The Catholic Contribution to the 12-Step Movement

By W. Robert Aufill


At first, there were no Catholic members in AA, but their participation was made possible by the final separation of AA from the Oxford Group.


In New York, the first Catholic member was Morgan R., who acted as AA's first unofficial liaison with the Catholic Church. Morgan submitted the manuscript of the book Alcoholics Anonymous ("the Big Book") to the New York Archdiocesan Committee on Publications and received a favorable response. The Committee, Morgan reported, "had nothing but the best to say of our efforts. From their point of view the book was perfectly all right as far as it went." A few editorial suggestions were readily and gratefully incorporated, especially in the section treating of prayer and meditation.


Only one change was requested. In Wilson's story, he had "made a rhetorical flourish to the effect that 'we have found Heaven right here on this good old earth.' " It was suggested he change "Heaven" to "Utopia." "After all, we Catholics are promising folks something much better later on!"


A Catholic non-alcoholic who profoundly influenced AA in its early days was Fr. Edward Dowling of the Society of Jesus. Although his involvement with AA was only one of many apostolic and charitable works, his influence on AA was considerable. His work is valuable as a pattern for Catholics who wish to relate constructively to AA and other recovery groups.


Dowling was a Jesuit from St. Louis and was the editor of a Catholic publication called The Queen's Work. Upon reading the Big Book, he was favorably impressed and saw parallels between the 12 steps and aspects of Ignatian spirituality—perhaps especially the Ignatian admonition to pray as if everything depends on God and to work as if everything depends on oneself.


Dowling made Wilson's acquaintance on a cold, rainy night in 1940. Wilson grudgingly admitted the visitor, thinking his unexpected guest was yet another drunk demanding help and attention. Soon, as they talked, the Jesuit began to share an understanding of the spiritual life which was to influence Wilson from that day forward.


This is all the more remarkable because Wilson had never known any Catholics intimately and felt a lingering prejudice against members of the clergy, of whatever denomination.


Wilson viewed his meeting with Dowling as "a second conversion experience." The crippled Jesuit, he said, "radiated a grace that filled the room with a sense of Presence" (interestingly enough, Wilson used the same expression, "sense of Presence," to describe his impression of Winchester Cathedral in England, which had obvious Catholic associations and where he had first experienced a desire for God many years before). Wilson was feeling depressed and angry at God because, at the moment, he seemed to be a failure:


As Wilson's biographer tells it, "When Bill asked if there was never to be any satisfaction, the old man snapped back, 'Never. Never any.' There was only a kind of divine dissatisfaction that would keep him going, reaching out always."


The priest went on: Having surrendered to God and received back his sobriety, Wilson could not retract his surrender by demanding an accounting from God when life did not unfold according to preconceived expectations. Even the sense of dissatisfaction could be an occasion of spiritual growth.


Dowling then hobbled to the door and declared, as a parting shot, "that if ever Bill grew impatient, or angry at God's way of doing things, if ever he forgot to be grateful for being alive right here and now, he, Father Ed Dowling, would make the trip all the way from St. Louis to wallop him over the head with his good Irish stick." And so began a twenty-year friendship between Wilson and Dowling, who remained Wilson's spiritual advisor.


Wilson was deeply attracted to the Catholic Church and even received instruction from Fulton Sheen in 1947. Wilson's wife Lois, looking back on it all, was sure that he was never really close to conversion; but a close friend thought otherwise: "I had the impression that at the last minute, he didn't go through with his conversion because he felt it would not be right for AA."


The simplest explanation is that Wilson remained profoundly ambivalent about organized religion and its doctrines. Just as he had shied away from the "Absolutes" of the Oxford Group, so he could not see his way to accepting Catholicism's own absolutism—in particular, papal infallibility and the efficacy of sacraments: "Though no disbeliever in all miracles, I still can't picture God working like that."


