In the past six months, several research studies have been published indicating that the opioid epidemic that has been devastating communities across the country has had a significant impact on mortality rates among non-Hispanic whites between 2000 and 2014. During this same period, the life expectancy of blacks and Hispanics has far outpaced that of whites.
While overall life expectancy among whites has increased due to a decrease in heart disease and cancer, this increase has been slowed by a corresponding uptick in deaths from “unintentional injuries” (a category that primarily consists of opioid overdose) as well as alcohol poisoning and suicide.
This trend caught my attention for several reasons. First, I am interested in why this increase in substance abuse and suicide is occurring. Second, I am pondering how Catholic teaching might shed light on this phenomenon. Third, it is important to consider how this growing epidemic might be affecting the Catholic Church in the United States—which, despite a rapidly growing Hispanic membership, is still more than fifty percent non-Hispanic white. Finally, wherever we see an increase in death from drug overdose and suicide, we are likely to find families and communities torn apart by despair and grief, and we need to consider how we can bring the mercy and forgiveness of Christ, the joy of the Gospel, and the new life of the sacraments to these people.
I certainly want to be sensitive to the many people who are suffering from depression, addiction, and suicidal ideation, as well as those who have lost a family member or friend to suicide. Our first impulse should always be mercy. It is inappropriate to speculate about the moral responsibility of a person immersed in such circumstances. It is for this reason that I hope we can gain a better understanding of why this epidemic is occurring—and discern what our pastoral response should be.
I have an idea about why so many people could be engaging in such tragic, immensely destructive behaviors. While the increase in deaths from these causes is greater among the less educated (i.e., those with at most a high school diploma), a statistically significant increase can also be seen among those who have received higher education. Since this increase in the death rate crosses traditional demographic categories such as income and level of education, we should be looking for reasons that are rooted in human nature and the broader culture.
In order to love ourselves, we need to have an authentic understanding of who we are and why we exist, i.e., we need a meaning and purpose to our lives. The fact that every human being comes into the world seeking a meaning for his existence is what the Italian theologian Luigi Giussani defined as the “religious sense” common to man. While it is true that we are born with a natural desire for meaning, we can lose this desire through suffering, sin, or a combination of the two, and we can start to believe that our life is purposeless and pointless. So why go on living?
Unfortunately, contemporary culture does not place much value on asking existential questions. We are immersed in media and mind-numbing distractions 24/7, political discourse has been reduced to polarized sound bites, and concepts such as sin, grace, virtue, and conscience are seen as little more than antiquated relics.
It is not a question of blaming people who fall into a nihilistic, apathetic mindset and thereby engage in various forms of self-harm. Nor is it a question of fixing every possible social ill that could contribute to someone feeling a severe lack of meaning and self-worth (although we should certainly try). As Catholics, we know that at the root of the desire for meaning and purpose is a deep longing for the ultimate fulfillment we meet in the person of Christ, who transcends all our efforts to create our own purpose for existence. Poor or rich, uneducated or highly educated, hard-working or disabled, there will never be enough money, knowledge, or skill to fill the gap left by this infinite need we have for God’s presence in our lives.
To experience true meaning and purpose in our lives we need self-knowledge, which primarily consists in an awareness that we have a profound need for God. When it comes to the question of our pastoral response to the current epidemic of despair—a phenomenon so widespread that it has affected life expectancy among an enormous sector of the population—we need to consider that, in a culture where lack of self-reflection is the norm, we must encourage others to discover within themselves this innate desire for meaning. Without being aware of such a desire, the proposal offered by Christianity—that God became man and calls us to a relationship with him—is inaccessible. Jesus says that the abundant life he gives his followers (see John 10:10) is available to all if they believe in him. A potentially life-saving message to those in despair.