Co-dependence is the condition in which a person obsessively engages in behaviors that they believe should help an addict get better even though they consistently make everything worse. Co-dependent behavior usually is rooted in the belief that loving someone means never provoking conflict.
Addicts suffer tremendously and are deserving of our love, compassion and patient support. But loving someone means “working for their good.” Sometimes that means imposing consequences on their behavior to allow them to experience the full weight of their actions and motivate them to seek help. Co-dependents can’t do this. They live in fear of upsetting the addict. They think that the addict already is suffering enough and that maybe, if they can just be nice enough, and find just the right words to say, the addict will come to his senses and sober up despite all contrary evidence.
If a persistently and unrepentantly drunk dad comes home loaded one night, passes out and becomes sick all over himself, it might be best for his wife to leave him to lie there and clean himself up in the morning. That’s harsh, but it’s a whole lot better than having the wife clean everything up and let him wake up believing that things aren’t as bad as everyone says they are. Although the wife may hope that her compassionate approach will facilitate a change, it often ends up helping dad drink himself to death. The co-dependent person can’t accept that love must sometimes do the hard thing. They can’t see the effective, assertive, middle-ground between gentle and vicious. They live in fear of ever being thought of as “mean,” so they end up killing their loved one with kindness.
Watching the news has led me to believe that our Church leadership and many rank-and-file Catholics have signed up to be unconscious card-carrying members of the Church co-dependent. You see this in both the hierarchy’s response to sexually abusive priests and the bishops who cover for them, and even more recently, in Church leaders’ response to Catholic politicians who vote to expand abortion rights to include infanticide.
Like a co-dependent mom, too many bishops, and a fair number of Catholic laity, become offended at the idea that loving someone sometimes means imposing concrete consequences for destructive behavior. Instead of making an authentically charitable but robust response to a sexually abusive priest, we’re told that bishops thought “mercy” required them to transfer the pastor to another parish — or maybe make him a cardinal. Likewise, instead of deciding that it’s time to directly and forcefully challenge pro-abortion Catholic politicians with real consequences, we invite them to dinner for yet another impotent dialogue about our differences — only to act shocked when they vote for infanticide … again!
Members of the Church co-dependent will say, “You just want to excommunicate every Catholic who isn’t ritually pure.” But just like there are myriad interventions that exist between nagging a drunk and divorcing him, there are a million possible pastoral interventions between impotent “dialogue” and excommunication. If the Church co-dependent would to stop limiting itself to those two options, perhaps it could be more effective.
Alternatively, members of the Church co-dependent say, “If we impose consequences on the pro-abortion Catholic politician, they’ll just use that as a badge of honor.” This misses the point. You don’t fail to do an intervention with an alcoholic because they might use it as another excuse to feel sorry for themselves and get wasted. You accept that risk as a necessary part of fulfilling your God-given responsibility to work for the good of a person you love.
Though not easy, finding answers to these problems will not even be possible unless the Church stops acting like a co-dependent spouse and starts behaving like the courageous Bride of Christ it is meant to be.
Dr. Greg Popcak is the author of many books, including his latest, “Unworried: A Life Without Anxiety” (OSV, $16.95).