Alcoholism: A Practical Approach

Religious Serials & Series Articles

01-076 Alcoholism: A Practical Approach, by Paul J. Murdock HOMILETIC & PASTORAL REVIEW, Vol. 81: 28-32, APRIL, 1981


by Paul J. Murdock

Mrs. Jones, a married woman in her thirties with a worried look about her, stands ringing the Rectory doorbell. She is accompanied by her husband who gives the distinct impression that he would rather be somewhere else at the moment. When the door opens and they step inside, Mrs. Jones asks to see Fr. Smith, the young curate. Fr. Smith is very friendly with the kids, seems rather easy-going, and is beginning to get some reputation as a successful mediator of marital disputes. Therefore reasons Mrs. Jones, perhaps he would be able to talk with her husband without getting him all riled up and making matters worse. When Father Smith sits down with the couple in the parlor, he learns that Mr. Jones is not home as he used to be. He enjoys stopping into a downtown lounge after work, just to relax with colleagues and "have a few" before coming home for supper. He also likes to have an occasional beer in the evening with friends from the K. of C. The problem is that Mr. Jones is more and more often late for dinner, and his evening excursions occur with increasing frequency. Mrs. Jones is getting tired of spending so much time alone, and she worries that their three children are not getting enough time and attention from their father. To make matters worse, Mr. Jones can get rather short tempered with his wife's criticism, and hostilities are beginning to reach the point where the children are being affected.

Father Smith listens sympathetically to the woman's compliant. He puts Mr. Jones a bit more at ease by directing his remarks to him as he praises the maturity of people who come looking for outside help with personal problems. He then helps Mr. Jones feel a little less defensive by pointing out to Mrs. Jones that alcohol is one of God's gifts, and that relaxing with friends is a good and healthy thing to do. But he also tells Mr. Jones that moderation is quite necessary and that family obligations must always come first. Actually, Mr. Jones knew this all along and was beginning to have difficulty understanding his own behavior. So he readily agrees to Fr. Smith's suggestion that he confine his socializing to one or two occasions a week and that he limit his drinking to one before dinner, and maybe a beer while watching TV with his wife or helping the kids with their homework. The Jones' thank Fr. Smith for his time, and leave the Rectory in a much better state of mind. Mrs. Jones is relieved because she has had the opportunity to vent her frustration. Mr. Jones is happy because the session is over, but also because Fr. Smith has given him some hope that maybe he can pull himself back into line.

Mr. Jones exceeds the limits

Father Smith feels pleased with himself some weeks later when he sees the couple after Sunday Mass. Things are much better with Mr. Jones spending a lot more time with his family and drinking a lot less. However, Father Smith is soon transferred to a parish in another city, and loses touch with the Jones family and their continuing story. Mr. Jones slowly but surely begins to exceed the limits he agreed upon with Father Smith. His wife's protests are met with more hostility. The children begin to expect major eruptions from their father over minor infractions of family discipline. The children's performance in school becomes erratic and the oldest boy becomes something of a discipline problem. Mr. Jones is in a car accident ("It was the other guy's fault."), but the blood alcohol tests showed that he was well beyond the legal limit. No one is more baffled by this unhappy series of events than Mr. Jones himself. He feels his wife no longer understands him. In fact, the only understanding he feels he gets is from a divorcee in his office whom he often meets in the lounge after work. Unfortunately this comforting companionship develops into an indiscretion, and Mrs. Jones finds out. And so, five years after the talk with Fr. Smith, Mr. and Mrs. Jones find themselves involved in a divorce.

The solution lay in abstinence

As of the present writing, the Jones story is not yet over. Mr. Jones' drinking became even more excessive after the divorce. His sense of loss and loneliness became more acute with each passing day. Poor judgment at work, tardiness, and frequent absences placed his job in jeopardy. Eventually his doctor suggested that he admit himself to the local Catholic Hospital for his "nerves." On his third afternoon there, a nurse came in to tell him that there was a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous in the hospital auditorium that night. Two members of the A.A. group always visited the psychiatric floor before the meeting to see if any patients would like to accompany them to the meeting. Perhaps Mr. Jones would enjoy going for a change of scenery. Mr. Jones didn't especially want to go, but he would welcome any opportunity to escape from that floor, if only for a couple of hours. What he saw when he got there completely surprised him; not a room full of seedy looking drunks, but a group of well-dressed, seemingly happy people. Several members stood up before the audience to tell their stories - what alcohol had done to them, and how A.A. had helped them. What surprised him even more was the uncanny similarities between what the speakers narrated and his own unhappy experiences of the past few years. Mr. Jones was one of the lucky people who catch on quickly and he learned two very important lessons at that meeting. He had always felt that he drank because of his difficulties in life, but he came to realize that his difficulties, like those in the stories of the speakers, were caused by his drinking. He also learned that the only solution to his problem lay in abstinence, and that attempts to limit or control his drinking were doomed to failure.

