So yesterday we waded into the the "what makes a mortal sin" part of a reader's question. Since that's not rocket science, we pretty much got through it.
There were some follow up questions, which we'll also get to, but for now, we're moving on to the really difficult part:
remember back in school days learning that habits or addictions may not
be sinful. Why?
Let's take a deep breath. Which habits? Biting your nails? Not a sin. Internet porn? Sin.
The problem we are facing in talking about addiction and sin is that when we say we are addicted to something, we are saying we are utterly powerless against the need to do whatever we are addicted to. And if that is actually true, then we are not sinning anymore. So the question comes down to: is that true?
And all addictions are not created equally. Being addicted to gambling or shopping (either of which are not sinful in themselves) is not like being addicted to meth, heroin or booze. Drugs and alcohol alter the brain's chemistry in a way that actually can make you helpless. You can actually die if you stop suddenly with no help.
But eventually, so can gambling and shopping alter your brain's chemistry, because the thing that was once a habit now releases dopamine into your brain and makes you feel better. So now your own brain has caused an addiction by rewarding you with a drug it has produced itself. You have made yourself into a drug addict. Addiction always brings with it diminishing returns, meaning, you have to have more and more of the thing to feel good.
Until you're not whole anymore. St. Augustine said, "Sin is its own punishment." How true.
The problem in defining the difference between addiction and sin is that at some point the thing that became an addiction was a choice. You don't have a martini and become an alcoholic. You don't drop a nickel in a slot machine and become a gambler who can't stop. Even if you spend that evening dropping in nickel after nickel, you still have a choice: Don't go back tomorrow.
Obviously, the best thing to do is to just eliminate all bad habits. The strength it takes to stop biting your nails will pay off when you have to stand up to some harder problems. That's why the nuns were always on your case.
Your soul and your body are connected. They are one thing, which is you. If you kill your body, you kill your soul, and if you kill your soul, you can also kill your body. If you are destroying yourself, you are sinning. That would be a mortal sin.
But what about the helplessness of addiction? This is my own take on it and I urge you to get on the internets or go the library and read what wiser people have to say on the subject, especially wise Catholics who deal with addiction or addicts. My own thought is that there does seem to be some point where a person is helpless against the sin of say, drunkenness. Whenever that is, the drunkenness is no longer a sin. Does that mean the alcoholic is no longer sinning? I don't think so. I think maybe the failure to get help becomes the sin. The willingness to destroy yourself and those around you with no attempt to get yourself in check becomes the sin.
But don't go by me. These are just the conclusions I've drawn from my thoughts on the matter based on my understanding of the nature of sin, God's loving forgiveness, having been around a surprising number of various addicts and the daily struggle they face, and listening to the thoughts of people smarter than me.
I truly don't believe I have a full handle on the situation. The medical community tells us new things about our mind body connection every day. There actually are people who can become physically addicted to a substance right away because of their genetic make up.
I will say that people who suffer from addiction face hell on earth, often on a daily basis, and sometimes well into their recovery. They have to battle the urges, which are physical and mental, give up friends and family who drag them down, face the judgment and condescension of society hour by hour, day by day.
Let's pray for all of them.