Recently almost 170 bishops from the United States, Canada, Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean, and the Philippines met for a week to study “Addiction and Compulsive Behaviors.” The program was organized for them by the National Catholic Bioethics Center with a very generous grant from the Knights of Columbus.
The conference was, in many ways, an embodiment of the teaching of the Pope's latest encyclical, Faith and Reason. In that encyclical, the Holy Father explained why the Church has always taught that reason and faith are compatible, religion and science complementary. The Church has never shied away from the findings of science. How could she? Ultimately all truth has but one source, God himself. At this conference the bishops welcomed the findings of the Director of the Behavioral Psychopharmacology Research Laboratory at Harvard just as they did the reflections of a Polish Dominican priest teaching moral theology at the Angelicum University in Rome.
The bishops are called by Christ to bring his liberating redemption to all people. In carrying out that task, the bishops must address the needs of the whole person, both body and soul. This is why the Church has not only preached the Gospel, but has also lived it by ministering to the physical and bodily needs of all people. After all, one cannot pray well when wracked with pain or tormented by a desire for drugs.
Medical science has made tremendous strides in learning about addiction. It was long thought that alcoholism and drug addiction were the result simply of a weakness of the will. Now scientific instruments allow researchers to take pictures of the activity within the brain itself that results from the use of different drugs. Researchers have come to see that these addictions are destroyers of the brain. Drugs actually change the way the brain works. If somebody has given up cocaine, for example, merely looking at a picture of the drug can trigger the brain to bring about changes in the body that are associated with the use of the drug. Again — this occurs simply by looking at a picture!
As researchers, physicians, and psychiatrists presented scientific findings on the nature of addiction to the bishops, one cannot help think of the timeless wisdom of our Faith which has long addressed these human realities quite accurately without benefit of electroencephalograms or positron emission tomography. As the bishops watched pictures of the brain being lit up and darkened by drug use, and heard about the ways the brain was actually changed, trapping the individual in bondage to an intolerable craving, the words of St. Paul came to mind:
“For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want. In doing what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells in me. ... Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Rom. 7:15-17, 24).
Regrettably some who are in the throes of addiction are never delivered from it. Even if a drug addict, a tobacco addict, or an alcoholic has been free of the drug for months, perhaps years, the sight of a street corner, the smell of a match, or the sound of ice in a glass can trigger once again an intense desire for the drug.
But long before researchers warned addicts of what are known as “cues” triggering a desire for destructive behavior, Christians knew of the dangers. As one inspired writer of Scripture put it: “Be sober, be vigilant, for your adversary, the devil, as a roaring lion, prowls about seeking someone to devour. Resist him steadfast in the faith” (1 Pet. 8-9).
The Catholic spiritual and moral tradition has known how to deal with those struggling against addictions and compulsive behaviors. We are warned time and again by the spiritual writers against placing ourselves in near occasions of sin. Indeed, our tradition has taught that it can be a sin simply to place ourselves in an occasion of sin, in a situation of temptation.
It is good to know that so many of our bishops are willing to take time to learn about recent findings in medicine and the life sciences so that they can more effectively reach out to those who suffer. Our bishops have always been ready to use science to help them bring the healing touch of Jesus Christ to those in need, a touch which can heal both body and soul. But the most reassuring fact of all to us Catholics is that the touch of Christ will provide spiritual healing even if, God forbid, the body remains diseased or enslaved.
Dr. John Haas is director of the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Boston.