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Why the Drug Problem Is a God Problem | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | February 3, 2011 | Ignatius Insight

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"Many, many bishops, above all from Latin America, tell me that wherever the road of drug production and trafficking passes—and that includes large sectors of these countries—it is as if an evil monster had its hand on the country and had corrupted the people."
-- Pope Benedict XVI, Light of the World (Ignatius Press, 2010), pp. 60-61.


One of the few good things about old-fashioned war, usually, was that we had a definite enemy and a cause that could be defined or understood in political terms. With the current drug wars, we have something rather different, though possibly even more lethal: an undermining of a society from within, not from without. Armies could presumably protect the civilians behind the lines, though bombing, shelling, and now missiles made that less easy.

But drugs introduce a new element. The war is closer to a civil war. The traffic that supplies the raw material, however, passes beyond borders; it does not much discriminate between soldier and civilian, or innocent and guilty. The frontier is the human will and soul, not any "front" defined in terms of rivers, mountains, or oceans.

In its latest report on "Mexico and the Cartel Wars in 2010", Stratfor tells us that some 11,000 people were killed last year, double the number of 2008. Some 30,000 have been killed altogether. It begins to make Iraq seem like a peace-keeping operation. The cartel names are great—Sinaloa, perhaps the most powerful, La Familia, Gulf, Los Zetas, Aztecas, and the Vicente Carrillo Fuentes Organization (Juarez). These groups are constantly fighting for turf, moving, changing names and alliances. We hear of the Cartel Pacifico and the New Federation.

Several of the leading drug lords have been killed—Arturo Beltran Leyva, Ignacio "El Nacho" Coronel, and Nazario "El Mas Loco" Moreno Gonzales, who is called the "spiritual leader" of La Familia. Several have been arrested, including Edgar "La Barbie" Valdez Villarreal. Others such as Fernando "El Ingeniero" Sanchez Arellano and Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman Loera still flourish. These cartels are said to have "offices" in some 230 American cities. They are connected with European distribution and with the supply sources in Columbia and along the Central American route. Drugs are be smuggled into the U.S. by boat, airplane, or border crossing. The money made must be returned to Mexico, in one article I read, often through Atlanta.

It is estimated that $25 to $40 billion dollars are involved each year. The cartels are involved in kidnapping, human trafficking, "protection," and all sorts of "businesses." Police, newspaper writers, clergy, or politicians who seek to do something about it are often killed or their families threatened. So it is big business with high stakes. I have seen estimates that around 500,000 people are involved. It must be at least that. Every major Mexican town has its problems, not just those on the immediate US border. The relation of the Mexican government to its state governments, the army, the Federal Police, to the Congress to all this mess is tangled.

Obviously, the governors of American Border States like Texas and Arizona recognize that this trafficking is an immediate present danger to their citizens. Some Americans are killed; others threatened. Many writers think it is the most important problem that faces our society today. Lack of more effective and urgent response makes one suspicious about how high up the corruption goes...

This issue is always presented as something that needs to be stopped—the killings, the arms, the smuggling. Once we stop the flow of these items, the problem will end, or so we are told. Less often do we think in terms of "Why does all of this evidently profitable 'commerce' go on anyhow?" I know a young lady who teaches in a Catholic high school in small Iowa town. I asked her if she sees any of this drug business there or if she has ever heard any preaching about it. She said that it does go on and there is general silence. Of course, we see "drug free" signs in many places, especially schools. Whether those areas are or are not "drug free" we often must wonder about. The drugs are evidently being sold all over the place. We know that what results in the purchasers—addiction, broken lives—are usually treated as health or recreation problems, not criminal problems.


It is with this background that I was particularly interested in a passage in the Light of the World interview of Benedict XVI with Peter Seewald. As I mentioned in the beginning citation, Benedict is quite up-to-date on this issue. He regularly hears bishops from all over the world, particularly Latin America. They report to him what is going on in their dioceses. When this drug trafficking appears, as it does in more and more places, it is as if an "evil monster had its hand on the country."

Something diabolical surrounds this trade, in fact. "I believe that we do not have an adequate idea of the power of this serpent of drug trafficking and consumption that spans the globe," Benedict continues. Where have we heard of that "serpent" before? With our eyes, we see that this scourge "destroys youth, it destroys families, it leads to violence and endangers the future of entire nations." We have seen these effects in Columbia. We now see it in Mexico if not in our own country.

