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J.E DOHERTY, C.SS.R.*
most exciting spiritual movement in this country today,
outside of the Catholic Church, is Alcoholics Anonymous.
neither a church nor a sect, but its members, rescued from
bottomless pit of helpless drunkenness, now spend themselves
relentless pursuit of other inebriates and derelicts abandoned
society as hopeless. When successful, they lead them to
experience or conversion which is lasting, and the number
is spectacular. To a Catholic it is impressive that their
dealing with souls derives directly from the inherited wisdom
traditional Christianity, and in its essence consists of
them to abandon themselves to God in humble prayer.
American scene, notorious for its absurd sects, strutting
evangelists, and eccentric Messiases and prophets, has yielded
heretofore as spiritually sound or as constructive as the
our complex society, alcoholism is not merely a grave problem,
becoming critical; yet the sanest and soundest approach
to it has
been made by rehabilitated drunkards.
strikingly effective is their therapy of group-arrest for
helping the victims of drink that the first noted American
psychiatrist to befriend them, Dr. Harry M. Tiebout, thrust
before the American Society of Psychiatrists in words of
force: "After observing personally for years the interesting
of the A.A. program upon my patients .... I feel it highly
that we, presumably open-minded psychiatrists, view wisely
the efforts of this group of former alcoholics .... At first
amazed and chagrined when A.A. accomplished a change in
who was a failure under my therapy; now I am amazed and
when the patient fails under the A.A. program."
LIGUORIAN PAMPHLETS (1960)
the A.A. method leans on medicine, it is basically religious,
though it owes nothing to high-powered evangelical methods.
Its members as well as its founders shun publicity and seek
to be unknown.
Their ambition is to maintain their own sanity and sobriety,
seek primarily to reform nobody but themselves. They have
they cannot do this unless they first face the fact of their
ungovernable weakness, and then seek God's help in a program
to day co-operation with His grace. Such realism in this
a revolutionary approach to the alcohol problem.
ordinary way of dealing with the liquor problem is to ignore
it, or at least to suffer in silence. A tavern-keeper in
quoted the famous eighteenth century writer, Samuel Johnson,
that the grog-shop has contributed more to earthly happiness
other invention of man. Yet there are more than 3,000,000
chronic alcoholics in the nation today, and it is certain
that their families
think of alcohol largely if not solely in terms of unhappiness.
methods of extreme reformers on the other hand, are far
dangerous. The all-out reformer's viewpoint usually stems
from the puritanical idea that human nature is essentially
corrupt and cannot
be trusted to use liquor temperately. It was thus expressed
Protestant sect called the Disciples of Christ at their
convention as late as 1941; "Alcohol is a character-destroying
a prolific cause of crime, the cause of untold poverty and
We believe, therefore, that those who do not protest against
the legalizing of this traffic are destroying their social
one time such convictions were so widespread in this country,
as a result of the abuse of alcohol, that they gave us national
Prohibition. It was called a noble experiment, but if we
are to judge it
by its effects, it was a thing of evil. It resulted perversely
aggravation of the evils it sought to destroy, and led to
drinking, alcoholism among women, gangsterism, and, according
observers, contributed immeasurably to a general contempt
for law and
a revolution in sex-morality.
wonder Catholics in general opposed Prohibition on the grounds
that the Church did not teach that good things, when abused,
destroyed, but rather the doctrine of voluntary abstinence
or temperance. Nevertheless, there are drinkers for whom,
whether for physical
or psychological reasons, "one drink is too many and
a hundred are
not enough." The Catholic Church is the last to deny
is something very relative, and that for such individuals
of liquor at all is not only immoderate, but a proximate
of serious sin.
