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Vol. 5: 17-29, September, 1951
RELIGION and ALCOHOLISM
by John Doe
am an active Catholic layman, conscious of the privileges
and the obligations of my faith.
am also an alcoholic.
more years than I have stomach to look back on, this combination
has cause a harrowing of soul. It has at times led me to
the despairful conviction that my moral weakness was such
as to cut me off forever from the goodness my mind saw and
my heart desired. It has brought me - a man with an unusually
thorough training in philosophy and theology - to making
distinctions between the application of the moral teaching
of my Church and the intention of God. Many times my uncontrolled
craving for alcohol has dominated, even obliterated, every
other consideration, including that of my own welfare, the
welfare of any other human being, and my relationship to
my Creator and Redeemer.
non-Catholic alcoholics, I did not taste the dregs of those
years in the pain caused to family and friends, in the betrayals
of trust, in the thousands of mean deceptions, or in the
repeated social degradations. Those did hurt. But engulfing
them all and reducing them to items of minor importance,
was the unspeakable terror of feeling cut off from goodness
and from God - the terror, quite literally, of Hell. Beside
it, nothing else mattered.
all this went on, mind you, while I was living an outwardly
adequate, active Catholic life. There are people who have
known me all those years who do not to this moment know
that I am an alcoholic, others who only know it at second-hand.
That was possible because my particular "pattern"
of drinking did not involve disappearances for days or weeks
at a time. It was rather a question of extending an evening
(sometimes a mid-day) drinking session into the following
dawn and then stumbling through the next day by a series
of subterfuges. My career could be portrayed by the endless
repetition of one picture: a man pushing himself up from
the gutter, walking dazedly for a few steps, refreshing
himself with deep breaths of clean air till he was striding
forward with vigorous resolve only to trip over his own
feet and land back on his face.
a certain gratutitous grace of God, I kept getting up, and
each time I got to my feet I was absolutely certain I would
stay up. The certainty was sometimes belied within hours.
tried the Sacraments. Between drinking bouts I made frequent
and intensive use of the channels of grace available to
me. They did not seem to help.
not drinking, I was a daily communicant, I did a lot of
spiritual reading, I made frequent retreats, I have knelt
far into the night saying the rosary with arms outstretched
in penance and petition.
I have come from a private closed retreat made with the
utmost fervor and devotion - and walked into the first saloon
I met. I have frequently been at Holy Communion in the morning
and drunk the same night. I have seen my rosary emptied
out on a police blotter with my tie, my belt and the contents
of my pockets, before I was led off to a cell.
went on for years with something under two weeks - and that
only attained once - as my record period of abstinence.
a few months ago, on the advice of friends and with their
assistance, I quite suddenly broke the pattern and stopped
drinking. I did it by the combined use of two of the techniques
recently evolved for the rehabilitation of alcoholics. That
is, I followed one of the treatments against a background
of knowledge of and contact with the other.
is now an established fact that I have gone without alcohol
for a much longer period than ever since the drinking started.
My drinking has been arrested. I have not been cured of
alcoholism. I am still an alcoholic and a moment of carelessness
or over-confidence could start me back on the old cycle
within an hour of writing these words. But I am not drinking.
I am doing my best to fulfill my duty to myself, to my fellow-man
and to God. I am, within the limitations of human nature
and my own temperament, at peace.
is a fact and the fact raises some questions.
is it that the natural means succeeded when the supernatural
means failed? If a man can resist the "compulsion"
to drink because he has taken a pill that will make him
violently ill if he does drink, why can he not resist it
because it will land him in Hell? Or, to put it positively,
is the pill a greater help than the grace of God?
a man can stop drinking because another man convinces him
he is an alcoholic and one drink means disaster, why can
he not stop when a priest tells him that he has a chronic
weakness and is bound under pain of mortal sin to avoid
the occasion of sin?
a man can stop drinking because other alcoholics have done
it before him and are willing to help him do the same, why
can he not deny himself when Christ, the saints and his
whole Church tell him that it is the only way to salvation
and they are willing to help him along it?
a man can stop drinking by following twelve rules of conduct
laid down by two drunks, why can he not stop it by following
the ten commandments and the moral and ascetic teaching
of his faith?
