THE PRIEST, August 1989
ALCOHOLIC PRIESTS: ARE THEY EFFECTIVE PASTORS?
by Steven L. Berg
Because alcoholics are frequently known for their character defects, it seems unlikely that an alcoholic could make a competent priest. However, participation in Alcoholics Anonymous brings spiritual renewal. The article explains the spiritual growth which the priest gets in A.A. and argues that the recovered alcoholic priest is an effective pastor.
In two separate articles, Dean Marr has claimed that alcoholics make better pastors.
A similar attitude can be found in Bishop Michael Dempsey’s observation that “Some of the greatest priests in America are priests who have had an alcoholic problem.”
On the surface, such a position seems foolish.
David Stewart claims that the alcoholic is childish, overly sensitive, grandiose, impulsive, intolerant, and given to wishful thinking.
Irony of Claim
One author warns that alcoholics can rationalize lusty sexual excursions into romance, that they too often enjoy gossip barbed with anger; have feelings of superiority, envy, righteousness, gluttony, and sloth which they describe with less harsh words; and that they waste time wishing for what they don’t have rather than working for it.
Another author has gone so far as to describe the alcoholic personality as devilish, hardly a characteristic welcomed for priestly candidates.
Yet, Dean Marr and Bishop Dempsey would not only welcome these alcoholic men into the ministry but also claim that they have superior talents as pastors.
The irony of such a claim comes from the fact that Mr. Marr, Bishop Dempsey, and others who recognize the gifts which alcoholic priests bring to the ministry are not referring to the alcoholic who is still drinking.
Instead, they are talking about “recovered” alcoholic priests, men whose alcoholism visited upon them the trials of Job and who, like Job, survived with a strengthened spiritual base.
They are men who “were great priests before they had the problem and often it was their dedication to their ministry, their hours of untiring service that brought on the problem.
What does the alcoholic priest do, however, that is so valuable?
From the material compiled at Guest House, we know that Father James worked with the missions in Chile, that Father Vince wrote a book on counseling, and that Father Georges wrote one on the Soviet Union, that Father William has a special ministry with minority groups, that Father James’ ministry is educating youth, and that Father Jim helps the deaf hear the promise of God’s blessing.
Some priests such as Father Joe and Father Vaughan work in treatment facilities, and others, like Father Francis, conduct seminars for seminarians so they too can be more effective pastors.
Besides the fact they are all effective priests, the one thing these men have in common is their involvement with Alcoholics Anonymous.
Before adressing the issue of A.A. involvement, it is important to realize that alcoholism is a threefold malady: physical, mental, and spiritual.
Physical effects of alcoholic drinking such as a destroyed liver are easy to measure.
Grandiose thinking and rationalizations are examples of the type of mental problems which alcoholics have. As their drinking progresses, they find it more and more difficult to function in the world because they don’t think and react like other people. Although they might not be certifiably mentally ill, in many ways they live in a fantasy world.
Isolated From God
While describing the spiritual effects of alcoholism, Paul V. Sullivan argues that “the person involved in the throes of alcoholism is in every sense alone.” This sense of aloneness is caused by a separation not only from other human beings, but also from God.
As Sullivan explains, the alcoholic “isolates himself from God even though he may still believe in God.”
Even priests can isolate themselves from the God to whom they have dedicated their lives if they do not practice a life of spiritual renewal. And a lack of attention paid to spirituality is characteristic of alcoholics.
Because alcoholism causes spiritual and mental as well as physical decline, contented sobriety does not result by the simple act of not drinking. While the first step to recovery comes from not drinking, the character defects which are associated with alcoholics continue unless spirituality is addressed. As Father Mark Mindrup explains, spiritual renewal is needed both in terms of religious development and in terms of recovery from alcoholism.
Priests have found that A.A. brings spiritual renewal. After making the decision not to drink, priests – like all others who suffer from alcoholism – are welcomed into the A.A. program. In fact, admission of powerlessness over alcohol and recognition that life has become unmanageable is the first step of A.A.’s 12-Step recovery program. And it is the only step that specifically mentions alcohol. The remaining steps concern themselves with spiritual renewal.
After taking the first step of recovery, the priest who enters A.A. is asked to turn his will and his life over to the care of the God he understands. In effect, he is asked to end his isolation from God.
As he reacquaints himself with his higher power, the priest takes a moral inventory which he shares with another person. Edward C. Sellner is just one of many people who have compared this step to the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
Following the inventory, A.A. – alcoholics ask God to remove their defects as they go about the process of making amends for the harm they have done.
Suited For Priests
Francis J. Crotty, in an article on the “Basics of Recovery,” argues that recovery, like the disease of alcoholism, is progressive, that recovery is a process. And, like all other process, recovery takes time.
As the alcoholic priest works the pro,gram advocated by Alcoholics Anonymous, he enters into a recovery process.
While there are other recovery programs available, A.A. is especially suited for the priest because of its spiritual basis. It is for this reason that individuals working to help alcoholic priests have historically recommended the A.A. program.
Because A.A. does not advocate any particular spiritual program, A.A. meetings rarely address specific spiritual issues. The recovering priest, however, is able to find spiritual renewal with other Catholics if he becomes involved in a Calix, a group of Catholics who have recovered through A.A. In Calix, the priest is able to work with others who understand and have a strong commitment to Catholicism.
Recovered alcoholic priests approach their ministry with a continued sanse of spiritual renewal. However, when they return to their work in parishes or prisons or missions or wherever they take them, recovered alcoholic priests are not the same great priests whom Bishop Dempsey described. They are better.
While they continue to be dedicated to their ministry, their recovery program in Alcoholics Anonymous helps prevent them from acting on the unhealthy character traits which led to their eventual isolation from God and community.
Are the recovered priest’s skills recognized by his parishioner? A brief anecdote by Father William J. Clausen answers this question in the affirmative.
Clausen, a “recovered” alcoholic, was being transferred to another parish, a move he mentioned to a teenager in the parish he was leaving. He was surprised at the teenager’s reaction.
“Is the bishop sending us another alchy priest?” he asked.
“No, my successor is not an alcoholic.”
“Aw, nuts!” he shot back.
While it would be foolish to argue that priests who have not suffered the effects of alcoholism are somehow are inferior to alcohic priests, Dean Marr’s observation is essentially correct.
“When an alcoholic truly recovers in A.A., they develop a marvelous sense of balance. They learn to love again because they have lifted from them the thing that blinds them to themselves.”
After experiencing the spiritual renewal that is unavoidable in A.A., the recovered alcoholic priest should be sought after by bishops and requested by parishioners because as recovery progresses he only becomes better.