THE PRIEST, Vol. 49: 19-20, March, 1993
The Clergy’s Role in A.A.’s Fifth Step
By Jack O’Neill
Every parish has at least one alcoholic.
Every priest will witness the physical, mental and spiritual devastation of the disease of alcoholism many times during his ministry.
It is incumbent, therefore, upon every priest – and every student for the priesthood – to familiarize himself with the Twelve Steps of the Alcoholics Anonymous program. It is likewise important for every priest to be familiar with the Fifth Step and that he let it be known in his parish that he has that knowledge.
Step Five of the Alcoholics Anonymous Twelve Steps is:
“Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.”
It is the natural follow-up to the previous Step, “Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.” Once the spotlight of honesty has been focused on the past, the recovering person needs to find a way to get rid of that past. The person needs to find a mechanism that helps to make the past a learning tool for the building of a future.
THE REAL REASON
In the famous 12 Steps and 12 Traditions book of A.A., it is written in the chapter that discusses the Fifth Step: “But of the things which really bother and burn us, we say nothing. Certain distressing or humiliating memories, we tell ourselves, ought not to be shared with anyone. These will remain our secret. Not a soul must ever know. We hope they’ll go to the grave with us.”
But the real reason for the Fifth Step is also contained in that same chapter:
“Most of us (in A.A.) would declare that without a fearless admission of our defects to another human being, WE COULD NOT STAY SOBER (Emphasis is mine). It seems plain that the grace of God will not enter to expel our destructive obsessions until we are willing to try this.”
In other words, the Fifth Step is necessary for continuous sobriety.
For the recovering alcoholic, Step Five is the beginning of true kinship with man and God.
The practice of admitting one’s defects to someone else is a very ancient one. For almost 2,000 years it has been a sacramental practice in the Catholic Church. It is an exercise in humility and honesty that characterizes the lives of all spiritually centered and truly religious people. Some spiritual directors consider it the foundation for any active, profound and meaningful spiritual life.
It has also been a sound therapeutic practice for psychiatrists, psychologists, counselors and therapists. It is a cleansing process and the discovery, acknowledgement, admission and discussion of one’s character defects is looked upon as an important beginning of the change process.
Most A.A. members do not have much of a problem admitting the exact nature of their wrongs to God and to themselves. But the sharing of the results of the searching and fearless moral inventory with another human being is something else again. It is very, very difficult.
In the early stages of recovery, it can be difficult for the alcoholic to trust anyone who is not in the A.A. program. In the early stages of recovery, the alcoholic is still learning to trust himself and to be trusting of others.
BARGAINING TO REQUEST
Many recovering people have been away from any organized religion for a long time. Their relationship with their Higher Power is changing almost every day. They have moved from the desperate bargaining of “God, just get me out of this jam and I’ll never drink again and will give all my money to the poor and will vote in every election and will become a cloistered Religious” to the simple request of “God, please help me to get through this day without taking that first drink.” As the days of sobriety add up, their level of trust in God increases and their relationship with God grows stronger and stronger. hey came to believe that a power greater than themselves can restore them to sanity.
Many recovering alcoholics prefer to take this all important Fifth Step with a priest. They feel more comfortable telling the exact nature of their wrongs and their character defects to someone who has had a lot of practice in the art of listening without being judgmental. They feel more secure telling it all to someone who has a track record for confidentiality – someone they know they can trust.
BASED ON TALKS
It is important that the distinction between the Fifth Step of Alcoholics Anonymous and the Sacrament of Reconciliation be stressed. There was a Jesuit priest in Boston who was also a recovering alcoholic. He said that when he sat down with someone he always began with, “Please understand that this is not the Sacrament of Reconciliation. This is the Fifth’ Step of A.A. This iS not priest and penitent. This is one drunk helping another drunk.”
After they had completed the formal taking of the Fifth Step, if the person so desired, Father would slip on his purple stole and assume the role of confessor. (much of the information and suggestions in this article are based upon a number of talks with this Jesuit as well as with a Franciscan and a former diocesan priest all of whom are recovering alcoholics and who, in keeping with the traditions of A.A., preferred to maintain their anonymity in the press.)
Any priest who is helping the recovering person take the Fifth Step should help the person to realize that his Higher Power has forgiven him for all he has done in the past. Now, as part of this Step, the alcoholic must forgive himself and forgive others, regardless of how deeply those other persons might have hurt him.
The priest should remind the person that it is critical to the maintenance of continued sobriety that forgiveness not only be received but also given.
One of the most important things the clergyman can do is to help the alcoholic to maintain some middle-of-the-road objectivity about his faults and failings. He should not allow the alcoholic to self-flagellate to the point of self pity, and, by the same token, he should not allow the individual to blame everything on other people. He should not permit the person to deceive himself into believing that his character defects are any more or less than what they actually are.
No lasting sobriety can be built on a foundation of negatives. Therefore, it is essential that the alcoholic be encouraged to identify positive strengths and assets and that they be used as the basis for a sober, happy life.
The newly sober alcoholic, especially, needs to be reminded that no one is all bad. In the early stages of sobriety, the self image is quite fragile. The priest who is helping with the Fifth Step can strengthen and improve that self-image. He can help the alcoholic to feel better about himself simply because he had the courage and the willingness to face the pain and the embarrassment of formally taking the Fifth Step of the Alcoholics Anonymous Program.
NOTHING TO WALLOW IN
In the 12 and 12 book it says, “Until we actually sit down and talk aloud about what we have so long hidden, our willingness to clean house is still largely theoretical. When we are honest with another person, it confirms that we have been honest with ourselves and God.”
When the alcoholic has completed his Fifth Step and has unburdened himself of the past, the priest should encourage the person to get on with his life. The priest should explain that while it is important that he learn from the past, once the Fifth Step is finished, that it be put behind him. The past is not something to wallow in. It is over. It is done with. It cannot be changed. The energies used in regretting the past can be used far more constructively in improving the quality of today’s sobriety.
Once the formality of taking the Fifth Step is finished, the priest can then offer the alcoholic the opportunity to participate in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.