Archbishop Samuel Aquila of Denver on Friday released a pastoral letter on the Church’s teaching on recreational drugs, with a particular focus on marijuana, aiming to “help Catholics intelligently dialogue with the 70% of Americans who currently believe marijuana should be legal.”
“I write to you out of pastoral concern for the salvation of souls, and I am convinced of the need to address the impact marijuana use is having on individuals, families, and society in general,” Aquila wrote Nov. 10.
“We cannot pretend that the legalization and growing cultural acceptance of drugs do not have disproportionate effects on the most vulnerable in our society. Not only that, but it is an assault on human dignity, taking advantage of the vulnerable for the sake of financial profit.”
Aquila said he hopes the letter, titled “That They Might Have Life,” will serve as “among the first of many future resources made available to help fill the void that exists in the Catholic space on this burgeoning and critical issue.”
“The most important thing we can do as Christians in response to a drug culture is to proclaim the Gospel. It is through the love, mercy, meaning, and hope found in Christ that people will be deterred from drug use or inspired to break free of its influence,” the archbishop wrote.
“I pray for those who turn to drugs to escape reality, to avoid pain, to deal with loneliness, rejection, emotional wounds, or to deal with the struggle to find meaning in life. I ask Our Lord, Jesus Christ, to have mercy on them, to turn their hearts away from what is below them, to what only he can offer: true love, joy, peace, and happiness.”
Colorado and its capital Denver have long been at the forefront of marijuana usage and culture in the United States, and the Centennial State was one of the first to legalize recreational weed, doing so in 2012. Since then, the state has seen demonstrably higher rates of teen marijuana usage, traffic accidents, homelessness, and drug-related violence.
Marijuana remains illegal at the federal level but has been legalized for recreational use in 23 states and the District of Columbia, most recently by voters in Minnesota and, just days ago, in Ohio. Catholic bishops in numerous states have urged voters to reject marijuana legalization, citing the physical and spiritual harms of drug use.
The Catholic Church teaches in paragraph 2291 of the Catechism that “the use of drugs inflicts very grave damage on human health and life. Their use, except on strictly therapeutic grounds, is a grave offense.”
Harming the faculties ‘that make us human’
Laying out “foundation reasons” for the Church’s teaching that the use of drugs is immoral, Aquila in his letter first proposed that because the human person is of eternal value, it is wrong to use any substance that is harmful to human life.
Aquila pointed out that therapeutic drugs can bring about genuine good by assisting in the restoration of the body to health. However, since humans were created to know and love God, so-called “recreational” drugs — especially powerful ones like opioids — “are bad for us since they hinder our ability to know and to love,” Aquila wrote.
St. Thomas Aquinas’ classic definition of love as “willing the good of the other” also applies to self-love, Aquila noted. Using drugs that harm one’s own body is an unloving and, therefore, immoral action, he stated.
Secondly, Aquila said, “anything that diminishes man’s use of reason and will assails his dignity as a human person and is therefore harmful.”
“[D]rugs diminish our self-possession by harming the very faculties that make us human: Drugs inhibit our use of reason, weaken our will’s orientation toward the good, and train our emotions to expect quick relief from artificial pleasure,” he continued.
“These effects severely limit our ability to freely give ourselves to another — whether it be temporarily, as in the case of occasional drug use, or regularly, as in the case of drug addiction.”
On the contrary, “rather than reaching for chemicals when we are feeling weary and burdened, Jesus invites us to turn to him, who promises rest and abundance.”
“The truth is that even ‘soft’ drugs assault the human person by negatively affecting him on physical, intellectual, psychological, social, and moral levels,” Aquila wrote.
“[M]arijuana causes deficits in the brain’s executive functioning, temporarily impairing coordination, concentration, working memory, and inhibition. For those who might be tempted to sacrifice some of their dignity for the pleasure drugs bring, we are reminded of the paraphrase of Pope Benedict XVI’s words: ‘The world offers you comfort. But you were not made for comfort. You were made for greatness.’”
Christians are called to “fully embrace Christ’s invitation to leave behind unhealthy attachments and coping mechanisms, like drugs … honoring God with our bodies.”
“If we are Christians who use drugs, we must ask ourselves hard questions about what emptiness in our souls we are trying to fill or what pain in our lives we are seeking to numb,” Aquila continued.
