Spirituality, Religiosity and Alcoholism

Religious Serials & Series Articles

01-073 Spirituality, Religiosity and Alcoholism, by Joseph H. Fichter AMERICA, Vol. 136: 458-461, May 21, 1977

AMERICA, Vol. 136: 458-461, May 21, 1977

by Joseph H. Fichter

One of the most persistent generalizations we heard in our interviews at alcohol treatment centers, and with alcoholics themselves, is that religion has failed to help the alcoholic, but that the effort to regain and maintain sobriety requires some degree of spirituality. "Religion" in this context means churches and clergy and congregations. "Spirituality" means a relationship with God a recognition of His supportive power and a dependence on it. In terms that are perhaps oversimplified, we may say that the recovering alcoholic tends to bypass the whole structure of organized religion and to appeal directly to the "Higher Power" that can keep him sane and sober.

The Failure of Religion

While our study focuses on alcoholic clergymen, we could not help but learn that the typical alcoholic lay person has most often been "away from the church" for a considerable period prior to admission to a rehabilitation center. As one recovering alcoholic remarked with some bitterness: "Where was the church when I needed help? All I got was a scolding and advice to say my prayers. The priests said all I needed was will power and backbone. The parishioners turned me off as a no-good bum. That's what I was; and that's why I had to have help."

Rehabilitated alcoholics who were raised as members of one of the Christian denominations almost always make a distinction between the God of the churches and the Higher Power of Alcoholics Anonymous. They say that the God they knew was judgmental, harsh and forbidding, whose representatives on earth preached fire and brimstone from their pulpits. Both the clergy and the laity in the parish rejected the excessive drinker because he was not leading a good Christian life. We must remember not only that this is the picture of organized religion through the eyes of the alcoholic, but also that the active alcoholic notoriously blames others for his predicament.

This negative view of religion and of the God of the churches is questioned by a priest who has 16 years of sobriety and a full-time apostolate among alcoholics, and who probably knows as many alcoholics as anyone in the field. He is convinced that this concept of the judgmental God of organized religion is a kind of "party line" that spreads among Alcoholics Anonymous people and is picked up by the newcomer to A.A. meetings. He sees it as a stereotype that reinforces the official A.A. position of nonalignment with any church and thus focuses attention on the nondenominational character of A.A. spirituality.

There are some self-proclaimed atheists who have regained sobriety at rehabilitation centers, or in Alcoholics Anonymous, who did not accept and practice any religion while they were active alcoholics, and do not do so now. Certain of these people, however, while remaining agnostics, develop a notion of a "power" outside themselves that seems to help them maintain sobriety. They are unwilling to say that God is helping them, and they want nothing to do with any church. Their continued rejection of organized religions is apparently based on their own definition of God and their own conception of Christianity and its churches.

While the alcoholic lay person tended to drift away from the church, the alcoholic clergyman stayed within the church, tried to maintain his position and to continue his ministerial functions. Nevertheless, when he finally came to a treatment center he often expressed deep resentment against the church. Almost invariably, however, this resentment is directed at a specific church official, bishop, chancellor, dean, senior vestryman, rector or other religious superior. It is typical of the active alcoholic to place the "blame" on something outside himself: the lay person, on the church; the clergyman, on the church official.

The Church Solution

Does this widespread attitude of repudiation, anger and resentment represent valid evidence that organized religion has failed in the rehabilitation of alcoholics? Perhaps the question had best be asked in a positive fashion. What has been the church's approach to the problem of alcoholism? Most of the religious sects and some of the larger denominations, traditionally taught that drinking alcoholic beverages in any form and amount is essentially an evil act. Other churches - like the Catholic, Episcopalian, Lutheran and Orthodox - condemned intemperence, or excessive drinking, as sinful.

In either case, the approach to alcoholism has been negative and moralistic. There is moral danger in alcohol, and the best thing to do is to stay away from it. The "pledge" is a promise not to drink at all, and for a long time it was the only solution that pastors had to give their excessively indulgent parishioners. The pledge was also seen as preventive medicine. It was taken voluntarily by thousands in the Irish tradition of the Pioneers and in the American tradition of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union. In some dioceses and religious orders, the pledge was imposed on newly ordained priests and deacons, usually to be observed for a period of five years.

There is no accurate information on the effectiveness of the pledge when administered to active alcoholics, but there are many rectory stories about the drinkers who had to take the pledge repeatedly. Nevertheless, in its efforts to promote abstinence from alcoholic beverages, organized religion unquestionably prevented many people from succumbing to the illness of alcoholism. Preaching about "demon rum" and its horrendous consequences gave many people the motivation and moral strength to avoid this alcoholic pitfall of iniquity, but it had little success in rescuing the person who was already at an advanced stage of alcoholism.

