of the realist who maintains an openness and receptivity to an objective metaphysical, moral, and spiritual reality there is an idealist attitude that despairs of our ability to discover an objective reality and therefore imposes its own subjective ideas onto it. We each create our own reality for ourselves.
There is not the proper receptive attitude of seeking and discovering these realities that exist independent of their own thinking. For the idealist, metaphysical, moral, and spiritual reality is whatever they think it is. Each individual becomes the measure of these things and the arbiter of what they maintain is true for them. From an idealist starting point no one can make a universal truth claim regarding metaphysical, moral, or spiritual things.
On the basis of idealist thinking, dialogue and the mutual quest of discovery of the true and ultimate nature of things is short-circuited and each of us is left alone in our pursuit of the meaning of our own being and existence. This can leave individuals feeling lost and sometimes despairing of seeking answers to the fundamental human questions like: Who am I?; What is the meaning of my life?; Why is there suffering in the world?; Is there life after death?; Is there a God? This resultant isolation can cause anxiety, which can then lead people to distract themselves from questions of meaning, and sometimes even seek to medicate themselves with substance abuse. Underlying the abuse of substances is often an underlying meaninglessness or nihilism. Part of the way out of this trap is to help a person develop a philosophical worldview that is receptive or open to the whole of reality, which in philosophical terms we refer to as realism.
Opening out to the Spiritual Realm
It is the strongly held assertion of many religions and philosophers down through the ages that the human person is not reducible to a material body, but that we have a spiritual or immaterial soul.
Our consciousness or self awareness is not produced by our physical brain, but is actually
received by the brain from the soul or mind. We are not simply smarter than other animals and capable of computing more data, but we actually perform an operation of abstraction, which enables us to bend back and perceive our own existence in reality. This operation requires a spiritual faculty. Human beings throughout our history have had an intuitive awareness of this fact. How can matter become conscious or self aware? The best explanation is that we do in fact have an immaterial soul. We are body and soul. We are fundamentally spiritual beings.
Given the strangeness and exotic nature of what we are learning about the material universe, which defies our greatest scientific minds, it is entirely reasonable to admit for the possibility of immaterial or spiritual being. We now know the universe had a beginning in a singular moment, which corroborates Judea-Christian revelation. It seems more than plausible that a Supreme Consciousness existed before the material universe, brought it into existence from nothing, and is giving this finely tuned quantum soup its composition and form. Is it that far fetched to believe that this Supreme Consciousness gave us our soul, reveals himself to us, and seeks a relationship with us, even to the extent of becoming one of us so that he can communicate with us in modes of expression that we can understand?
We are made by and for God so perhaps those who seek out this altered state of consciousness
induced by the abuse of drugs and alcohol are in some way expressing a desire for spiritual, mystical, ecstatic, or otherworldly experience? However, the great mystical Doctor of the Church, St. John of the Cross, cautions against seeking spiritual experience for its own sake. This can lead to an unhealthy attachment to feelings of consolation that may or may not accompany an encounter with the Living God. We ought not to be seeking an experience, but rather, we ought to seek the personal God. The Judeo-Christian God revealed himself to us as the great “I AM”.
Finding and being found by God occurs to the extent that one plunges into being or reality, and not into this cheap counterfeit induced by substances. The quest to discover reality leads ultimately to the pursuit of the one who Is, the author of reality, namely, God. Christianity is essentially reality therapy that conditions, habituates, or trains us to enter into the fullness of reality in heaven, in the presence of our Creator.
In the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous one of the founders, Bill Wilson, shares his personal story of finding God and how this enabled him to overcome his substance abuse. After describing his last debacle with alcohol he states, “How dark it is before the dawn!... I was soon to be catapulted into what I like to call the fourth dimension of existence... I humbly offered myself to God, as I then understood Him, to do with me as He would. I placed myself unreservedly under His care and direction. I admitted for the first time that of myself I was nothing; that without Him
I was lost. I ruthlessly faced my sins and became willing to have my new-found Friend take them away, root and branch. I have not had a drink since” (p. 8-13).
Coping with the Struggles of Life
As we are making our case for reality to the substance user or someone with substance abuse disorder the question of suffering has to be faced squarely. Those who are following up to this point can raise the obvious objection that reality is sometimes painful. It seems logical to find temporary relief in the abuse of substances. Why cannot I retreat into this altered state of consciousness as a form of recreation or leisure and to find a little respite from the suffering of my life? What is so wrong with being ‘comfortably numb’ for a little while? Why do we have to suffer? How can a loving God allow suffering?
Regarding recreation and leisure, an unhealthy conditioning occurs with repeated abuse of substances. Soon users can lose their ‘appetite’ for reality. Their capacity to enter into real experience can be dulled. They long to retreat again into this state of being ‘high’. Their enjoyment of real experience will be continuously undermined by the thought, “This would be so much better if I was high!”.
Is the abuse of substances a truly leisure activity? In truth, the enjoyment of this drunken or ‘high’ state does nothing to enrich a person. It is not even interesting in so far as it is not truly inter-esse (in the midst of being). It is not truly recreational either in the sense that it does nothing to recreate a person. Awakening our appetite for real things that truly enrich us is another key to displacing this desire for artificial counterfeits. What if instead of abusing drugs and alcohol we invested ourselves in: learning skills; starting projects; exploring the arts and culture; building relationships; discovering the world around us; prayer and the cultivation of a spiritual life, etc.?
Exposing the empty, shallow, and ultimately boring and uninteresting nature of being ‘high’, and leading substance users away from this ‘cotton candy’ to what is more satisfying and enriching, is vital for prevention and recovery.
There is no way to avoid the problem of suffering. Abusing substances simply leads to more suffering. It does not solve the problem of suffering. It simply makes it worse. It has to be exposed for what it is... a dead end.
An alternative to this dead end is opening up to a spiritual understanding of the world and our place in it. We are on a temporary journey through this world and we are not alone. Our Creator walks with and supports us, and he has plans for us, “For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Corinthians 4:17).
God’s greatest concern is not eliminating all temporal suffering, but saving us from eternal suffering. God allows temporary suffering in this life because he is capable of bringing good out of it and accomplishing his ultimate goal of saving our soul from eternal destruction. Suffering brought about by our own moral failings can lead to conversion, healing, and the rebuilding of goodness in us, as is the case with the Prodigal Son. Even physical evils which are not necessarily linked to the moral order, but just happen to us, can cause us to grow in our dependence on our Creator, make us stronger and wiser, expand and enlarge our hearts, and enable us to become more compassionate and empathetic.
We cannot wag the finger at God as though he has never known suffering, because he has. He has in fact redeemed our suffering through his passion. Our suffering can be united to his on the cross and actually cooperate in the redemption. Sitting in front of a crucifix can teach us a great deal about suffering the longer we gaze upon it. True happiness and human fulfillment is not found in running from the cross into substance abuse or anything else, but taking off the ‘wetsuit’, abandoning our efforts to medicate ourselves with substances, embrace our cross and humbly follow after our Lord with a heart filled with meaning, purpose, and hope.
Substance abuse is a lie and a dead end. It only steals, kills, and destroys. As one person recovering from substance abuse disorder told me, “It always takes and it never gives”. At least it never gives us anything that truly enriches us and builds us up. Underneath it is a certain meaninglessness and hopelessness. What the Catholic Church proclaims to the world is truly good news. There is hope. There is tons of hope! Our lives truly have meaning because we know who we are, where we came from, where we are going, and what we are to do in the meantime. We can live purpose filled lives with a clear direction which plunges us deeper and deeper into reality and lead to what is truly good and fulfilling for us both in this life and in the one to com.
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