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31: 15-16, May, 1952
Robert E. Burns, C.S.P.
a man or woman is an alcoholic is not determined by how
often or how much he or she drinks, but rather by reaction
and control (or lack of control) to the use of alcoholics
beverages. Thus, there are many persons who drink who are
definitely not alcoholics, some who occasionally overindulge
in drinking but yet cannot be classed as alcoholics. To
use an old expression, the alcoholic is a person who, once
having turned on the tap, cannot turn it off.
recent times, the ordinary way in which society dealt with
the alcoholic was to have him incarcerated in some jail
or workhouse as a penalty for his anti-social conduct. The
mentality back of this procedure was that the alcoholic
is an enemy of society and should, therefore, be taken out
Anonymous, an organization founded by Dr. Smith and Bill
Wilson, two former alcoholics, completely disagreed with
and disproved this theory. It was their contention that
the alcoholic is a sick man and should be treated as such.
Modern social workers, more and more, are coming to appreciate
the point of view of Alcoholics Anonymous.
question frequently asked, "Why does the alcoholic
drink?" is answered by Alcoholics Anonymous in these
words: "The alcoholic drinks to escape." The alcoholic
is definitely an escapist. He is seeking to escape from
some reality or imagined reality. It may not always be easy
to put one's finger on the cause of the escape complex,
but it is there none the less. It may rest fundamentally
in an inferiority complex and frequently it is accompanied
by a feeling of resentment or self-pity. The Alcoholics
Anonymous philosophy says one of the objects of Alcoholics
Anonymous is to straighten out the kinks in his mental processes
and thus remove the causes of his escape mechanism.
Alcoholics Anonymous program is divided into twelve steps.
The alcoholic-seeking sobriety is expected to mentally and
spiritually live up to each step as it is presented to him.
first step of the A.A. is nothing more than a recognition
of the fact that one has been powerless over alcohol, and
that one’s life has become unmanageable. This may
be very obvious to the general public, but often it is not
appreciated by the alcoholic himself. The A.A.'s have an
old saying that you may have to hit bottom before you realize
it is time to quit, but smart is the man who can come to
his true senses before he does. Where there is smoke, there
must be some fire and generally the friends and intimates
of an alcoholic know it before he himself does. Sometimes,
even a bartender will advise a man time and time again to
quit, all to no avail. While it is never too late to get
the program, it is better to get sobriety before one's home
and family life have been destroyed.
you are ready to contemplate the second step - that a higher
power can restore you to sanity. This is a difficult step
for some with no belief in God, but experience has proven
that it is absolutely essential. While there are a small
number of atheists and agnostics in the ranks of A.A. -
men who either deny the existence of a God or deny that
we can know of His existence - it is doubtful if their dryness
is due entirely to A.A.
second step speaks of a higher power, not of a Supreme Being
or a personal God. Theoretically, this allows for the inclusion
of Pantheists, who associate God with nature, and Deists,
who believe in a Supreme Power but deny the validity of
Revelation. However, the following steps of A.A. make sense
only if one believes in a personal God, that is, a God possessed
of intellect and will.
Third step, following from the second, is a resolution to
turn our lives over to this Supreme Power as we understand
Him. If we visualize God as a force only, it is ridiculous
to talk of turning our lives over to blind force. It is
absurd also to make a confession and promise restitution
to a blind force. To have any meaning, this Supreme Power
must be a personal God.
Fourth step of A.A. calls for a searching and fearless moral
inventory. This personal inventory should be a familiar
thing to a Catholic who, from the time of First Holy Communion,
has been taught to examine his conscience regularly. This
examination should apply not only to lapses from sobriety
but to all moral failings. This leads to the fifth and most
difficult step of all - admitting to God, to ourselves,
and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
general, the Fifth step of A.A. has brought about greater
respect for the Catholic confessional, very frequently a
stumbling block to the non-Catholic mind. However, it has
also been the cause of some misunderstanding and confusion.
True is the old saying, "Confession is good for the
soul." But this does not explain the existence of the
Sacrament of Penance in the Catholic Church. We Catholics
go to Confession because we firmly believe that this is
the ordinary way in which Christ intended that sins be forgiven.
That is why He appeared to His apostles on the evening of
Easter Sunday and conferred upon them the power to forgive
say that this A.A. confession should be more intensive or
complete than the sacramental confession is to misunderstand
entirely the place of confession in the Catholic Church.
