THE FURROW, Vol. 11: 285-300, May, 1960
THE PRIEST’S ROLE IN ALCOHOL PROBLEMS
John C. Ford
There are so many alcohol problems that it is hard to say where one should begin in dealing with them. Sometimes when I am talking to a young audiences, let’s say a college audience or a high school audience, I write on a blackboard four headings. We have no blackboard but we can imagine one. The first heading says: “No Drinking”; the second one says :”Moderate Drinking”; the third one says: “Excessive Drinking”; and the fourth one says: “Alcoholic Drinking.”
I think our concern today is with the fourth of those problems. As you will see from looking at the programme, that is the principle object of our discussions. Perhaps you might say there isn’t any problem involved under the heading “No Drinking” or under the heading “Truly Moderate Drinking” but even there are some problems. You know, if you are dealing with young people who want to decide whether to drink or not to drink, the question of total abstinence is a problem for them. And if you are dealing with somebody who is already drinking and wants to restrict his drinking to truly moderate drinking, it may be a real problem for him to find out what moderate drinking is.
The question of excessive drinking, of course, is obviously a problem, because that is the problem of drunkenness itself. But those three, I think, are entirely different problems from the subject which is appointed for today’s consideration. We are going to discuss the topic of alcoholism itself.
Saint Benedict’s Chapter Forty
But before going on to that subject, I thought I might read to you what I consider a very sane, reasonable, Christian statement dealing with the first three topics. This statement was written a long time ago, because it is a part of the Rule of Saint Benedict. Saint Benedict had a trait, you might call it a sort of sweet reasonableness, in the way in which he handled practical problems. I am going to read you Chapter 40 from the Rule of Saint Benedict, which is entitled: “Of the Quantity of Drink.”
He says :”Everyone hath his proper gift from God, one after this manner and another after that. It is with some hesitation, therefore, that we determine the measure of nourishment for others. However, making allowances for the weaknesses of the infirm, we think one hemina of wine a day is sufficient for each one.”
Now, I don’t think they know exactly how much a hemina of wine is and I have heard that there are two schools of thought among Benedictines on this point. But it is about the size of a beer bottle, perhaps a little more or a little less.
The Rule continues: “But to whom God granteth the endurance of abstinence let them know that they will have their special reward.”
That is point No. 1, no drinking, total abstinence. That is what he is speaking of there.
“If the circumstances of the place, or the work, or the summer’s heat should require more, let them depend on the judgment of the superior who must above all things see to it that excess or drunkenness do not creep in.”
So the saint sets forth a certain measure of moderation, while mentioning total abstinence, moderate drinking and the question of drunkenness.
Then he continues: “Although we read that wine is not at all proper for monks, yet because monks in our times cannot be persuaded of this, let us agree to this, at least, that we do not drink to satiety” – there is the problem of drunkenness again – “but sparingly; because wine maketh even wise men fall off. But where the poverty of the place will not permit the aforesaid measure to be had, but much less or none at all, let those who dwell there bless God and murmur not. This we charge above all things that they live without murmuring.”
I think that statement cannot be improved on as a brief statement of the Catholic position on the use and abuse of alcoholic beverages.
But you will note that the word alcoholism doesn’t appear there. And I think we must admit that nowadays we have a new concept of alcoholism, because we distinguish it from drunkenness.
ALCOHOLISM, A SPECIAL, IMMENSE PROBLEM
We don’t think that alcoholism is just the same thing as drunkenness. We consider it a special problem that has to be handled on a different basis from the problem of drunkenness. The reason why we are here today is to talk about this subject.
We need to consider it because of the immensity of the problem of alcoholism in our country. It is estimated that there are about four or five million alcoholics in the United States. That is a pretty large group of alcoholics. It is also estimated that there are perhaps 80 to 85 million people out of our population who make use of alcoholic beverages at least occasionally, people who could be called at least occasional drinkers. That includes everybody that drinks alcoholic beverages at all.
At that rate, if there are four or five million alcoholics out of the 80 to 85 million people who use alcoholic beverages, this mean’s that about one in twenty or one in fifteen who drink get into serious trouble. And, of course, in addition to the people that we classify as alcoholics, it has been estimated by Jellinek that we have perhaps three million excessive drinkers whose problems are not severe enough yet to classify them as alcoholics, although they are on the way. They will probably arrive there if they keep on drinking the way they are drinking. In addition to those millions of people, we have all the members of the families who are involved in this problem one way or the other.
