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Critical Issues in Counselling: the dark side of faith

Last week Londoners in Ontario learned about an allegation against a Catholic priest in the community who had allegedly taken a half a million dollars earmarked to help refugees coming to Canada. Before I even heard of the incident I had received a call from London CTV requesting an interview/commentary on the situation. They reported that the priest has been attending treatment for a gambling addiction and were interested on a counsellor's perspective on the situation. See the story here: http://www.ctvnews.ca/canada/ontario-priest-accused-of-gambling-away-500k-for-refugees-1.2834931

 

Confidentiality and privacy are an important aspect of client rights and are highly protected rights of a client in counselling. As such, I did not feel it was appropriate to provide a commentary on the situation. In this instance, no charges had been laid, although an investigation had been launched. Whenever a leader gets into trouble and when an egregious breach of trust has occurred with the public political and religious leaders always become fodder for the media mob. As I began to think of this priest I remember how the media treated Toronto Mayor Rob Ford. He was skewered by the media despite many positive aspects of his tenure. His accomplishments were over-shrouded by a very serious addiction to crack cocaine.  Ford was made a media joke and the media tore him apart based on an illusion that political leaders should have more integrity. 

 

Individuals in the media make their careers exploiting the pain and sickness of others. Ford's addiction was a big deal to the media.  Yet Torontonians still loved their mayor whose and humanity was apparent throughout the scandal and media hype. Sure, there was a violation of public trust because leaders are supposed to have a lot of integrity and not struggle with things like drugs. But how many politician live addiction free lifestyles? The idea of the major public figure using crack cocaine such as major Ford was vehemently denounced by his counterparts and journalists in the media. Why?  Was it because they themselves have not vices or addictions? Were all of Fords detractors- political counterparts and members of the media free of addiction? Probably not.

 

First, it is the sense of betrayal we all feel when someone placed in trust destroys our trust. Second is the pain and discomfort from the disappointment and realization that people like Ford or the Priest remind us of our common humanity. Irrespective of their positions of trusts as leaders, they are still fallible human beings with vulnerabilities and hurts like each and every one of us.  Perhaps it’s because society associates the use of crack with people who are in desperate places in their lives and public and political figures entrusted with the public good aren't supposed to be in desperate places. Most of us don’t associate occupying positions of leadership with being in a desperate place. However, we know this may be precisely the case for many. The travesty is that no one wants to look at how hurt our leaders may in fact, be at times. We as society, burden our leaders in such a manner with false expectations and then fail to recognize they too are human and may be in desperate places.

 

Another reason leaders disappoint the public when they fail in their positions of trust may be due to our beliefs in the fallibility of religious leaders.  In countries with a strong historical link to the monarchy the doctrine of divine right of kings and he infallibility of the pope feeds an unrealistic view of church leaders.  Due to this infallibility doctrine, and that of manifest destiny, many people believe that church leaders, organizations, institutions were put in place by God rather than political will. Then these leaders fail, people begin to also question their faith. For some, it shakes the very foundation of their beliefs. Similarly, when such leaders are voted into power people think that they should be somehow be indebted to them personally, or to humanity as whole since we chose to trust them due to some perceived moral or ethical superiority.

 

Leaders have problems too and these can manifest themselves in addiction to substances, gambling or sex in the foray we all seem to forget that Rob Ford was a human being just like you and I, who, when they experience trauma, or rely on substances, may try and self-medicate their trauma and in the process become substance dependent and addicted. All people irrespective of their roles have good intentions and are capable of great and honorable actions just as all people within any government or institutions may have struggles because these structures are made up of human beings. I am not one to judge people on these matters because my worldview, education and counseling experience provide me with an alternate explanation for human behavior other than sin and disobedience against God.

 

Why is it that we assume the people who carry the most weight in our society and help others are perfect or would not be vulnerable to the same addictions as the rest of us?  As one who works with addiction daily I can tell you that addiction is something that is cross- cultural across socioeconomic classes and present in every developed country on the globe. It does not have a socioeconomic face and impacts people regardless of age, color and creed. Yet we still expect our leaders to be exempt from the sort of problems that lead to addiction. This is simply untrue.  Anyone of us may find ourselves in facing an issue of mental health or addiction given the right circumstances. The statistics cite one in five Canadians will in fact face mental health or addiction this coming year. Addiction and mental health will have many faces in our lives, families, and communities this year.

