Alcohol and Other Drugs In Spiritual Formation

Religious Serials & Series Articles

01-083 Alcohol and Other Drugs In Spiritual Formation, by James E. Royce STUDIES IN FORMATIVE SPIRITUALITY, Vol. 8: No. 2, May, 1987

Vol. 8: No. 2, May, 1987

by James E. Royce

"The only alcohol problem I ever had in the seminary was where could I get my next drink." This recollection of a recovered alcoholic priest recounting his story is probably typical of more young religious and seminarians than is realized. Alcohol and other drugs, especially prescription rather than street drugs, are simply a part of our society today. Unless there is a serious problem, the tendency is to take them for granted and certainly not to see them as a threat to spiritual formation (Ford, 1959).

Wine at dinner is no longer only for big feasts in the convent, and beer is presumed to be a harmless source of conviviality. Neither is recognized as having the same alcohol as hard liquor, and as having the danger of addiction. Alcohol in some form is considered a necessity for any picnic or social gathering, male or female. Our good Catholic doctors prescribe tranquilizers and sleeping pills on the naive presumption that no sister or priest could possibly be a "Junkie" or addict. Perhaps more important is the fact often missed that, short of alcoholism or other addiction, even "moderate" use of these substances can interfere notably with the development of a vigorous spiritual life.

The facts, of course, contradict some implicit assumptions in all the above. The percentage of alcoholism and other addictions among priests and other religious is now being reported as probably higher than in the average population (NCCA), and higher than reported earlier (Fichter, 1977; Sorensen, 1976). It often goes on longer undetected, or even if suspected goes on longer before it is confronted by superiors or there is an intervention by concerned peers. I know one sister who was getting pills from five different doctors, another who shopped the various liquor stores telling the clerk in each that there was a special feast coming up, a priest who drank himself to death while his brother priests covered his weddings and funerals for him, a sacristan who consumed large quantities of alter wine without being suspected, and one alcoholic nun who was put into treatment whereupon the prioress found 68 bottles of pills in her room.

This last case illustrates the fact of polydrug or cross-addiction, which is extremely damaging to the body because the effects of alcohol and other drugs in the system do not just add: they multiply, in what is called potentiation or synergism. Polydrug use is so common now that we train our alcoholism counselor not to ask whether one is using other drugs, but to routinely ask "and what other drugs are you using?" If the assumption is wrong, it will be corrected and no harm is done.

But, you say, they know better. Of course. Doctors, nurses and dentists know more about drugs than most people, and they have an above-average incidence of problems. Dr. Claudia Black's book on the children of alcoholics has the poignant but terrifying title, "It Will Never Happen to Me" (1981) which tells of the millions of youngsters who became alcoholics in spite of resolving never to touch the stuff because of what they see it did to their parents. Knowledge does not guarantee conduct: I know how to shoot par golf, but that doesn't mean I do it - any more than being a professional psychologist guarantees my being perfectly adjusted.


How does all this get started? Very subtly. Contrary to the now outmoded theory that alcoholism is the symptom of some underlying personality problem which the victim is trying to sedate, it is now recognized that alcoholics are mostly normal people who start drinking for the same reason as everyone else: to be sociable, to relax, out of custom. The problem is that about one out of ten becomes addicted to the drug. All too often the addiction is seen as the result or symptom of psychological problems, instead of the cause of them, as is the usual case.

Many, but not all, of these have a hereditary biological disposition which may not appear in their parents but might be traced back to a grandparent who lived and died before alcoholism was recognized as a disease. Hence the importance of good screening and education. Not that those with a history of alcoholism in their ancestry should be denied a vocation: just that "forewarned is forearmed" here; they should know that they are biologically more vulnerable and that total abstinence might be the wiser or even necessary route for them.

I recently met a sister who had been an alcoholic since age 14, entered the sisterhood at 22, and shortly thereafter as a novice was admitted to an alcoholism treatment center. A liver scan showed the effects of her heavy teen-age drinking, but how many physicians will routinely run a liver scan on a sister applicant? In early years of seminary or religious life, diagnosis and especially early detection can be quite difficult. The physician is reluctant to suspect alcoholism or other drug abuse. Those in charge of formation tend to dismiss the symptoms as immaturity or rebellion which will disappear in time.

