Drug addiction and the impoverished soul

The newspapers said the child had been killed by a parent but gave no details. The full story was that the child had been decapitated and disemboweled. The scene was so horrific that the investigator, a seasoned law enforcement professional, had difficulty coping in the weeks and months following.

Likewise the press reported that a toddler had been “abused,” but in reality the child was tortured and raped over the course of several hours before dying. The prosecutor, a staunch opponent of the death penalty, admitted that if ever capital punishment fit such a horrendous crime, this was it.

Another infant was taken to the hospital and later died there. After beating the child within inches of its life, the parents hesitated to seek medical help for several hours. By the time they did, it was too late.

Aside from their heinousness, these crimes had one thing in common: They were committed by drug addicts. They are but a few examples. Across the country atrocities such as these take place with alarming regularity. The details seldom go public, and thus most people go about their day-to-day lives without knowing the depths of human depravity in their own communities.

The scourge

It has become cliché to describe our nation’s drug problem as an epidemic, and yet the word describes the situation well. Maps created by federal officials show how some of the most destructive substances — meth and heroin — enter the country and are carried along traffic arteries to population centers for distribution. They spread like a virus might. The Mexican cartels long ago learned to focus heroin distribution in areas likely to suffer from addiction to prescription painkillers, where the social immunity is weakened. Epidemic is an apt description.

In the minds of a growing number of Americans, the phrase “War on Drugs” is synonymous with waste, failure, and futility. In many regions, crackdowns on domestic meth labs have been tremendously successful, but to take liberty with an old saying, addiction abhors a vacuum. Today’s purest and cheapest meth is coming from “superlabs” in Mexico, and law enforcement knows that for every shipment they intercept, so many others get through. The same is true of heroin.

The primary focus of our efforts to combat drugs has been on the supply side of the equation. Having worked with the law enforcement community, I believe interdiction efforts have not been in vain. Every intercepted shipment of a deadly drug saves lives or buys time, and these are precious commodities.

Deep hunger

From a public policy perspective, lawmakers and other officials are increasingly embracing drug treatment options. This is good and must continue. If we can help an addict break the habit and rebuild his life, we succeed. In this endeavor there is a role — a need — for the public and private sectors, including the Church as an institution and as individual members working in the time, place, and circumstances in which God has placed them.

There is, however, a need just as dire as interdiction and treatment, and it is one that only the Church can fulfill.

Msgr. Luigi Giussani, founder of the Communion and Liberation movement, said, “Life is hunger, thirst and passion for an ultimate object, which looms over the horizon, and yet always lies beyond it. When this is recognized, man becomes a tireless searcher.”

Our nation’s epidemic of drug addiction is, above all, a spiritual crisis. It is a crisis of meaning, purpose, order and hope. We are hardwired to desire and seek such things. The staunchest of atheists have admitted as much. Artists, writers, poets, musicians, and others —-- secular and religious alike —-- who strive to give image and word to the human condition have told of these things since the beginning of recorded history.

As Christians, we know that our creator is the ultimate fulfillment of these desires. As our civilization de-Christianizes, we find ever more sophisticated ways to numb the desire with a host of idols: ideology, consumerism, materialism, technology, sex, alcohol, food and more.

And we are profoundly unsatisfied.

Finding despair

Few words sum up the spiritual tragedy of post-modernity as well as those of Malcolm Muggeridge:

“So we press on through the valley of abundance that leads to the wasteland of satiety, passing through the gardens of fantasy; seeking happiness ever more ardently, and finding despair ever more surely.”

This tragic irony is reflected in the ever-expanding drug frontier. Always in search of the bigger high, users are turning to fentanyl, a prescription painkiller considerably more powerful than heroin. It is so powerful that overdose can happen instantaneously. Not long ago, law enforcement in my own area responded to a dance club because a college-age person had passed out in the restroom. The person died after ingesting a drug so new that narcotics officers and forensic scientists struggled to identify it. “We’ve never seen this one before,” an experienced officer told me. Seeking happiness ever more ardently, and finding despair ever more surely.

Pope Francis calls us to the peripheries and uses the image of a field hospital to describe the Church’s work in the world. As we consider that drug addiction is destroying lives, shattering families and decimating communities, what better words than the pope’s to elucidate the dire need before us now?

Drug addiction knows no boundaries. It afflicts regardless of wealth, education, social position or race. FWe must find new ways to reach these souls. This is among the great pastoral needs of our time and place in history, for from it flows a cascade of scourges such as murder, suicide, child abuse, sexual and domestic violence, joblessness, poverty and the destruction of civilization’s most basic building block: the family.

These scourges ripple throughout society and through succeeding generations wreaking untold damage and havoc, as if to illustrate with horrific precision the generationally descending power of original sin itself.

The work of recovering an addict is the work of rebuilding a person, thus the treatment and healing must be more than clinical. If addicts are to have the greatest chances of overcoming addiction, staying sober, establishing order in their souls, and finding hope and meaning, the Church must find, minister to, and accompany them with the same compassion Christ showed the desperate and afflicted whom he encountered.

John Barnes writes from Montana.