Question: I am a bit confused about the Catechism of the Catholic Church's treatment of…
Are socially acceptable addictions sinful?
Question: I think I am addicted to my cellphone, and I know a couple of people who are addicted to coffee. Are socially acceptable addictions like this sinful?
Answer: Anything that is inordinate due to excess is by definition sinful. This is especially the case when excessive behaviors keep us from other important duties or cause harm to our health. Virtue is the middle ground between excess and defect. Thus even seemingly good things can become sinful by excess. For example, fortitude or courage can become sinful by excess. When it does, we usually call it foolhardiness or recklessness.
There is nothing intrinsically sinful about cellphones or coffee. But excessive and willful preoccupation with one’s cellphone usually makes one less attentive to other duties, such as noticing, surrounding or charitably interacting with others around them. The often fast and selective world of the cellphone screen can make ordinary human interactions seem dull and even annoying if the topic is not to our liking. It can also distract us in dangerous ways such as when we are driving and so forth.
Coffee, while not intoxicating, can harm us by contributing to anxiety, nervousness, insomnia, digestive issues and, paradoxically, fatigue. Some are more sensitive to these symptoms than others.
To the degree that we willfully persist in excessive behaviors, knowing the harm, we sin to some degree. However, your use of the term “addiction” points to a matter that sometimes mitigates guilt, even though it cannot render a bad thing good. The term can be used in the strict and medical sense or in the wide and social sense. In the wide sense, addiction simply means a habitual or compulsive behavior. And while the force of bad habit may lessen guilt, it is not as serious as true addiction in the strict sense, which speaks to a chemical dependency.
Addiction in the strict and medical sense is associated with a growing tolerance the body has to the effects of certain substances and behaviors. In effect, the person needs more and more of the substance to attain the desired effects. With alcohol, the desired effect is usually to feel more relaxed and less worried. With caffeine, the desired effect is to feel more alert and energetic. In chemical addiction, the body learns to resist the effects, and the addict thus consumes more. At some point, however, the person is consuming so much that the body or psyche becomes dependent on the substances even to increasing and catastrophic results. Freedom is increasingly eclipsed as one’s capacity to live apart from the substance erodes, and this also lessens the personal guilt of a person who must now seek medical or psychological help to get free.
While we usually think of things like drugs and alcohol, pornography also seems to have this effect on the brain. The porn addict needs more stranger types of pornography to attain the illicit sexual pleasure that they think they cannot live without. Thus while the personal guilt of viewing pornography may drop below mortal levels, the refusal to seek help could become mortal as a sin of omission.
And so your question speaks to the complex interaction of sin, behaviors and freedom. Yes, “socially acceptable” addictions can be sinful. But the degree to which a person incurs guilt is also associated with the degree of freedom they bring to the behaviors and may require extra help to get free.
Question: Can you explain how intercessory prayer works, theologically speaking? It seems to be a popular belief that the more prayers that are offered for a particular cause, the more likely it is that God will extend a miraculous solution. Is that really how it works?
Answer: There are Scriptures where the Lord teaches that we should pray with others and that where two or three agree in his name, it will be granted (cf. Mt 18:19). Other texts encourage us to persist in prayer, such as the parable of the persistent widow (cf. Lk 18:1-8).
However, we should avoid superstitious notions that God will only grant certain prayers if we push just the right buttons and say the right number of prayers. Jesus says our Father knows our needs and that mindless repetitions are unnecessary (cf. Mt 6:7).
So, as in all things, a balance is required — a balance that hears God’s call to engage others in prayer together and to persist, but also a nonsuperstitious trust that God wants to help us in what is ultimately best for us.