From beyond the grave, Blessed John Paul II gets to the root of the problem.
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The Centre of Social Justice (CSJ) has just compiled a report called No Quick Fix which reveals that drink and drug abuse costs the UK over £36bn a year.
It has the highest rate in Europe of opiate (e.g. heroin) addiction, the highest lifetime use of cocaine, ecstasy and amphetamines and the greatest alcohol dependence among women, with the men coming second behind Norway. Overall, one in twenty adults in the UK are dependent upon alcohol and one in four drink to a harmful level.
No Quick Fix also reveals that the UK has become the hub for websites selling dangerous ‘legal highs’. One in twelve young people have admitted to taking legal highs, making it a quarter of the European total. In the past three years 150 new substances have appeared on the market and in the same amount of time only 15 of them have been banned by the government.
The CSJ has criticised the government’s response to the problem as "bureaucratic and inadequate." Chairwoman of the CSJ review, Noreen Oliver, stated: "Alcohol is taking an increasing toll across all services in the UK and new emerging drugs are causing more harm – all the while funding to rehabilitation centres is being dramatically cut and methadone prescribing is being protected."
"Much more needs to be done” she said, “to tackle the root causes of addiction so that people have a better chance of breaking free.”
This is certainly true. However the heart of the problem seems to be that in general, investigations for causes and solutions are being made upon a distorted understanding of both society and the individual person. Until this vision is led back to a proper understanding of the human person and authentic living, then the solutions offered – such as tougher laws on legal highs, raising the price of alcohol, more rehabilitation programmes, and some even talk of legalising certain drugs – will ever be temporary and inadequate.
To have a hope of coming to some form of solution we must go to the genuine root of the problem, which is embedded in the fact that we are immersed in a wholly materialistic, consumerist society that views the human person as nothing more than a mere producer/consumer, rather than a dignified individual whose life has genuine meaning and purpose.
Consumerism filling the void
Blessed John Paul II in his Papal Encyclical Centesimus Annus explains to us the real root of the drug abuse crisis:
“Widespread drug use is a sign of a serious malfunction in the social system; it also implies a materialistic and, in a certain sense, destructive ‘reading’ of human needs” writes the former Pope. He explains that drugs and other consumerist pursuits “which exploit the frailty of the weak, tend to fill the resulting spiritual void.”
The big problem is that society is now directing itself towards an obscured ideal, a warped aim: we want “to have” rather than “to be.” When “to have” becomes the ultimate goal then seeking immediate pleasures becomes an “end in itself” and this is when the person’s whole life becomes oriented to satisfying these desires and so turns to drinking, smoking, sex etc. rather than seeking to enter into the fullness of one’s being, which is full communion with God, achieved through the habituous exercising of the virtues of faith, humility, chastity and charity.
‘To have’ and not ‘to be’
John Paul II tells us that closely linked to the problem of consumerism is the ecological problem. In seeking solely to ‘have’ and not to ‘be’, “man consumes the resources of the earth and his own life in an excessive and disordered way.”
We do this due to what he calls an “anthropological error.” Human beings become aware that they are capable of transforming their environment, of making their own creations (technology) and somewhere along the way, have forgotten that they are only able to do these extraordinary things thanks to “God’s prior and original gift of the things that are.”
People make their own selfish use of the earth, subjecting it unrestrainedly to their will, not acknowledging in it, its “prior God-given purpose;” betraying, rather than developing in adherence to this divine purpose. Instead of being participators in God’s plan, human beings have put themselves in God’s place.
In doing so, people have developed an impoverished view of reality. They have forgotten that “unselfish and aesthetic attitude that is born of the wonder in the presence of being, of the beauty which enables one to see in visible things the message of the invisible God who created them.”
Forgetting about being, our materialistic outlook gives us a fragmented view of reality. It is broken down into unfeeling parts; we are no longer conscious of its underlying unity in being. The sense of the human person as dignified and personal disintegrates. Our very definition of who we are is reduced to a string of meaningless sensations to which we endlessly pursue. We become distracted by the noise of the material, of ipods, TV, smart phones, drinking, smoking and sex. Our senses are so completely seduced by these noisy pursuits that we close ourselves off from the silent wonder of being, of God; slowly but surely cutting ourselves off from His grace, until we become empty.
This emptiness gnaws at our soul, loneliness and depression and a sense of complete meaningless rises. We try to fill this void, this despair, with all those pleasurable pursuits, but they can never truly fill it, so we are never truly satisfied, and we consume more and more and more. Addiction sets in. Materialism and consumerism become society’s only reality.
A catastrophic effect
Society becomes distorted, its free economy developing into a one sided and inadequate domain, where the human person is no longer valued as a dignified and precious individual life, but as a producer/consumer of goods. “Economic freedom loses its necessary relationship to the human person and ends up by alienating and oppressing him.”
John Paul II tells us that each individual is endowed with an essential dignity as well as the “capacity to transcend every social order so as to move towards truth and goodness.” However each of us is still determined to a certain extent by the environment in which we grow, learn and live. He writes: “The decisions which create a human environment can give rise to specific structures of sin which impede the full realization of those who are in any way oppressed by them.”
The solution he says, is to eradicate these distorted structures of society and set “authentic forms of living” in their place. However this is not so easy to achieve. He explains that it “is a task which demands courage and patience.”
There’s no place like home.
So how can it be done? John Paul II says that the family is the fundamental structure for human ecology, where the person “receives his first formative ideas about truth and goodness, and learns what it means to love and to be loved, and thus what it actually means to be a person.”
When he talks about family he intends it in the proper and traditional sense, i.e. one founded on marriage between a man and woman, where “the mutual gift of self by husband and wife creates an environment in which children can be born and develop their potentialities, become aware of their dignity and prepare to face their unique and individual destiny.”
However in our broken society where life is about the immediate satisfaction of desires of the flesh, there is no longer an appropriate environment for the family to flourish. People have been “discouraged from creating the proper conditions for human reproduction.” There is no sense of responsibility or duty involved in the act, but only sensations to be experienced and taken advantage of. The consequence is a lack of freedom: people have become slaves to their own desires.
The solution, John Paul II tells us, is to return to the understanding of family as the sanctuary of life. Yes, family is a sacred thing! It is the place where life – which is a gift from God – may be properly and authentically welcomed, protected and developed.
He says: “In the face of the so-called culture of death, the family is the heart of the culture of life.”
The State matters.
This extends also to the level of the state. According to the former Pope the state and society as a whole have a great responsibility. They must strive for both the defence and preservation of “common goods,” including the natural and human environments, which “constitute the essential framework for the legitimate pursuit of personal goals on the part of each individual.”
So if we want to have a hope of addressing the problem of addiction and its wider milieu of consumerism, then at both the individual and state level we need to start promoting and defending the family, in which a proper understanding of the human person and an awareness of authentic living may flourish.
A society rooted in such an awareness will eventually yield structures according to which the family can thrive and consumerism may be regulated and determined by lifestyles “in which the quest for truth, beauty, goodness and communion with others for the sake of common growth are the factors.”