For evidence, one need not look only at the rescue missions on skid row, which produce relatively few reformed drunkards, but where religion is the chief instrument of salvation from drunkennes. The overwhelming majority of alcoholics are not on skid row. They are people in the mainstream of society who are likely to have had some contact with organized churches. When they are active alcoholics, they are simply turned off by pulpit condemnations of drinking and by exhortations to regain their self-control.

If organized religion is the bastion of virtue and the bulwark against intemperance, how is it possible that alcoholism strikes some of its best people, ministers and priests, religious sisters and brothers? All of the preventives and safeguards are there: prayer, meditation, religious training, theological and ethical knowledge. Despite this moral and cultural and protective environment, there have always been some cases of alcoholism among the church professionals. We have no exact information from the past about the extent of this problem. Indeed, even at the present time, we have only vague estimates of the incidence of alcoholism among church personnel.

Again the question arises: How has the church handled these unfortunate people? One priest testifies: "Driven by recurring fits of remorse, guilt and depression, I sought help from doctors, and from priests in confessionals, time and time again - to no avail. Retreats, prayer, acts of self-denial, abstention from alcoholic drinks for periods of time, rest homes, geographic changes - nothing worked."

One ecclesiastical solution to the problem is to get rid of the alcoholic clergyman: Give him a warning or two, change his assignment a few times, then release him from all assignments and finally expel him from the ministry. This process of getting rid of the problem is much quicker in those churches that teach drinking is a sin than in those that teach moderation and temperance. We have no reliable data on the number of ex-clergymen who have moved out of the ministry, or have been removed because of alcoholism.

A second ecclesiastical solution has been the traditional, moralistic approach to wrongdoing: contrition, repentance and reform of life. One of our interviewees told us: "I wracked up a car. The police caught me. I was a public scandal. I was sent to a treatment facility for punishment." In the days before there were easily available alcohol units and treatment centers, the alcoholic clergyman could be sent away to some monastic "reformatory" or house of correction. The penitent alcoholic was to reform his life through regular prayers and pious devotions and through all the religious practices that would fortify his spiritual life and keep him off the bottle.

The third ecclesiastical solution has been applied by church officials reluctant to dismiss their alcoholic clergymen but also baffled that the usual spiritual and religious practices do not succeed in arresting the alcoholism. Often they turn elsewhere: to medical doctors who are asked to provide a cure, to psychiatrists who are expected to find and remove the emotional and psychological causes of alcoholism. The bishop who pursues this policy is unwilling to accuse his man of sin, nor does he want to admit that he is an addict. He is sure that something else is "troubling" the priest and that this is what makes him drink too much.

Continuing Performance

The lay person who is an active alcoholic usually breaks away from religious practices, attendance at worship services, participation in group prayer and public devotions. It seems a remarkable fact that this is not the case with the active alcoholic clergyman. One recovered priest said: "Many times I read my breviary when I would have been better off not to bother with it, because I was drunk reading it." Priests often pride themselves that they showed up for their scheduled Mass, no matter how "hung over" they were. One bishop quoted a lady who reported to him: "When Father Murphy was here, we had Mass every day - drunk or sober."

The determination of alcoholic religious personnel to remain functional should not be surprising. After all, religion is their occupation and, like men in other occupations and professions, they struggle to maintain their role despite an increasingly debilitating illness. In our survey of recovering alcoholic clergy we found that even though half of them said they "often" or "sometimes" suffered blackouts, three-quarters of them also said that they were able to perform their regular work "very well" or "fairly well."

In many cases there is self-deception among men who think they are getting away with it when they are "too sick" to do their job and some other priest covers for them. As they become more impaired, and if the alcoholism is allowed to continue, there occur instances that cannot be covered up or explained with some other excuse. Stumbling into the pulpit to give an incoherent sermon, appearing before a Bible study group in an alcoholic haze, performing a baptism with a case of the shakes: these are a revelation to others that something is amiss, but they are also an indication that the alcoholic clergyman is still trying to perform his regular duties.

In most instances in the past the only formula known by the clergyman for coping with his alcoholism was the traditional response of more and better religious practices, the same formula that parish priests offered to alcoholic lay people. Mass and Communion, frequent confession, praying the rosary, visits to the Blessed Sacrament: all the true and tried religious devotions that help to make a good person better were seen as curative, or ameliorative, of alcohol addiction. These concepts were part of the training and education in novitiate and seminary. They are an integral part of the clergy life style.