They don't disappear in time, so the person is shunted from one assignment to another instead of being confronted with the real problem. Confrontation is difficult, and always mixed with fear that one will lose a friend, or at least get the subject angry. But Christian fortitude here is also genuine charity, now often called "tough love." The fear that one will lose a friend is counteracted by the statement of a director at Guest House that when recovered priests return to their diocese after treatment for alcoholism and other addictions, they are most grateful to those who forced them into treatment. The ones they are angry at are their peers who encouraged them to be "one of the boys" when they were progressing in a terminal illness.


The fact that the sister in the polydrug case cited above also had a Master's degree and a very responsible administrative position parallels the fact that it is often the most capable priest and religious who develop these problems, and go longest without suspicion because they are respected and trusted. Since it is a disease of denial, a classic symptom of alcoholism is the assertion, "I can quit any time I want to" or "I can take it or leave it alone." (The true social drinker doesn't have to play these games of control, or make these protestations.) But a superior wants to trust the subject, and often believes a con line that no experienced alcoholism counselor would buy for a minute. Again, good tolerance is mistakenly thought to be a sign that things are under control, that one can "handle" one's liquor, whereas the truth is that high tolerance tells us that they are alcoholics.

Drinking more than one intends, short of getting drunk, is a sign often missed by those who still have the false stereotype of an alcoholic as one who always gets drunk every time they drink. In this case, praying over it, or retreat resolutions about cutting down, may be just pious bargaining games one is playing with God to avoid the complete surrender implied in a frank admission that one is alcoholic and cannot drink moderately.

One diagnostic tool is to make a check list of all the person's life problems with no reference to alcohol, then go back and see how many of these problems are alcohol-related in fact. The next step is to get an accurate account of the number of prescriptions that have been written for the person in the last five years, and all other sources of drugs of all kinds. The result can be amazing, and easily reveal the major root of what seemed to be other problems.

An honest drinking history is not easy to obtain, as alcoholics are notorious for deceiving both themselves and others. Vague, evasive answers like "not very much" and "sometimes not at all" are suspect. They don't count how much they had, and sometimes honestly do not remember - a blackout does not mean passing out but amnesia later on even though one is quite conscious at the time. Thinking about drinking, or planning one's next drink, is typical of alcoholics. So is giving reasons (excuses) for drinking, or using alcohol to cope rather than merely enjoying it. Here are some symptoms that can add up even though any one by itself is not conclusive: procrastination on assignments and lack of punctuality for meetings or tasks, undependability often combined with blaming others, personality change or moodiness, irritability, secretiveness, careless dress and appearance, heavy use of breath mints and mouth wash, unaccountable expenditures, and avoidance of old friends.

Physical symptoms of alcohol and other drug misuse may appear only in latter stages: pupils of eyes contracted or dilated, use of sun-glasses when not in sun, glazed "spaced-out" look in eyes, sweaty palms, slight hand tremor, morning cough, high blood pressure, puffiness or redness or small veins on nose or chin, acid stomach (frequent use of Turns, Rolaids), skin disorders, or trouble fighting off infections and colds. Sleep disturbances, fatigue, nervousness, digestive system disorders, headaches, heavy smoking and coffee consumption are all suggestive of alcohol or other drug problems.

Spiritual "Disease"

Addiction is now recognized as a disease (AMA, 1984). But unlike many illnesses it is not just physical, nor the province solely of the medical profession. It is a physical, psychological, social, and spiritual disease. Let us examine what we mean by saying it is a spiritual disease.

Health is integral to functioning, the whole person being able to relate to the whole of reality in proper proportion. Sickness or disease is a defect in this integral functioning, a lack-of-ease or dysfunction. Alcohol and other drugs impair one's ability to think and feel right about God, to function in relation to God as one should. The result is spiritual dis-ease. One cannot be comfortable in the presence of the Creator, gets distorted ideas of God or feelings toward God which make it difficult to really trust and love. One is ill-at-ease with God, not attuned to the Infinite which is the most important part of the whole of reality to which one must relate. Alcohol or marijuana or pills anesthetize one's sensitivity to spiritual values. Religion becomes sick: mechanical, shallow, external instead of deeply felt and experienced. Spiritual life becomes dormant, but one is anesthetized to that fact, too.

