Catholic Asceticism and the
Reverend Edward Dowling, S.J.
The Queen's Work, St. Louis, Missouri
I think that if our positions were reversed, you
would feel as I do -- grateful to be the focus of good will.
I think that is true of anybody who speaks at an A.A.
gathering, or about A.A.
I am sensible, as you are, of God's closeness to human humility.
I am sensible, also, of how close human humility can come to
humiliation, and I know how close that can come to an alcoholic.
I think that in addition to my confidence in the closeness
of God to one suffering from alcoholism, I would like to invoke
our Lord's promise that where two or three gather together in His
Name, there He will be in their midst.
First of all, asceticism comes from the Greek word meaning the
same as exercise, or better, to practice gymnastics. The
concept of exercise is to loosen up the muscles to prepare them
for vigorous activity. Applied to spiritual matters, it
means to loosen up the faculties of the mind or soul, to prepare
them for better activity. Physical exercise is gymnastics,
setting-up exercises, preparing me to take steps. In the
same way, asceticism is preliminary, a preparation for me to use
the powers of my soul.
Christian asceticism is contained, of course, in the Gospel.
All the teachings of Our Lord boil down to the cardinal
ideas; one negative, the denial of self; the other positive, the
imitation of and union with Christ.
One of the many different systematized forms of Christian
exercises is the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. There
are many others, and all are efforts to apply to one's life those
two principal ideas of denial of self and an affirmation of
Christ. "Spiritual Exercises" indicate, of course,
that the thing to be exercised is the spirit. The word
"exercise" indicates a releasing of the faculties or
powers of the soul.
St. Ignatius starts with a presumption that our power of faculties
are bound by sinful tendencies and addictions to the wrong things.
The Spiritual Exercises, therefore, work on the soul in both
a negative and positive way. The first section, the
consideration of my sins and of their effects in hell, is the
negative part. It aims by self-denial to release our wills
from our binding addictions, to enable the will to desire and to
The second part of the Spiritual Exercises, start in with a
consideration of the Incarnation and going through the Passion and
Resurrection, is an effort to see how Christ would handle various
A priest alcoholic, who has written with discernment on the
Spiritual Exercises, first pointed out to me the similarity
between them and the twelve steps of A.A. Bill, the founder
of A.A. recognized that those twelve steps are pretty much the
releasing of myself from the things that prevent my will's
choosing God as I understand Him.
Twelve Steps and the Spiritual Exercises
The first seven or eight steps of A.A. are quite specific as
to what should be done in order to release the will from addiction
to evil. On the positive side, the twelve steps are very
general. Bill once stated: "It is a firm
principal with us that, so far as A.A. goes, each member has the
absolute right to seek God as he will." On another
occasion he declared that A.A. was not concerned about the
particular way a man works out his dependence on God. That
depends on him and on God, mostly on God. The alcoholic's
business, as expressed in the eleventh step, is to find out what
God wants and to ask for strength to carry that out.
Like the Spiritual Exercises, like Christian asceticism in
general, the twelve steps are not speculative ideas. They
are practical steps. May I suggest some of the parallels
between the Spiritual Exercises and the twelve steps.
The first three of the twelve steps correspond roughly with
the foundation of the Spiritual Exercises. In the foundation
we see man as creature. It recognizes the dependence of man
on God because of the rather abstract, relatively unknown fact,
creation. A.A. bases dependence on a rather concrete
specific type of experience, drunkenness. The Ignatian
foundation indicates that everything else shall be chosen or
rejected in the light of the purpose that grows out of this
dependence, i.e., sharing Him for all eternity by doing His will
The A.A. third step directs that one's life and one's will be
directed by the influence of God. In it the alcoholic
determines to turn his life and his will over to the care of God
as he understands Him. This emphasis on the will indicates
that the alcoholic should direct himself by his will rather than
by the feelings that have enmeshed him. The focal importance
of the will is a characteristic of the Spiritual Exercises.
Moral Inventory - Confession
In the Spiritual Exercises, the next thing is the
contemplation of sin; sin in the angels, in our first parents, in
others, in myself, and sin in its effects. And of course,
right along the line there you have the fourth step of A.A., a
fearless, thorough moral inventory of one's sins. The
parallelism is rather striking.
To a priest who asked Bill how long it took him to write those
twelve steps he said that it took twenty minutes. If it were
twenty weeks, you could suspect improvisation. Twenty
minutes sounds reasonable under the theory of divine help.
After a moral inventory of one's life, all spiritual exercises,
Catholic anyway, demand the confession of sins. It is
specifically required in the Spiritual Exercises. In the A.A.
fifth step, you have that general confession admitting my sins to
myself, to God, and to another human being.