 

What does faith have to do with addiction or mental health?  Well this is a very difficult and complex question to answer. I can only speak from my own experiences and observations. In my experience of evangelical Christianity concepts like eternal damnation to hell, grace and mercy being external forces premised on the concept of faith is pivotal to the Christian faith Many Christians believe that to receive unconditional love and forgiveness. One must accept that God came to earth in the form of from a savior who died to forgive humanity of its sin. As well one must believe in a virgin birth and that Jesus Christ was resurrected. This belief is foundation to the theology of most devout Christians. Christian doctrine teaches that man’s drives are innately evil and due to a willful inherited separation from the Creator. Human can become reunified with the Creator/God (at-one-ment) once they have accepted Christ as a bridge to the divine. Human motivations are described as either rooted in the carnal flesh or rooted in a liberated spiritual self through accepting Christ into one’s life. The receiving of grace, love and forgiveness is predicated on this action of accepting and maintaining a relationship with Jesus Christ. When some Christian sins, their behavior is being counter to actions approved by the scripture or those activities sanctioned by the church community. The behavior itself is rarely interpreted with etiology, objectivity or its roots in social contexts, culture and worldview. A person’s actions are judged against from the Anglo centric and ethnocentric lens of a foreign culture which has allied itself with the dying Imperialistic political agenda involving colonizing and subjugating its subjects. In that contexts, human behaviors are almost never viewed as being a reasonable response to stress or trauma.

 

Some Christians find themselves continually sinning and absolving their guilt and its consequences and the root cause of the behavior is never dealt with. Some believe that atonement was accomplished for all time through the sacrifice on the cross. Rather the individual becomes only subject to “grace of the church” rather than being accountable to their community or people within their church. In this context, the more one sins and believes they are absolved by faith in Christ the greater they are in their faith. Often this means that they don’t have to deal with the consequences of their actions. But because they are “forgiven” by the divine they are not as culpable or answerable to the community. This lack of connection and accountability to the community, along with these beliefs may set one up for addictions because this sort of thinking encourages self-defining oneself strictly per God's perceptions of self rather than aa self-image that is balanced by healthy connection to community.  This sort of thinking is not very healthy to begin with because it assumes that man is evil and a fait accompli that people will sin and will be punished without the intervention and reliance on a higher power for grace and forgiveness. Some might argue this to be true. I think the jury is out on whether deities make good surrogate parents. People need people. What happens when people are unable to form such attachments or relate to a higher power because their ability to engage or bond is limited by developmental, mental health or traumatic injury in childhood or better yet through vicarious trauma from helping? I believe the idea of a salvific or surrogate relationship eventually begins to fail for people who rely on them.  When religious leaders and helpers begin to take on the problems of others without a strong supportive social framework for their own health they too can become vulnerable to addiction and to social control.

 

Nonetheless, there is good anecdotal evidence that people can and do create positive supports for themselves within churches.  Although this may not be the experience of the clergy and people in the helping professions. The problem is that some are unable or fail to internalize a loving and forgiving savior, or rather some do, and they forget that they need to nurture this through connection and accountability to others.  Without this moderating connection, people may be prone to viewing themselves in a good vs evil universe where human behavior will be judged as good as evil; or worse some begin to then act as their own god, judge and jury, convincing themselves that by doing such things they are somehow serving the greater good.

     

When people rely on the grace of a savior to be the only aspect of what helps them maintain a health and ethical life it means they can ultimately be separated from relying on others as a moderating influence to their conduct. The consequences of these beliefs make people less accountable. Leaders themselves begin to think and act like they are gods and may begin to act out in their unbridled narcissism. Thus, social sanctions become inconsequential. 

  

Some say church serves as a surrogate to help those who have experienced a loss of a parent or family. Carl Jung postulated that our connection and desire to create a God is rooted in our need to maintain a connection between ourselves and our parents.  Our church leaders, or our God then become archetypal symbols we worship in our desire for a benevolent creator or have someone we may unequivocally trust. This is part of the reason we experience such dismay and disappointment when our leaders fail us.

    

Prayer, faith and spirituality may be powerful transformative tools in being addiction. However, one must look at aspects of faith that may contribute to black and white thinking. These systems of thought may have some utility in addiction, mental health or disabilities in how they provide us with a means to understand concepts like forgiveness, unconditional love of self, healing and restoration.  However, these may not be useful to those who don't find them necessary to quite addiction.  Faith may be something that activates behavioral change and empowers people to forgive themselves when elements of community and family are absent. However, it can also be a setback when there is underlying mental health, or addiction issues. Spiritual abuse may also occur in any community regardless of faith. Spiritual leaders and helpers are just people like you and I. They too require sustenance and supportive communities to be healthy. Priests, clergy and people in roles of public trust are people too. Without this understanding we will be prone to misconstrue what it means to be a leader. When someone has an addiction, treatment becomes a necessary aspect of reclaiming a healthy lifestyle. This involves learning to self-reflect, being mindful of one's own distressed states, learning to engage in therapeutic relationships which create growth opportunities, and engaging in dialectical thinking people to grow in new ways. As well, addicts need to find new ways of thinking, feeling and acting. Once they develop an awareness of how their past patterns of thought and loss contribute to their addictions and loss of connection with others they may begin to replace these old methods and choices with new relationships and ways of relating to others.