It is possible for one to perform any of his religious duties
in a routine manner, but this is the fault of the individual,
not the sacrament. For intensiveness and completeness, it
is not possible to improve on the sacramental confession
penitent who approaches the Sacrament of Penance is expected
to have a firm purpose of amendment to avoid all sin. He
may well have had this good intention in the past but because
he was not concentrating at that time on his alcoholic weakness
he may not have had the results he now obtains with the
help of A.A. The fault however, was not with the sacrament
but with the failure of the individual to take proper advantage
of the confessional.
Catholic priest, by his training and experience, is better
qualified than any person in the world to hear confession
and give advice, but the Catholic priest, who sits in the
confessional week after week, is there primarily to forgive
sin, not to operate an alcoholic clinic. Thus, in order
to obtain helpful advice in dealing with his problem, it
is desirable that the alcoholic select a priest who understands
the alcoholic mind and has a fair degree of sympathy for
the fourth and fifth steps, it may be gleaned that, while
alcoholism is a disease, it is a disease involving moral
implications. A person may acquire some diseases through
no fault of his own and be in no way responsible for the
progress of the disease. But alcoholism is a disease, the
progress of which can be checked by the will power of the
individual; and all who are capable of exercising free will
are responsible. Nor, is it true to say that alcoholics
in general are persons with weak wills. It takes a great
deal of will power to put in a day's work when one has had
little or no rest the previous night; yet, alcoholics do
this very thing time and time again.
the Sixth step, the alcoholic expresses a willingness to
have God remove all defects of his character, and in the
Seventh step he humbly asks Him to remove the same. This,
of course, means that prayer is absolutely necessary and,
like St. Francis of Assisi, the sincere alcoholic seeks
to make himself an instrument in the hands of God.
the Eighth step, the alcoholic makes a list of the persons
he has harmed and expresses a desire to make amends. Certainly
this list should include the members of his immediate family
and all those who have befriended him during his periods
of drinking. In the Ninth step, the alcoholic proceeds to
make amends to all such persons whenever possible, except
when to do so would injure them or others. Thus, the Eighth
and Ninth steps can be seen to be nothing more than a process
of restitution demanded by every sincere confession. By
the Tenth step, he continues to take personal inventory
from time to time. The Eleventh step is an effort, through
prayer, to seek to know God's will, and the Twelfth step
is a determination to carry the message to others.
alcoholic is urged to pray to God. The Catholic knows that
God has revealed Himself to us principally through His Only
Begotten Son. Most of the prayers of the Mass are directed
to God, the Father, "through Christ Our Lord,"
and the Catholic seeking help from God would do well to
carry his petitions to the Father through Jesus Christ our
A.A. program cannot be digested with one swallow. The A.A.
program is a philosophy of life; as such, it must become
part of one's make-up. That means that it must be absorbed
gradually. It takes time to tear down the old mentality
and replace it with the new.
neophyte to A.A. will be assigned a sponsor, or, very likely,
the sponsor will introduce him to A.A. No one is eligible
to sponsorship until he has proven by time and experience
that he has a firm grasp of the program and the ability
to stay dry himself. It is desirable that the sponsor have
some common interest with the new member, e.g., a railroad
man should make a good sponsor for a fellow railroad man.
The sponsor should also live in close proximity to the new
member, so that he can call for him in person and take him
to meetings. It is estimated that it requires at least three
months for the A.A. program to sink in, so to speak, and
meantime, the newcomer to A.A., with his alcoholic thinking,
is very apt to seek excuses for missing meetings. Some sponsors
make a practice of calling their subjects on the telephone
every day just to bid the time of day and ask him how things
are coming. It is no exaggeration to say that the interest
of a real sponsor in his subject is comparable to that of
a mother in her child.
so the newcomer is introduced to the A.A. set-up. For more
effective results, the large A.A. group is divided into
squads. A squad is generally composed of from fifteen to
twenty members. When it becomes too large, it will be split
in two, one of the older members assuming leadership of
the new squad.
squad meets once a week, either in the A.A. clubhouse or
in the home of some member. The squad meeting consists of
a discussion of the A.A. program conducted by the chairman
of the evening. The purpose of the squad meeting is to deal
with present difficulties confronting the members in their
efforts to live the program. It is no place for delving
into past escapades, however conducive these may be to humility.
