The American Church and A.A.

Religious Serials & Series Articles

01-043 The American Church and A.A. - I.G.S. THE FURROW, Vol. 8: 79-86, February, 1957

THE FURROW, Vol. 8: 79-86, February, 1957



Articles on alcoholism and Alcoholics Anonymous have already appeared in THE FURROW, and I propose to take for granted a knowledge of the A.A. aims and recovery programme. It is necessary, however, at the outset to stress the generally crystallized medical opinion that alcoholism is a disease or an illness or a departure from normal health requiring treatment, of which the compulsive drinking of the addict is the symptom only. Though not completely satisfying, a working definition is that alcoholism is a physical allergy towards alcohol combined with a mental obsession to take more after the first drink. Physical treatment of alcoholism can rarely by itself effect a lasting and satisfactory recovery. The mind and the soul are also sick.

Alcoholism as an illness, the term I am selecting for use, is not a peculiarly Catholic illness, but a universal one. Since, however, it has been estimated that over forty per cent of the 150,000 recovered alcoholics presently in A.A. are Catholics, it is properly an object of Catholic anxiety. The North American Continent has gained a long start in the matter of rehabilitation, and it may be of interest to know something of the American Church's reaction towards this grave and widespread problem. What I write is the fruit of visits to the United States and Canada in the last two years, partly from personal experience and partly (and more importantly) from the willingly-given experience of very many priests that I met. I am, incidentally, a member of A.A. with almost ten years sobriety behind me; but any views I may be taken to express are purely personal views and not necessarily those of A.A. as a whole.

There are an estimated four to five million alcoholics in the United States alone to give point to Archbishop Cushing's remark in THE PRIEST that "Every priest is bound in conscience to acquaint himself through serious study and careful analysis with the more common of the causes of this plague." Father Ford has added: "I take it for granted that the seminary has an educated responsibility in this matter. I think it clear that the task of preparing priests for the sacred ministry must include preparation for meeting a practical, pastoral problem as widespread and devastating as the alcohol problem .... In the pastoral theology course every seminarian at some time during his four years of theology, and preferably towards the end, should be given practical instruction in how to deal with excessive drinkers, potential alcoholics, alcoholics and the families of alcoholics. They should be introduced to A.A., its members and its techniques, and taught how essential it is nowadays to co-operate with A.A. in order to ensure the arrest of alcoholism in great numbers of alcoholics....Alcohol problems are so extensive and so pervasive in the lives of the Catholic faithful and clergy that the seminary has an educational responsibility to meet these problems."

During my American visits I never came across any priest who had not a working knowledge of A.A., both of its capabilities and of its limitations. The local A.A. group was often connected with the parish and, though usually at least as much Protestant as Catholic in membership, was very often given the use of the Catholic Hall for its meetings, nearly always at a nominal rent. Priests seemed to be frequent visitors at meetings and were welcomed by all for their experience, advice and encouragement. It is good to write that the same interest is being manifested in our Irish seminaries. A.A. has been invited to send, and has sent, speakers to the senior classes of the seminarians at Maynooth College and St. Peter's, Wexford, in the last two years. The students displayed a great interest and asked many pertinent and realistic questions. I had the pleasure of meeting one of them subsequently in a Texas city, where a knowledge of the alcoholic problem was certainly no hindrance to him.

Yale University holds a Summer Course on Alcohol Studies, to which the Church sends some priest students. Here they have an opportunity of learning about the technical scientific sides of alcoholism, as well as meeting many A.A. members, going to sample A.A. meetings and learning about its methods. Social workers, laymen, doctors, teachers and Protestant clergy also attend these courses, and there is ample opportunity for discussion and interchange of views. One of the priests who has attended the course has written of it: "A.A. has done what no scientist has been able to do, and that is to bring the alcoholic to a state of maintained and happy sobriety .... The most severe criticism (and that from priests) I have heard of the course is that it plays down the spiritual part of the problem of alcoholism. It does no such thing. The professors at Yale admit what we all know, that it is a threefold sickness, psychological, physiological and spiritual. They feel they know much about the mental part of the problem; very little about the physical drive that is found in the alcoholic; and when they get to the spiritual part of the program, like the intelligent scientists they are, they know enough to leave it alone. Instead, they bring in two moral theologians - one a Lutheran, the other a Catholic. Father Ford, who is one of the leading Moral theologians in the United States, gives a most interesting lecture on 'The Moral Theology of Beverage Alcohol.' For scientists to leave the spiritual aspect to the theologians is commendable, and not condemnable, in my book."

An organization known as The National Clergy Conference on Alcoholism (N.C.C.A.), is composed of Catholic clergy and meets annually to discuss alcohol problems. Its stated aims are: 1. Rehabilitation of priest alcoholics, using the helps offered by A.A., coupled with the sacraments of the Church. 2. Prevention of alcoholism among priests through the dissemination of information and through an educational programme, especially in seminaries. 3. Co-operation with the Most Reverend Ordinaries and Religious Superiors by placing at their disposal the knowledge and experience of the N.C.C.A.

