An Anesthetized Culture: Further Reflections on Drugs

I recently wrote a piece for Crisis, entitled “Accepting Drugs: A Challenge for Culture and Evangelization,” in response to what I perceive as a general unwillingness of Catholics to take a stand on this pressing issue. Our society is quickly accepting recreational drugs, particularly marijuana, as a normal and a generally harmless phenomenon. The piece created a robust discussion in the comments, though many responses focused on two issues: a lack of nuance in approaching marijuana and the rejection of a substantial difference between drugs and alcohol. This is exactly the kind of conversation that has to occur as we formulate a Catholic response to the growing acceptance of drugs. I’d like to continue the discussion, clarifying some of the key issues.

First, I would like to begin by reemphasizing my general point in writing the previous article. I find that many comments (in general, not just for my own piece) focus on particular points out of the general context and purpose in which they are stated. My point is that drugs represent one, and possibly the most pronounced, attempt to escape from reality and from the use of reason in facing our problems. The trend that I perceive is that there is a general search for anesthesia in our culture. We have sought to eliminate pain and even a plain facing up to the reality of death and have created a culture that seeks comfort and prosperity above all else. What happens with this suppression of reality (life is meant to be hard and to include suffering) is that an underlying dissatisfaction sets in. Our attempt at utopia fails and leaves us isolated and miserable (generally speaking) and then we have to find even more exotic ways to cover this up. Enter drugs.

The growing role of drugs (both recreational and also pharmaceutical at times) reminds me of the use of soma in Huxley’s Brave New World: “Why you don’t take soma when you have these dreadful ideas of yours. You’d forget all about them. And instead of feeling miserable, you’d be jolly. So jolly.” Accepting drugs is an important step toward the dystopia that Huxley saw emerging in the world. I think Pope Benedict’s sustained critique of drugs (which I quoted in the last article) points to the fact that drugs represent the presentation of a false reality that is directly in competition with the spiritual life. Ultimately drugs are a spiritual dystopia, one that seeks to eliminate the Gospel’s daily call to take up one’s Cross, deny oneself, and to follow Him. This is so harmful, because “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). It is not only drugs that seek to cover up our tribulations, but also so many other escape mechanisms: consumerism, promiscuous sex, and especially the ever increasing dominance of media and entertainment.

Second, many readers pointed out that lumping marijuana together with other drugs undermined my argument. I readily admit that different drugs create different reactions and that marijuana may create a lesser reaction than others. However, even marijuana creates the kind of reaction that I criticized under the general heading of drugs. Just a brief internet search brings up the variety of immediate effects of marijuana: euphoria, calmness, anxiety, paranoia, distorted sense of time, magical or random thinking, short-term memory loss, and depression (not to mention physical effects). Reactions to my argument stated that marijuana does not impair reason, which I had indicated using a quote from St. Thomas Aquinas. Here is a description of its effect on thinking: “These include distorted perceptions…difficulty with thinking and problem solving, and disrupted learning and memory.” This does not make it seem that there is no impairment of our higher faculties. In fact, there is no moderate use of marijuana that avoids this kind of mind altering reaction. People smoke marijuana to get high and that high is precisely what I am criticizing as an escape from reality, a cultural anesthesia.

 

What are the implications of legalizing marijuana? As a culture we are normalizing the kind of experience described above, allowing people to temporally “check out.” This creates a sub-culture that stands against facing up to reality, even when it is hard. This sends an important message to youth: drugs are a legitimate option for your life when you are feeling depressed or challenged. Go ahead and manipulate your mood and thoughts. This explains why marijuana is considered by many to be a gateway drug. Once you accept the premise of serious, interior alteration, it is hard to then draw the line. I find arguments in favor of legalization from a more libertarian bent to misconceive the understanding of law as something formative and ordered toward virtue and the common good. From a spiritual point of view, legalizing drugs creates another obstacle within our culture, pushing it further away from both the natural and divine law.

Third, is alcohol really different? Many readers noted that alcohol should be considered a drug. For starters, here is a brief summary of the chemical difference between marijuana and alcohol, which notes the profound difference between them. Secondly, alcohol is made out of substances, which are normally consumed for food. Transforming barley into beer or grapes into wine only enhances the natural substances, which generally have been consumed within the context of meals, openly and in society with others. This does not deny, of course, the possibility for abuse. That possibility does not contradict my argument, but precisely supports it. I am arguing that alcohol abuse is akin to the use of drugs in that rather than enhancing a normal experience of reality, it alters that experience and works against human flourishing. Alcohol, when consumed correctly, does not alter one’s mind, enhances the normal experience of reality, promotes good health and fellowship, and even can be seen positively within the context of the spiritual life.

This last point, on the spiritual life, reveals a deeper way in which we can appreciate the importance of alcohol in the Catholic tradition. I will reproduce in full the blessing of beer (which may be the closest thing to a catechesis on alcohol we have) I referred to in the previous article to draw this out:

Lord, bless this creature, beer, which by your kindness and power has been produced from kernels of grain, and let it be a healthful drink for mankind. Grant that whoever drinks it with thanksgiving to your holy name may find it a help in body and in soul; through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Beer is something made by human hands and yet the prayer indicates that it is precisely by the kindness and power of God that it has been made. Creating it as the fruit of culture is an unlocking or perfecting of God’s creation that He intended in making us as rational beings. The production of beer is mentioned specifically as healthful, done in thanksgiving, and an occasion for help in body and soul. That is, beer, and other forms of alcohol, finds sanction within the Catholic tradition as promoting human flourishing. This is why some of the saints (see St. Brigid’s “Lake of Beer”) use the example of beer and other forms of alcohol as an image of the joy of Heaven: not because it breaks from reality, but enhances joy within it.

Wine should not be left out as within it we see the absolute highest use of the fruits of the earth. I find it fascinating that God would make use of bread and wine, products of human culture, in order to make His Body and Blood present on earth. This is a crucial sign that the objects of genuine human flourishing and culture point beyond themselves. The use of bread, which is a symbol of human sustenance, and wine, a symbol of joy and celebration (“wine to gladden the heart of man” Psalm 104:15) in the Eucharistic sacrifice shows that God intends our communal gathering and feasting to be the occasion of spiritual nourishment. This happens explicitly and supernaturally in the Mass and should happen more simply but also truly within our own homes: eating and drinking in support of our salvation. God works with human goods, not against them.

If the moderate use of alcohol is considered to be a use of drugs then we are equivocating. Drugs, as the word is normally used, indicates the use of a substance which brings the immediate feeling of being high, which is a withdrawal from ordinary experience and consciousness. Anything we ingest alters us, but we have to ask whether or not it is in accord with our good, specifically the good of our rational nature. The Catholic tradition has answered in the affirmative on alcohol and I would add that this is rooted within divine revelation itself! Now that drugs are becoming more and more widespread, it is time for Catholics to be very clear of the difference between alcohol and drugs. Drugs demand a negative response in relation to promoting the human good, both individually and culturally. They are an anesthesia, which further ingrains us in our attempt to withdraw from a culture that may incline us to want to escape from it, but desperately needs us to face it and transform it.

R. Jared Staudt

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R. Jared Staudt is the Director of Formation for the Offices of Evangelization and Catholic Schools of the Archdiocese of Denver and teaches for the Augustine Institute. He earned his BA and MA in Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, MN and his PhD in Systematic Theology from Ave Maria University in Florida. Staudt served previously as a director of religious education in two parishes, taught at the University of Mary, and served as co-editor of the theological journal Nova et Vetera. He is a Benedictine oblate and author of The Beer Option (Angelico Press). He and his wife Anne have six children.

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