Reatus Culpae and Reatus Poenae
There are two liabilities when we commit a sin: one, reatus
culpae, the guilt of the sin; the other reatus poenae, the
obligation of restitution. The A.A. sixth and seventh steps
cover the guilt of the sin, and the eighth and ninth steps the
obligation of restitution.
I think the sixth step is the one which divides the men from the
boys in A.A. It is love of the cross. The sixth step says
that one is not almost, but entirely ready, not merely willing,
but ready. The difference is between wanting and willing to
have God remove all these defects of character. You have
here, if you look into it, not the willingness of Simon Cyrene to
suffer, but the great desire or love, similar to what Chesterton
calls "Christ's love affair with the cross."
The seventh step implements that desire by humbly asking God to
remove these defects. The alcoholic sees one defect go as a
bottle of beer is taken away. And so, that continuing
detachment which goes along in any ascetical life holds true in
A.A. As one grows in A.A., the problems seem to get
bigger, the strength bigger, and the dividends greater.
Then comes the reatus poenae, the obligation of restitution or
penance. God's forgiveness is sought in the sixth and
seventh steps. In the eight and ninth steps one makes
restitution. In the eighth step the alcoholic makes a list
of those people he has offended and whose bills he hasn't paid.
In the ninth step he pays off these obligations, if he can
do so without hurting people more.
The Positive Side
The eleventh and twelfth steps give a rather limited parallel to
the positive asceticism of Christianity. The eleventh step
bids one by prayer and meditation to study to improve his
conscious grasp of God, asking Him only for two things, knowledge
of His will and the power to carry it out. Now, that is a
true and accurate description of the positive aspects of Christian
asceticism as well as of the second, third, and forth weeks of the
Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius.
Then, the twelfth step. Having had a spiritual exercise or
awakening as a result of these steps, we carry this message to
other alcoholics and practice these principles in all our other
affairs. In our apostolic work we should be an instrument in
God's hands. The A.A. steps before this twelfth step are to
improve by instrumental contact with God this dependence of work
for others on my growth toward Christ-like sanity and sanctity has
significance to an alcoholic priest. Often such a one will
say, "If I could only get a little work, I feel that I could
stay sober." Gradually he finds out that if he
approaches sobriety through work, the work isn't going to come and
the sobriety may not come either. But, as soon as he says,
"Once I become sober, work will come," the hope of
success is much greater.
No Humility Without Humiliation
A.A. has helped me as a person and as a priest. A.A. has
made my optimism greater. My hopelessness starts much later.
Like anyone who has watched A.A. achieve its goals, I have
seen dreams walk. You and I know that in the depths of
humiliation we are in a natural area, and, rightly handled,
especially is the inner spirit of that sixth step, I think we can
almost expect the automatic fulfillment of God's promise to assist
the humble. Where there is good will, there is almost an
iron connection between humiliation and humility and God's help.
A.A. helps the priest in other matters than alcoholism, as the
twelfth step indicates. I had a little exercise which will
illustrate this point. It is a very small thing in itself,
but I feel that it is a clear example of how A.A. work can help
personally even a non-alcoholic priest.
Learning Not To Think About It
To obtain a greatly needed help which prayer alone didn't seem
to bring, I thought of giving up smoking. I had failed to
give it up, even though in retreat after retreat I had tried
various plans to break off the habit. None of them seemed to
work for long.
Then, thinking of A.A., I realized that I had seen men in that
same boat who couldn't give up drinking. I realized that A.A.
does not directly cause a man to quit drinking, but rather it
causes him to quit thinking about drinking. Well, it seemed
easier to give up thinking about smoking; but I didn't think I
could do even that. I thought of A.A. novices saying,
"I can't do it all my life. I can't do it all day.
I can do it for maybe ten minutes." Inspired by
the humble example of A.A. men, I said at that point to myself,
"I won't try to quit smoking but I will, with God's help,
postpone the thought of smoking for three minutes." That
is a humiliating admission for a priest who tells others to give
up much harder things.
From A.A. I learned to respect the little suffering of denying
self the thought of a smoke and to pool that suffering with the
sufferings of Christ, in the spirit of the sixth step. At
that moment, like a breath of fresh air, came the thought of the
widow and her mite and the importance which love can give to
unimportant things. With humiliation came humility, and with
humility came God's promised help. It is three or four years
since I thought of myself smoking, and I have learned that you
can't smoke if you don't think about smoking.