Alcoholics Anonymous offer their own life-stories to prove
that they fit precisely into this category; yet the knowledge
fact alone would have been useless to them without a program
guaranteed to bring them the help they need to survive each
day without a drink. This the A.A. program does for them
in twelve steps. What
is most significant about these steps is the fact that they
conditions of sincere, humble, confident, persevering prayers
have been many attempts by experts to classify the various
types of drinkers. Some of these lists are very complicated
and technical; one of them, for instance, contains twenty-eight
However, for purposes of ordinary discussion, the following
division may be presented. With relation to the consumption
human beings may be divided into: 1) abstainers, who never
touch intoxicating liquor in any form; 2) moderate drinkers,
who use alcohol, but
never to the point of intoxication, nor so as to impair
3) intemperate drinkers, who drink in such quantity as to
or so as to injure their health.
intemperate drinkers are either: a) occasional drinkers,
ordinarily do not exceed the bounds of moderation, but do
so once in
a while, as at a birthday celebration or wedding party;
drinkers, who habitually indulge in excessive amounts of
steady drinkers, again, are of three types: 1. environmental
drinkers, who take too much, not because of any inner need
or compulsion, but because of the circumstances in which
they are placed, for
instance, salesmen, bartenders, and waiters, who feel that
to drink with their customers, and the young men and women
who frequent taverns because they do not know where else
to find companionship. 2. symptomatic drinkers, whose excessive
use of alcohol is merely
a symptom or manifestation of feeblemindedness or of a psychosis.
alcohol addicts, who have an apparently uncontrollable craving
drinking to the point of intoxication.
and environmental drinkers, since they lack an inner
drive or compulsion to drink, can ordinarily stop drinking
or hold themselves within the bounds of moderation, once
sincerely and firmly resolved to do so. Of course, it is
for such persons to become so habituated to drink that they
get along without it; but then they must be ranked among
Usually, however, these individuals can be moderate if they
their minds to it. What is more important for them is, first
to have a firm and unshakable resolution not to drink excessively,
and then to forsee the occasions when they will be tempted
to do so,
and to plan their conduct beforehand. Each man should set
a limit, beyond which he will not go under any circumstances.
he gets near the limit, it would be wise for him not to
glass, but to retain something in it, so that he can always
thanks, I still have some." In this way, one has a
chance of escaping
the deplorable habit of some hosts, who, from a mistaken
idea of hospitality, presstheir guests to drink, and insist
on filling their
glasses constantly. One should respect another's freedom
not to drink,
and let each person judge for himself how much he should
and psychotic drinkers belong in an institution
under custodial care. That is the only way they can be safeguarded
from the deleterious effects of excessive drinking, and
way that society can be protected against the wild rages
actions to which alcohol sometimes drives such persons.
is, however, the alcohol addict who constitutes the most
difficult problem for family, friends, priests, doctors,
workers, and others who are interested in their rehabilitation.
addict, as was mentioned, has an apparently uncontrollable
for drinking to the point of intoxication. Many of these
intelligent individuals, who might make a valuable contribution
the society in which they live, if it were not for their
drinking. Often enough they realize the havoc that alcohol
in their lives, and declare with apparent sincerity that
like to be rid of it, but cannot. Sometimes, they "go
on the wagon"
for a period; but inevitably fall back again. Persuasions,
appeals to their love and sympathy all seem to have no effect.
is the explanation of this strange, overwhelming desire
who thinks that the alcohol addict drinks just because he
likes the taste of liquor, misses altogether the understanding
seriousness of the problem. Often enough, these individuals
dislike the taste of alcoholic drinks. The truth seems to
the addict drinks in order to escape the burdens and responsibilities
of life, which he is unable to face because of his emotional
immaturity. Alcohol Addiction is, then, essentially a psychoneurotic
reaction. Just as a hysteric adopts a form of bodily disability
order to escape an unpleasant situation; just as the neurasthenic
turns his attention to internal states and processes in
avoid the consideration of conflicts in his life; so the
alcohol as a screen to shut out unsatisfactory exterior
serves this purpose admirably, for its effect is to
anaesthetize first of all the areas of the brain that are
with the higher faculties of man, especially the discrimination
judgment. Consequently, there is a blunting of the power
of self-criticism, which allows a release of inhibitions,
and the free
expression of the lower emotions. Contrary to the ordinary
alcohol is not a stimulant, but a narcotic. Its apparently
effect is the result of the relaxing of tension and anxiety
the responsibilities and demands of life.