Why didn't Father Smith....?

Today it is almost a year since Mr. Jones attended that meeting. He has not had a drink since then and he continues with A.A. to insure that this state of affairs will continue. He has regained the confidence of his employers and his job is now once again secure. He still lives alone, but visits his family frequently. There seems to be a good chance of a reconciliation with Mrs. Jones, but he doesn't want to set up false hopes for himself or count his chickens before they're hatched. But, as Mr. Jones reviews his past, he feels a certain resentment toward Father Smith. True, his alcoholism was in its early stages when his wife escorted him to the Rectory that day, but some of the early warning signs were present. Why didn't Father Smith pick them up? Or if Father Smith had asked a few pointed questions, he certainly would have uncovered a few more warning signs that even Mrs. Jones had not yet noticed. Although he knows that it is pointless to analyze the past with a long series of "what-ifs," he still can't help thinking that Father Smith could have spared him, his wife, and his children a lot of misery if only he knew a little more about the disease of alcoholism.

False assumptions were made

The story we have just read is, of course, fiction, or maybe semi-fiction. The characters come from the present writer's imagination, but unfortunately the plot is all too real. Though it varies each time in detail, this plot occurs again and again in the lives of our parishioners and in the counsel they seek from the priests. Perhaps I should take us priests off the hook a little bit by observing that there are also many recovered alcoholics in A.A. who are grateful to their clergy for guiding them there. It should also be noted that we priests are not alone in our lack of expertise: there are plenty of doctors and psychiatrists who would happily seconded Father Smith's advice to Mr. Jones.

Now that we've mentioned Father Smith again, why don't we ask ourselves why he did what he did? Why did he fail to see Mr. Jones' problem for what it truly was ? The first part of our answer to this is that Father Smith enjoys taking a drink himself. He has a drink with the Pastor several nights a week before dinner, enjoys a beer while watching the ball game on TV, and will take something in a parishioner's home on special occasions. If Father Smith is offered a drink, he decides whether or not to take it and acts on his decision. Sometimes at informal gatherings with seminary classmates Father Smith will have several drinks, start to feel the effects of the alcohol, but then decide that he has had enough and act on that decision. When Mr. Jones showed up at the Rectory with his wife, Father Smith proceeded to assume somewhat naively that Mr. Jones' experience with alcohol was basically like his own. Father Smith then gave Mr. Jones some pastoral encouragement toward setting limits - in other words, making more appropriate decisions in his use of alcohol. What Father Smith failed to realize was that Mr. Jones suffered from what, in the minds of many researchers, is basically a biochemical disease: alcoholism. Mr. Jones does not experience alcohol the same way that Father Smith does. For Father Smith, to take a drink or abstain is basically a matter of personal decision. For Mr. Jones, the ability to decide in the matter of alcohol is considerably diminished. In fact, once there is alcohol in his system, the ability to decide can easily become totally absent. Hence, when Father Smith suggest that Mr. Jones limit his drinking, he was able, probably with an extraordinary exertion of sheer will power, to do so for a while. But the continued consumption of alcohol eventually erroded whatever decision making ability Mr. Jones had left at his disposal, and the situation turned from bad to worse.

Father Smith had another difficulty as well. He liked and respected Mr. Jones as a "solid citizen" of the community and as an active parishioner. How could he suggest the rather drastic notion of total abstinence? Besides, Mr. Jones was no alcoholic. He had seen too many alcoholics at the Rectory door when he was stationed in a run-down inner-city parish, and he knew that Mr, Jones was one of them. Had he stopped to think, however, Father Smith would have realized that his friends from skid row weren't born that way. If he had of investigated, he would have d some fine doctors, lawyers, and even priests living on skid row. They weren't always that way. At one point they were upstanding citizens of society or the church. No one would have noticed anything different about them except that they perhaps liked a drink a little bit more than their confreres. But they were victims of a disease that is progressive, a disease that tends to get worse. Unfortunately for them, the progression of their disease was not arrested as it was in the case of Mr. Jones.

How to help the alcoholic?