One can be very active in a religion with a low level of spiritual life, or be very spiritual without even belonging to a religion. Gordon Allport of Harvard probably was getting at this distinction between religious and spiritual when he researched external vs. internal religion. The distinction is often used to explain why Alcoholics Anonymous is not a religion, although it is an intensely spiritual program and its Twelve Steps are centered around God, with alcohol being mentioned only once. The result is that A.A. can be a boost to the religious life of anyone, regardless of their religion. It is very concerned with spiritual health, because it recognizes alcoholism as being also a spiritual disease as well as physiological and psychological.

Deterioration of the person's spiritual life is almost inevitable as addiction to alcohol or other drugs starts to progress. Subtle at first, and not related in the mind of either the person or their spiritual advisor, the connection is often realized only during recovery. It is hard to pray well when one is high, or hung over. Eventually prayer becomes a mere formality, though it rarely ceases altogether in a priest or religious. Sometimes it takes the form of prayer asking God to remove the alcohol/drug problem, but it is never thoroughgoing and effective because, as mentioned above, there is no real surrender to the fact of addiction at this point.

I think it useful and tactful, for those of us who are not alcoholics to refrain from describing how an alcoholic feels (Royce, 1984). Rather than telling them that all alcoholics are liars, say "alcoholics tell me they have a problem with telling the truth." How do alcoholics describe themselves? As feeling discouraged, powerless, guilty, frustrated at their lack of will power, anxious, dishonest, self-centered, alienated from God and and the community, with low frustration tolerance, lacking true humility but with low self-esteem. They are indeed spiritually sick (Royce, 1981, chapter 18).

They may also report some moral deterioration. At one time this was thought to be the cause of alcoholism, which was looked upon as moral depravity or weak will. We now know that this is the result, not the cause, of the addiction. They may have become dishonest, selfish, neglectful of duties to the point of at least some sins of omission. Their guilt feelings may be grossly exaggerated, and they need to be reassured that they are sick, not bad. In any case they are probably discouraged, depressed. They need to know that this is their dark night of the soul, that emptying of the cup of all that is material before it can be filled with God.


Much of this describes latter stages of the illness. During the formative years this may all be quite minimal, and imperceptible to the average spiritual guide or superior. But it is happening, in seminaries and in religious orders of men and women all over the world. It is indeed very difficult to separate the mere fun and partying from the early stages of addiction. Superiors are loathe to be suspicious, but the fact is that Jansenism and Prohibition have had the pendulum effect of swinging us to far in the opposite direction. It is only partly in jest that I speculate as to how many Catholics, during the Prohibition years and the century of bitter emotional battles which led up to it, drank themselves into alcoholism to prove they were not Methodists or Baptists.

Let's look at the facts. An estimated 16% of American priests have their apostolic effectiveness impeded to some degree by alcohol. Note we do not say that they are full blown alcoholics. But the work of God should not be diminished even to that degree by an avoidable cause. And most of it could be avoided if the seeds were detected early in formation. Not that dire threats and warnings by themselves are effective prevention. Not even good education alone can accomplish that. But education is the first phase of prevention. It is appalling the amount of ignorance one observes in supposedly sophisticated and educated people when it comes to the facts about alcohol and other drugs.

The current interest among the young in nutrition and good health habits, the whole human potential movement, can be capitalized on in prevention efforts. Alcohol is the classic case of "empty calories" - 210 calories to the ounce with no protein, no vitamins, no minerals. It attacks every organ and tissue in the human body, especially the brain and liver. It should be stressed that alcohol causes more problems than alcoholism. One does not have to be an alcoholic to kill somebody with an automobile after drinking even moderate amounts. Nor does one have to be an identifiable alcoholic to have their spiritual growth stunted by drinking. Our description of spiritual disease given above could apply to many seminarians and religious in formation long before they are recognized as alcoholics.

