When in good health, we humans, being a gregarious species, tend to congregate and mix readily. However, when in trouble, we tend to shy away from people. And, when in deep trouble, the need of getting out of our miseries, the urge to bring normality in our life, force us to confide in a trustworthy friend. This someone we know may not be able to have all answers, but at least, he will offer a word of good counsel along with going out of his way to get us back on track.
In no rare instance, the issue of addiction applies to parishioners already used to unburdening themselves to their pastor. They may end up unburdening not only their sins but also their psychological and physical woes, onto a familiar authority figure, the priest. Even equipped with medical training or applied psychology, the priest may not give the impression that he is a professional therapist or psychologist. His spiritual authority may never be confused with whatever medical knowledge he might possess otherwise. Such a faux pas could endanger his spiritual authority. These limits having been set, what is the role of a priest confronted with a difficult case? In what ways can he prove helpful to a parishioner going through turmoil?
Each priest is entitled to absolve our sins, however grave these may be. In this, the Pastor has the gift of bringing back God’s friendship to the soul. It is a gift of divine grace, a power superior to creating new worlds. On the human level, the priest is doing to souls the work of waste management companies in cities. He helps keep souls in decent order and a healthy degree of self-esteem which is quite necessary to navigate their emotional and social life.
And when it comes to addicts, few can truly say that they have no need of a good confessor. Addiction is a compulsory disorder and it degrades man. It falls under the category of habit, with this distinction that it is so enticing or so pleasurable as to affect deeply one’s personality, one’s emotions and mind. And habits have a bearing on our moral acts. To utter blasphemies out of unchecked habit, even though presently unaware of its gravity, is gravely sinful. The ease and automatism do not take away the sin which was deliberated in its inception. This applies to addicts who fell into a trap of their own accord as they genuinely admit. They knew well enough that they were playing with fire and that it could damage their future, although they might not have measured all the consequences.
This, the priest knows full well. So does the addict whose unbalanced self-hatred has already revealed. Is it not then, the time to apply the verdict of justice rather than the balm of mercy? Does this mean that the confessor is duty bound to always refuse the sacraments with little encouragement besides “shape up or ship out”? Thanks be to God, things are not all black and white; various shades of grey exist in the addict’s moral state. And so, circumstances will allow the skillful priest to use the oil or the scalpel, in order to gently coach his patient along the painful but necessary path of gradual abnegation.
In his own realm, the priest is the soul’s physician and is totally in his right to prescribe the penances, actions, and prayer life which are in tune with the soul’s needs. Although he does not directly handle professional tools which are known to successfully conquer the addictions, he may have a major influence in turning the tables. All psychologists and all ex-addicts will tell you that one thing is the first step out of degrading spiral: the recognition of the addiction and the will to leave it. Sometimes, the patient has to reach rock bottom before he realizes how urgent it is to stop. Here, the priest and trusted friend may influence the will to take the decisive step. His vast knowledge of souls allows him to distinguish where there is vice and where there is addiction. Also, the fact that he is a man of prayer, that he has sacrificed himself for his flock, can only add force to the priest’s plea that his parishioner quit his addictive behavior for good.
The priest’s common sense may help clear the way. He will say in no uncertain terms that Catholics can still be genuinely Catholic and yet, become anxious, depressed, alcoholic, and suicidal just like everyone else. “Your Catholicity is no vaccine against addiction or psychological issues.” He will dispel the phony ideas that often creep into one’s mind when unchecked. Their name is legion: “my behavior is an obsession of the devil because of my past…it is in my genes and I can do nothing about it…my mood is caused by my boss who gets on my nerves.” Here again, the authoritative voice of prudence may calm the patient and tell him which ways he needs to avoid and focus on the one necessary thing.
Many Catholics, out of instinct shun the established medical world and, more especially, the psychological wards because they are afraid that they are all Freudian or will turn their minds into robots or atheists. Depending on the case, addicts will invariably have to seek someone else’s help, and oftener than not, professional advice. And, here again, they will need the push from a trusted friend, and if the voice of the priest is added to it, so much the better because it will readily calm the scruples or qualms.
Mediator between God and man, the priest can also be the middleman between the addict and some group or some qualified personnel who can help. He will advise prudently but firmly his struggling faithful to go and seek help. In doing so, he will let him know that he has an addiction and that this demands a strict control from a competent and trustworthy person. The priest normally has a fair knowledge of the medical world which he frequents with the regular sick calls, and he has his contact with some medical professionals among his faithful. He will have the means to advise a good choice of helpful professionals. Now, advising positively that he seek professional help from a list given by his pastor facilitate greatly the hard step of getting through the first appointment. And if, after a promising beginning, the parishioner gets sidetracked, the pastor can request an account of events and get things back on track.
So, all in all, although the priest is no psychologist or medical counselor, his role in the treatment of addicts can be crucial in his capacity as an enlightened confessor, spiritual advisor, and mediator. This may seem to the world of little importance, but it may often be decisive in righting the wrong and helping souls and bodies recover human and humane behavior.