answer can be given to all these questions if we take them
in their absolute sense, "he can." But we do not
live in absolutes. The unfortunate fact of experience is
that the man doesn't and he doesn't because he can't. That
is neither theory nor excuse. It is a cold fact of experience
to which I and thousands like me can attest. Most non-alcoholics
must, with all the good will in the world, find it difficult,
if not impossible, to accept this declaration of powerlessness
over the habit. Common sense and their own experience of
fighting against desire tell them that the reason the man
can not is that he will not. His love of the pleasurable,
they can scarcely avoid concluding, is greater than his
desire for the good. He is, whatever the cause or however
you dress up the conditions, a moral weakling. He is a sinner,
unwilling to be separated from his sin.
is quite understandable and reasonable attitude has in the
past done irreparable harm to the victim of alcoholism by
plunging him, each time he met it, further and further down
the ever-descending spiral of his despair. It is still all
too prevalent; but the harm it does is no longer irreparable.
today the alcoholic finds his hitherto unheeded avowal of
helplessness supported by an army of scientifically established
evidence that no just man who studies it will contest. This
evidence comes from the research of physicians, psychologists,
and latterly - thanks be to God! - such Catholic moralists
as Father John C. Ford, S.J.
Study of the Problem
upon bringing in the name of a Catholic moralist, I must
again stress that there is no question of the absolute impossibility
of an alcoholicls stopping drinking "only" by
spiritual motives and supernatural aid. That would be absurd
and contrary to fact. There has been a glorious parade of
unsung Matt Talbots. The question is one of moral responsibility
which may be rooted either in subjective failure to understand
and/or co-operate intelligently with the spiritual and the
supernatural, or in some objective defect in necessary concomitants
to the ordinary channels through which spiritual and supernatural
aid reach the ordinary Catholic.
nature and extent of this "moral impossibility"
is obviously a question of great importance for the alcoholic
and for his confessor or anyone else who wants to help him.
Before offering an opinion on it out of my own experience
and knowledge, I should like to lay the ground by a brief
discussion from an alcoholicls point of view of a recent
work of Father Ford's. For, in this paper, Depth Psychology,
Morality and Alcoholism (Weston College, Weston 93, Mass.,
$1.00), the eminent Jesuit moralist discusses the present
state of knowledge on Depth Psychology (with its much quoted
findings about compulsive behavior) and on alcoholism as
a disease. After separating what may be regarded as scientifically
established fact from what is not certainly such, he deals
first with the general question of subjective morality in
the light of depth psychology and then with the particular
question of subjective responsibility in alcoholism.
paper (reprinted from the Proceedings of the Fifth Annual
Meeting of The Catholic Theological Society of America,
held at Washington last summer) is divided into two parts:
"Depth Psychology and Morality" and "Alcoholism."
Father Ford states that the two parts are "not closely
related to one another," a statement which can only
be accepted, on the evidence of the author's own findings
in the second part, after a somewhat nice distinction of
the meaning of the word "closely."
begins with what to the non-expert seems to be an impartial
presentation of unconscious motivation as described in the
Freudian and derived systems. After distinguishing three
levels in the Freudian system - metaphysics, psychology
and therapeutics - it quotes from Catholic psychiatrists
who find much that is good on the latter two levels of Freudian
thinking. These Catholics include Father Jean Rimbaud who
says, in the words of Father Ford's summary, "Psychoanalysis,
apart from its errors and excesses, has discovered a new
man. It makes the treatise De Actibus Humanis more or less
obsolete. At least it must all be rewritten lest we base
our morality on something illusory - a 'man' or 'conscience'
that does not exist." Then Father Ford presents a convincing
mass of reputable opinion, Catholic and non-Catholic, which
makes the Freudian school suspect of the capital scientific
sin of treating an hypothesis as an established fact and
accuses it of the error of making the abnormal the norm
of the normal.
offering his conclusions as a moralist, Father Ford wisely
waves any claim to pass upon the scientific issue. He says:
unconscious motivation as described in the Freudian and
derived systems is a controversial theory, not yet established,
nor agreed upon by psychologists generally - hence the moralist
is not forced to re-write his treasise De Actibus Humanis
in the light of that psychology. But even if it is accepted
that unconscious motivation exists and influences notably
our conscious human activity, there is no proof that it
eliminates or notably impairs the freedom of our everyday
deliberate decisions....The direct testimony of the conscience
of the individual agent in his individual acts is, up to
this moment, a better criterion of subjective morality than
the quicksands of depth psychology.
is no new conclusion, but it is refreshing to find it arrived
at with such patient and understanding study of contrary
second part of the essay gets to immediate grips with the
special problem of alcoholism in these words: "Whereas
the first part of our essay dealt with subjective responsibility
in normal individuals, it should become apparent from the
present discussion that the alcoholic is not a normal individual
where responsibility for his drinking is concerned. He is
across the line on the abnormal side and his drinking is
correctly termed pathological."
going further, Father Ford throws off the casual statement
that "psychoanalysis has been unsuccessful with alcoholism."
