“As Religion Falls, Opiate Use Rises in America” read the stark headline of an Oct. 30 essay in Forbes, in which contributor Michael Durkheimer drew on data noting that people with no religious affiliation now make up almost a quarter of the U.S. population (on track to outnumber U.S. Catholics by the end of the decade), and that overdose deaths involving prescription opioids are now the leading cause of death for Americans under age 50.
For people of faith, this potential connection is worth further exploration.
As the U.S. bishops prepare to gather in Baltimore for their Nov. 13-14 meeting, it’s worth noting that this issue came up at their last gathering in Indianapolis in June. Bishops at a news conference — including Galveston-Houston Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo, the president of the USCCB — agreed that the problem had become “so massive” and that the Church had a duty to respond locally, and was in fact already doing so.
It isn’t a stretch for people of faith to see a connection between decreased religious practice and greater substance abuse. The notion of a void in a person’s soul that only God can fill is pretty elementary. But our understanding of the problem is also more textured than that.
When President Donald Trump declared the opioid epidemic a public health emergency on Oct. 26, the people who arguably stood the most to gain were those in the very places in the country that had been most responsive to his campaign. That is, the small towns and rural areas that have seen jobs dry up, economies collapse and people — especially young people — seeing no escape from their places of desolation turning to substance abuse.
The impact of this human tragedy has been compounded both by the loss of a sense of authentic community found in smaller, rural areas and by, again, a rapid decline in religious practice. Even from a mere sociological angle, religious practice is still a vital source of connection between people, community support and, in a word, solidarity. If a member suffers, the community responds.
And if the absence of that community is harmful, the realities of addiction make it worse.
“People who are addicted — whether to drugs or alcohol — often experience isolation and shame and the feeling that they have lost their human dignity. Even today, many of us hesitate to acknowledge that addiction is not a decision, but an overwhelming disease,” wrote Bishop Edward C. Malesic of the Diocese of Greensburg, Pennsylvania, in a June pastoral letter on the opioid crisis, “From Death and Despair to Life and Hope.”
Bishop Malesic’s diocese, in rural southwest Pennsylvania, is precisely the kind of region most ravaged by the crisis. In his letter, he reinforced the fact that “no one needs to endure his or her pain alone. The Church must be present to all who suffer in any way.”
He added that “the Church includes all of us who believe in the Resurrection: clergy, counselors, doctors, nurses, social workers, legislators, law enforcement officials and all of us who offer our prayers to God. Jesus can and wants to use his Church to move our communities from being places of death and despair to places of life and hope.”
This is a Gospel response. This is the accompaniment of those on the peripheries that Pope Francis asks of the Church. This is precisely the kind of pastoral challenge that the leaders and members of the Church cannot afford to ignore, the cry of entire communities of people desperately in need of some Good News.
OSV Editorial Board: Don Clemmer, Gretchen R. Crowe, Scott Richert, Greg Willits, York Young