Our society is failing to get to the bottom of the issues. We spend our energy trying to treat the symptoms of social crises, while either ignoring or remaining in denial about the deeper problems in today’s world, which exist first and foremost within the human heart.
Mass shootings, suicides, drug addiction — the litany of crises goes on. We hear about them all the time. Conferences, rallies and awareness campaigns sprout up at every turn as we seek solutions and meaningful change.
But unless we address these problems with an eye to the whole of the human person — a union of body and soul made for relationship with God and others — change will not come.
‘Diseases of despair’
For example, a recent column in MinnPost’s health section cited recent statistics from the Minnesota Department of Health showing that drug and alcohol-related mortality and suicide are on the rise. This disturbing trend is attributed to an increase in “diseases of despair,” meaning Minnesotans are suffering from an increasing lack of hope, with grave consequences.
The author of the article identifies unemployment, income inequality, and lack of opportunity as the main sources of this hopelessness. The implied solution, therefore, is to intervene in some way to change these socioeconomic conditions, which have fomented widespread despair.
If people are more economically secure and have more opportunities, the thought goes, their sense of hopelessness will disappear.
Although unemployment or opportunity gaps certainly have some explanatory value in this case, the overall approach of the article is a striking example of what Pope Francis calls the “technocratic paradigm” in action.
In his most recent encyclical, “Laudato Si’,” Pope Francis describes the technocratic paradigm as “the tendency, at times unconscious, to make the method and aims of science and technology an epistemological paradigm which shapes the lives of individuals and the workings of society” (LS 107).
A technocratic approach to social crises, then, is one which reduces them to considerations of science — social or hard sciences — and technology alone.
Put another way, it’s an instance of reducing a complex human problem to simple economics. Hopelessness can allegedly be engineered out of society, if we create the right program or implement the right policy.
Even the term “diseases of despair” is telling. Despair is now considered a disease, and a disease can be treated, for example, by the state health department.
Of course, we ought to address the difficult problems of mass shootings, substance abuse and suicide, and use all the means at our disposal to combat them. Yet, though this sort of action is necessary, it is not sufficient. It fails to speak to the whole of the human person, which is why we continue to struggle with solutions.
Despair is not like the flu; it reaches deep into the human soul. For this reason, Pope Francis calls technocratic solutions one-dimensional; they address only one aspect of the human person and often overlook the most important human realities.
The need for God talk
Is it any wonder that in an increasingly secular society people do not know for whom or what they are made? Without such knowledge, they develop psychoses, or chase things to fill the God-sized hole in their heart, falling into behaviors that are destructive or that lead them into despair.
As Pope Francis puts it: “When human beings fail to find their true place in this world, they misunderstand themselves and end up acting against themselves” (LS 115).
Therefore, we cannot stop at the level of the specifically scientific when it comes to social crises. We must look deeper to the root causes, which lie at the heart of what it means to be human.
It is our duty as Christians to remind people — all people, regardless of belief — that they are made for loving relationships, with God and with others.
Such “God talk” is not inconsistent with a commitment to pluralism or respecting others. It’s instead a reminder to all people about the reality of who the human person is — created by God body and soul, which, as the ancients and our nation’s founders could attest, is a truth that can be known by reason outside the light of faith.
Unless we propose an integrated vision of the person, we will be unable to address fully all of the causes of the social crises around us.
Jason Adkins is executive director of the Minnesota Catholic Conference.