One of the most common questions I see is how culpable are addicted Catholics for their sins caused by addiction. After all, if they are fully culpable for the sin, they are in a state of mortal sin, a very serious situation. Answering the question is never easy because addiction limits control of the mind, but a pretty good idea can be achieved. To start with, the Catechism of the Catholic Church names three requirements for a person to be culpability for mortal sin: the sin in question has to be grave, the person must have had full knowledge that it was grave, and the person must have deliberately consented to the sin (CCC 1857). If any of these are not met, the person can only be culpable for venial sin. The sin is still objectively a mortal sin, but the person’s soul remains in a state of grace (assuming it was in a state of grace beforehand).
For the purposes of this article, I assume the person has a drug addition, but this text can be applied to any kind of addiction. Drug addicts have reached a point where their body is dependent on the drug. Their body doesn’t know how to live without it. This causes strong withdrawal symptoms whenever they try to quit. Sadly, it’s usually only at this point that the person realizes the drug was addictive. Many people are caught by surprise.
Because the addicted Catholic doesn’t have much control over their drug use, they don’t meet the requirement for deliberate consent. Their culpability for the sin of using the drug is greatly diminished. This doesn’t give them an excuse to use drugs. It simply means that while fighting their cravings the best they can, the focus should be on addiction treatment. They need to recognize that the addiction leads to repeating the sin, so fighting the cravings is just one small part of overcoming the addiction. They may not be culpable for much sin when using the drug, but they are definitely responsible for their efforts to treat the addiction.
Rehabilitation is most likely to succeed because the addicted Catholic is literally forced to not use the drug. Meanwhile medical staff are on standby in case withdrawal symptoms become dangerous. After a few months, the person’s dependence on the drug will be greatly reduced, giving them much higher chance of staying away from the drug. Rehab is a humbling experience as the person has to admit they can’t trust themselves to stop using the drug. During rehab they acknowledge this by putting other people in control of their life for a few months. Rehab may not be an option for everyone because of the high price and time away from work, but if it is an option, it is generally recommended as the first step in recovering from addiction.
Join a Support Group and Get an Accountability Partner
After rehabilitation, the person will be advised to join a support group, such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). In the support group successes and failures can be discussed in a safe environment. The biggest benefit of a support group is keeping the addicted person motivated to keep fighting for abstinence in every moment. Knowing they will have to tell someone about their failure is a strong motivator to keep away from the drug. Through the support group, the person can also get an accountability partner. In AA, they call these people sponsors. The partner is also dealing with addiction. The partner becomes a good friend able to support the addicted Catholic outside of the support group meetings.
Participate in the Sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist
Through these sacraments, Catholics are blessed with grace that aids in the fight against mortal sin and addiction (CCC 1496, 1393, 1395). Because the Eucharist cannot be taken unless the recipient is in a state of grace (CCC 1385, 1395), addicted Catholics should find a church that does confessions shortly before mass. That way they are assured they are in a state of grace when they receive Holy Communion. At a minimum, a weekly habit of using these sacraments should be formed. Even better would be a daily habit, but many churches don’t offer daily confession or mass. Addicted Catholics should use the sacraments as much as possible.
Avoid Near Occasions of Sin
Near occasions of sins are situations where the person is pretty sure they won’t be able to resist using the drug. As part of the Sacrament of Penance, the Catholic is obligated to firmly resolve to avoid future sins (CCC 1490). Part of this is changing their lifestyle to avoid as many near occasions of sin as possible. For example, maybe they have certain friends they always do drugs with. Then the logical thing to do is not associate with those friends. The Catholic should examine their life for these occasions making lifestyle changes as needed to reduce their drug use. This isn’t always possible. Maybe those friends are roommates they depend on to pay the rent. God understands that there can be unavoidable near occasions, but all avoidable ones must be avoided. Every time they use the drug, they should be thinking about what led to it, so they can make changes to prevent access to the drug next time.
These are just some of the resources available to Catholics fighting addiction. Outside of rehabilitation, these resources are mostly cost free. During addiction, there is a good chance the Catholic is not culpable for the mortal sins committed through drug use. At the same time, they need to be actively working to recover from the addiction. If they are doing all they can to fight the addiction, using all the resources available, there is a good chance they are not committing any mortal sins through laziness about or deliberate ignorance of their addiction. When an addicted Catholic is doing all they can, they should understand that their actions are only half of the picture. The other half is God healing them.
God may choose to let an addicted Catholic struggle for some time to learn an important lesson, such as humility. After all, in the helplessness of addiction, a person sees very clearly how much they need God. Assuming they are doing everything possible, they can trust that God will do his part to heal them when the time is right. Those with addictions should be patient and not despair the state of their soul (CCC 2091).
I truly believe if an addicted Catholic is doing all they can, yet die before overcoming the addiction, God will not hold it against them. If they are fighting their cravings, avoiding their near occasions of sin, participating in the sacraments, active in a support group, working with an accountability partner, going to rehab whenever they have a relapse, and using all other resources to fight the addiction, God will invite this person into his kingdom on their last day. All that work won’t be meaningless just because they were still addicted when they died. God will reward that hard work. God doesn’t expect perfection, but he wants to see a continual effort made throughout life.
Warning: What I have written here is not to be taken as professional or medical advice. For medical advice see a doctor or addiction specialist. For spiritual questions specific to your addiction, ask your priest or confessor in the freely available Sacrament of Penance.
May God bless you with his abundant grace,