So I don’t think it is necessary to stress the idea that this is an immense problem. The only thing that suprises me is that this is an immense problem. The only thing that suprises me is that we are not as acutely aware of it as others are, nor as we ought to be. It seems to me that given the size of the problem, given the frequency with which priests are called upon to deal, in their parish work, with the alcoholics, with the excessive drinkers, with the members of their families, this Pastoral Institute is definitely needed. We hope to make a beginning today by saying something about these problems and the way of handling them. My share of the task is to talk about the clergy’s role in alcohol problems. I am going to speak first about what we mean by alcoholism today and then go on from that to speak of some connected topics to show what our role as priests should be.
First of all, what do we mean by alcoholism? I am afraid that many of us have been misled by certain pictures of alcoholism which are not entirely accurate pictures, that are exaggerated or misleading in one way or another.
MISCONCEPTIONS ABOUT ALCOHOLISM
For instance, you sometimes hear a college boy talking about the drinking that went on at the prom and saying that so-and-so is a real “alky,” or “He is a real alcoholic. He got tight as a drum last night.” That isn’t alcoholism, of course; it is simple drunkenness.
I was talking with a young doctor a couple of years ago and he mentioned alcoholism. He said: “Well, I have seen some of them. I have been working at the City Hospital.” And he immediately gave a description of a “Skid Row” type of alcoholic. To him, that was what the word alcoholic meant, the sort of person that you meet on Skid Row, the poor fellow who asks you for a quarter.
That is not a typical picture of alcoholism at all. Of those four or five million in the United States who are alcoholics not ten per cent are on Skid Row. In fact the most recent studies estimate that only about three per cent of the alcoholics in the United States are Skid Row alcoholics. The average alcoholic doesn’t conform to that picture at all. And one of the reasons why so many people are so unwilling to admit that they have the problem called alcoholism is that false picture of alcoholism, that misleading stereotype they have in their minds. That is one reason why it is so hard for an alcoholic to recognize himself as an alcoholic. He thinks of alcoholism as the sort of thing you see on Skid Row. He says: “I am not like that at all; therefore I haven’t got the problem.”
There is another misleading picture, too. I once sent to see an elderly doctor a gentleman who, to my way of thinking, was obviously an alcoholic. When the doctor got through examining him he said: “He is drinking too much But I wouldn’t call him an alcoholic.”
I said: “Why don’t you consider him an alcoholic?”
He said: I can’t find anything wrong with him. There is no cirrhosis; there isn’t anything wrong with him but his drinking.”
Now you see, 50 years ago, even 25 years ago, in medical schools, they didn’t call a person an alcoholic unless as a result of his heavy and excessive drinking he had contracted some definite disease of a mental or physiological kind. A person was not considered an alcoholic unless his drinking was complicated by one of the so-called diseases of alcoholism.
Nowadays we don’t use that terminology. We speak of alcoholism with complications, meaning the diseases of alcoholism. So, according to the terminology the doctor had learned in medical school, the patient was not an alcoholic because he had no definite complications. But according to the terminology we use today, the man in this case was an alcoholic.
Another misleading idea, I think, is this. I have heard priests say of individuals whom I would consider alcoholics: “Well, he isn’t an alcoholic; he goes on the wagon every Lent and doesn’t touch a drop for six weeks.” Of course, if you ask him when the fellow started drinking again, it always used to be high noon on Holy Saturday. But the idea behind this thinking is that a person who is able to abstain totally from alcohol for six weeks is not an alcoholic. That is not the test of alcoholism.
There are thousands, thank God, there are hundreds of thousands of alcoholics, recovered alcoholics, who don’t drink at all. They are total abstainers for life. But they are still alcoholics. The reason we call them alcoholics is that if they started to drink again they would drink abnormally.
The test of alcoholism is not the ability to be a total abstainer from alcohol. Thousands and hundreds of thousands of alcoholics can do that. The test is whether or not a person is able to drink regularly with true moderation. A person who can do that is not an alcoholic.