I am sure the author could defend this. But I feel equally
certain that proportionately as many psychiatrists would
resent it as would priests that other generalization, "religion
has been unsuccessful with alcoholism." Both dissenting
groups would be likely to borrow words from Chesterton and
reply, "It has not failed. It has not been tried."
Between Drunkenness and Alcoholism
first important point established by Father Ford is the
distinction between mere drunkenness and its morality and
the morality of alcoholism. He says: "Alcoholism is
not the same thing as drunkenness; not even the same thing
as excessive drinking; nor even the same thing as excessive
drinking over a long period of time." For, as he points
out, there are people who can do all these things without
becoming alcoholics. They can stop if they want to, much
as a man with a long habit of smoking can give it up.
author proceeds from here with an authoritative and completely
accurate discussion of the nature of alcoholism. Since it
was not within his intention, he did not dwell upon the
implications and the consequences, therapeutic and moral,
of the distinction between drunkenness and morality. From
my own experience and the experience and knowledge of others,
I know that acceptance of this distinction and an attitude
based on such acceptance form the all-important first step
that must be taken by both the victim of alcoholism and
by anyone who would aid in his rehabilitation. It is a hard
step for both parties to take. The first is extremely unwilling
to admit that he is not as other men - that he is an alcoholic.
The second, if he is a non-alcoholic, cannot for the life
of him see why the other cannot pull himself together and
put an end to his bad habit. Each can overcome his different
obstacles to taking the step if he has good will, is willing
to make inquiry and accept authority.
the alcoholic, or the person who suspects he may be an alcoholic,
the handiest way of making inquiry might be the twenty-questions
test, devised by Dr. Seliger, formerly of Johns Hopkins
University, and cited in a footnote to Father Ford's paper:
Do you lose time from work due to drinking? (2) Is drinking
making your home life unhappy? (3) Do you drink because
you are shy with other people? (4) Is drinking affecting
your reputation? (5) Have you ever felt remorse after drinking?
(6) Have you ever gotten into financial difficulties as
a result of drinking? (7) Do you turn to lower companions
and an inferior environment when drinking? (8) Does your
drinking make you careless of your family's welfare? (9)
Has your ambition decreased since drinking? (10) Do you
crave a drink at a definite time daily? (11) Do you want
a drink the next morning? (12) Does your drinking cause
you to have difficulty in sleeping? (13) Has your efficiency
decreased since drinking? (14) Is drinking jeopardizing
your job or business? (15) Do you drink to escape from worries
or troubles? (16) Do you drink alone? (17) Have you ever
had a complete loss of memory due to drinking? (18) Has
your physician ever treated you for drinking? (19) Do you
drink to build up self-confidence? (20) Have you ever been
to a hospital or institution on account of drinking?
Ford sets forth general medical and psychiatric agreement
that alcoholism is a twofold disease of the body and of
the mind. Then he indicates the extent to which efforts
to determine the causes of each of these ills have gone.
"There is good reason for believing that there is a
psychological basis for the alcoholism of many alcoholics;
that there is a bodily pathology which contributes to their
condition. But there is no unanimity yet among scientific
men as to the existence of these factors; nor have they
succeeded in identifying them to everyone's satisfaction,
but we can assert with probability that alcoholism is a
bodily disease in many alcoholics. This is the sense in
which it may be called a bodily disease." In what sense
is it called a disease of the mind? "Not in the sense
that alcoholics are insane, although, as already mentioned,
among alcoholics there are psychotic individuals, and there
are some who as a partial result of their alcoholism suffer
from delirium tremens, or hallucinations, or Korsakoffts
psychosis, etc. But when we say alcoholism is a disease,
or disorder, or sickness of a mental kind we mean that the
drinking itself is to a greater or lesser degree compulsive.
Many psychiatrists describe it as psycho-neurosis of the
obsessive-compulsive type. On this point - the compulsive
character of the alcoholic's drinking - I believe there
is great unanimity among all the psychiatrists and other
specialists in the field."
the course of discussing this compulsion, Father Ford makes
a statement which I, as an alcoholic, would beg you, a non-alcoholic,
to accept even if you do not understand how it can be so.