“Yet this examen must take place within the mercy of Jesus who said, ‘Neither do I condemn you; go, and do not sin again.’ No matter what we have done, his merciful love invites us out of sin and into abundant life. When we seek forgiveness through the sacrament of reconciliation, we are spiritually strengthened, receiving graces that help us address the causes of our sin and root them out.”
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In a later section of the letter, Aquila spoke about the reasons people and societies fall into the practice of drug use, in an attempt to “compassionately understand, without condoning, the typical flight toward drugs and why they constitute such a massive industry.” He noted that Americans spent an estimated $150 billion on illegal drugs in 2016, making the United States the largest market in the world.
Speaking about a “lack of intimacy with God coupled with the deprivation of authentic love from others,” such a scenario “sends people into either a despairing isolation or a cheap imitation of community that is as harmful as it is helpful.” Many people who struggle with drug addiction also struggle with mental health issues, and vice versa, he said.
In the face of such relational pain, “‘drugs are an easy and immediate, but deceptive, answer to the human need for satisfaction and true love,’” Aquila said, quoting a 1992 Vatican document.
Addressing a possible objection, Aquila noted later in the letter that temperate use of alcohol is not the same as using drugs such as marijuana. Scripture, while describing alcohol as a gift from God, nevertheless strongly condemns drunkenness, he wrote.
Turning specifically to marijuana, Aquila laid out readily available scientific evidence showing marijuana’s adverse health effects. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for instance, warns that “people who use marijuana are more likely to develop temporary psychosis (not knowing what is real, hallucinations, and paranoia) and long-lasting mental disorders, including schizophrenia (a type of mental illness where people might see or hear things that are not really there).”
Numerous studies, too, have shown marijuana’s addictive qualities, particularly for teenagers and adolescents. Aquila wrote about the addiction statistics in his state of Colorado.
“Marijuana use disorder now enslaves 3.3% of the state’s population, as compared to 1.6% in the early 2000s. This is not surprising since Coloradans’ cannabis use has increased dramatically since legalization: The latest data show a 26% increase since 2013. In practice, more people using marijuana inevitably means more addiction,” he wrote.
In addition, he wrote, “in Colorado, one study found that ‘for every dollar gained in tax revenue, Coloradans spent approximately $4.50 to mitigate the effects of legalization,’ after accounting for additional costs in health care, crime, traffic accidents and fatalities, environmental impacts, and more.”
He continued by adding that legalization efforts in Colorado and other states have not put a damper on the illegal marijuana market, and on the contrary have fueled an ever-growing black market. In addition, legalizing drugs sends the societal message that their use is normal and safe, fueling more usage.
“We have also witnessed the tragic results of Colorado’s decision to reclassify fentanyl possession from a felony to a misdemeanor in 2019,” Aquila noted.
“Although well-meaning, one study estimates that the change in classification caused at least 600 additional deaths, even when accounting for the upward trend of fentanyl use in the previous years. The tragic story of this deadly drug reinforces Pope Francis’ words, ‘Drug addiction is an evil, and with evil there can be no yielding or compromise.’”
The Catholic Church’s response to addiction
In laying out the Church’s response to the phenomenon of drugs, Aquila put forth a three-pronged approach: prevention, suppression, and rehabilitation.
Prevention starts with relationships, especially familial ones, and the education of others on the harms of drugs, Aquila wrote. In terms of suppression of drug use, that may well take the form of voting against a legalization proposal, he said.
And finally, “while the Church has and will always proclaim the truth about the dangers of drugs, we gladly join in society’s efforts to aid those suffering in addiction. We follow the example of Jesus who came not to be served, but to serve, and sought out the sick,” the archbishop wrote.
“While only a fraction of Catholics will ever work in drug rehab facilities, all of us can work to end the stigma that surrounds addiction by recognizing that it is a disease, being compassionate and honest with those who use drugs, and refusing to define anyone by their drug addiction but instead by their God-given identity,” he said.
Jonah McKeown is a staff writer and podcast producer for Catholic News Agency. He holds a Master’s Degree from the University of Missouri School of Journalism and has worked as a writer, as a producer for public radio, and as a videographer. He is based in St. Louis.
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