That is a little instance from among hundreds of the applications
of A.A. principles. I have watched the most difficult
personal situations which a priest faces yield to the A.A. twelve
steps approach, even though no alcoholism was involved. Of
course, Christ and His Passion came in encouragingly through the
third and eleventh steps.
Priest Membership in A.A.
Now, the part which I would like to submit for your
discussion, should a priest go into A.A.? Should a Catholic
join A.A.? There are two questions to be answered before one
can decide whether or not a priest should enter A.A. First,
what will be the effect on the Church? Secondly, what will
be the effect on the priest?
Frankly, I don't think the Church needs saving nearly as much as
the man. God's cause is often hurt by people who are trying
to save God. There is an apostolic opportunity that you can
find in dealing with A.A., which has therapeutic value to the
individual and which offers great opportunity for the Church.
The scandal that a drinking priest might give is not so
serious in A.A. as it would be of a Catholic organization meeting,
because the understanding is different.
The twelfth step demands an apostolic outlook, that is, it demands
that we not only apply what we have learned to our own life, but
also that we carry the good news to other people, and specifically
The Moral Side of Psychiatric Problems
Errors of Psychotherapy, by Sebastian de Grazia, is a humble
confession of the failure of most psychiatric efforts. Psychoanalysis,
which is the dominant psychotherapy today, is impractical for most
people because of the expense and because of the unavailability of
psychoanalysts. Its record of cures is not much better than
the rate of neglected and spontaneous cures in state mental
De Grazia's book is replete with devastating quotations from
psychiatrists on the failure and inadequacy of current therapy,
though he recognizes that all therapies have a certain percentage
of cures. After surveying all therapies through history and
throughout the world, de Grazia says, "Moral authority, an
idea widely spurned by modern healers of the soul, is the crux of
psychotherapy. The crystals that remain after the
distilling of the multiplicity of therapies are not many. A
bewildering array of brilliants dwindles down to a few precious
few: neurosis is a moral disorder; the psychotherapeutic
relationship is one or authority; the therapist gives moral
Religious Outlook Essential
Jung, one of Freud's first followers, wrote, "Among all my
patients in the second half of life -- that is to say, over
thirty-five -- there has not been one whose problem in the last
resort was not that of finding a religious outlook on life. It
is safe to say that every one of them fell ill because he had lost
that which the living religions of every age have given to their
followers. None of them has been really healed who did not
regain his religious outlook."
The theory that moral and religious treatment is the type needed
for today's epidemic of psychoses and neuroses is being most
effectively urged by Dr. Frank R. Barts, director of the
department of psychiatry at Creighton University in Omaha. In
his book, "The Moral Theory of Behavior" he writes:
"All extent theories of mental illness have been
refuted by able critics." He feels that the virtues of
charity and humility would go a great distance in many neurotic
and psychotic situations.
The Saturday Evening Post, December 6, 1952, wrote up Recovery
Inc., and showed how it approached neuroses and psychoses in much
of the amateur group way that A.A. approaches the alcoholic
neurosis. Its founder, Doctor Abraham A. Low, rejects
psychoanalysis as philosophically false and practically
ineffective. He writes: "Life is not driven by
instincts but is guided by the will."
Sanity, rather than sobriety, is the aim of the A.A. second step.
Psychiatric literature echoes A.A.'s statement that
alcoholism is a form of insanity. Yet, in treating this
insanity, we know the success of the approach which is amateur and
group, moral and spiritual. We remember the last speech of
Dr. Bob, co-founder of A.A. Dying of cancer, he left his
mental legacy: "Don't louse it up with
Priests of A.A. have two indelible marks: once an alcoholic always
an alcoholic; once a priest, always a priest. Two invisible,
indelible marks, both of tremendous significance to others. As
alcoholics they know insanity from the inside. As members of
A.A. they know the techniques and they know the wonders that can
come from amateur group psychotherapy based on the human will
aided by God's help.
Significance of Clergy Conference
In this room we may be seeing the confirmation of B.B. Cattell's
statement, in his Meaning of Clinical Psychology: "The
possibility that the clergyman, rather than the psychologist or
mental practitioner, is the ultimate specialist in human
adjustment has been most unscientifically ignored."
The experience in this room makes it easier to see de Grazia's
statement: "Were a system of psychotherapy to be built
by having all secular therapies agree to harmonize their divergent
criteria of cures, it would emerge as a religious enterprise, an
Here are not only members of A.A., but priests trained by and
adept in the use of Christian asceticism, priests who speak with
authority because they are experienced. I cannot help
feeling that there are trends and forces, human and divine, that
keep rendezvous here tonight, and that the happiness and sanctity
can be richer if we meet the challenge of this rendezvous.
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