first thing that one notes in a person who has had even
little too much to drink is that he speaks more freely,
boisterously, expresses opinions and tells things about
his family that ordinarily he would never think of revealing.
less self-conscious, less worried about how he appears in
of others. This slight relief of tension and inhibition
is what the
moderate drinker seeks in alcohol, and he is content with
does not wish to become intoxicated; he drinks in order
reality, not to shut it out and escape it.
the addict is not satisfied with merely clothing the details
of life in a rosy glow. He is so maladjusted that he wants
out reality altogether. As greater quantities of alcohol
larger and larger areas of the brain are anaesthetized.
nerve centers begin to be affected, as can be noticed in
of speech, the staggering walk, the incoordination of the
of the hands of one who is somewhat advanced in his cups.
the behavior becomes more and more uncontrolled. There may
shouting, maudlin weeping, loud laughter, and reckless or
conduct. Eventually, an almost complete anaesthetization
in which the person sits and babbles incoherently, or sinks
drunken stupor. He is for the first time being shut off
from the problems, responsibilities, and sorrows of life,
as an insane person in his cell.
is this escape from reality through intoxication that the
is consciously or subconsciously seeking. Because of his
immaturity, he finds life too hard to meet, and turns to
a means to soften the blows of real life, as a way back
to the carefree
level of adolescence or childhood. From it he expects pacification
his troubles, release from responsibility, and the banishing
Quite frequently there is in such a person a sense of inferiority,
dissatisfaction with self. From this alcohol provides an
producing a feeling of elation, of self confidence, by blowing
always there can be discovered in the addict a history of
emotional immaturity, dating back to childhood. In the background
the picture there will be found at least one over-indulgent
and over-protective parent, who shielded the child from
every danger and hardship,
never training him to met the difficulties of life, or to
need of adjustment and self sacrifice in getting along with
Or, on the other hand, there may have been parental tyranny
domination, such as to instill a pattern of fear in the
a sense of insecurity, and a lack of ability to make his
Thus, there is established the psychoneurotic personality.
such a person is removed from the parental care, he finds
that he is expected by society to behave in an adult way,
his share of decisions and responsibilities. But this he
for he is still emotionally a child. Consequently, he tries
to blot out reality, to get back to the irresponsible period
of childhood. That such an individual takes to alcohol,
rather than to another
of the psychoneurotic reactions, is the result largely of
No personality is specifically determined to the use of
personality furnishes the predisposition; the adoption of
escape mechanism depends to a great extent upon the environment.
is, indeed, the most available, and the most socially acceptable
the various solvents of unpleasant reality. But, if such
an avenue were
blocked to him, the maladjusted person would most likely
take up one
of the other psychoneurotic reactions, such as hysteria
this explanation of the underlying psychological causes,
one can see that the cure of an alcohol addict is a complex
and difficult matter. It is not enough to plead, beg, or
threaten. It is not
enough to place before the person the sad consequences of
drinking upon himself and his family. It is not enough to
away from him for a time. For none of these methods strike
at the cause.
What the person needs is a complete reeducation for life,
such as to
produce the maturity of character which is lacking in him.
thy right eye scandalize thee," says Our Lord, "cut
and cast it from thee." That drink is a scandal in
the life of a compulsive drinker no one doubts, and least
of all the alcoholic himself.
Still he does nothing about it. Why? The study of this "why"
has intrigued many. He is a chronically sick man, some say;
he has a real
physical allergy towards liquor. It may have been this theory
gave the impetus to two Scandinavian scientists who compounded
produced a drug for the cure of alcoholism called antabuse.
who takes a dose of this drug will become possessed of so
allergy toward alcohol that he will become violently nauseated
very smell of it. It is guaranteed to keep a man sober for
but it does not cure him forever.
with varying and sometimes fantastic theories
about the cause of alcoholism, have applied them with but
success. Nevertheless, an endowed clinic at Yale University
in almost every case of compulsive drunkenness a personality
ease with reality from the time of childhood. In this clinic,
psychiatrical together with physical therapy has produced
good results, though
they do not compare with those achieved by A.A. Alcoholics
follows these experiments with keen interest, but as far
as they themselves are concerned, they consider it most
important to face the fact
of their weakness no matter what its cause. When they begin
themselves and to rely on a higher power, their cure has
conversion of drink addicts are nothing new in religion.