The conferences of the N.C.C.A. are specifically for priests and, since 1953, have been held in different parts of the country. They have so far, and at the invitation of the Archbishops concerned, been held in Indiana, Brooklyn, N.Y., Boston, Kansas City and Philadelphia. The 1957 meeting will be held in Cincinnatti and that in 1958 at Detroit; in 1957 at the invitation of the Archbishop of Cincinnatti, and in 1958 at the invitation of the Cardinal Archbishop of Detroit. They last for three days, are opened by the host Archbishop or his deputy and close with a Holy Hour of Reparation. Quite frequently, different bishops take the chair at the various sessions, which are devoted to a number of practical aspects.

It is at present conceded that some four or five out of every hundred persons who take alcoholic drink develop the illness of alcoholism, irrespective of social position, profession or income. It is my firm opinion, gained from ten years experience in a number of different countries, that the percentage of alcoholics among priests is below the general figure and is small. And so it would be unwise to exaggerate it or give it too much prominence in this article. But I feel it would also be unwise to ignore or turn a blind eye to the problem of the alcoholic priest. Comparatively rare though he may be, nevertheless he requires and is due proper treatment and rehabilitation opportunity just as much as his far more numerous lay fellow-sufferers. In most American dioceses it seemed to me that the old fashioned methods have been largely abandoned and that alcoholic priests now are sent for treatment to rest houses, hospitals and homes. Twenty-six of these are listed by the N.C.C.A., and at nineteen of them the A.A. programme is either available or is suggested to the patients. Eleven of these homes are exclusively for priests. Five are supported by the archdiocese or diocese. These usually make no charge for their own diocesan priests, but a freewill offering is accepted. Those owned privately charge from 75 to 125 dollars a week. The majority afford facilities for celebrating Mass. Although the number of homes may seem large, most of them have very limited accommodation, for five or six perhaps, and at over half of them lay patients are accepted as well.

The custodian of one of these diocesan homes has said: "We feel A.A. has been a tremendous asset to our rehabilitation work because of the positive approach it makes to this most difficult problem. The alcoholic needs to be taught or to adopt a positive programme of rehabilitation, a programme that will help him correct his physical, mental and spiritual problem." And Sister Ignatia, of whom I will be writing more later, says: "Whether the patient be priest or layman, the sooner he is able to return to his work or profession, even if only to a limited degree, the sooner does he grasp the programme and achieve recovery. It is not wise that he be given opportunity to brood too long over Yesterday and Tomorrow." Sister Ignatia should know, for she has been working for alcoholics for twenty years.

Numerous retreats are given for members of A.A. up and down the States, and these are attended by as many Protestants as Catholics. Many conversions have taken place. One archbishop has so much confidence in A.A. that he has appointed one of his priests full time to work with A.A. by giving them retreats. The State of Ohio has an A.A. population of over 8,000 and very frequently there is an A.A. retreat, well attended.

The most impresssive event I witnessed during my stay in Cleveland last year was a Memorial Mass for dead A.A. members of that city held on Remembrance Day last May. The cathedral was taken over by and filled with members and their relations for this Mass, specially arranged and celebrated by the bishop, who also preached. Not all who were there were Catholics. A look round the congregation gave me food for thought. There were eight hundred people, over half of them receiving Holy Communion, nearly all of them at one time or another written off by the world at large as hopeless and unhelpable drunks, and yet there they were, well and recovered, gathered together to do their duty by their dead through prayers, and by their living fellow members through this example of unity, perseverance and gratitude to God.

I visited three wards established exclusively for alcoholics by the Sisters of Charity of St. Augustine, situated at Johnstown, Pennsylvania, and at Akron and Cleveland, Ohio. They are all conducted on much the same pattern. The Akron ward was the first to be started, the Cleveland ward is the largest and the Johnstown ward was started two years ago. Sister Ignatia, who was responsible for starting the Akron ward, was four or five years ago transferred to Cleveland Charity Hospital to give her more scope and space. There she is the guiding star and inspiration of a ward separated from the rest of the hospital, which has accommodation for twelve men and five women patients at one time. Her charity and her indomitable spirit and energy are the main reasons for the starting success achieved there. Alcoholics all over America owe her far more than they can ever hope to repay. A small, slight woman, she has the heart and the courage of a lion.