He writes: "There are times when the alcoholic reaches
for a drink blindly and compulsively even when he has had
nothing to drink for a considerable period. I was not ready
to believe this at first. But after listening to hundreds
of alcoholics tell their stories, and after questioning
many of them on that very point, I am convinced that not
only after having had some drinks but even after a considerable
period of sobriety the alcoholic reaches out compulsively
and blindly for the first drink."
statement is stark truth and the compulsion and blindness
take many forms. In my own experience, after having "dropped
in for a couple of beers with the boys" and finished
up by drinking to drunkenness not once or twice or ten or
eleven times, but time after time after time for years,
I have again gone in to have a drink with the boys and felt
absolutely certain and clear in my conscience that I was
just going in for a couple of drinks and go home. I am so
certain of the honesty of my belief at those moments that
I can affirm it before God. I am also fully aware that it
is against all reason and common sense that I could possibly
have felt like that when I knew so well what had happened
so often before. I am also aware that it is the common excuse
of any moral coward to say, "I couldn't help it."
But neither the shame of being accused of that, nor the
fear of ridicule alters the fact that I was quite certain
I was only going to have a couple of beers.
my case I had not yet fully admitted That I was an alcoholic.
But whatever the reason, the fact stands and it demands
there, I think, we have the first basic step in the rehabilitation
of the alcoholic: the non-alcoholic accepting authoritative
opinion that there is, as distinct from common drunkenness,
such a thing as a disease called alcoholism; the alcoholic
accepting authoritative opinion that he is subject to that
fundamental reason for the success of Alcoholics Anonymous
is the absolute finality with which that first step is taken
by both sides. For both "doctor" and "patient"
are alcoholics who have made the admission that "I
am powerless over alcohol." There is no lack of understanding
on the one side, no feeling of being unjustly despised on
far we have nothing more than a moralist's report on the
findings of science about alcoholism. Father Ford now takes
up the moral aspect and adds to bodily and mental sickness
a third sickness of soul. He says: "But I do not believe
we have any adsquate picture of the disease of alcoholism
unless we add a third fact. Alcoholism is also a sickness
of the soul. The sickness of the soul is sin. Alcoholics
have no monopoly on this sickness but they have to a greater
extent than other people the unhappy faculty of letting
their sins become manifest." The paper then speaks
of neurosis and sin and says, "Psychiatrists who do
not believe in sin will class all these persons as neurotics.
Religious-minded people who know nothing of neurosis will
class all these people as sinners. But I see no inherent
difficulty in admitting that the same person can be both
a neurotic and sinner. In the case of the alcoholic, he
can be both a compulsive drinker and a sinner, his misconduct
being at times the product of his compulsion and at other
times of his willfulness."
alcoholic will agree to that. In fact, he will be glad about
it as a just and clarifying judgment.
Father Ford supports his "sickness of soul" finding
by reference to the success of Alcoholics Anonymous whose
members attain lasting sobriety through adherence to the
Twelve Steps, which "are nothing but a program of moral
and spiritual regeneration, a program of self-discipline
and asceticism that has been compared to the First Week
of the Exercises of Saint Ignatius."
are the Twelve Steps:
We admitted we were powerless over alcohol - that our lives
had become unmanageable (2) Came to believe that a Power
greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. (3) Made
a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care
of God as we understood Him. (4) Made a searching and fearless
moral inventory of ourselves. (5) Admitted to God, to ourselves,
and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
(6) Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects
of character. (7) Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
(8) Made a list of all persons we had harmed and became
willing to make amends to them all. (9) Made direct amends
to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would
injure them or others. (10) Continued to take personal inventory
and when we were wrong promptly admitted it. (11) Sought
through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact
with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge
of His will for us and the power to carry that out. (12)
Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these
steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics and
to practice these principles in all our affairs.
reader will notice that emphasis of this program is all
on spiritual values, and that alcohol is only mentioned
once. The priest will at once say that these are the things
he has been telling people all his life and that if the
alcoholic would only listen to him he would not need doctors,
psychiatrists, A.A. or anything else.
brings us back to one of the questions we posed earlier.
Why is it that A.A.'s could stop an alcoholic's drinking
when the Church failed?
Use of Religious Means
my mind, the primary reason lies in that first step of which
I have spoken above: the recognition by both both priest
and penitent of the distinction between mere drunkenness
and alcoholism as a disease. Berating an alcoholic for being
a no-good drunk, or whining at him for "doing this
to me and the children" does nothing but drive him
back to drink. The alcoholic may or may not be a reprobate.
He is certainly a sick man.
second reason I give for the success of A.A. is a rather
shocking one. I offer it in humility and with all due respect.