They occur dramatically at times when congregations gather
and meditate on the eternal truths, and not only at such
likely exercises as Catholic parish missions but also at
revivals led by groups
like the Salvation Army.
was in fact such a conversion that marked the beginning
A.A. It happened in Brooklyn, and the gentleman destined
to be a catalyst for the A.A. movement is known today in
alcoholic circles as
Ebby. Ebby illustrates the A.A. program only obliquely,
for he did
not persevere; but his conversion was genuine while it lasted.
brief excursion into the realms of sobriety took place as
of contact with the streamlined religious sect called the
Group. The Oxford Group was never able to provide a program
that would keep him permanently sober, but his temporary
which took place under their auspices, had the effect of
reaction that brought A.A. into being. The man really destined
the founder of the movement was Brother "Bill,"
a Wall St. "wolf" or
"bear." John Barleycorn had led "Bill"
out of the stockmarket, where
he had been a great financial success, into bankrupcy.
one November morning, Bill was seated in his kitchen surveying
the world with a mellow and judicious wisdom, aided by the
contents of a quart which he held in his right hand. Though
on all sides was threatening to cave in on Bill, he was
the time being by the thought of several bottles hidden
about the house
for the moment when his need would be greatest. At the moment
wife had gone out to look for a job to see if she could
family together. Into this scene walked Ebby, fresh and
aglow and for
the first time within Bill's memory the glow was not from
The unaccustomed sight startled Bill. He and Ebby had been
together, and both were usually catalogued together as hopeless
was an unmistakable air of evangelism about Ebby; he had
with the avowed purpose of telling Bill how he had been
alcoholism. Ordinarily religious talks nauseated Bill. He
had no faith
at all, yet he was fascinated and astounded that anything
at all could
have enabled Ebby to stop drinking. Ebby simply revealed
that he had
learned a few basic practices of religion, and as a result
able to get along without liquor. When he left, the man
in the kitchen
kept on drinking, but he was a changed man.
month later Bill went on his last glorious binge and ended
as usual in Towns hospital, New York, a sanitorium for the
of alcoholics. The doctors shook their heads over him; it
the end of the road for him. The next stop would be insanity
Bill was in a deep depression when Ebby walked in again.
Bill asked questions, and when his friend left, he cried
out in desperation: "Now I'm ready to do anything -
anything to receive what my
good friend has. If there is a God, He will show Himself."
to Bill, the result was instant, electric almost beyond
"The place lit up, blind white. I knew only ecstacy
and seemed to be
on a mountain. A great wind blew, enveloping and permeating
with the universe, a great peace stole over me and I thought,
this is the God of the preachers; this is the great Reality.'"
became frightened at his experience. His doctors were skeptical
when he tried to tell them about it, but one of them, Dr.
Silkworth, was shrewd enough to see that, whatever the experience
it must be good if it kept Bill sober. It did just that,
has never to this day taken another drink. He left the hospital
what is known as the "Chautauqua" phase of conversion,
that is, he
intended to look up every alcoholic he knew and lead them
the same experience.
to preach the gospel to everyone, Bill soon found that
something has to take place in the soul of the alcoholic
preaching can have any effect on him. He did not grow discouraged
immediately, and his first crisis came when he seemed well
way to picking up the pieces of his broken life. Months
Akron, Ohio, he was on the trail of a financial deal that
recoup his fortune. Though he had failed to "dry up"
any of his
numerous alcoholic cronies, he himself had not tippled once,
found that his efforts to help others were keeping him that
the crash came. The business deal began to fall through,
and Bill found himself walking the streets day after day
in a frightful tension. The doors of the tavern beckoned
and he became frantic
lest he go back to drink. Calling up clergymen, he found
out the name
of another hopeless drunk and made an appointment to talk
Thus the meeting between Bill and Dr. "Bob," the
second founder of
A.A., took the unique form of a converted drunk trying to
keep himself sober by talking another drunk into sobriety.
it worked for both of them. They had much in common.
