COLUMBIA, 31: 15-16, May, 1952
THE CATHOLIC CHURCH
by Robert E. Burns, C.S.P.
Whether a man or woman is an alcoholic is not determined by how often or how much he or she drinks, but rather by reaction and control (or lack of control) to the use of alcoholics beverages. Thus, there are many persons who drink who are definitely not alcoholics, some who occasionally overindulge in drinking but yet cannot be classed as alcoholics. To use an old expression, the alcoholic is a person who, once having turned on the tap, cannot turn it off.
Until recent times, the ordinary way in which society dealt with the alcoholic was to have him incarcerated in some jail or workhouse as a penalty for his anti-social conduct. The mentality back of this procedure was that the alcoholic is an enemy of society and should, therefore, be taken out of circulation.
Alcoholics Anonymous, an organization founded by Dr. Smith and Bill Wilson, two former alcoholics, completely disagreed with and disproved this theory. It was their contention that the alcoholic is a sick man and should be treated as such. Modern social workers, more and more, are coming to appreciate the point of view of Alcoholics Anonymous.
The question frequently asked, “Why does the alcoholic drink?” is answered by Alcoholics Anonymous in these words: “The alcoholic drinks to escape.” The alcoholic is definitely an escapist. He is seeking to escape from some reality or imagined reality. It may not always be easy to put one’s finger on the cause of the escape complex, but it is there none the less. It may rest fundamentally in an inferiority complex and frequently it is accompanied by a feeling of resentment or self-pity. The Alcoholics Anonymous philosophy says one of the objects of Alcoholics Anonymous is to straighten out the kinks in his mental processes and thus remove the causes of his escape mechanism.
The Alcoholics Anonymous program is divided into twelve steps. The alcoholic-seeking sobriety is expected to mentally and spiritually live up to each step as it is presented to him.
The first step of the A.A. is nothing more than a recognition of the fact that one has been powerless over alcohol, and that one’s life has become unmanageable. This may be very obvious to the general public, but often it is not appreciated by the alcoholic himself. The A.A.’s have an old saying that you may have to hit bottom before you realize it is time to quit, but smart is the man who can come to his true senses before he does. Where there is smoke, there must be some fire and generally the friends and intimates of an alcoholic know it before he himself does. Sometimes, even a bartender will advise a man time and time again to quit, all to no avail. While it is never too late to get the program, it is better to get sobriety before one’s home and family life have been destroyed.
Then, you are ready to contemplate the second step – that a higher power can restore you to sanity. This is a difficult step for some with no belief in God, but experience has proven that it is absolutely essential. While there are a small number of atheists and agnostics in the ranks of A.A. – men who either deny the existence of a God or deny that we can know of His existence – it is doubtful if their dryness is due entirely to A.A.
The second step speaks of a higher power, not of a Supreme Being or a personal God. Theoretically, this allows for the inclusion of Pantheists, who associate God with nature, and Deists, who believe in a Supreme Power but deny the validity of Revelation. However, the following steps of A.A. make sense only if one believes in a personal God, that is, a God possessed of intellect and will.
The Third step, following from the second, is a resolution to turn our lives over to this Supreme Power as we understand Him. If we visualize God as a force only, it is ridiculous to talk of turning our lives over to blind force. It is absurd also to make a confession and promise restitution to a blind force. To have any meaning, this Supreme Power must be a personal God.
The Fourth step of A.A. calls for a searching and fearless moral inventory. This personal inventory should be a familiar thing to a Catholic who, from the time of First Holy Communion, has been taught to examine his conscience regularly. This examination should apply not only to lapses from sobriety but to all moral failings. This leads to the fifth and most difficult step of all – admitting to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
In general, the Fifth step of A.A. has brought about greater respect for the Catholic confessional, very frequently a stumbling block to the non-Catholic mind. However, it has also been the cause of some misunderstanding and confusion. True is the old saying, “Confession is good for the soul.” But this does not explain the existence of the Sacrament of Penance in the Catholic Church. We Catholics go to Confession because we firmly believe that this is the ordinary way in which Christ intended that sins be forgiven. That is why He appeared to His apostles on the evening of Easter Sunday and conferred upon them the power to forgive sin.
