AMERICA, April 25, 1942
CHRISTIAN IDEALS IN AID FOR ALCOHOLICS
By Daniel M. O’Connell
That the spirit and practice of Alcoholics Anonymous offer a fertile field of Catholic Action to Catholic laymen and women has been the consensus of the letters received in response to two articles of mine on this subject in America (December 6, February 14). Perhaps the most interesting question raised came from an outstandingly zealous member of our clergy. He is pastor of a large parish in a metropolitan city. He tells me that he knows some of the leaders in Alcoholics Anonymous in his city of over a million inhabitants, and has made a study of their work and accomplishments. He inclines to the theory that Alcoholics Anonymous are “particularly interested in the rich and those who have good jobs and who have fallen by the wayside of temperance.”
Convinced of the good that can be done by Alcoholics Anonymous, I trust that this observation of my worthy confrere is not country-wide. For men of good will, for Catholics with zeal among them, I can see no reason why Alcoholics Anonymous should be limited to economic royalists; why these A.A.’s could not and should not work for temperance among the less well-to-do. Of course the organization could confine its efforts, if it wished, to the financial upper third of our citizens, and be praised for its good deeds in this limited scope.
But I can find nothing in the literature of Alcoholics Anonymous which even hints at their zeal for promoting temperance being restrained to the well to do. If their field of activity, unfortunately, has been thus narrowed in particular places, it is, I believe, accidental, and can be matched by their work among the two percenters, the $15 a week people. As for those who average less than fifteen dollars a week in salary and are perhaps in the worse need of ministration for alcoholism, I grant that there is greater difficulty, even for a follower of the Good Shepherd, in caring for them. No greater difficulty, however, than has been overcome by members of the St. Vincent de Paul Societies in their ministrations for a number of generations, or by a “Brother” Dutton among lepers or a Saint Peter Claver in his ministering’s to afflicted slaves.
In fact, here is a challenge to Catholic members of Alcoholics Anonymous; make your work thus distinctive, as is that of the Catholic Total Abstinence Union of America, by dealing principally, or in a fifty-fifty proportion, among the poorer of alcohol’s victims.
A Catholic lay member of Alcoholics Anonymous recently wrote to me in zealous words concerning his five years of work in the organization. His silence on the subject of any discrimination against or neglect of persons in the lower brackets of tax payers gives encouragement to the hope that they are not excluded. I quote him:
“I agree with a prominent priest who is familiar with the results of this organization that Alcoholics Anonymous can be the greatest living force in the Church for abstinence, if properly guided. Its basic principles are sound, practical Catholicism, and it has been the means of bringing back many fallen away Catholics.”
“If properly guided” surely embraces “the poor you always have with you” in this all-out commendation. Accordingly I would stress this point at the moment to him and his Catholic fellows that if the movement is “properly guided” by “basic principles of Catholicism” it will not exclude but, on the contrary, seek out the begger as well as Dives.
Another principle for Catholic workers among the Alcoholics Anonymous ever to hold fast is the old one in the Catholic Total Abstinence Union and similar organizations among Catholics, viz., the complete return of the alcoholic to the practice of the Faith. This is fortunately stated by my correspondent in his testimony that it has been the means of bringing back many fallen away Catholics.”
Alcoholics Anonymous have accomplished a striking amount of good. For it they deserve praise and encouragement. The first serious objection to them was that they were tinged with a streak of agnosticism. Without doubt that has been disclaimed in theory and disproved in practice. If the second objection were valid – namely, that their efforts were only for the wealthy – the A.A. would limit their good work.
In the hope that these two-reflections on the A.A.’s are not essential to their principles, I have perused carefully their latest bit of literature to reach me. It is a pamphlet published by the Cleveland branch of the A.A.’s, entitled A Way of Life, and republished from articles by Elrick B. Davis in the Cleveland Plain Dealer. The brochure is published at P.O. Box 1638, Station C, Cleveland, Ohio, but there is the request that non-Clevelanders write for information, etc., to The Alcoholic Foundation, Box 658, Church Street Annex Post Office, New York City. I mention this address, as I have received several requests for it.
At the end of the pamphlet, Twelve Essential Steps Leading to a New Way of Life are printed in prominent type. Seven of these refer to “a Power greater than ourselves,” “to the care of God as we understood Him,” “Admitted (confessed) to God,” “ready to have God remove these defects of character,” “humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings,” “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 out,” “having had a spiritual experience as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.”
The expressions at times are not those of carefully defined Catholic theological propositions but an ordinary well instructed layman should have no difficulty in translating the Catholic sense into catechetical language. A Christian could sum them up in Saint Paul’s words: “By the grace of God I am what I am.” The practices advocated are charitable; one member reported that he “made a list of all persons he had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all.” And “made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.”
But are the A.A.’s exclusive? Do they shun the poor? A statistical reply is difficult. Certainly their general set-up is not such. The A.A.’s rather boast that their is no graft in their organization, no chance for any “muscling-in,” no money-making in it. The members pay no dues. It pays no staff. Its meetings are informal; its parties are “Dutch” treats. It makes the statement that hospitalization, the usual first step to a cure, must be paid by the patient either directly or through his family or an advance from his employer or credit from his friends. I can see a difficulty here for a poor patient. It is not insoluble, as arrangements can be made for payments or credit through any Catholic hospital.
At its worst, though, granting that the A.A.’s in the past, through accident I should hope, have confined their praiseworthy efforts to the class of Dives, rather than to that of the begger at his table, there is open to the Catholic A.A.’s a distinct field of zeal for Catholic Action. I am sure Catholic A.A.’s will agree with me that they would seek a supernatural as well as a natural reward for their strenuous, self-denying labors. The former, they know, is greater when it is had from doing good to the least of Christ’s brethren.
From the pamphlet of the A.A.’s mentioned above, I find the following respectful use of Scripture: “Did you ever hear ‘Freely ye have received, freely give’?” To it may I add another question. Did you ever hear “As long as you did it to the least of My brethren”?
Very similarly to the series of tornadoes which recently roared through six Southern and Midwestern States, alcoholism leaves untold wreckage behind it. In both cases the poor suffer the most. In alleviating misery resulting from “acts of God,” American charity knows no distinction between Jew and Gentile, white and black, rich and poor. So when the work of a comparatively new organization, for the rehabilitation of human wrecks due to the abuse of alcohol became known to the American public, especially through the splendid article of Jack Alexander in the Saturday Evening Post, our newspapers and magazines were most generous in their praise and encouragement of the movement. They surely could not envision the poor being excluded from such relief work.
For one, I am at least naive enough to believe that the A.A.’s do not exclude deliberately the least of Christ’s brethren. As a young organization, perhaps its forces have not been sufficiently consolidated; its numbers not large enough to open up a new offensive. But its amazing victories to date arouse the hope that it will in due time extend its ministrations wherever possible and that no image of God will be excluded.
To Catholics Alcoholics Anonymous in particular, I am making bold to address such an appeal for Catholic Action.