Temperance and the Challenge of Substance Abuse

substance abuse

A good meal is one of the real pleasures in life and, indeed, the traditional way to celebrate is with a feast, as the Church’s liturgical calendar attests. If you are the one doing the cooking, then you know how important it is to have the right ingredients in the right amounts and cooked at the right temperature or else you might end up with a burnt inedible mess. You also want to serve the right food at the right time – no ice cream before the main entrée – and it is important also to exercise some self-control and not eat too much or else your waistline will get bigger and bigger.

To do things in the right amount and in right and good order is to exhibit the virtue of temperance. The Catechism instructs that temperance “provides balance in the use of created goods” and “directs the sensitive appetites toward what is good and maintains a healthy discretion” (CCC 1809). Together with wisdom and the other virtues, temperance is significant if we want to lead a good and truly happy life. Thus, as Saint Paul counsels, we ought “to live sober, upright, and devout lives in this world” (Titus 2:12). We should aspire to masters of our worldly desires and actions and keep them ordered to what is good and honorable, rather than being a slave to them.

For example, “the virtue of temperance disposes us to avoid every kind of excess: the abuse of food, alcohol, tobacco, or medicine,” as in other aspects of life (CCC 2290). If chemical substances are administered in the right amount for a medical purpose to cure disease, they can contribute to the good of the person. Recreational drugs, on the other hand, are often harmful to the user as well as the common good and are thus morally illicit (CCC 2291). Our lives and bodies are precious gifts entrusted to us by God and we have an obligation to respect and take care of them (CCC 2288). Since such misuse of drugs involves intentional and unjustified impairment of mind and body, often leading to dependency, there is a duty to protect people against them.

Substance abuse has long been a scourge in society – it can destroy the lives of users, and also devastate their families and harm society as well. Now we are hearing stories in the news about how opioid usage has reached epidemic levels with more and more people dying by overdose or becoming addicted. The Church’s pastoral response to this evil, as Pope Francis has explained, is to offer compassionate care to drug users, helping them to overcome dependency, rediscover their dignity and rebuild their lives. Here in the Archdiocese, for example, drug treatment services are offered by Catholic Charities or in partnership with parishes and other agencies. Another crucial pastoral response is drug prevention education, including lessons in temperance.

Substance abuse is something that concerns us all. Just as we care for others in need, we all have a role to play in protecting people from this danger, helping to heal those who have already been gravely injured by illicit drugs, and encouraging people to live temperately and thereby live in a way that is good and offers true happiness.