Benedict XVI is the first pontiff of the age of addiction – and he knows it. In almost all his speeches to young people he mentions illegal drugs: not just to condemn their use, but also to acknowledge their seductiveness.
During his visit to Britain, he told the youth of Scotland: “There are many temptations placed before you every day – drugs, money, sex, pornography, alcohol – that the world tells you will bring you happiness, yet these things are destructive and divisive.”
Note that the Pope lists drugs before all other addictions. This is deliberate. When making foreign trips he warns his young audiences about narcotics before listing other temptations. His anxiety about drug addiction has gone largely unnoticed by the media, but it crops up again and again. In Brazil in 2007, he visited a rehabilitation centre and praised the work of voluntary groups that rebuild lives drained of meaning by addictive substances.
This Pope does not often utter thunderous condemnations, but he makes an exception for drug dealers. “God will call you to account for your deeds,” he said this year in Mexico, in what amounted to a papal declaration of war on the country’s mighty cartels. Earlier, on the plane, he told journalists that it was the responsibility of the Church to “unmask the false promises, the lies, the fraud that is behind drugs”.
The Holy Father’s emphasis on drugs can’t be dismissed as “moral panic”, to borrow a trite phrase from social science. I’ve spent the past year and a half working on a book, called The Fix, about the spread of addiction in an era of accelerating scientific change and disorientation. One of its themes is that we have reached a moment in history when the free market’s ability to deliver things we need is also producing a surplus of things and experiences that we like too much for our own good. To cut a long story short, our brains have evolved to handle only a certain amount of temptation; now we are heading towards a world in which resisting unhealthy promises requires a frightening degree of self-control.
Drugs are only one feature of this addictive landscape. In some respects they stand out less than they once did: they are more deeply hidden in the thicket of temptations than 20 years ago – and are all the more dangerous as a result. As I explain in The Fix, today’s young people, including those from Catholic families, no longer draw a sharp distinction between legal drinking and illegal drug-taking.
A night’s clubbing typically incorporates both. You might “pre-load” on booze to get you in the mood for the club; then take a stimulant drug to fuel your dancing; then swallow a sedative such as Valium to help you come down before you sleep. The young clubbers, drug therapists and psychiatrists I interviewed for my book all told me that this combination of hedonistic experiences was commonplace for today’s partygoers. The convergence of cheap temptations has turned bingeing into the default mode for weekend celebrations. This confluence is alarming, but also fascinating. We cannot reduce the age of addiction to a bundle of conspiracies by drug dealers and multinational corporations. It’s more complicated than that.
The pharmacology that enables the creation of toxic new party drugs also lies behind the development of new cancer treatments. Scientific advances are morally neutral. It’s their application that enables people to make money out of the “false promises” to which the Pope refers.
It’s easy to oversimplify the challenges we face. Technology’s increasing ability to target of the pleasure centres in the human brain throws up real dilemmas. The reason people become addicted to painkillers – which they do, in their millions – is that they do their job too well. They flood the brain with chemicals that, in certain circumstances, can relieve loneliness as well as pain.
Likewise, supermarkets now sell amazing ranges of sugary snacks (for example, the irresistible “mini-bites”) that are ideal for an office party. But so dependent have we become on the little bursts of pleasure produced by sugar that we buy ourselves treats when there is nothing to celebrate – merely boredom to alleviate.
One of the interviewees in my book, the restaurateur Henry Dimbleby, jokingly compares cake to cocaine. He has a point: sugar can produce chemical highs that aren’t all that far removed from a cocaine rush.
To cite a much darker example of the advance of addictiveness, hundreds of millions of people now regularly go online to visit porn sites. Their appetites are coaxed and extended by the same digital innovations that enable the internet to be used as an educational tool. Pope Benedict often mentions pornography alongside other seductive dangers; he’s right to do so, but I wonder if he can begin to grasp the full devastating effect of hardcore videos on young people who, tragically, are beginning to model their first romantic encounters on the grotesque scenarios of digital erotica.
The epidemic of addictions is beginning to eat away at the neat distinction between addicts and non-addicts that we take for granted; as I say in the book, the notion that addiction is a disease is misleading, because it underestimates ordinary people’s vulnerability to mood-changing substances or experiences.
Keeping track of these changes, let alone controlling them, is an almost impossible task for governments. The collapse of civil order in many parts of the world has enabled organised crime to turn into a hi-tech industry – one that, thanks to internet distribution, is more or less invulnerable to the “war on drugs”.
But this addictive environment should not, and must not, discourage the Church. A key factor in the growth of Protestant denominations in Latin America has been their emphasis on drug rehabilitation: ex-addicts are among their most passionate converts. The Catholic Church has much to learn from their example.
One of the neatest descriptions of the addictive process comes from the American writer Craig Nakken. He sees it as the progressive replacement of people by things. In a society in which so many traditional bonds have stretched and snapped, we look for comfort in sensation – so much so that we build our lives around rituals of consumption.
This may sound glib, but one way of presenting Christianity is as the replacement of things by people, of gratification by love. Pope Benedict is a prophetic figure in so many ways, and I believe he has worked this out. By offering the Gospel as an antidote to addiction he places it at heart of the disturbing changes that, as human beings with volatile appetites, we are too weak to resist through the exercise of solitary willpower.
The Fix: How addiction is invading our lives and taking over your world is published by Collins and available from Amazon
Damian Thompson will be talking about addiction on June 25 for the third of The Catholic Herald’s series of Friary Talks. He will be joined by Dennis Sewell, author of Catholics – Britain’s Largest Minority, and Robert Hardman, author of The Queen. Tickets can be booked here.