Alcoholics Anonymous insists more vigorously on the practice
of those principles of Christian ascetics and the spiritual
life than do priests of the Church of Christ.
look at the Twelve Steps. From Steps 3 to 10 they describe
in substance the requirements for a good Confession as we
learned them from our catechism. They lack the priest and
the grace of Sacrament. Yet they bring about conversion
of life where sacramental Confession has failed. Now, the
grace of God never fails. So there must have been something
blocking the channel. That block can only be man's failure
to co-operate with the grace. The failure, in turn, must
essentially lie in the understanding or in the will of the
penitent. Granting that the penitent alcoholic really wants
to stop, and allowing for the weakness of will born of habitual
indulgence, we must put a large part of the blame on the
penitent's understanding. He does not understand the nature
of his soul-sickness and he does not understand the absolute
necessity of specific remedial action.
is where the priest should come in as a physician of souls.
And this is where the priest so often fails. He fails to
enlighten the penitent's understanding. He fails to prescribe
a regime for the strengthening of his will. A.A. does both.
It not only tells the man what is the matter with him but
it adds, "Here is what you have to do if you want to
get better." Now the Church in its general teachings
does the same for all Christians. But the priest, the immediate
point of contact through which the Church's teachings passes
to the individual, does not bring this teaching to bear
in the specific instance. Were you ever asked to make restitution
as specifically as the member of A.A. is in Steps 8 and
9? Where outside a retreat for religious is anyone ever
asked to "make a list" of all the people he has
harmed? Where can the layman go to receive individual guidance
and help through a course of spiritual exercises to strengthen
him against his particular weakness?
is asked to do these things and does get this aid in A.A.
which also gives him in Step 11 an invitation to perfection
and a doorway to the Church. Many alcoholics find in the
A.A. program all the religion they need, more urgent demand
for the practice of soul satisfying Christian virtue than
in the Churches to which they may have belonged. For these
people A.A. is a religion, although objectively and in itself
it is most definitely nothing of the kind. It is an aid
to sobriety for people of any religion.
fact that it does satisfy a religious hunger where the Churches
do not is one more reason for the priests of the Church
of Christ informing themselves on the nature and treatment
of alcoholism. It is one more reason for urging our Christian
people to more knowledge and stronger practice of Christian
a layman may presume from the depths of his own experience
on the outside of the confessional grill, I should like
to outline a procedure which I think would have helped me
and perhaps enabled grace to perform its healing work.
would have liked the priest to have questioned me along
the lines of Seliger's twenty questions and then have told
me that I was an alcoholic, a sick man who had to take special
measures to remove his weakness. I would have liked him
to be, like Father Ford, "of the opinion that it is
generally unwise for the confessor or counselor to tell
excessive drinkers that they are obliged sub gravi not to
drink at all." I think I would have been helped if
he had asked me to come back to him frequently, to call
upon him at once as a patient would a doctor in case of
relapse, to get it out of my head that he might think I
wasn't even trying. I would have been glad if he had encouraged
me to distinguish between the times I was aware I was putting
myself in the occasion of sin and the times I wasn't. I
would have liked him to recommend literature on alcoholism
and to suggest that I join A.A. I would have been eased
in soul had he laid down as a condition of forgiveness that
I set about making reparation to those I had offended. I
would have liked him to explain to me the technique of the
particular examen. I would have liked him to explain to
me that grace builds on nature and that I had to take the
available natural means to strengthen my soul.
my part, and this gets me back to Father Ford's paper, I
would not have wanted to escape responsibility for my drunken
conduct. I would have agreed that "The average alcoholic
feels himself more or less guilty for the things that happen
while he is in this state, although his general confusion
of mind is an attenuating circumstance"; and that "His
responsibility for his drinking is generally diminished
to a considerable extent, and sometimes eliminated, but
each alcoholic, each drinking episode, and even each act
of drinking must be judged separately...the honest and enlightened
testimony of his own conscience is the best criterion we
have of his responsibility ... and in the final analysis
the judgment must be left to a merciful God."
still remains true that extraneous aids have worked with
me and with thousands of others, where unaided religion
has not. Father Ford goes so far to say, "Co-operation
with Alcoholics Anonymous is essential to the successful
pastoral care of alcoholics." But it makes a big difference
to the Catholic alcoholic whether or not he seeks this outside
aid with the blessing and understanding of his Church. When
he does so, his alcoholism is transformed from a soul-eating
monster to a felix culpa which turns him toward the practice
of Christian perfection.