  

The Christian perspective is antithetical to humanistic psychology which views individuals as innately good. Peoples needs are neither good or bad. The path to health is learning to live responsibly and optimally while attempting to meet our innate human needs. Humanistic psychological perspectives view humans as having capacity to learn what motivations drive them and that humans are capable of change, constantly evolving for the better.  It encourages human capacity for insight and change whereas the Christian worldview roots human mistakes in their sinful or fallen nature. This creates a problem for those attempting to learn from their past mistakes and move out of this old paradigmatic thinking into thinking that promotes strength, growth, redevelopment, rehabilitation and renewal. Is it ironic that we hear about a priest allegedly stealing money to help others to help others just before Easter? What else could a priest's motivations to steal be except possibly to help others? The idea that a priest may be seeking treatment for a gambling addiction should come as no surprise to anyone. Priests are people too. Some Christians mature to the point of internalizing and fully understanding the role of forgiveness and unconditional love. It may be difficult for leaders in the church to admit their needs to their congregation and surround themselves with the people that will provide support, nurturance and accountability. Healthy churches should promote leadership support or caring for the caregivers as part of their church cultures. Some high church denominations discourage this sort of transparency and confessional practice. The results are devastating to the leadership and public trust.

 

We need to move past older paradigms of thinking and judgement and view humanity as being capable of great good.  Addiction and mental health are rooted in motivations that must do with childhood loss and intergenerational trauma. Without careful examination of human motivation in any circumstance people will not be able to make the crucial connections to how they may be medicating their pain and suffering through avoidance of grief and loss. Such black and white thinking is embedded not only in Christianity, but also many other faiths. It is crucial for all helpers and people how have been exposed to such thinking that in doing so, there are specific assumptions that could lead to very dire consequences, and even greater health losses. The results are catastrophic for those involved. Some will their last bit of earthly material wealth to the church in hopes of buying a bit of paradise in the afterlife. The problem with that is they lose their life here on earth because the root of their behavioral problems is never looked at, healed, nor are they activated to make behavioral changes because they’ve opted for the ultimate self-deception and denial- that they don’t have a problem at all which they may heal.  Rather, all their sins are contextualized in a system of thought that relies on forgiveness without the behavioral change. This is where faith then must turn to the social sciences to break the cycle of addiction.

 

Those who have spent time in this field recognize disconnection (or attachment) as the core issue which needs treatment. Disconnection from life-cycles, land, family, love and other people. Some people are predisposed to addiction because they are either disabled by disability, trauma or mental health and have lost the ability to regulate thought and emotion, the joys and highs, of human relationship.  This disconnection is what fuels addiction. People begin to become dependent on behaviors, unhealthy people, places, things-including substances to fill the void of these connections.

 

Anyone may prone to addiction under the right circumstances, because predisposition to addiction is strongly premised on the loss of supportive relationships.  Addicts become addicts partly because their ways of relating, thinking and feeling having created a sense of isolation that prevents them from regulating emotional through healthy relationships. This was very evident in some of my work in Fort McMurray, where I encountered individuals that had left their families and communities to acquire work. Many found themselves facing new addictions and/or old one’s resurfacing. Good treatment involves the acknowledgement of loss and the contributions of trauma in one’s life and encourages facing loss with the help of therapeutic relationships. As well, counsellors need to be skilled at helping people move through their pain and adept at giving the skills of increase stress tolerance. There are professional therapeutic relationships and informal therapeutic relationships. A therapeutic relationship is not just with one’s therapist but also involves a group support with family and community members. Normally, these are family and community connections. Once bridges are burned with key supports, it is part of the addict’s journey to mend these connections, and then create healthy surrogate relationships where none have existed before. This involves trusts and faith as well. These activities are new to most addicts. This is where ceremony and talking about one’s journey or faith can be useful in the church as they are being practiced in other contexts such healing circles.  Therefore, some faith-based treatment programs that involve churches have good success rates. The social and emotional support that comes from church involvement becomes a huge protective factor and catalyst in healing and recovery health.

 

When vulnerable people seek help from professional helpers they need to be protected and helpers need to be held accountable. This accountability is why professions such as social work and psychology have professional colleges and a public complaints process. This accountability may result in practitioners losing their license if they are found guilty of allegations of abuse or breaches of trust. The accountability to a professional college is what distinguishes professional helpers in the community and the clergy of the church. As well, you may be certain that personal and psychological problems will not be examined in the context of judgement, good vs evil but rather in the light of science and with the assumptions that there may be more of a biological, emotional and psychological basis for experience. This includes: assessing and treating your health matter. As a registered social worker in the province of Ontario and a member of the Ontario College of Social Workers and Social Service Workers (OCSWSSW). I am proud of the accountability and ethical standards of my college which help me to provide a high standard of care to my clients.  This is more than a personal commitment to help the public. Social workers are subject to high practice standards and are held accountable through a code of ethics, a scope of practice based on experience, and are subject to a public complaints process should they abuse of this role in a professional environment.        

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