When our friend Father Smith tried to help Mr. Jones he had two basic tools at his disposal: his own experience of alcohol and a man-in-the-street notion of what an alcoholic is. The first tool didn't work because Father Smith is a normal drinker. He is not an alcoholic, and therefore incapable of understanding Mr. Jones if all he has at his disposal is his own personal experience. The second tool didn't work simply because it is basically false: "skid row bums" represent about 5% of the total alcoholic population. The other 95% are composed of people like Mr. Jones, the prefect of the Parish Sodality, the local grocer, the priest in the next parish, the great-grandmother who faithfully attends daily Mass, or the Mailman. Alcoholism has been recognized as a disease by the American Medical Association for almost thirty years. Like the common cold, it is no respecter of social class, profession, gender, race, color, or creed. Like cancer early detection and treatment is a definite advantage. Unlike cancer or the common cold, however, the victim of alcoholism is usually the last to recognize the existence of the problem.

Alcoholism does have two characteristics, however, that make it somewhat different as far as diseases go. It can frequently disguise itself itself as a "moral problem," at least until one realizes that the sufferer is afflicted with a seriously diminished or even totally absent ability to make a moral decision with regard to alcohol. Alcoholism also afflicts, not only the sufferer, but also the lives of those around him. Both of these characteristics make alcoholism a pastoral problem. The parish priest (together with the family doctor) is probably the first professional person to be in a position to help. We encounter it when people like Mr. and Mrs. Jones come to the Rectory to discuss problems connected with drinking. We also encounter it in the confessional with penitents who confess to intoxication, not just on the Saturday following New Year's Day, but quite frequently throughout the year. More frightening still, we encounter it where the word "alcohol" is not even mentioned. Perhaps Mr. Jones' oldest boy is in our parish school and the roller-coaster quality of his academic performance is a good barometer of his father's success or lack of it at controlling his drinking.

Like Father Smith, many of us are ill-equipped to deal with this very real pastoral problem. Alcohol is misused by one person because he has made a poor moral choice. Alcohol is misused by another because he is an alcoholic and has no choice at all. How do we distinguish one from the other? How do we help the victim of alcoholism to appreciate this distinction? How do we effectively help an alcoholic parishioner along the road to recovery? Today's seminary is certainly a lot different from yesterday's, but one thing they have in common is that they have ill prepared Father Smith for dealing with Mr. Jones. (Seminaries are in good company, though, as Medical Schools don't seem to do much better.)

The simple fact of the matter is that many, though by no means all, priests suffer from some degree of ignorance on the subject of alcoholism. It seems good sense to label this ignorance "inculpable." This way we don't have to bother blaming anyone for it, but instead can get on with the more constructive business of doing something about it.

There are many ways of learning about the disease of alcoholism and its pastoral implications. One can go to a summer institute specializing in the subject. One can read countless books and periodicals dealing with the conflicting theories of the origins and nature of the disease. All of these approaches, and a number of others besides, are certainly beneficial. But for the average parish priest, they are certainly impractical. What is needed is something is something close to home, inexpensive, and practical. When I say practical, I mean practical, not just for the immediate business of learning about alcoholism, but also for the ongoing process of helping those we serve.

A.A. is effective

There are many different theories of alcoholism, and varying approaches to its treatment. Almost all would agree, however, that what works most effectively for the greatest number of persons is the Recovery Program of Alcoholics Anonymous. The primary purpose of A.A. is to help its members stay sober and to help other alcoholics to achieve sobriety. In addition to this Alcoholics Anonymous is a valuable tool for the non-alcoholic who wishes to learn more about recovery from alcoholism. In a University city where the writer presently lives, one frequently sees medical students, nursing students, and interns at A.A. meetings. It seems regrettable that the pastoral departments in many of our seminaries don't require the same. My suggestion to the priest who wishes to learn about alcoholism is that he attend a number of open meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Familiarize Yourself

What is an "open meeting"? It is a meeting similar to the one which Mr. Jones attended in the hospital. It is open to the general public, in distinction to a "closed meeting" which is for alcoholics only. The format for such an open meeting would be quite simple: several speakers will get up before the audience and tell their stories: what life was like drinking, and what things are now like leading the A.A. way of life.

Perhaps you would feel uncomfortable going to an A.A. meeting. Why not? It is a new experience! But you must remember that the parishioner you send to A.A. is going to feel far more uncomfortable than you. He will be much more consoled by the knowledge that you, a priest and a non-alcoholic, have gone to these meetings yourself and enjoyed them! If it helps you can go wearing your collar. If it helps, you can dress informally. Most priests who are members of A.A. seem to dress informally, though this is by no means a universal rule.

My suggestion was that one attend "a number" of open A.A. meetings. The "number" was deliberately left rather indeterminate. "How many" is going to vary with the individual priest, with how much he already knows, and how much he wishes to learn. What I will do is simply list a series of "goals" or "results" that the individual priest can look forward to. As he senses himself attaining these he will know that he has gone to the proper number of meetings for his own purposes.