Accordingly, I think that some of these pictures have misled us as to the meaning of what alcoholism is. Sometimes, too, you read sensational accounts in books or in magazines about alcoholism. The thing that is sensational is most interesting to the public. It is played up. But the public gets the idea that this exaggerated case is a typical picture of alcoholism.
As a matter of fact, most alcoholics are not on Skid Row at all. A very large number of them would never be suspected of being alcoholics except by those who are close to them in the early stages of alcoholism. The average alcoholic is still, working and still living at home in a family.
ALCOHOLISM IS DRUNKENNESS PLUS
First of all, I would like to say that alcoholism is not just the same thing as drunkenness. Alcoholism is drunkenness plus something else, plus serious life problems and plus an inability to stop drinking without help.
I don’t want to give you the impression that I can define alcoholism. Nobody can give an essential, intrinsic definition of alcoholism. You will find as many attempts at that as there are speakers in the field. But what I am trying to do is give some sort of a description of alcoholism which will help to distinguish the person who has this problem from the person who is merely drinking too much. Alcoholism includes drunkenness and something else, serious life problems and the inability to stop unaided.
THREE CHARACTERISTIC TRAITS
In other words, for practical purposes, in order to diagnose or make a practical decision whether this person should be treated as an alcoholic or not, I have often used these three traits. First, excessive drinking over a period of years, secondly, serious life problems as the result of drinking, and thirdly, the inability to stop drinking unless one gets help.
The last trait indicates an element of compulsion in the drinking. The inability to stop when a person seriously tries to stop indicates some degree of compulsion. The whole thing is a question of degree.
Nobody can draw a sharp line between those who are alcoholics and those who are not.
It is easy to diagnose alcoholism? I think that if one were to try to diagnose alcoholism in a scientific sense, according to some theory of what constitutes alcoholism, it would be a very difficult thing to do. If an expert has some psychiatric or physiological theory as to what is the true, deep cause of alcoholism and wants to define it in terms of such a theory, I think he will have his hands full because there will be disagreements immediately on the question of etiology. A definition should be clearer than the thing defined. Scientifically, therefore, and theoretically, it is hard to diagnose.
But what about practically? Is it hard to diagnose alcoholism from the practical standpoint of deciding whether this person should be treated as an alcoholic or not?
TRAIT ONE: EXCESS
I don’t think it is hard for anybody except the alcoholic himself. Take trait number one. It isn’t difficult to point out to one’s own satisfaction that this person has been drinking excessively for years. Now I don’t mean that he has been getting dead drunk every night. There are many alcoholics who rarely get dead drunk. There are many alcoholics who rarely, if ever, get theologically drunk, to use that somewhat odious expression. There are many alcoholics, who rarely, if ever, get so drunk that the most lenient moral theologian would have to agree that that kind of drunkenness (if deliberate) would be sinful. There are a great many alcoholics who don’t drink that way at all. The kind of excessive drinking I have in mind may mean only that the person gets tight frequently and sometimes thoroughly and that’s being going on for some years.
TRAIT TWO: PROBLEMS
As for trait number two, the serious life problems that I am talking about range all the way from lack of family harmony (that is the way it often starts), through loss of health and loss of jobs and loss of faith and loss of moral values, all the way down the road, until the person is finally what the A.A.’s call a real low-bottom drunk.
Now these life problems are not always apparent to outsiders. Very often in the beginning only the family knows about them. Very often it is the priest, the pastor, the curate who knows about it before others do, because he hears about it from members of the family. Either the wife comes to talk about the husband’s drinking or the husband comes to talk about the wife’s drinking. When the situation is such that the wife feels that she has to ge to the priest for help, it is a fairly good indication that one has an alcoholic to deal with. Occasionally you run into the prudish type of person who just disapproves of any drinking and is very frightened of drinking. She gets panicky and goes for help when there really isn’t any problem. But I have met very few of these through the years in dealing with alcoholics and their families.
When the members of the family come to complain about the person’s drinking, there is probably a serious problem there already. Usually there is at least incipient alcoholism in these cases.