Both were from neighboring towns in Vermont; they had much
background; but the chief thing they had in common was their
problem. Dr. "Bob," a capable surgeon, had managed
to drink himself
through medical school, and, though he passed out during
examinations and flunked, he was given another try. He had
alcohol for many years.
one of his many dry spells he had married, and his wife
became the long-suffering alcoholic's widow. At the time
of his meeting with Bill, his drinking habits had almost
him from all his friends. Through the mist of alcohol fumes,
words penetrated and made sense. Far more important, however,
anything Bill said, according to the doctor, was the fact
was the first living human being with whom I had ever talked
knew what he was talking about in regard to alcoholism from
experience. In other words, he talked my language."
"Bob" stopped drinking abruptly. It is true that
month was up he was off on another spree, but it was the
He had gone to a convention in Atlantic City and had come
a liquid state, but Bill was still in Akron waiting for
The doctor had by now the necessity of working with others
himself sober. Before Bill left Akron, a group of Alcoholics
Anonymous had been started there by the two men, based on
principles that they had worked out for themselves. The
by his wife, started a hospital for alcoholics in his own
in the course of ten years was to treat more than 4000 such
in New York, Bill started another group, and within three
years there were a hundred "Alcoholics Anonymous."
Of these, half
never took a drink again, a quarter fell back once or twice
eventually persevered, and the other quarter quickly went
their cups. This has been the average number of conversions
maintained to this day, and the unconverted will probably
end up as
successful Alcoholics Anonymous when they finally learn
to be honest
years after the first A.A. group was formed, twenty former
alcoholics were able to tell in print the amazing story
spectacular recovery from constant drunkenness. Their stories
published in 1939 under the title, "Alcoholics Anonymous."
has been the demand for this book that it has had to be
every year since, sometimes twice a year. By the time the
published, its leaders had evolved a program of twelve steps
were included in the text. Since that time, they have also
a number of salutary traditions and have published two more
explaining their faith. The movement has spread so rapidly
that today there are more than 250,000 members, with heavy
in the British Isles and the Scandinavian countries.
first twenty alcoholics who published their conversion
stories spoke of God only as a "Higher Power"
and tended to play
down religion. There was a reason for this. Many of them
had been practical agnostics, and their turning to God,
as they describer it, resembled that of a drowning atheist:
"My God, if there is a God, save my
soul if I have a soul." However most of them did have
some faith at
one time. It is estimated that about forty per cent of the
a Catholic background, with the remainder divided up among
Jews and agnostics. If it is a religion that saves them,
why did it
not work before for those who had some faith? The alcoholic
that neither the A.A. program nor religion itself can help
they first learn to be honest and sincere with themselves.
the first step for the alcoholic is to be honest with himself
and to strip him of all illusion. "I stand defenseless,
the poet in The Hound of Heaven, "Naked I await Thy
stroke." Francis Thompson pictures the sinner as hiding
from God and
fleeing from one created good to another until the Almighty
stripped all his defenses away. Probably this is true in
every conversion, but it is certainly so with the alcoholic.
He is an alcoholic
precisely because he cannot bear with himself, cannot stand
the light of God's truth. He may be strong willed in other
aggressive, poised and even charming, but he is keenly sensitive
humiliation and is burdened with feelings of guilt. Alcohol
for him the way out of a suffocating and intolerable impasse.
when he reaches rock bottom and loses faith even in alcohol
will cry out for God.
the grace to be humble comes to the alcoholic, the A.A.
program teaches him to make a searching and fearless examination
of conscience and to admit the exact nature of his weakness
and his sins.