To say that this A.A. confession should be more intensive or complete than the sacramental confession is to misunderstand entirely the place of confession in the Catholic Church. It is possible for one to perform any of his religious duties in a routine manner, but this is the fault of the individual, not the sacrament. For intensiveness and completeness, it is not possible to improve on the sacramental confession rightly understood.
The penitent who approaches the Sacrament of Penance is expected to have a firm purpose of amendment to avoid all sin. He may well have had this good intention in the past but because he was not concentrating at that time on his alcoholic weakness he may not have had the results he now obtains with the help of A.A. The fault however, was not with the sacrament but with the failure of the individual to take proper advantage of the confessional.
The Catholic priest, by his training and experience, is better qualified than any person in the world to hear confession and give advice, but the Catholic priest, who sits in the confessional week after week, is there primarily to forgive sin, not to operate an alcoholic clinic. Thus, in order to obtain helpful advice in dealing with his problem, it is desirable that the alcoholic select a priest who understands the alcoholic mind and has a fair degree of sympathy for the alcoholic.
From the fourth and fifth steps, it may be gleaned that, while alcoholism is a disease, it is a disease involving moral implications. A person may acquire some diseases through no fault of his own and be in no way responsible for the progress of the disease. But alcoholism is a disease, the progress of which can be checked by the will power of the individual; and all who are capable of exercising free will are responsible. Nor, is it true to say that alcoholics in general are persons with weak wills. It takes a great deal of will power to put in a day’s work when one has had little or no rest the previous night; yet, alcoholics do this very thing time and time again.
In the Sixth step, the alcoholic expresses a willingness to have God remove all defects of his character, and in the Seventh step he humbly asks Him to remove the same. This, of course, means that prayer is absolutely necessary and, like St. Francis of Assisi, the sincere alcoholic seeks to make himself an instrument in the hands of God.
In the Eighth step, the alcoholic makes a list of the persons he has harmed and expresses a desire to make amends. Certainly this list should include the members of his immediate family and all those who have befriended him during his periods of drinking. In the Ninth step, the alcoholic proceeds to make amends to all such persons whenever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others. Thus, the Eighth and Ninth steps can be seen to be nothing more than a process of restitution demanded by every sincere confession. By the Tenth step, he continues to take personal inventory from time to time. The Eleventh step is an effort, through prayer, to seek to know God’s will, and the Twelfth step is a determination to carry the message to others.
The alcoholic is urged to pray to God. The Catholic knows that God has revealed Himself to us principally through His Only Begotten Son. Most of the prayers of the Mass are directed to God, the Father, “through Christ Our Lord,” and the Catholic seeking help from God would do well to carry his petitions to the Father through Jesus Christ our Lord.
The A.A. program cannot be digested with one swallow. The A.A. program is a philosophy of life; as such, it must become part of one’s make-up. That means that it must be absorbed gradually. It takes time to tear down the old mentality and replace it with the new.
The neophyte to A.A. will be assigned a sponsor, or, very likely, the sponsor will introduce him to A.A. No one is eligible to sponsorship until he has proven by time and experience that he has a firm grasp of the program and the ability to stay dry himself. It is desirable that the sponsor have some common interest with the new member, e.g., a railroad man should make a good sponsor for a fellow railroad man. The sponsor should also live in close proximity to the new member, so that he can call for him in person and take him to meetings. It is estimated that it requires at least three months for the A.A. program to sink in, so to speak, and meantime, the newcomer to A.A., with his alcoholic thinking, is very apt to seek excuses for missing meetings. Some sponsors make a practice of calling their subjects on the telephone every day just to bid the time of day and ask him how things are coming. It is no exaggeration to say that the interest of a real sponsor in his subject is comparable to that of a mother in her child.
And so the newcomer is introduced to the A.A. set-up. For more effective results, the large A.A. group is divided into squads. A squad is generally composed of from fifteen to twenty members. When it becomes too large, it will be split in two, one of the older members assuming leadership of the new squad.
The squad meets once a week, either in the A.A. clubhouse or in the home of some member. The squad meeting consists of a discussion of the A.A. program conducted by the chairman of the evening. The purpose of the squad meeting is to deal with present difficulties confronting the members in their efforts to live the program. It is no place for delving into past escapades, however conducive these may be to humility. The operation of the squad is nothing more than the submission of individual problems to a treatment of group therapy.