TRAIT THREE: COMPULSION
Trait number three is the element of compulsion in an alcoholic’s drinking. He is unable to stop drinking for good even if he wants to (in the great majority of cases) unless he gets outside help. The A.A.’ s express this note of compulsion in their First Step when they say: “We were powerless over alcohol.” Just as there are degrees of excess in the drinking and degrees of seriousness in the problems that result from it, so also there are degrees of compulsiveness. Compulsions operate with more or less frequency and with more or less force. The alcoholic’s compulsion to drink involves a peculiar fascinated way of thinking about the next drink which takes possession of his mind on certain occasions – especially after he has had a few drinks.
When in the grip of this obsessive thinking he is unable to consider reasonably and realistically any other alternatives. At meetings you hear the saying: “It isn’t your drinking that gets you stinking; it’s your stinking thinking that gets you drinking.” When a person has good reason to stop and really wants to stop and yet falls again and again, we are justified in believing that there is a compulsive element in the drinking.
It is not just weak will. Many of these persons are extremely strong-willed persons. People do not go on damaging themselves and the ones they love most out of plain stubborness. That kind of behaviour is abnormal and pathological. The compulsion interferes with the drinker’s liberty to a greater or lesser extent.
With these three traits in mind, then – excess, problems and compulsion, I don’t think it is so hard to make a practical diagnosis of alcoholism in the great majority of cases.
SICKNESS OR SIN?
One of the questions asked most frequently by priests is this: “Is alcoholism a sickness or is it a moral problem?” That is a sort of lawyer’s question. You are asked to choose between the two. Why can’t it be both. But there is a good deal of resistance to the idea that alcoholism is a sickness. I am going to talk about that for a moment.
I think one of the reasons is that there is sometimes a certain amount of exaggeration in speaking of alcoholism as a sickness. You sometimes hear it said that alcoholism is a sickness just like tuberculosis, just like cancer, or just like any other disease. But it is quite different. You and I know that it is different.
One of the principle reasons why it is different is that alcoholism involves human behaviour and misbehaviour, conduct and misconduct. The average alcoholic uses a kind of behaviour, a kind of conduct that just doesn’t measure up to standards. It doesn’t make much difference what the standards are you are talking about. It may be the standards of moral law; it may be the standards of civil law; it may be the standards of Emily Post – but he doesn’t measure up. His conduct does not measure up. That involves something which the ordinary case of tuberculosis or the ordinary case of cancer does not involve.
Since there are such obvious differences, I think it hurts the cause – the cause of getting people to recognize alcoholism as the sickness it really is – to speak in an exaggerated way and talk about alcoholism as if it were just like cancer or just like tuberculosis.
I think, too, that some people are a little afraid that if the alcoholic is told that he is sick, that it will be an excuse for him to evade his responsibility in the matter. Every once in a while I see a person who goes home drunk to his wife and says: “Don’t blame me; I am a sick man. They told me down at the information center that alcoholism is a sickness. That’s what’s wrong with me, so it is not my fault if I keep on drinking.”
Now I say that I have seen that once or twice, perhaps a few times, but very rarely. You know, the public has been bombarded with the idea that alcoholism is a sickness and that alcoholics are sick people. This is true. This is as it should be. And the alcoholics read all this material in the magazines and in the newspapers, too. And when they read it they say: “That is a fact – alcoholism is a sickness – Joe So-and-So has that.” They never think that they have it. They are never ready to think that they themselves are the people who have the sickness. The truth of the matter is, that once it is brought home to them at the information center or elsewhere that they do have a sickness called alcoholism, at the very same time they are taught that it is a sickness that they can do something about if they want to. They are not given an excuse from their responsibility. They are given an understanding of what is wrong and the assurance that they can get better if they will assume the responsibility of doing so.
The people who inform the alcoholic in a helpful way about that concept of sickness also inform him that he is able to do something about his sickness and how to do it. So, I think that there is very little of that escaping the responsibility merely because of this concept being brought forward. What the objection amount to is that it takes good tactics to tell the person that he is an alcoholic in such a way that he won’t use it as an excuse to go on drinking.
My experience is that it is extremely good tactics to tell him that he has developed the sickness of alcoholism if you tell him at the same time that he can do something about his sickness. This takes skill and tact.
WHY CAN’T THEY LEARN?