Besides education, the next prevention need is a psychological climate in our houses of formation which does not look down on abstinence as prissy or old-fashioned. I am not a total abstainer nor a recovered alcoholic; but we need to admit that temperance is, after all, one of the Christian virtues we are supposed to be inculcating in our young charges. It is irony that there are 37 million ex-smokers in the U.S., and the heir to the R.J. Reynolds tobacco fortune came out in the Spring of 1986 as publicly opposing cigarettes, while professed pursuers of an ascetical life and even many of their spiritual directors are still puffing away. Nicotine is an extremely addictive drug. Smoking is an expensive habit not in accord with the Christian poverty we pretend to advocate when we talk about concern for the poor, nor with the mortification proper to followers of the Christ who said that unless we take up our cross we are not worthy to be called his disciples. Yet smokers are treated as privileged members of the community in many religious houses. And any attempt to restrict alcohol consumption is looked upon as priggish.

What I propose is not Prohibition. It is not a high level of sanctity. It is very low-level asceticism, if you will, the minimum one might reasonably expect of people who claim to be pursuing Christian perfection. It is just common-sense care of one's health, a moral obligation we all have. We cannot perpetuate the attitudes of the past which grew out of ignorance of the efforts of alcohol and other drugs on the human body. The Reynolds heir explained his stand to the press by saying that when his grandfather built up the tobacco fortune it was not known what we know today about the impact of smoking on health. Perhaps the tendency toward rebellion and protest which are characteristic of youth may be useful here. Young people may take rightful satisfaction in rejecting the stupidity of their elders in these matters.

Community attitudes can be changed, and indeed are changing in America with regard to smoking and drunk driving. Heavy drinking is no longer looked upon as a sign of sophistication or manliness. Pushing drinks, instead of being seen as generous hospitality, is now viewed as dangerous and the possible source of a civil liability lawsuit. Drunken behavior is no longer considered funny. One wonders why clergy and religious are not in the forefront of such changes instead of dragging their feet.

Thirdly, plenty of alternatives, attractive and readily available, should always accompany alcoholic beverages any time they are served. One should have a choice, and I don't mean between Scotch and Bourbon. At one university, the Friday night keggers dropped from eight kegs of beer to five per night, without any rules or moralizing, when the student body leaders decided to have plenty of the favorite soft drinks available, ice cold and very prominently displayed. Many students would switch to soft drinks after one or two beers or say, "I prefer 7-Up (or Pepsi) tonight." The whole lifestyle in a seminary or religious house should avoid the implication that alcohol is necessary to have fun or to socialize.

Fourthly, spiritual directors need to be alert to the connection between the problems presented to them and possible misuse of alcohol and other drugs. Anger, for instance, is often the result of being frustrated, hurt, irritated in ways that we all suffer. But alcohol can keep one from learning more constructive and Christian ways of dealing with anger, and indeed may be the cause of the hurt or frustration in the first place. Anxiety is a typical excuse for drinking, yet the net effect of alcohol is to make one more anxious, similarly with trying to cope with depression by drinking alcohol, which is itself a depressant. Inability to get along with others and general alienation (except from drinking companions) can be an early warning sign of future addiction.

Ego problems betray a lack of genuine humility, the most fundamental and the most difficult virtue in the spiritual life. Low self-esteem is a perennial problem, often accompanied by anxiety and depression. The rejection and failure, real or imagined, which stems from feelings of low self-worth are often the result of drinking and in turn are used as an excuse for more drinking in a vicious cycle of self-defeat. Guilt naturally ensues, and the resulting feelings of unworthiness and self-blame can seriously interfere with any solid spiritual growth. Indecisiveness may be related to the anesthetizing effect of drugs, including alcohol, on one's ability to think through alternatives and make clear-cut decisions.

Spiritual Recovery

Rather than an obstacle to spiritual growth or even a tragedy, addiction can be a great boost to one's spiritual life. As mentioned earlier, Alcoholics Anonymous is a beautiful and psychologically sound spiritual program, which can enhance the life of grace of anyone who practices the Twelve Steps. Several professional psychologists, for example Dr. Brown (1985), have shown how A.A. and psychotherapy can be quite compatible. And certainly the A.A. literature contains a wealth of helps for spiritual growth. Apthorp (1985) has given us a clergy manual which demonstrates in detail how A.A. principles can be used in parish work. Robin Norwood, in her book Women Who Love Too Much (1985), showing how the Twelve Steps can be applied to other obsessive-compulsive tendencies, emphasizes the spiritual dimensions of the steps. All this can be integrated readily with Catholic spirituality. Although not a member, I go to open meetings of A.A. because it is good for my spiritual life. One pair of sisters who are A.A. and Al-Anon, respectively, do a great deal of good with their talks to both religious and laity.

