Marx called religion the opiate of the people. But the real opiate of the people – the coca leaves of modern culture that we’re all expected to chew – is the river of consumer comforts and distractions that we use to damp down our deeper hunger for God and our gnawing sense of obligation to so many other people.
Modern life in developed countries is becoming a cocoon of narcotics, from pornography and abortion to crack cocaine. And that brings us to the issue of drugs, the second of the three problems I mentioned at the start. In a way, drugs are just the symptom, not the root cause, of a deeper social dysfunction. Poverty is the more fundamental problem in understanding a troubled society. But the two issues are closely linked. Poverty drives despair, which seeks relief in drugs. Drugs destroy lives, which end up in poverty and crime. The two problems feed on and compound each other.
All of us here know the impact of the drug trade on the life of our continent. Ecclesia in America lists it among the sins that cry out to heaven for justice. Drug-related violence has killed tens of thousands of people. Drug money deforms entire economies. It cripples development. It corrupts law enforcement agencies. It poisons the courts and the political process. It spreads poverty and despair. It traps women and children in prostitution. And it robs young people of the future.
Something genuinely hellish resides in every transaction that profits from the suffering of an innocent young person. That same hellishness infects every man and woman complicit in sustaining the criminal drug industry, from wealthy consumers in New York, to cartel bosses in Mexico, to chemists in the jungles of Colombia. The United States bears special responsibility for the problem because of its enormous demand for the illegal substances. And as Pope Francis stressed in his visit to Brazil earlier this year, decriminalizing the drug trade will not control or solve the drug scourge. Only deeper social and personal reform can do that.
Of course, none of these words about poverty and drugs is new. They’ve all been said before, and said better, by others. The point I want to make in saying them again is that poverty, drugs and so many of the other painful issues facing our people both derive from and make worse a larger crisis of the spirit. It’s a crisis of identity and purpose. It touches every corner of the American continent. It crosses every border and language group. And it brings us to the third of the three problems I hope we can discuss with each other during this pilgrimage.
–Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap., Archbishop of Philadelphia,
From his discourse on “The New Evangelization: Responsibilites and Challenges for the American Continent,” Mexico City, Nov. 16, 2013