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Pope Benedict knows that this is the age of addiction

Damian Thompson says that new technology is making temptation harder than ever to resist

By on Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Online pornography can have a devastating effect on young people (PA photo)

Online pornography can have a devastating effect on young people (PA photo)

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.

  • teigitur

    Good article Mr Thompson. I was there when He spoke in Scotland. For a man of his age he is very on-the-ball. The Holy Spirit clearly rests on him.

  • Fr. Val Zdilla

    You are right in the mention of ex-drug addicts as being attracted to the fundamentalist churches in Latin America.  We could learn and practice that more.

  • theroadmaster

    Drugs chemically activate the pleasure zones of the brain and cause their recipients to experience artificial highs.  But such dubious temporary bouts of enforced happiness have to be maintained on a regular basis so that their effects are continuous.  This is where addiction becomes a problem, and self-destruction in a physical, moral and spiritual sense, is too often the result.  Faith adherents know instinctively the value of real happiness as opposed to sensory pleasure which can only be found in a narrow, materialistic sense.   The promise of Salvation beyond our physical realm is a hope which induces a life-long happiness in those who firmly believe in the message of Jesus Christ.

  • NeilB

    “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.”
    This was a good article up to that point. Mr Thompson clearly has no idea what a typical “night’s clubbing” for “today’s young people” is. I’m a university student and I go out drinking and clubbing A LOT. So do all my friends at uni. Yes we often have a few drinks before we go out. But I don’t know a SINGLE PERSON amongst all the dozens and dozens of people I know at uni who has EVER taken a stimulant drugs to fuel their dancing or a sedative to help them come down before they sleep. Not one. Ever. To portray that kind of thing as something done by more than a tiny tiny minority of young people is wrong. I would not trust the research done for the rest of book if that paragraph is anything to go by.

  • Recusant

    In general, I would love to see a gradual alignment between the evangelicals and the Church. I certainly respect them more than I do the milk and water Anglicans or Lutherans. Or indeed our own tambourine and knitted lentil brigade (I’m looking at you, The Tablet). 

    I think we would do well to replicate their energy, and they would do well to connect with our tradition and authority. I know they regard us as the whore of Babylon, but I certainly aspire to it.

  • Recusant

    whoops, that wasn’t supposed to be a reply.

  • Joe the †roll

    The great revelation about psychoactive substances is their total unnecessity.

    When the pearl of great price is sought for and found, one is then left in a state of spiritual intoxication.

    Joy, pure and simple, a returning home to the happiness of childhood.

    The Gospel is the greatest and safest “high” there is.

  • Justin

    would you expect people to wear a sign to say they have taken a stimulant drug? i think your being a tad naive.

  • Parasum

    Question for DT: Would it be possible to publish more of these articles in the CH, as well as in the Spectator ?

  • Parasum

    That may – sorry, will – need major change in the Catholic Churches in Latin America. And thus, in the Papacy. Which, for the foreseeable future, is not going to happen. To avoid depression (and the drugs to ease it), one should avoid looking at the gigantic difference between

    1. How in fact the CC is;


    2. What it could be.  

    The “sleeping giant” is not so much asleep as in a deep, perhaps fatal, coma. Not healthy.

  • NeilB

    No, and I wouldn’t need them to either – I was talking about people I personally know.

  • Teresamarie

    Addiction to JESUS is the way out.   Daily Mass, frequent Confession, Holy Hours, silence, silence, silence,   Corporal and Spiritual Acts of Mercy.    perseverence, prayer, studying the Catholic Catechism, and relying on God’s Mercy.   I forgort daily Rosary, and Consecration to our Lady!

  • Apokalypse1

    I have to disagree with you.  It is my experience that he is correct, with the exception of the sedative to go to sleep…usually there is sex involved so no need for the sedative.  But all in all I agree with this article.  This lifestyle is seductive in every way and is subtly destroying us through a lifestyle of iniquity.  Without a complete conversion, you can’t get out!

  • Apokalypse1

    I totally agree with you.  The “ex- drug addicts in Latin America” are only looking for another quick fix and will go from “church” to “church” getting excited (high) and coming down over and over because they will not find that inner peace that only comes from the Eucharist and Confession.  The Catholic Church is the vehicle which Christ has designed to fulfill our desires which we try to fill in other ways.  The problem lays with the way the Faith is presented.  Too often it is presented in a way that is a turn off to people… so they look for something more exciting (they need that high).