For a Catholic this takes the form of a sacramental confession,
even the Protestant and agnostic remind themselves of the
"Confession is good for the soul," and tell their
weaknesses to each
next step in the program is the alcoholic's abandoning himself
to God. He is taught to say an ancient prayer put up in
dress: "0 God, give me the courage to change the things
that must be
changed; the patience to endure the things that cannot be
wisdom to know the difference."
instructed Catholic will see that in these first steps are
embodied the conditions of effective prayer: humility, self-examination,
sorrow for sins, confidence in God and abandonment to His
As long as the alcoholic maintains these dispositions, he
the grace to overcome his weakness.
members have learned the wisdom of Our Lord's words, "Sufficient
for the day is the evil thereof," and have applied
them specifically to themselves. The program impresses them
with the fact that
they are always to be alcoholic and that they will never
be able to
take a drink. Their sobriety depends on their abstaining
absolutely from alcohol in any form, but they are encouraged
by those who have
succeeded to do this on a twenty-four hour basis, as a day-to-day
venture. To maintain the all-important dispositions of humility
confidence in God's help, they meet once a week with their
alcoholics. These meetings are a powerful and usually a
psychological help, for they are encouraged by new tales
of conversion from drink and thus relive the miracle of
their own resurrection
from the dregs.
these tactics might have been taken from the traditions
the Catholic Church, though it can hardly be said that any
in the Church has been as spectacularly successful with
alcoholics as the A.A. movement. Moreover they quote another
that is unmistakably Catholic, viz., that "faith without
dead." This principle works itself out practically
when the converted
alcoholics seek to carry their message of salvation to others.
seems to have blessed their apostolate in a special way,
and it has
become almost an adage that "it takes an alcoholic
to understand an
has the A.A. program succeeded when so many others have
failed? Chiefly because those who deal with drink addicts
have the humility and patience required. This is especially
religious groups. The alcoholic ordinarily is no psychopath;
like anyone else, only more so; more rebellious, resentful,
and guilt-ridden. A condemnatory and moralizing attitude
such as is
often taken by religious groups intensifies these feelings
him into a tailspin. It was for this reason that A.A. broke
Oxford Group in the beginning, and it explains why they
religion when they pick up a prospect from the gutter. The
are that religion at first will awaken only thoughts of
a patronizing or hard, dour-faced reformer.
clergymen are, however, quite popular at A.A. meetings,
and this is especially true of Catholic priests. Fathers
Francis Ford, S.J., and Edward Dowling, S.J., have guided
from the beginning.
experiences are probably the exception in the conversion
of alcoholics, and the program stresses the fact that they
not necessary. Nevertheless their way of life leads inevitably
deepening of religious faith and, in some cases, serves
as a prelude
to entrance into the Catholic Church. The member of A.A.
not at least return to the practice of his ancestral faith
is not unlikely that Alcoholics Anonymous will have a Catholic
saint as a patron, the reformed alcoholic of Dublin, Matt
Talbot. Though he has not yet been canonized, it seems probable
that he will
be, for there is no doubt that after his conversion he led
a life of
an illness alcoholism is but an acute manifestation of a
common to human nature. All of us have inherited a nature
original sin, and it is this wounded nature that is our
heaviest burden and our cross. Alcoholics are not alone
in seeking escape from this
burden. But the more we seek escape from it, the heavier
grows. The advice of Our Lord was not idly given: "Take
up thy cross
and follow Me." To face ourselves with all our weaknesses
can be a
shattering experience for anyone who is living in a world
Yet Alcoholics Anonymous demonstrate dramatically that,
by being honest
and sincere with ourselves and abandoning ourselves to the
will of God,
we can obtain help to overcome any moral weakness no matter
or deep-rooted it may be. For this reason the twelve steps
Anonymous constitute a faith and a way of life not only
but for anyone struggling with a moral weakness that is
becoming uncontrollable. Here are the twelve steps:
We admitted we were powerless over alcohol (or our weakness)
- that our lives had become unmanageable.
Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could
us to sanity.
Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the
God as we understood Him.
Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being
exact nature of our wrongs.
Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects
Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing
make amends to them all.
Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except
to do so would injure them or others.
Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong
promptly admitted it.
Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious
contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for
knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that
Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these
we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice
these principles in all our affairs.