Concerning infallibility, Wilson wrote to Dowling: "It is ever so hard to believe that any human beings, no matter who, are able to be infallible about anything." In a 1947 letter to Dowling he said, "I'm more affected than ever by that sweet and powerful aura of the Church; that marvelous spiritual essence flowing down by the centuries touches me as no other emanation does, but when I look at the authoritative layout, despite all the arguments in its favor, I still can't warm up. No affirmative conviction comes . . . P. S. Oh, if only the Church had a fellow-traveler department, a cozy spot where one could warm his hands at the fire and bite off only as much as he could swallow. Maybe I'm just one more shopper looking for a bargain on that virtue— obedience!"


To Sheen Wilson wrote: "Your sense of humor will, I know, rise to the occasion when I tell you that, with each passing day, I feel more like a Catholic and reason more like a Protestant!"


This is precisely the challenge faced by Catholic apologists in witnessing to those in recovery groups: bringing the head and the heart together.


Wilson's difficulties with Catholic faith tell us that—without dilution—we must make our faith and its graces more accessible by connecting faith with experience. This does not mean we can neglect reasoned apologetics—far from it. We must respect people's intelligence. But, as Sheen noted, in some cases, our reasoning "leaves the modern soul cold, not because its arguments are unconvincing, but because the modern soul is too confused to grasp them."


If we offer a plausible account of the religious implications of 12-step recovery, we can perhaps get a receptive hearing for a fuller evangelization and catechesis.


At the convention marking AA's twentieth anniversary (the society's "coming of age"), Dowling said, "We know AA's 12 steps of man toward God. May I suggest God's 12 steps toward man as Christianity has taught them to me." He then went on to draw out the parallels between AA's steps of recovery and God's redemption of the human race in Christ, who is both the Incarnate God and the New Adam of redeemed humanity.


Dowling concluded with Francis Thompson's poem The Hound of Heaven, suggesting that the poem was "[t]he perfect picture of the AA's quest for God, but especially God's loving chase for the AA."


Another important, though somewhat later, Catholic influence on AA was Fr. John C. Ford, S.J., one of Catholicism's most eminent moral theologians. In the early forties, Ford himself recovered from alcoholism with AA's help. He became one of the earliest Catholic proponents of addressing alcoholism as a problem having spiritual, physiological, and psychological, dimensions.


Ford said that alcohol addiction is a pathology which is not consciously chosen, but he rejected the deterministic idea that alcoholism is solely a disease without any moral component: "[I]t obviously has moral dimensions, and that is one reason why the clergyman is thought to have a special role to play.


"To answer the question: Is alcoholism a moral problem or is it a sickness, I think the answer is that it is both. I don't think it is true to say that alcoholism is just a sickness, in the sense that cancer or tuberculosis are sicknesses. I think there are too many rather obvious differences between the two to classify alcoholism as a sickness in that sense. On the other hand, I don't think it is true either to say that alcoholism is just a moral problem. There are still a good many people who look at an alcoholic as a good-for-nothing with a weak will or one who doesn't use his willpower . . .


"They keep saying, 'Don't do it again,' over and over. I don't believe he does it just because he wants to do it or because he is willful. When you look at the agony that the alcoholic inflicts upon himself over the course of the years, it seems to me to be very difficult to say he wants to be that way or he does it on purpose. . . . I think it is fair to speak of alcoholism as a triple sickness—a sickness of the body, a sickness of the mind, and also a sickness of the soul."


Wilson, impressed by Ford's insight, asked him to edit Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions (with the Big Book, this is the basic text of 12-step recovery) and Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age. In part, Wilson's concern in these books was to present the AA program in a way acceptable to Catholic sensibilities.


Ford's contribution to AA was therefore twofold: He drew on both religion and psychology to show alcoholism as a synthetic problem requiring a synthetic remedy, and he took seriously the quasicompulsive nature of addiction while rejecting both absolute determinism and the attendant pitfalls of a purely therapeutic approach. He drew on psychological insights, but ultimately shared the sentiments of Dr. Bob, who used to say, "Don't louse it up with psychiatry."


In so many ways, Ford's approach to addiction and recovery remains a model of spiritual discernment for our own time.


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