Since most alcoholics drink as an escape, the squad affords an excellent opportunity for this mental twist in one’s make-up to be brought out into the open and straightened out accordingly. The alcoholic is suffering from some variety of frustration. The squad meeting endeavors to discover it and eliminate it. Phenomenal success has been achieved by the medical profession in the use of a new drug sodium pentathol. This is used in mental cases to obtain a subconscious confession. The patient under the influence of this drug will talk about the thing that is bothering him. After being thus relieved, a new personality is constructed.
In a similar way I the squad endeavors to reconstruct the personality. However, there may be some tender points too delicate or too personal for squad discussions. These should properly be treated in confession. Herein, the Catholic has the added safeguard of the sigillum, or seal of confession, which binds the priest to absolute secrecy. Archbishop Murray has stated that A.A. endeavors to bring into the open all of the alcoholics good points and bad points, then suppress the bad and develop the good. The squad discussion ends at an appointed time and is followed by light refreshments usually served by wives of the members.
The social element of A.A. is of vital importance. The A.A. program is a serious thing; it needs something to lighten it. If a man takes A.A. too seriously, with no sense of humor, he becomes a dry drunk. He does not drink but he is not happy about his condition. Many an individual has tied up his fun with drinking. The A.A. program should enable him to enjoy himself without drinking. Many an A.A. will testify that he has made his truest friends through this organization. Common interests and personalities that coincide with his may be the basis of his selection. The happiness of the individual is vital not only for his own well being, but also for the happiness of his family.
In addition to the squad meetings, the newcomer is asked to attend primary classes, usually one a week, where the twelve-point program is explained by veteran members of the organization. Many of the larger groups, from time to time bring in an outside speaker, such as a doctor, clergyman, or judge, who will speak to the entire membership on some subject of practical interest. Thus, it can be seen that A.A. activities, social and otherwise, will consume a great deal of the alcoholic’s free time. Even after one has been dry for some time, it is important to keep in close contact with the A.A. groups – although this is more imperative in the first stages – and so any position that keeps a man on the road or working nights is hardly conducive to the A.A. program because it makes regular attendance at meetings well-nigh impossible.
At first, it is more or less necessary for an A.A. to concentrate on himself; but gradually he should branch out in his viewpoint and see how it is affecting his relations with others in order to complete the picture as he wants it – namely, a normal happy life. He might ask from time to time, “Am I using the fact that I am dry as a defense against personal criticism? Do I fly off easily as I did when I was drinking? Do I harbor the same petty resentments as before?” This might well be a matter of personal inventory.
The newcomer to A.A. may discover that some prominent members of the organization make no serious effort to keep the twelve steps, but this does not militate against the soundness of the twelve steps any more than the presence of hypocrites militates against the soundness of the Christian religion. He should bear in mind the fact that not every A.A. who remains dry does so because he has faithfully adhered to the program. The A.A. program leaves no place for bitter resentments and hatred, yet some A.A.’s holding these resentments manage to stay dry. Their dryness may be due to the fact that, owing to their prominence, they have been placed on a pedestal by their fellow members. Thus, human respect or self-pride is the impelling force in their dryness. Others may stay dry through fear of consequences brought on by a doctor’s warning or the threat of a wife or employer. Nevertheless, the experience of most Alcoholics Anonymous has been that you don’t stay dry very long if you stray far from the twelve steps.
Obviously, A.A. does not have 100% success. Some individuals will just not make the effort to cooperate with the help which the A.A. program offers. It may be that a judge has given an alcoholic the choice of either submitting to A.A. or doing a stretch in the county jail or workhouse. It is not difficult to make a choice between these alternatives. Here the A.A. members are faced with the task of selling their program to one who has little or no interest in A.A. and has come to it only because he regards it as the lesser of two evils. Furthermore, A.A. has no screening process so that many persons find their way into the group simply because, along with other evils, they have engaged in excessive drinking. This drinking may only be an external symptom of a far deeper-rooted ailment which in many cases will require institutional treatment of a specialized nature. Despite these factors, A.A. has had phenomenal success, and it is estimated roughly that about 75% of its members have remained permanently dry from the time they entered the organization.