Rosary Hall is the name given to her ward in Clevland. It consists of three ward-rooms, a dining hall, separate lounges for men and women, a kitchen where coffee, sandwiches and other light refreshments are available all day and for most of the night, and a small chapel in which the Rosary is recited every afternoon by the patients. The length of stay is normally five days, but in exceptional circumstances it may be prolonged to seven. No patient is admitted more than once. After the first two days, and when the patient is on his feet again, he is expected to take his share of the chores, keeping the ashtrays cleared, looking after the supply of coffee, helping to nurse the latest admissions and the like. The senior patient is made "Mayor" of the ward for his last day, and his responsibility is to allot tasks to the other patients and see that they are carried out, and of course to take his own share. Sister Ignatia gives a spiritual "pep" talk every morning after breakfast, and thereafter A.A. members from the hundred or so city groups come and go throughout the day until late at night to talk to the patients and hammer home, through their own stories, the message of hope and recovery. Each evening, an A.A. member stages an A.A. meeting for the patients, who are for the time of their stay cut off from any outside influences that might distract their attention from their recovery. T.V., Radio, newspapers, letters and visits from their families are all banned. On the day of discharge, Sister will usually have a talk with the family. Patients are sponsored into the ward by A.A. members and when they leave their sponsor is there to take them home again. Over a thousand alcoholics pass through the ward every year. The charge for the treatment is eighty dollars, but practically all this amount is covered through "Blue Cross" insurance. Sister Ignatia gives a Sacred Heart badge of the Apostleship of Prayer to each patient on his discharge, the understanding being that it is returned to her by the patient if he or she reverts to drink again. In this regard, I overheard her asking one ex-patient who had returned to visit her, if he was still carrying his badge upon him. He confessed that it was lying in a drawer at his home. "You know," she told him gently, "It isn't the drawer that needs that badge!"

It is my dearest hope, that one day soon some Order will be inspired to start a similar apostleship of service for the alcoholic in this country of ours. Sister Ignatia has told me she would willingly help to train nuns for this work if they came out to her ward in Cleveland. She could certainly not fail to inspire them with some of the overflowing love she has for the alcoholic who is trying to recover his body and his soul.

Father Edward Dowling, S.J. of St. Louis Missouri, is another priest who is known and beloved by alcoholics throughout the States for his work on their behalf and who, through his advice and encouragement in the earliest days of A.A., played an important part in the development of the Fellowship. He is always in great demand as a speaker at meetings and in spite of serious and constant illness gives freely still of his energy. His work is not confined to alcoholics alone, for he is equally well known for his success in mending broken marriages. He was a visitor to Ireland a few years back.

I want to quote again from a letter received by me from the Chancellor of a very large American Archdiocese in 1949. I do so because there is still in this country quite an amount of "unknowingness" about A.A. and its recovery programme. I had written to him to ask what the attitude of the Church in his archdiocese was towards A.A., because I felt that, armed with that knowledge, we might be able to approach the clergy of this country for their help and support. (A.A. had not been long established in Dublin at the time.) This was his reply:

"With the knowledge of my Superior, the Archbishop, I have manifested a very deep interest in the Alcoholics Anonymous movement in our city. From my observation and study, I am convinced that the movement is the most sound and the most successful approach that has ever been made in our country to the problem of the alcoholic. In my city, I am under the impression that about one half of its members were at one time Catholics and that the Irish predominate among Catholics. The Twelve Steps of Recovery appeal to me as being entirely in harmony with the Catholic faith and morals, as being clearly stated religious and moral principles in language which is simple and easily understood. Honesty to one's self, humility, contrition, purpose of amendment, unburdening one's soul and accusing one's self of failing to another person, placing one's hope and confidence in God, making restitution, relying on prayer and meditation, and spiritual reading seem to me to be sound and solid principles necessary for rehabilitation. The apostolic step to carry this message to alcoholics and to help others rehabilitate themselves is also in conformity with the Christian teaching and seems to be psychologically of utmost importance. Cases have come to my notice of priests who were victims of alcoholism being re-instated through A . A . A large number of lukewarm and indifferent Catholics have returned to an active practice of their faith; and strange as it my seem, several instances are known of non-Catholics who have been brought to the Catholic faith through the A.A. movement. The Chancery has been very solicitous to avoid giving the impression that the archdiocese was trying to take over the A.A. movement, trying to dominate the movement or trying to interfere in either the organization or activities of the groups in this city. Possibly to some individuals there may be a danger of making the A.A. movement a substitute for Catholicism, and if that were so we would regret it. But it is my impression that the tendency has rather been that many Catholics have returned to the practice of their faith, and there is a minor trend of honest and sincere non-Catholics being brought into the Catholic faith by this movement..."

The Chancellor wrote of "the apostolic step to carry this message to alcoholics and to help others to rehabilitate themselves." In Philadelphia, I noticed one day a poster issued by the Salvation Army in an appeal for funds. The picture showed a young boy carrying on his shoulders a disabled boy only slightly smaller than himself. The caption read: "He's not heavy - he's my brother."

That seems to me the secret of A.A. success. The recovered alcoholic doing his best to help the alcoholic who wants to recover, knowing that even if his effort is apparently lost on the other, he himself is acquiring strength and purpose through his effort. Loving his neighbour as himself through serving his neighbour, achieving a positive and active approach to his own alcoholic problem. A mature aim of helping others that can never be fully achieved or reached, so leaving the incentive to progress in his own rehabilitation alive and ardent even after years of sobriety.

In this spirit, and with this aim, the Irish groups of A.A. offer their services to any parish, diocese or seminary that may wish to avail of it.

The Country Shop,
23 St. Stephen's Green,


Sister Ignatia and the A.A. Pastoral Treatment

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