1. A Familiarity with A.A. Itself. What is it like to be present at one of these meetings? Where are they held? As stated above; personal experience of these things is very valuable when referring someone to A.A. Indeed, the priest who is comfortable attending A.A. meetings himself may find it helpful, not just to refer someone to A.A., but to accompany the person himself to his first meeting.

2. A Working Knowledge of the Basic Dynamics of Alcoholism. Listening to a number of stories from A.A. people will help you see what alcoholism looks like from inside the sufferer. You will deepen your appreciation of what A.A. means when it says that alcoholism is a disease and not a moral issue. Literature in the form of easy-to-read pamphlets is available at most meetings, and contains a wealth of practical information.

3. A Perception of Patterns. Every member of A.A. has his or her own story and that story is unique, but there are certain basic similarities in them all. After you have heard a good number of stories, you will begin to perceive patterns that will be most helpful to you in recognizing a possible alcohol problem in those who come to you for help. You will also gain a good familiarity with the "warning signs" of alcoholism.

4. Personal Contacts. Perhaps this area would help you to hesitate before even going to a meeting. What if one of the nuns from my school belongs to the A.A. group and is thoroughly embarrassed when I walk in? You know that A.A. is "anonymous" and any member present knows that you know this. And if you don't, the chairman will certainly remind the audience to "remember what you heard, but forget whom you have seen." More importantly, any A.A. member who perceives your purpose in coming (and that should be fairly obvious), will not only make you feel welcome, but will be more than happy to help you achieve your goal. And getting to know some of these people is one of your purposes in going to meetings. One of the most effective things for a priest to say to an alcoholic looking for help is: "I have a few friends who share your problem, but who are dealing with it successfully. Perhaps I could arrange for you to meet."

The Spiritual is Emphasized

5. An Acquaintance with A.A. Spirituality. A.A.'s definition includes the fact that it is "not a religious program." But it is a very spiritual one. A.A. encourages members to seek help from a "Power Greater Than Themselves" which is frequently referred to as "God as you understand Him." In a number of places in A.A. literature, the member who belongs to a religious tradition is urged to make use of that tradition in working on the spiritual aspect of the A.A. program. A.A. spirituality is enshrined in its "Twelve Steps of Recovery," which in more than one way remind one of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. A priest who has more than a casual familiarity with these Twelve Steps can give a great deal of support to a parishioner who is seeking to take the spiritual aspect of his recovery seriously. Indeed, if his interest in the A.A. program becomes known, the priest may find that he is sought out by non-parishioners or even non-Catholics as they work the Fifth Step of Recovery. "....admitting to God, to themselves, and to another human being the exact nature of their wrongs." The priest who familiarizes himself with the spiritual aspect of A.A. will also experience a fringe benefit: enrichment of his own spiritual life and his Sunday homilies!

6. A Familiarity with Community Facilities. A.A. maintains no formal connections with outside enterprises such as detox centers, half-way houses, hospitals, etc., but many A.A. members have made use of these facilities. Many alcoholics achieve sobriety by being introduced directly into A.A. Others may even need hospitalization in the initial stages of their recovery. Listening to the personal stories of A.A. members and the personal contacts he has made in A.A. will provide the priest with a working knowledge of local facilities that are available to the parishioner who needs professional or medical help in the early stages of getting sober.

God's presence is witnessed

Many A.A. groups decorate their meeting places with banners or signs proclaiming A.A. slogans. The largest banner is almost inevitably the one that says "But for the Grace of God." Many A.A. members describe themselves as "miracles" - perhaps only a person who has shared their addiction to alcohol can fully understand why even one day without drink can seem so miraculous. Sobriety in A.A. is often called an "unmerited Gift from God," which is a fairly good description of what grace is all about. The reader who follows my suggestion will find that he has learned a lot that will help him minister to his people. He will even learn some things that will help him to minister to himself. But he will also find his own priesthood made richer since he himself will be a man more deeply convinced of the active presence of God's love for his people.

A final practical note. Finding A.A. is a very simple procedure. In almost any city and town in the U.S. or Canada, Alcoholics Anonymous is listed in the phone book. Call and ask the location of the nearest open meeting of A.A. When you attend your first meeting, you can obtain a list of other meetings in your area.

If A.A. is not listed in your phone book, you can write to A.A. World Services, Box 459, Grand Central Station, New York, N.Y. 10017. They will inform you of your closest A.A. meeting, or give you valuable information about A.A.'s "Loners" programs for those who live in isolated areas.

Most priests, however, probably know someone who is a member of A.A., so the easiest thing to do would be to go along with one of them to a meeting.


Alcoholics Anonymous Where Recovery Begins

In practicing our Traditions, Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc. has neither endorsed nor are they affiliated with Alcoholics Anonymous®, AA®, and the Big Book® are registered trademarks of Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc.