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Remarks of Cardinal Justin Rigali
To Conference Participants
"Let the Oppressed Go Free: Breaking the Bonds of Addiction"
Sheraton Philadelphia City Center Hotel
November 5, 2010

Good morning. As Archbishop of Philadelphia, I extend a warm welcome to all of you gathered here today, and ask God’s blessings upon you and your families, as well as your important work in the field of addictions treatment and ministry. It brings me great joy to host this inaugural conference on the need to integrate the sacred and therapeutic dimensions of effectively caring for those battling addictions and for their families.

In communion with my brother bishops around the country, I wish to express our profound gratitude for the dedication and compassion of so many dedicated members of the helping professions who are addressing this issue on a daily basis. I deeply appreciate the presence of so many of you here today as an expression of your genuine and heartfelt concern for those who struggle with addictions, and for their families and faith communities. In your treatment centers, practices, parishes, schools, and homes, you are on the front lines of a battle for the health and well-being, indeed the very survival, of countless men, women and children who have been ensnared in the trap of substance abuse and a host of other compulsive diseases. As you tend to their wounds and accompany them on their journey back to health and wholeness, you are a tangible expression of the love that emanates from the Sacred Heart of Jesus, where the brokenness of humanity encounters the transforming mercy and power of God.

Substance abuse and addictive disorders have reached epidemic proportions in our society, with an ever-widening range of compulsive behaviors on the rise among ever younger age groups. Such trends have made compassionate care for those affected by these diseases an urgent pastoral concern for the Church and her ministers, and for that reason I chose to write on this topic as part of the Shepherd’s Voice Series published by our friends at Basilica Press. As I stressed in my book, the Church has and must continue to speak out on the issue of addiction, in fidelity to her mission to preach the Good News of the love of God the Father through the forgiveness of sins and the healing of those who are afflicted.

If leprosy was the most destructive and contagious diseases of Jesus’ time, it might well be said that addiction is the scourge of our time, given the insidious nature in which it spreads and the terrible damage it causes in the lives of those addicted and their families. Unfortunately it is all too common in our society to see persons with addictions as “weak” or “unwilling to change” and even to blame them for succumbing to something that we have since come to realize is in fact a destructive disease. The addict’s need for clinical intervention and treatment often goes ignored, and when combined with the lingering social stigma attached to addictive behaviors, often causes these suffering individuals in their pain to seek out ways to cope that only do further harm to their human dignity and that of others. The self-defeating, shaming and blaming patterns become a vicious cycle that virtually chains addicts in destructive downward spirals.

While the addict’s need to take personal responsibility for his or her choices is always present, it must be acknowledged that the addictive process over time greatly impedes and wounds personal freedom, and as such the addict is not simply an actor but also a victim of a disease that affects his or her ability to “get well” without help. The pastoral activity of the Church directed toward those battling addictions should therefore be understood within the framework of continuing the ministry of Jesus, who reached out mercifully to touch the suffering and sick, bringing them healing, comfort and renewed strength.  Jesus proclaimed in word and deed that He is the Divine Physician who heals those who are afflicted, and the Good Shepherd who seeks out and saves those who are lost.

We cannot ignore the Gospel imperative to imitate Christ in our readiness to enter into the messiness of the lives of our brothers and sisters who have become entangled with addictions, whether to alcohol or drugs, sexual aberrations and pornography, gambling, shopping, or a whole host of other compulsive traps. The Church calls us to recognize the inviolable dignity of every human person, and in face of those who would shun and marginalize the addict, we must resoundingly affirm his or her God-given right to a dignified life characterized by freedom from obstacles that destroy their authentic human good.

The Catholic Church has addressed the need to provide help and support for those struggling with addiction and compulsive behaviors in a variety of ways. These include ongoing advocacy for comprehensive care to be provided for those who are addicted, by offering continued spiritual guidance for those in recovery, and by issuing a call for strategies aimed at the prevention of addiction.  Historically, the Church in the United States has been actively engaged in addressing the problem of addiction and its underlying spiritual nature and causes. Catholic clergy and religious were intimately involved from the outset with the development and growth of the recovery movement, and many were essential contributors to the early foundations of Alcoholics Anonymous and The Twelve Steps.  The U.S Catholic Bishops worked diligently to bring the issue of addiction to national consciousness in the 1980s and 1990s, combining theological and pastoral reflection with contemporary clinical research on addictions to issue a strong and compelling pastoral diagnosis and related recommendations.

Those prior efforts have resulted today in a myriad of Church-sponsored organizations, specialized treatment programs, support groups, and affiliated institutions that are all focused on providing comprehensive and effective care for those adversely impacted by addictions. Today more than ever the Church recognizes the importance of creative and dynamic partnerships with those engaged in the helping and healing professions of therapeutic treatment and counseling, with the goal of cooperatively supporting effective long-term recovery for as many people as possible.  I am pleased to acknowledge the contributions made in this regard by our co-sponsors – Catholic Health Care Services, St. John Vianney Center, and Guest House Institute – and am grateful for their combined efforts in making this conference day possible. I also acknowledge with great esteem the excellent work of partner organizations represented by our invited speakers today – The National Association for Children of Alcoholics, Fr. Martin’s Ashley, The International Coalition of Addictions Studies Educators, and The National Catholic Council on Alcoholism and Related Drug Dependencies. Our purpose today is to highlight the many good things being done by these groups and others to integrate the sacred and clinical dimensions of effective addictions treatment and ministry.

I would like to conclude by emphasizing a point that I stressed in the second part of my book, on the importance of a robust Christian anthropology as a basis for an adequate Catholic response to the problem of addiction. Addiction is a human issue that touches the person on many levels, including significantly the spiritual dimension of our personhood. God has created the human person as a union of body and soul, and as such each of us has a divine origin and destiny. This Christian understanding of human nature means that all of our desires and hungers are for what we perceive as good, and are ultimately grounded in our desire for God, who is our true and ultimate Good. As Saint Augustine so aptly put it, “You have made us for yourself, O God, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.” Yet, our desires can at times become distorted and cause us to perceive things as apparent goods which are in the end not good for us. Addictions are an example of the adverse results that occur when our perceptions of what is good for us go astray, and we choose to continue to pursue those false and illusory goods. For that reason, any effort to deal effectively with addictions must take due account of the need for spiritual conversion and renewal. The Catholic insight has always been that grace builds upon nature, and therefore all good human efforts necessarily find their completion in God’s guidance and assistance. 

It is with this in mind that we have come together today, to explore together how best to facilitate recovery from addiction within the context of conversion of heart and transformation of life. Catholic teaching on the necessity of grace and virtue reminds us of the importance of the sacraments and prayer in the overall process leading to genuine healing, recovery and renewal for those who suffer the pain of addiction. Today we will explore in our various presentations and workshops some of the most important themes regarding this critical interface between the sacred and the therapeutic dimensions of clinical and pastoral care in addictions ministry. Let us go forward with the deep conviction that with God all things are possible, and that no one is beyond the reach of God’s infinite power and mercy. We are a people of hope, and today we proclaim the word of hope from our Savior, Christ Jesus, to all who are burdened and heavy laden with the weight of addiction: “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened…and you will find rest for yourselves”  (Mt 11:28-29).  Again, welcome, and may God bless you.

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