When a person seeks addiction recovery, they’re usually after one goal—to become free of disordered behaviors and addictions. However, for those of us in CIR, we’re also after another goal. We don’t only strive to stop our addictions, compulsions, or unhealthy attachments (as critical as that is), but also strive to attain eternal happiness with God. Yet, the question is this: What should we do not just to become sober but to attain the sanctification we need to join God in heaven?
There are several key elements that every Catholic should be ready to practice: prayer, participation in Mass and the sacraments, and living out our vows of marriage or consecrated life or promises of baptism and confirmation. Those are some ways where our Catholic-oriented recovery program differs from others. Further, we’re called to build a life of virtue with God’s help and grace so that we become saints.
The Catholic tradition provides a well-ordered and robust structure for living out the virtues, specifically the four cardinal virtues (prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance) and the three theological virtues (faith, hope, and charity).
The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that the virtues we acquire by education and repeated efforts are “purified and elevated by divine grace” (CCC 1810). So, we must ask God for the grace to see our vices and for the strength to practice and grow in virtue. As Saint Thomas Aquinas explained, virtues direct our actions toward the good, help us carry out our duties well, and encourage us to act morally upright for the glory of God.
While we can strengthen the natural virtues of prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude through our own efforts (and God can assist us through His grace), the virtues of faith, hope, and charity are God-infused, and therefore gifts that we cannot obtain or strengthen on our own. However, through our cooperation with His grace, He can and does strengthen these virtues within us.
With this background, let’s examine how addiction, compulsions, and unhealthy attachments attack all seven virtues detailed above.
Prudence is the virtue by which we make good decisions, observing the reality around us and using our reason to choose what is the best course of action. Addiction, on the other hand, leads to poor choices, often from impulse or selfish motives that don’t take into account consequences. When lost in our addiction, we follow our bodily passions and not our reason—we no longer care about knowing and choosing God’s will. The virtue of prudence helps correct this by leading us back to wise decisions aligned with truth.
Justice is the virtue by which we give what is due to God and others. When lost to addiction, instead of worshiping God as justice would dictate, we fall into idolatry—harboring excess love for whatever pleasure our addictive substance or behavior provides. The virtue of justice corrects this by redirecting us toward serving God and treating our neighbor and ourselves with rightly ordered care and concern.
Temperance is the virtue that moderates our desires for pleasures and material goods. When we strive to be sober and abstain from our destructive behaviors, above all other virtues, we are embracing the virtue of temperance. When lost to addiction, we violate this virtue by indulging in excessive pleasures. Temperance frees us to use the good things of this world in the right measure and balance.
Fortitude is the virtue by which we endure hardships in the pursuit of good. Even though our addiction feels like it makes us strong, it actually makes us cowardly. From our addictive habits, we lose the virtue of fortitude and allow fear to drive us to disordered behaviors again and again. Fortitude empowers us to stand up with courage for what is good, including standing against our addictions.
Faith is our firm belief in God and all that He has taught through the Catholic Church. Because of our addiction, however, our practice of faith suffers badly. We fail to pray and participate in the sacraments as well as end up placing addictive pleasures above every other value. Instead of worshiping God, we worship self and its demands.
Through hope, we place our desires on the goal of heaven and on the promises of Christ to lift us to Himself. When trapped in the addictive cycle we become filled with despair. We become flooded with doubts and fears: Will I ever be freed from this cycle of death? Will addiction take me right to the grave without any hope of eternal life? The virtue of hope can be almost entirely extinguished when lost to addiction.
Finally, the greatest of all the virtues, charity is the love of God above all things and the love of our neighbor as ourselves. Addiction kills charity within us. As the saying goes, “You cannot give what you do not have.” Addiction takes away the power to give ourselves freely to others in love because we are enslaved by our passions, therefore destroying the virtue of charity within us.
From all of these examples, we can see the dangerous power of addiction to ruin our spiritual lives. But there is a remedy. With God’s grace, repeated good actions become new habits—become virtues—that help us avoid sin and grow in holiness. Justice defeats greed. Charity defeats pride. Hope defeats despair. Temperance defeats self-indulgence. By God’s grace, and with consistent effort, the virtues heal our vices and help us become the saints we are called to be.
When we know something about the virtues and vices and apply it to our recovery, we can better see where we need God’s grace. Areas where we have bad habits or repeatedly fall into sin need to be strengthened through our own efforts and by asking God’s grace for those corresponding virtues. We would be wise to focus on building up the virtues that counter our specific vices through maintaining healthy habits, working the Steps, engaging regularly with our recovery fellows, and receiving God’s grace through the sacraments. Through all of this, we should continually pray for the grace to grow in virtue and to do penance for our vices and sins as we grow in holiness and maintain freedom over our addiction, compulsions, or unhealthy attachments.
As we continue with our recovery journey, regularly attending meetings and practicing healthy daily habits, we are blessed to have the gift of the virtues to guide and help us. Jesus is the exemplar of all of the virtues and as we practice them we are formed by Him and into Him. Our Blessed Mother, Saint Joseph, and all the saints are also great models for us, and as we seek their intercession they will help us on our path toward recovery and holiness. As we master the virtues with God’s help, we fully become the sons and daughters of God that He wants us to be, prepared for eternal life in heaven.
Bill B. is a grateful Catholic in recovery from sex and love addiction with over two years of sobriety. Jesus lifted him out of a chronic, decades-long addiction through the loving community of brothers and sisters in Christ at CIR. He is currently working on certification for life coaching and taking classes in philosophy, patrology, and theology of the Blessed Virgin Mary.