The Catholic Contribution to the 12-Step
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
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
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
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
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
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
This is precisely the challenge faced by Catholic apologists in
witnessing to those in recovery groups: bringing the head and the
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
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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