Faith, science and compassionate pastoral outreach can help address the crisis of addiction, said experts at a recent panel discussion.
The McGrath Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame teamed up with the nonprofit Catholic in Recovery to present a Sept. 27 webinar on “Addiction and Recovery: Accompaniment Toward Wholeness and Healing,” part of the institute’s “Conversations That Matter” series.
Presenters included Father Sean Kilcawley, director of the Diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska’s Freedom from Pornography apostolate and a national speaker on the theology of the body; Dr. Amy Ricke, a board-certified psychiatrist in Indianapolis specializing in mood, anxiety and substance use disorders as well as developmental trauma; and marriage and family therapist Scott Weeman, founder of Catholic in Recovery.
Moderating the discussion was Beth Hlabse, a mental health counselor and program director of the institute’s Fiat Program on Faith and Mental Health.
Ricke began by pointing to the nation’s “staggering” statistics on current levels of addiction.
In 2021, more than 46.3 million individuals in the U.S. had a substance abuse disorder, with alcohol abuse (29.5 million) topping the list, followed by drug abuse (24 million) and combined alcohol and drug abuse (7.3 million), according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Addiction disproportionately affects American Indian and Alaska Native populations (27.6 percent), with Black (17.2 percent) and white (17 percent) groups about equally impacted, Hispanics slightly less (15.7 percent) and Asian groups least (8 percent).
Those numbers “(do) not even include people who suffer from behavioral or process addictions, such as compulsive gambling, sex addiction, pornography addiction” and the like, said Ricke.
Only 6.3 percent of those with substance use disorder had received treatment, she said.
In 2021, approximately 107,000 died of drug overdoses in the U.S., according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
“It’s important to keep in mind, too, that … at least a third if not more of people that struggle with addiction also have struggled with psychiatric illness, such as anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, psychosis,” said Ricke.
Understanding the true nature of addiction is crucial to addressing the issue, said panelists, who stressed that addiction is a disease of the human body, mind and spirit.
As “a treatable chronic brain disease … addiction involves complex interactions among brain circuits, genetics, environments and one’s life experiences,” said Ricke.
Drugs and alcohol “can mimic” the brain’s neurotransmitters — such as dopamine, which governs the ability to feel pleasure and motivation — and “hyperstimulate” the brain’s reward center, leading to “a loss of self-control” and a drive to continually use the substance, said Ricke.
“There’s a neuroscience to losing your free will and becoming more compulsive,” said Father Kilcawley. “Addiction actually causes atrophy in the prefrontal cortex, the part of our brain that’s responsible for moral judgment, logic and reason. And when we’re in an addictive process … our frontal cortex sort of shuts down and it stops functioning the way it’s supposed to function.”
Although addiction has clear biological aspects, “there’s no one gene or one single risk factor that can predict if someone will experience addiction,” said Ricke.
Weeman noted that “a simple biological understanding of addiction misses so much,” and urged pastoral leaders to take “a layered approach” that counters several myths surrounding addiction.
Substance and process abuse disorders do not discriminate, he said, adding that “the beautiful thing is, neither does recovery.”
“We come to an equal playing field when we’re in the room together, desperately needing each other and the Lord, in order to find freedom one day at a time and live life joyfully and with purpose,” he said.
Addiction is also “not a moral referendum on one’s life,” Weeman stressed. “Often it’s just a coping response to circumstances.”
By definition, recovery from addiction requires spiritual assistance, he said.
“No human power can keep us and can relieve us of our addictions,” said Weeman. “We need the help of God.”
At its core, addiction speaks to the longing of the human person for the love of God, said Father Kilcawley.
“To be created in the image of God is to be created for love, out of love, and to be created to be in relationship,” he said. “And one of the simplest kinds of formulations … for an addictive behavior or a lot of times behaviors (is that) … we kind of know that (we) do these things and don’t want to do them (in order) to replace negative emotions with positive sensations. So in other words, when I’m bored, lonely, angry, stressed, tired, feeling unaffirmed, feeling left out, feeling unchosen — when life gets hard, do I turn to the Lord as my refuge or do I turn to a thing?”
From a spiritual perspective, “we’re really just talking about what St. Paul talks about constantly in Scripture, when he (says), ‘You were once slaves and now you’re free.’”
The touch of God’s grace heals body, mind and spirit, he said.
“As we enter into recovery and our brain heals, our reason, our moral judgment, our empathy come back online,” said Father Kilcawley. “And it’s an amazing thing to see.”
Addiction and the isolation that attends it underscore the innate need for community, said the panelists.
“We as individuals and we as a church community can try to show the person that they are more than this addiction,” said Ricke.
“Nobody in Scripture gets healed in secret,” said Father Kilcawley. “Sometimes we want to go to the secret healing priest and get prayed over and be healed and not tell anybody … but there’s nobody in the Gospels that has that experience.”
Removing shame, and providing practical pastoral supports — such as partnerships with 12-step groups and recovery outreaches, social ministries and simple fellowship — can enable parishes to heal the wounds of addiction among their members, he said.
“We all are in need of conversion. We all need to fall in love with our Lord more. And we all need to be transformed,” said Father Kilcawley. “And when we can acknowledge that and then we can provide spaces for people to actually get help, like that’s where something really beautiful can happen.”
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