  • maideqi

  • maideqi

  • Monika

    I love this article and it is the absolute truth.  Most people are addicted to either booze, cigarettes, marihuana,or other drugs, Porn, sex, endless, mindless hours on the computer,or t.v. sugar (guilty) and so on.  Almost everyone I know…. and don’t know smoke marihuana like a regular cigarette! Not that cigarettes are good. We really need to take a step back and look at our selves.  We are very deceived in this day and age.

  • wolfemurray

    It’s great that Damian Thompson is bringing to the fore the dangers of these multiple addictions, and the tactics of modern capitalism to hook us, but I don’t understand why he dismisses the “addiction as a disease” model.  It is hard for people to comprehend how addiction rewires the brain and makes an addict unable to control his/her behavious, but if so many medical experts call it a disease then why not consider that perspective? Thompson writes in the Telegraph that “There is no medical test for addiction: no brain scan or blood screening that enables a doctor to detect its presence.”

    But isn’t that true for all mental diseases? 

  • Benedict Carter

    Not content with endlessly plugging his book in the Telegraph, Thompson has to do it in the Herald too. This isn’t journalism. 

  • Nicola Raye

    Not be  in control of one’s mind (and apetite) is horrific.  But would be wrong to add that not only are the underpriveleged susceptible to drugs, many of those almost addicted to work in the hi tecknology industries use them for quick unwinds.  As a designer it is concerning they themselves are producing hi tech consumer material for others in its manifest forms, to the point that they  might insist the substance use is convenient to this very end.

  • davidaslindsay

    And why is the Herald giving a platform to the man who illegitimately occupies the space in the public debate where an orthodox Catholic ought to be, from which to promote instead his neoliberal economic views, his neoconservative foreign policy views (not least against the ancient indigenous Christians of the Holy Land, of Iraq, and now also of Syria, with Iran next on the hit list), and his homosexuality?

  • Jason

    As a native  English speaker  in Latin America (Brazil) I can testify that the reason the Church is losing so many members to the Evangelicals is because the Catholic Church here is steeped in liberation theology. I can barley find a mass that doesn’t have hippie folk music and sermons about redistribution of wealth. Only by getting rid of such outdated Marxist nonsense in the seminaries and parishes can the Church recover here.

  • Kath Noble

    who is ;our lady’? would it be mary the queen of heaven ?…  the mother of the lord JESUS  . the trinity is 3 in 1 . father,son, & holy spirit. mary was not deity. she was a sinner as are you & i plus the Pope.. you cant pray to mary in heaven . she is unable to answer she was a mere mortal. & to put her up & idolize her is a SIN  

  • BrianOD

    @Kath: Why would you read an article on a Catholic web site and then dare dispute the authority of Mary?  Does your Bible dispute it?  Certainly not!  Mary was the most special of all mortals!  Did you miss that part in your Bible study?  Give her respect and revere her.  Read the following to begin your education:

  • Lord Edmund Moletrousers

    Whilst Damian Thompson shamelessly promotes his book ” the Fix ” on his blog on the Daily Telegraph & on here  , he allows Anti Semitic posters a free hand whilst ensuring anybody who is Jewish is Blocked from commenting

  • jayla

     I agree with you apokalypse.  I think there should be more of us lay people coming up with ways to present the faith.  My opinion is, there should be more opportunities for fellowship as there are in the protestant churches.  This is definitely not to do away with the Mass and the solemnity and sacred part of our journey.  Only to develop Catholic ways to meet the fellowship needs of the parishoners.  That is what I’ve always envied about the protestant churches.  I spent time going to protestant churches just to see what the hype was all about ( I am a recovering alcoholic and in the early days of sobriety, having fellowship with others who found an answer in God was sooooo important).  I loved the friendliness and personal relationships and yes-even the emotionally hyped worship sessions.  However, I never felt that these fulfilled what I get from the Eucharist, Mass, Adoration, Rosary or Divine Office.  The sacred and contemplative experiences are vital.  We lose people who don’t know how to access these positives of our faith.  Many come to our church who have no idea what it’s all about and leave without ever learning.  Those in our parish are busy being contemplative rather than teaching and evangelizing.  We don’t throw the baby out with the bath water, but we do need to improve how we share the Gospel.