Probably one of the main reasons for adhering to religious practices, while men in other occupations abandon them, is the reluctance on the part of the clergyman to admit that he is an alcoholic. This point was reiterated many times in our interviews with recovering clergy. They said: "this simply could not be happening to me. After all, I knew all the theology anybody could need. I was in holy orders, a special sacramental status. I studied the best moralists and read the most popular ascetical writers. A person like me just could not be a drunkard."

On the other hand, it is often said that the person with this problem is the first to know he is an alcoholic and the last to admit it to others. The average age at which the priest first realizes he is not a normal drinker, that drinking is a problem for him, is at age 42. Eight years later at age 50, he enters a treatment facility. These are average ages, with many younger below this average, and many older above it. Even after recognizing his failure to overcome the craving for liquor, he spends years on the job wanting God to get him out of his desperate condition. He says that he went "through the motions" of religious practices, still believing in their curative powers but discouraged that they did not work for him.

Despite his addiction and the befuddlement that accompanies it, the priest is too well educated to believe that their is a kind of "magic" in sacraments and devotions that will make his problem disappear. Nevertheless, he and his superiors and advisers often cling to the hope that a miracle will happen to remove the alcoholic bondage. Time and again he is admonished, "You could if you would," as though the solution lay in prayer and willpower. The response of the desperate alcoholic is: "I would if I could."

Spiritual Conversion

In practically all cases we have studied, the alcoholic clergyman admitted that he could not find sobriety in his relationship with either God or his church, and in despair and failure to stay away from drink he often said that he was being "let down" by God and church. As Philip J. Donnelly, S.J., has written: "The declining alcoholic is incapable of worshiping God in Spirit, because he has lost his spirit. He has not lost his faith, but spiritual values are completely unattainable while he is in that morass....he cannot escape the awful bondage of alcoholic deterioration."

Oddly enough, the beginning of spiritual recovery occurs when the alcoholic clergyman focuses on himself rather than on God and the church. As one rehabilitated priest said: "The most important discovery I made right at the beginning of treatment was that I am not a bad person. This was a tremendous relief of all the shame and guilt I brought into the place. I saw myself in a completely different light. There was a great initial lifting of my burdens and worries as I discovered what alcoholism was - what it was that I had, how it could be helped - and all of a sudden there was hope."

Most of the people who are caught up in the addiction to alcohol do not understand the nature of their affliction. They do not know what alcoholism is, and this ignorance is probably shared by large numbers of people who would like to help the alcoholic. When we asked the former patients what elements were most helpful in their therapy process they ranked as most important "learning about alcoholism." The overwhelming majority (92 percent) also said that when they realized that alcoholism is an illness, they were relieved of the sense of guilt and of feelings of shame and humiliation.

The relief that came from this cognitive and emotional change was followed by a personal spiritual renewal. Four out of five of them said that their recovery from alcoholism involved a spiritual experience, or "spiritual awakening." As one priest, a religious said: "I rediscovered God in a personal way that I never had before. Now I am very informal with Him. I spend more time in gratitude than in petition. More and more, I attempt to give myself to God in a way I really didn't when I took my vows and when I was ordained. It is a much more complete, thoroughgoing, profound conversion. Soon after that recovery process, as I was discovering more and more about God, I found that I could be much more honest before Him."

If the alcoholic clergyman maintains the dichotomy between religion and spirituality - and he does frequently speak of it - he also comes to realize that the spirituality he now recognizes in his process of recovery "was always there" in the church that he served. He is willing to say that the experience is new, but he points out that the content is not new. In other words, there is "nothing new" about dependence on God, turning one's will and life over to God, asking forgiveness for shortcomings, prayer and meditation, having concern for others, making amends to those we have injured.

In a practical sense, these ancient principles of spirituality, taught by all the churches, seem to have been rediscovered and put to practice in the Twelve Steps of the A.A. fellowship. The story is told of a veteran expert in the field of alcoholism (who declined to be interviewed for this study) that he once explained A.A. to a group of Catholic bishops. One of the prelates remarked: "This is old stuff. What's the difference between what Alcoholics Anonymous have to offer and what the church has always taught?" The simple response came in one word: "Success."

The survey we are conducting on recovering alcoholic clergy is limited only to those who have had in-patient therapy at accredited treatment centers. The principles and philosophy of A.A. are an integral part of their treatment. There are undoubtedly many others who have not had this advantage but have regained sobriety by following the program of A.A. Finally, one occasionally hears of chronic alcoholics - like Matt Talbot - who simply quit drinking.


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