But, to my mind, the first question is not tactics but the truth. Is it a sickness? The reason why I believe it is a sickness is this: Why can’t alcoholics learn to drink moderately? The fact is that they can’t. No alcoholic can ever learn to drink moderately, ‘no matter how long he has been abstinent, no matter how long he has been sober. If he starts drinking again, he is going to drink abnormally again.
Why is that so, unless there is something inside him which causes that? Maybe that something is physiological, maybe psychological and maybe both. I imagine it is both. But whatever it is, that is the sickness of alcoholism that we are talking about. That is what most doctors and psychiatrists are talking about when they say alcoholism is a sickness. They may be referring to some other elements, too, but to my mind, that is the important thing.
They are not saying that in this man there are some clear-cut physiological deficiencies which are not present in other people. A few may say that, but the one thing that all the experts in the field are agreed upon is that no alcoholic learns how to drink normally. And my question is, why is that true unless there is something wrong with him, something physiological or psychological or both? That abnormal something is pathological and deserves to be called a sickness.
There are other elements in the sickness, too, but I think it will be sufficient for the moment, just to mention the fundamental idea that the alcoholic cannot learn to drink normally. Therefore there is something wrong with him. He doesn’t react the way other people do to moderate amounts of alcohol once he has become an alcoholic.
I have often spoken of alcoholism as a triple sickness, a sickness of the body and of the mind and of the soul. The sickness of the body I leave to the physiologist and the doctor and the sickness of the mind I leave to the psychologists and the psychiatrists to describe. I think our business, as priests, is with the sickness of the soul and I am going to return to that idea.
Now here is a paradox. Members of Alcoholics Anonymous vigorously claim that alcoholism is a sickness. But what remedy do they prescribe for the sickness? They prescribe the remedy of the Twelve Steps of the A.A. programme and those Twelve Steps are nothing but a programme of moral and spiritual regeneration. They say it is a sickness and they believe it is a sickness and I do, too, but when they come to make a prescription for the sickness, their principal prescription is a spiritual prescription. That is the thing that works best, too. The members of A.A. who are most successful in maintaining solid, contented sobriety are the ones who take the Twelve Steps of the programme seriously and try to live by them.
On the other hand, we have a certain number of lay therapists (I don’t know of any professional therapists) who say that alcoholism is not a sickness; it is a vice. But these people run hospitals for alcoholics, excellent institutions, too, I am sure. They certainly don’t run retreat houses for them; they run sanatoria. That is another paradox. The explanation may be that alcoholism is a complicated condition which includes both factors. It is both a sickness and a moral problem.
The two schools of thought are not too far apart in actual practice. It seems to me that those who are most successful in dealing with alcoholism have to take into account that there are both spiritual or moral elements in this disease and also psychological and physiological elements. That is why I think it is useful to call it a triple sickness of the body and of the mind and of the soul.
When we call alcoholism a sickness, we are not forgetting the moral implications. We are recognising at the same time that there are certain moral implications. I don’t think that anybody really denies it, except an occasional, exaggerated, fanatical statement that there is no morality about this at all. “Alcoholism is just a sickness like any other.” That kind of statement is exaggerated and not very meaningful, either.
Certainly in Alcoholics Anonymous they do not deny responsibility to the alcoholic. The members of A.A. in their Twelve Steps talk about turning their lives over to the will of God; they want to recognize when they are wrong and promptly admit that they are wrong and they want to make amends for the wrong they have done while they were drinking. All you have to do is read those Twelve Steps to see that there is not any attempt there to deny or evade the idea that there is responsibility on the part of the alcoholic.
SICKNESS OF THE SOUL
I think that anybody who is familiar with alcoholics – and certainly this is true of the recovered alcoholics that I have known – knows that they are very ready to admit that during the course of their drinking they went downhill morally and spiritually. Many people who become alcoholics start drinking in a rather normal way. But they soon become aware that this particular type of anesthesia is delightful – in fact nothing, no other kind of anesthesia, can compare with it. Little by little, they find that they can get over the rough spots in life by making use of this delightful anesthetic. By continually avoiding hard realities they gradually undermine their fibre of character. We have all seen many cases of men and women who little by little in the course of their drinking lose all those values that they learned as children from their mothers and their fathers and the Church and school, all those moral values. Finally they just give up. They lose their self-respect. Some are even ready to throw Almighty God out the window.
