December 12, 2005
By GLEN ARGAN
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER
Read: Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, nn. 197-208
An addiction is any process or substance that begins to have control over us in such a way that we feel we must be dishonest with ourselves or others about it."
That definition by Anne Wilson Schaef and Diane Fassel in their 1988 book The Addictive Organization rolls dishonesty and lack of freedom into one concept. Once dishonesty and lack of freedom get untracked in any organization or society, you can be sure injustice will follow hot in their footsteps.
The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church lays out truth, freedom and justice as three fundamental values of life in society. At the foundation of those values is love – "the highest and universal criterion of the whole of social ethics" (n. 204).
The problem is that we tend to see truth, freedom and justice in the same light as motherhood and apple pie. Who could argue against them?
But take them away and horror stories unfold. Around the horror stories descends the cone of silence and denial. If you live in the midst of the dishonesty of addiction, you soon lose track of what is normal.
Schaef and Fassel summarize the findings of others in describing the characteristics of co-dependent adult children: "They guess at what normal is, stay in relationships beyond the time they should leave, are super-responsible or super-irresponsible, judge themselves without mercy, don't know what they feel . . ." (p. 50).
If one comes from a background where there is no alcoholism or other forms of addiction, one might brush all this aside as irrelevant. But one corollary of our faith, of our doctrine of original sin, is that we are all addicts to a greater or lesser extent. False gods have a hold on us all.
Not only does this affect the truth and freedom and justice in our own lives, it also distorts society and its organizations. The more wealth or power that exists in an organization, the more truth, freedom and justice will suffer. This was the genius of St. Francis of Assisi. He knew that without voluntary poverty and powerlessness in his community, truth, freedom and justice didn't have a chance to flourish.
Look at any nation or any organization and you will see the tentacles of idolatry and addiction. You will also see co-dependents – those who strive to make everything appear perfect and who go to great lengths to repress any negative reality.
It is perhaps most blatant in impoverished nations where those in power mouth the platitudes of freedom and justice, but hold the masses down in servitude. Their military might is often brazenly displayed and sycophants, who hope for a few crumbs from the table, shamelessly defend them.
But don't think it only happens overseas. Schaef had the wisdom to see the same tendencies in even supposedly excellent business corporations.
Thank God for adolescents! Those sometimes-rebellious teens have a nose for hypocrisy and their elders' failure to live up to the highest values.
To their parents, it may seem like the rebellious teen has abandoned moral values and is attacking those who have them. Oftentimes, we should see their critiques and behaviour as a move beyond the conventions they accepted in childhood. Now, they are searching for an authentic identity of their own. They are moving to moral maturity.
(Many times, unfortunately, teenage rebellion can be the result of abuse or neglect in childhood or of other causes. It can presage not maturity, but a hardening of the person's core.)
Teens can drive their elders to self-reflection. Having a couple of teenagers in the house won't make you younger, but they might make you more honest – if you have the courage to listen to what they have to say.
Effective self-evaluation can be difficult if you do not know what is normal, are out of touch with your feelings and are overly judgmental towards yourself.
St. Ignatius of Loyola had the recipe to challenge this. All Jesuits go through a 40-day retreat that includes a searching moral inventory guided by a spiritual master. Once he has identified their faults and proclivities, the Jesuit examines his conscience and actions three times a day for the rest of his life.
But if organizations and whole nations suffer from addiction and idolatry, how can they undergo such rigorous self-reflection and renewal?
Even the peoples of Eastern Europe, who made decisions of conscience to overthrow totalitarian governments, have had great difficulty in replacing their former cultures with new cultures of truth, freedom and justice. Old habits die hard.
Reforming a society – just as reforming one's life – is a long process. The Compendium puts it simply: "The more people and social groups strive to resolve social problems according to the truth, the more they distance themselves from abuses and act in accordance with the objective demands of morality" (n. 198).
Love is a hard-won virtue. But if we put self in the background and the love of God and others first, marvellous transformations can be wrought. Love is "a force capable of inspiring new ways of approaching the problems of today's world, of profoundly renewing structures, social organizations (and) legal systems from within" (n. 207).
Truth, freedom and justice do have a chance. They just need to be rooted in love.