The operation of the squad is nothing more than the submission
of individual problems to a treatment of group therapy.
most alcoholics drink as an escape, the squad affords an
excellent opportunity for this mental twist in one's make-up
to be brought out into the open and straightened out accordingly.
The alcoholic is suffering from some variety of frustration.
The squad meeting endeavors to discover it and eliminate
it. Phenomenal success has been achieved by the medical
profession in the use of a new drug sodium pentathol. This
is used in mental cases to obtain a subconscious confession.
The patient under the influence of this drug will talk about
the thing that is bothering him. After being thus relieved,
a new personality is constructed.
a similar way I the squad endeavors to reconstruct the personality.
However, there may be some tender points too delicate or
too personal for squad discussions. These should properly
be treated in confession. Herein, the Catholic has the added
safeguard of the sigillum, or seal of confession, which
binds the priest to absolute secrecy. Archbishop Murray
has stated that A.A. endeavors to bring into the open all
of the alcoholics good points and bad points, then suppress
the bad and develop the good. The squad discussion ends
at an appointed time and is followed by light refreshments
usually served by wives of the members.
social element of A.A. is of vital importance. The A.A.
program is a serious thing; it needs something to lighten
it. If a man takes A.A. too seriously, with no sense of
humor, he becomes a dry drunk. He does not drink but he
is not happy about his condition. Many an individual has
tied up his fun with drinking. The A.A. program should enable
him to enjoy himself without drinking. Many an A.A. will
testify that he has made his truest friends through this
organization. Common interests and personalities that coincide
with his may be the basis of his selection. The happiness
of the individual is vital not only for his own well being,
but also for the happiness of his family.
addition to the squad meetings, the newcomer is asked to
attend primary classes, usually one a week, where the twelve-point
program is explained by veteran members of the organization.
Many of the larger groups, from time to time bring in an
outside speaker, such as a doctor, clergyman, or judge,
who will speak to the entire membership on some subject
of practical interest. Thus, it can be seen that A.A. activities,
social and otherwise, will consume a great deal of the alcoholic's
free time. Even after one has been dry for some time, it
is important to keep in close contact with the A.A. groups
- although this is more imperative in the first stages –
and so any position that keeps a man on the road or working
nights is hardly conducive to the A.A. program because it
makes regular attendance at meetings well-nigh impossible.
first, it is more or less necessary for an A.A. to concentrate
on himself; but gradually he should branch out in his viewpoint
and see how it is affecting his relations with others in
order to complete the picture as he wants it - namely, a
normal happy life. He might ask from time to time, "Am
I using the fact that I am dry as a defense against personal
criticism? Do I fly off easily as I did when I was drinking?
Do I harbor the same petty resentments as before?"
This might well be a matter of personal inventory.
newcomer to A.A. may discover that some prominent members
of the organization make no serious effort to keep the twelve
steps, but this does not militate against the soundness
of the twelve steps any more than the presence of hypocrites
militates against the soundness of the Christian religion.
He should bear in mind the fact that not every A.A. who
remains dry does so because he has faithfully adhered to
the program. The A.A. program leaves no place for bitter
resentments and hatred, yet some A.A.'s holding these resentments
manage to stay dry. Their dryness may be due to the fact
that, owing to their prominence, they have been placed on
a pedestal by their fellow members. Thus, human respect
or self-pride is the impelling force in their dryness. Others
may stay dry through fear of consequences brought on by
a doctor's warning or the threat of a wife or employer.
Nevertheless, the experience of most Alcoholics Anonymous
has been that you don't stay dry very long if you stray
far from the twelve steps.
A.A. does not have 100% success. Some individuals will just
not make the effort to cooperate with the help which the
A.A. program offers. It may be that a judge has given an
alcoholic the choice of either submitting to A.A. or doing
a stretch in the county jail or workhouse. It is not difficult
to make a choice between these alternatives. Here the A.A.
members are faced with the task of selling their program
to one who has little or no interest in A.A. and has come
to it only because he regards it as the lesser of two evils.
Furthermore, A.A. has no screening process so that many
persons find their way into the group simply because, along
with other evils, they have engaged in excessive drinking.