Why is this growing menace not addressed on the massive scale it deserves? One reason, of course, is that the drug traffickers, like Islamic terrorist organizations, take any public criticism of their operation seriously. In effect, someone is sent, often successfully, to silence any investigation, jury, police force, media analysis, or adequate response.

But the pope is more interested in causes. It is not just a shady business deal or trade. It manifests in an emptiness in our souls. "This too is one of the terrible responsibilities of the West: that it uses drugs and that it thereby creates countries that have to supply them, which in the end exhaust and destroys them." This is surely what happens in Columbia, Mexico, and in the lines of supply in other countries. Too often growers of poppies or other sources of drugs are said to be poor and need the business. This "farming" is all that is left to them. It almost gets a pass on "social justice" grounds.

"A craving for happiness has developed that cannot contain itself with things as they are. And that then flees into the devil's paradise, if you will, and destroys people all around," Benedict surmises. Not being "content with things as they are" means that we often find an exaggerated demand for happiness that must be settled here and now, no waiting. Not seeking happiness in the right way sets us off in spurious directions to give us an artificial happiness that in effect "destroys" us.


The bishops also tell the pope that allied to drug trafficking is "the destruction that sex tourism wreaks on our young people." Some of this was brought to our attention in the floods in Thailand and New Orleans. The bishops tell the pope that this trafficking is so bad that it is "something we cannot even begin to imagine."

Again the pope thinks that we can find an underlying cause. It comes from "the arrogance and the boredom and the false freedom of the Western world." Here again is the theme that our sins are not just our own but, unless dealt with, are soon spread all over the world. They arise from a relativism, from a false sense of freedom.

How do we analyze this situation? "You see," the pope points out, "man strives for eternal joy; he would like pleasure in the extreme, would like what is eternal. But when there is no God, it is not granted to him and it cannot be." So the drug problem is, at bottom, the God problem in another form. It would not exist if we were not created so that within us is a drive to eternal joy, to the ultimate pleasure of seeing God.

We are to know what we are and how to achieve our elevated end through virtue and grace. But we can reject this. We are free to do so. But we are not free to escape our very nature, which will send us off seeking happiness wherever if we do not choose to find it where it belongs in God. This latter is the central adventure of our lives.

Happiness really cannot be found in any other place than in God. That is simply the way it is. The drug trade is, in a way, almost visible proof of this incapacity. So what is the alternative to God? Man "himself must now create something that is fictitious, a false eternity." Thus, to the question of what to do about the drug traffic, it looks like it will go on until we rediscover God in a practical way in each of our souls so that we do not go off seeking a "false eternity." "This is a sign of the times that should be an urgent challenge to us, especially as Christians." The reality and failure of drugs to provide happiness is indeed "a sign of the times."

Often, we do not like to hear these things. We think the problem of drugs is a "social problem," a "political" problem, or a "medical problem." The pope had it right in the beginning. No problem would exist if no market existed. We do not address ourselves to the causes of this market. The market exists basically because a notion of freedom separates man from God, rather than unites him. We are "autonomous," we think. The drive to happiness in us, we think, is not intended to incite us to find out what God had in mind for us at our creation. No, it is to enable us to make our own "eternity" in this life. But it is not so.

Christians "have to show—and also to live accordingly—that the eternity man needs can come only from God. That God is the first thing necessary in order to be able to withstand the affliction of this time." Everything about man must be made good, made right, if this alternate drug "happiness" is not to engulf us.

If we look at our society, at ourselves, we see that God is seldom "the first thing necessary." Yet, Scripture tells us, "Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and all these things will be added unto thee" (Matt. 6:33). Why should we do this? In a way, the drug traffic has been a blessing. It makes clear both that we all, whether into drugs or not, have an intrinsic unsettlement in our souls about happiness.

All else we seek, we seek in the light of how we define this end. The means to it are what prudence reveals. Does this thing I choose to do take me to or away from the end that God has offered to me? But if the only end that I have is one I give to myself, in the end that is all that I shall ever have, namely myself. That, more or less, is the definition of hell, which we already see in the results of this whole drug business.

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Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University.

He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture, and literature including Another Sort of Learning, Idylls and Rambles, A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning, The Life of the Mind (ISI, 2006), The Sum Total of Human Happiness (St. Augustine's Press, 2007), The Regensburg Lecture (St. Augustine's Press, 2007), and The Mind That Is Catholic: Philosophical and Political Essays (CUA, 2008). His most recent book from Ignatius Press is The Order of Things (Ignatius Press, 2007). His new book, The Modern Age, is available from St. Augustine's Press. Read more of his essays on his website.

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