I call that a sickness of the soul and I think it happens often enough to be called characteristic of alcoholism. But there is one thing we ought to remember as priests; if it is also a physiological and psychological sickness, then the moral responsibility of the alcoholic for his drinking is diminished. It is considerably diminished, to my mind. There are various questions connected with the moral responsibility of the alcoholic, for instance, his responsibility (1) for becoming an alcoholic (2) for his drinking after he becomes an alcoholic, (3) for the other things he does while drinking and (4) his responsibility to do something about his condition and get the help which is available nowadays. Those questions can all be discussed in great detail but I think it can be done in the moral theology classroom rather than on an occasion like this.
COMPULSION DIMINISHES RESPONSIBILITY
The only point I want to insist on is that there is a real diminution of responsibility on the part of the alcoholic for his present drinking behaviour. When we deal with him, we ought to help him realize that he is not as guilty as he thinks he is. A great many alcoholics are overburdened-with feelings of guilt, exaggerated feelings of guilt, and sometimes neurotic feelings of guilt. It is marvellous to see the relief that is brought to them. You can see it on their faces when it is explained to them that they have a sickness. You obviously do not say anything foolish to them like: “You are not a sinner; you are a sick man.” Of course they are sinners. All of us are sinners. We can tell them that they are sinners and that our Lord will take away all their sins. But tell the: “You are not such a sinner as you think you are. You are also a sick man and the sickness you have developed is called alcoholism. You can do something about that sickness and I will help you to do it.”
THE BODY OF THIS DEATH
Many alcoholics illustrate very forcibly a condition of soul which St. Paul describes in himself. Saint Paul said: “The law as we know is something spiritual; I am a thing of flesh and blood, sold into the slavery of sin. My own actions bewilder me; what I do is not what I wish to do but something which I hate…..Praiseworthy intentions are always ready to hand but I cannot find my way to the performance of them; it is not the good my will prefers but the evil my will disapproves, that I find myself doing…..Inwardly, I applaud God’s disposition but I observe another disposition in my lower self, which raises war against the disposition of my conscience and so I am handed over as a captive to that disposition toward sin which my lower self contains. Pitiable creature that I am, who is to set me free from a nature thus doomed to death? Nothing else than the grace of God, through Jesus Christ, Our Lord” (cf. Rom. 7:15-25).
When you are dealing with an alcoholic, if he has not yet realized that his problem is really drink, you are going to notice a very peculiar blindness in him. It is characteristic of alcoholics that they do not recognise alcoholism as their problem. I can’t emphasise too much the idea that the person who comes to you (perhaps because his wife sent him) doesn’t think that drinking is his problem.
The great majority of them don’t believe that drinking is their problem. They think it is something else. Oh, of course, they got drunk that one time but that was a wedding; and everyone gets drunk at a wedding. Or if it wasn’t a wedding and happened at ten o’clock in the morning, he explains: “Oh, well, that was the morning that my wife started nagging me before I got out of the house to go to work. Anybody would get drunk in a situation like that.” There is always some rationalisation while they continue to say (and to believe): “I can take it or leave it.”
HELP HIM TO SEE HIMSELF
Now I can’t exaggerate that point, the peculiar blindness that goes with alcoholism. That blindness is something that has to be overcome. How? I don’t think that anything but the grace of Our Lord, Jesus Christ, overcomes that kind of blindness and our role as priests is to bring that grace to the alcoholic. Our role as priests, of course, in general, is to bring the soul back to God, to bring him closer to God. But I think more particularly our role in the case of the alcoholic is to help to penetrate his blindness with regard to his own problem and his own self.
He is spiritually sick and we want to bring him closer to God. But how do we do it? We do it by helping him to recognise that he is an alcoholic. If it is true that alcoholism is a triple sickness of body, mind and soul, we aren’t competent to handle the whole thing. We ought to realise our own limitations in this matter. We ought to realise that there is only so much that we can do, that co-operation is the key, that we must co-operate with others. Fortunately, there are other agencies available that will help us to deal with the alcoholics. We are going to hear about them.