This drinking may only be an external symptom of a far deeper-rooted
ailment which in many cases will require institutional treatment
of a specialized nature. Despite these factors, A.A. has
had phenomenal success, and it is estimated roughly that
about 75% of its members have remained permanently dry from
the time they entered the organization.
importance of the Eleventh and Twelfth steps can not be
overemphasized. The A.A. member is urged to spend at least
fifteen minutes a day in sincere and humble prayer, asking
guidance from that Supreme Power without which it is impossible
to get this program. The A.A. program is a twenty-four-hour-a-day
program. No one of us has a long-term lease on life. We
live one day at a time. So the A.A. every morning asks God
for twenty-four hours of dryness and every evening gives
thanks for the same. If he keeps this up the rest of his
life, he can truly say, "I got the A.A. program."
this respect, at least, A.A. is preferable to the pledge
method of combating alcoholism. The alcoholic who took the
pledge frequently managed to stay dry for a definite period
of time but, when the time was up, his old weakness was
back again. I know of one alcoholic who for fourteen straight
years has taken the pledge and kept it, but this is exceptional
indeed. Usually, it is a case of looking forward like a
child to Christmas or Easter when, after a period of fasting,
he is able to eat his candy again with renewed vigor. The
candy in question is poison to the alcoholic.
incidentally, helps answer a question frequently asked:
"How does it happen that an A.A. after a long period
of dryness sometimes slips?" It is often due to the
fact that he has maintained a mental reservation that someday
he will be a controlled drinker, that some sweet day he
will be able to take that first drink again without courting
disaster. What an ambition to carry through life! It is
the firm conviction of A.A. that the alcoholic can never
become a control drinker, that he should seek his recreation
in other pursuits. This is part of the A.A. procedure, a
battle of no mean proportions for one who travels in society
where highballs flow freely.
Twelfth and last step of A.A. is an effort to change the
alcoholic, by nature an introvert, into the finest type
of extrovert. That is, indeed, a radical personality change.
The psychiatrists say that the happiest people in the world
are those who forget their own troubles and concentrate
their energies upon the troubles of others. Christ has expressed
the same thought in the words, "He that saveth his
life shall lose it, and he that loseth his life for My sake
shall save it." Next to the mental reservation mentioned
above, the greatest enemy of the alcoholic is the element
of self-pity. One who has constantly before his eyes the
spectacle of those whose miseries are greater than his own
is not likely to be carried away by a contemplation of his
the alcoholic is a sick man, but the prescription that has
enabled thousands to check this disease consists of straight,
honest thinking, will power, and divine assistance.
patient entering freely into discussion with fellow alcoholics,
giving helpful advice to others, and receiving the same
in return, regains confidence in himself. Because he had
lost that confidence, he sought, through drink, to escape
from reality. Through the sacrifices other alcoholics have
made for him, he realizes that he realizes that he is no
longer an outcast of society but a worthwhile individual.
Praying and seeing his prayers answered, he realizes the
significance of the words, "Ask and you shall receive,
seek and you shall find, knock and it shall be opened unto
Catholics believe that salvation is not a momentary impulse
but the work of a lifetime. Sobriety, like every virtue,
is a lifetime job, for Christ has said: "He that perseveres
to the end, shall be saved."
thinking should enable a Catholic to see that there is very
little in Alcoholics Anonymous which the Catholic Church
has not had for centuries. Trust in God, Meditation, Examination
of Conscience, Confession of Faults, Purpose of Amendment
and Restitution are nothing new to Catholic theologians.
Matt Talbot and others, who had an alcoholic problem, straightened
out their thinking without the aid of the twelve steps in
written form, but they used the twelve steps because the
twelve steps of A.A. are hidden in the conscience of every
man. They can solve the problem of alcohol; they can solve
many other problems as well.
Church teaches us the dignity of the individual soul, the
superiority of the spiritual over the physical, the concern
of Almighty God for His creatures, and the need of our dependence
upon Him. The saints of God urge us to pray as if all depended
on God, and work is if it all depended upon ourselves. This
is the pathway to sobriety, this is the pathway to every
great contribution of A.A. to the solution of the alcoholic
problem is in helping the alcoholic by scientific analysis
of his make-up to answer the question, "Why do I turn
to drink?" Some may think that the remedies applied
are newly discovered in this Twentieth Century, but actually
they have existed for centuries in the moral principles
of the Catholic faith.