It is true that A.A. is not the only or necessary way to sobriety, but good sociological research (Fichter, 1982) confirms what common sense would suspect, namely that the highest percentage of successful recovery in alcoholic priests occurs when they attend A.A. regularly after discharge from treatment. Today seminarians and novices are getting into A.A. long before in-patient treatment would be necessary. What they are surprised to find is that any A.A. group will welcome a sister or priest or seminarian without the slightest condescension and nary a raised eyebrow. Instead, what one hears at A.A. meetings is St. Augustine's, "there but for the grace of God go I."

Of course, one goes to A.A. meetings in mufti and is there to listen and profit, not counsel or preach. And if one has a polydrug problem, tact and discretion suggest that one concentrate on the alcohol problem and not bring up the other drugs if that is offensive to the group. (The same is true of using Antabuse, which is quite compatible with A.A. and has saved many lives; but some A.A.'s mistakenly object, and its use is often better left unmentioned.) However, mention of polydrug abuse, provided alcohol is a principal drug, is now becoming very common at many A.A. meetings and is actually encouraged in an A.A. Conference - approved pamphlet (1978, p.16).

Many alcoholic priests and religious have reported that compared to what they learned in A.A., their whole previous spiritual life was shallow, and their relation to God was very impersonal. Resignation to God's will becomes a reality in their use of Steps Three and Six/Seven (see Chapter 5, "How it Works," in the book Alcoholics Anonymous, 1939, 1976). They use the word surrender, although I prefer acceptance. "Thy will be done" becomes a reality in their life. The whole "Our Father" takes on a richer meaning than they ever imagined.

They have really learned how to pray and meditate by practicing Step Eleven: "Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, seeking only a knowledge of His will and the power to carry that out." This can be rather high-level spirituality: seeking only God's will! Their concept of God is transformed from that of a punishing tyrant to that of a loving, wise, and kind parent. They can truly pray to God as "Abba" with all the familiarity of Mamma or Daddy implied by this term.

And from a feeling of helplessness they grow into a realization with St. Paul that "I can do all things in Him who strengthens me." They learn that it is good theology to say God helps those who help themselves. Like a good Al-Anon, God is not a Rescuer or Enabler. Turning one's will and life over to the care of God does not mean sitting back and letting God do it. We must still produce, but under the care of a loving God.

They learn that confession is more than "dumping garbage" and that forgiveness is not analysis of why one did something, to explain it away. Reconciliation means healing, spiritual health, re-establishing a personal relationship with God, getting "at ease" with Him again. True humility means being comfortable with our human imperfection, a recognition of the truth that we are not bad bad but just not-God, to use the phrase from the title of Kurtz's (1979) definitive scholarly history of A.A. whose theme is that it is the history of over a million people who discovered that they are not God. They learn that A.A. claims spiritual progress, not perfection.

Sobriety is more than just abstinence. Merely avoiding a drink is a pretty empty way of life. A.A.'s live life to the full, joyfully and with a clean conscience, with plenty of fun and no hangovers. I am often asked why I work in this field, to which the answer is simply: it is a source of great satisfaction to see recovering alcoholics get well, start to look better and feel better, grow spiritually and in their zest for life. They become not only well but "weller than well"- which now seems to be confirmed by research using psychological tests (Mellor et al., 1986) This is not meant in any "healthier than thou" sense, but at least to the extent that they are better off than they would have been had they never been alcoholics and hence never discovered how much God loves them and how much they love God.

Although there are no rules, most identify themselves at A.A. meetings with "My name is Mary (or Joe) and I am a GRATEFUL alcoholic" which reminds us that St. Ignatius of Loyola and many other great mystics tell us that the beginning of the love of God is gratitude for his gifts. And there are none more thankful than recovered alcoholics. Married lovers tell me that after intercourse they sometimes just murmur "Thank you, thank you, thank you...." and that might well be the prayer of one who loves God very much.


I Am An Alcoholic Priest The Success of Alcoholics Anonymous: Locus of Control and God’s General Revelation

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.