REALISE OUR LIMITATIONS
I don’t think any priest dealing with an alcoholic should start off with the idea: “Now here is a problem that I can solve. I will do it all by myself. I will just handle it with the spiritual weapons that I have at my disposal.” That is a mistake. I think we should recognise our own limitations and do the things that we are able to do. But we are in a particularly strategic position to help the alcoholic to recognise what is wrong with him. We are in a position to penetrate that blindness. We do it both by natural means and by supernatural means. We can help the alcoholic, in other words, to diagnose himself.
The practical techniques of counselling are not the subject matter of the present talk. I would merely call your attention to some of the literature available on the point, including the “Do-it-yourself kit” prepared by the Hornell (New York) Committee on alcoholism.
I am not going into the details of the pastoral techniques which can be employed. We are saving that for another session. I want to point out merely that one of the most important things we can do on the natural level is to help the alcoholic to see himself as he is. We are removing the obstacles to divine grace when we help the alcoholic see himself as he is. In addition, to that, of courser since co-operation is the key, we must co-operate with other agencies. We we learn about some of these.
In my opinion it is essential to co-operate with Alcoholics Anonymous. I don’t think that anything works as well. Alcoholics Anonymous is available everywhere. It is there, it doesn’t cost anything, and it works.
Most of all, as priests, we are in a position to be channels, as it were, of the grace of God. We prepare the ground for the grace of God.
An alcoholic once told me of how he stopped drinking. He said that he came home one day from work and was in the diningroom when heard his little daughter, twelve years old, talking with his wife in the kitchen. His daughter was crying and her mother asked: “Why are you crying?” She said: “The kids say that Daddy is a drunk.” He said: “When I heard those words, it was as if a sword went through me.” He never drank after that. He had a new vision of himself in that moment. The veil that covered his eyes was torn away.
DON’T EXPECT MIRACLES
Now I don’t want to give you the idea that the process of touching the heart is always as simple as that. That was really quite extraordinary. It is a miracle of grace when a person has that kind of experience and stops drinking all by himself. Ninety-nine out of one hundred alcoholics need continuing help at the natural level in order to continue their good resolutions after they see the light about themselves.
Very often the seeing of the light doesn’t take the form of a sudden psychological experience like that. Seeing the light may come only after a long, painful process of humiliation. The touching of the heart may take the form of a kick in the pants. In other words: “Whom He loves He chastises” (Prov. 3:12). But usually, as we priests don’t have to do the chastising. We don’t have to take it upon ourselves to play God and rearrange the lives of people. We don’t have to lower the boom – and call it manipulating the environment. But we can do something to bring to them this vision of themselves. After all, what is grace but an illumination of the mind and an inspiration of the will? We can clear the ground, by our understanding, realistic help, for the entrance of God’s grace.
In that example of the man who heard his little daughter crying, I don’t know how much of it was a natural psychological experience and how much of it was the grace of God that was touching his heart. I suppose that the psychologist would prefer a psychological explanation. But I have been more and more convinced over the years that the alcoholic doesn’t change unless his heart is touched somehow by the grace of God.
CO-OPERATION IS THE KEY
So, it is all important that we, as priests, should recognise that our role is a co-operative one. We have to get the alcoholic to pray and we ourselves have to pray as if the whole thing depended upon the grace of God; and we have to act and get the alcoholic to act as if the whole thing depended upon himself, because we don’t know where the natural leaves off and the supernatural begins.
One of the reasons why A.A. has been so successful, I think, is that it has been able to appeal to the alcoholic at a level he can understand. It gets him on his knees. It actually succeeds in getting him on his knees asking for Almighty God’s help.
Now if we as priests will recognise our limitations and recognise that we must co-operate with others when we do have an alcoholic to deal with, I think that we are going to make great progress.
So, to summarise what I have been saying this morning, first of all, I wanted to separate the question of alcoholism from those other alcohol problems. Not that we are going to exclude them from our discussions. But I do think that alcoholism is our principal concern today. Secondly, I wanted to give you some idea of what alcoholism is, according to the moderate conception of it. Thirdly, I wanted to indicate briefly that our role as priests is a co-operative one. We are trying to remove the obstacles to grace. We are trying to penetrate that blindness which is part of the alcoholic’s sickness and help the grace of God to take effect in his heart.