The importance of the Eleventh and Twelfth steps can not be overemphasized. The A.A. member is urged to spend at least fifteen minutes a day in sincere and humble prayer, asking guidance from that Supreme Power without which it is impossible to get this program. The A.A. program is a twenty-four-hour-a-day program. No one of us has a long-term lease on life. We live one day at a time. So the A.A. every morning asks God for twenty-four hours of dryness and every evening gives thanks for the same. If he keeps this up the rest of his life, he can truly say, “I got the A.A. program.”
In this respect, at least, A.A. is preferable to the pledge method of combating alcoholism. The alcoholic who took the pledge frequently managed to stay dry for a definite period of time but, when the time was up, his old weakness was back again. I know of one alcoholic who for fourteen straight years has taken the pledge and kept it, but this is exceptional indeed. Usually, it is a case of looking forward like a child to Christmas or Easter when, after a period of fasting, he is able to eat his candy again with renewed vigor. The candy in question is poison to the alcoholic.
This, incidentally, helps answer a question frequently asked: “How does it happen that an A.A. after a long period of dryness sometimes slips?” It is often due to the fact that he has maintained a mental reservation that someday he will be a controlled drinker, that some sweet day he will be able to take that first drink again without courting disaster. What an ambition to carry through life! It is the firm conviction of A.A. that the alcoholic can never become a control drinker, that he should seek his recreation in other pursuits. This is part of the A.A. procedure, a battle of no mean proportions for one who travels in society where highballs flow freely.
The Twelfth and last step of A.A. is an effort to change the alcoholic, by nature an introvert, into the finest type of extrovert. That is, indeed, a radical personality change. The psychiatrists say that the happiest people in the world are those who forget their own troubles and concentrate their energies upon the troubles of others. Christ has expressed the same thought in the words, “He that saveth his life shall lose it, and he that loseth his life for My sake shall save it.” Next to the mental reservation mentioned above, the greatest enemy of the alcoholic is the element of self-pity. One who has constantly before his eyes the spectacle of those whose miseries are greater than his own is not likely to be carried away by a contemplation of his own heartaches.
Yes, the alcoholic is a sick man, but the prescription that has enabled thousands to check this disease consists of straight, honest thinking, will power, and divine assistance.
The patient entering freely into discussion with fellow alcoholics, giving helpful advice to others, and receiving the same in return, regains confidence in himself. Because he had lost that confidence, he sought, through drink, to escape from reality. Through the sacrifices other alcoholics have made for him, he realizes that he realizes that he is no longer an outcast of society but a worthwhile individual. Praying and seeing his prayers answered, he realizes the significance of the words, “Ask and you shall receive, seek and you shall find, knock and it shall be opened unto you.”
We Catholics believe that salvation is not a momentary impulse but the work of a lifetime. Sobriety, like every virtue, is a lifetime job, for Christ has said: “He that perseveres to the end, shall be saved.”
Clear thinking should enable a Catholic to see that there is very little in Alcoholics Anonymous which the Catholic Church has not had for centuries. Trust in God, Meditation, Examination of Conscience, Confession of Faults, Purpose of Amendment and Restitution are nothing new to Catholic theologians. Matt Talbot and others, who had an alcoholic problem, straightened out their thinking without the aid of the twelve steps in written form, but they used the twelve steps because the twelve steps of A.A. are hidden in the conscience of every man. They can solve the problem of alcohol; they can solve many other problems as well.
The Church teaches us the dignity of the individual soul, the superiority of the spiritual over the physical, the concern of Almighty God for His creatures, and the need of our dependence upon Him. The saints of God urge us to pray as if all depended on God, and work is if it all depended upon ourselves. This is the pathway to sobriety, this is the pathway to every Christian virtue.
The great contribution of A.A. to the solution of the alcoholic problem is in helping the alcoholic by scientific analysis of his make-up to answer the question, “Why do I turn to drink?” Some may think that the remedies applied are newly discovered in this Twentieth Century, but actually they have existed for centuries in the moral principles of the Catholic faith.