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MIND, Vol. 53: 19-28, January, 1955
FAITH AND ALCOHOLICS ANONYMOUS
by Ted Le Berthon
of the dark and perhaps malevolent ironies of our times
is that, despite the steadily mounting increase, from year
year, of membership in the Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.) movement,
and despite A.A.'s unequalled record of success in restoring
alcoholics to sobriety and productive lives after many -
all other - means had failed, alcoholics are on the increase
the United States.
learned this unhappy fact in a recent interview with Father
Ralph S. Pfau, who told me: "They're increasing by
Pfau should know. A priest of the Archdiocese of
Indianapolis, he has devoted himself exclusively for the
eleven years, with ecclesiastical permission, to the study
problem of alcoholism and the means of combatting it. He
familiar with all the theories as to the causes of alcoholism,
all the so-called cures, in and out of sanatoria. He is
with the findings of all reputable research groups. He knows
spiritual, medical and psychiatric approaches.
all these eleven years, he has travelled an average of
50,000 miles annually, has conferred with priests, ministers,
rabbis, physicians, psychologists, psychiatrists, probation
officers, police officials and operators of sanatoria -
have any connection with the alcoholic in some capacity.
lectured - often in several cities and towns in the course
week - before A.A. groups. He has given thirteen retreats
year, always spaced four weeks apart, to A.A. groups, an
70 per cent of whom are non-Catholics. During the past seven
he has written a series of seven "Golden Books"
for A.A. members,
a series recently recommended by the Gregorian University
as a "superb and effective undertaking of rehabilitation,
moral and spiritual."
Father Pfau told me alcoholism was on the increase in
this nation despite the A.A. program's formidable achievement
since its inception eighteen years ago, I naturally wondered
a large question," he said. "One certain reason
that people are drinking more than ever before. Another
still widespread misconception as to what constitutes an
alcoholic, as differentiated from any other type of drinker
drunkard. Another is secularism.
A.A. is a spiritual program, in which the members,
admitting they are powerless over alcohol, and that their
have become unmanageable, turn their will and their lives
God as they understood Him. Too many alcoholics, their friends
their relatives seem to have a greater faith in science
God. They will first and for a long time try medical and
psychiatric help, or almost anything. Just as with many
confronted by other grave problems, they will turn to God
after every purely human remedy has failed. This, in fact,
case with the overwhelming majority of those who finally
And that is one reason why only one-tenth of all alcoholics
United States embrace the A.A. program today."
Pfau derived this estimate of one-tenth by comparing
the A.A. membership rolls - there are about 150,000 members
the survey findings of the Yale University School for Alcoholic
Studies as to the total number of alcoholics, i.e., compulsive
drinkers, in this nation.
public," he said, "is still largely unaware of
distinct difference between a drunkard and an alcoholic.
A man or
a woman may get drunk often, or may drink excessively every
and not be an alcoholic, if he or she drinks wilfully, whether
the 'kick,' or to escape monotony, or to drown a sorrow,
any other reason. He or she may remain a heavy drinker or
periodic drunkard. But a true alcoholic does not get drunk
conscious reason. The true alcoholic is not a wilful but
compulsive drinker. In fact, by the time a heavy drinker
drunkard has become an alcoholic, he or she does not want
drunk, fears even to take one drink, knowing this is like
a fuse that will lead to an inevitable explosion, and knowing
well by long experience the likely horrible consequences.
alcoholic gets drunk against his or her will."
Pfau defined a true alcoholic as "any man or woman
who, haven taken one drink, cannot guarantee his or her
emphasized that there is no such thing as an ex-alcoholic.
an alcoholic, always an alcoholic, i.e., a person who
cannot take one drink. A.A. members who have been sober
five years, or ever since the movement was founded, know
still alcoholics. To use medical terminology, they know
compulsive drinking is an allergy coupled with an obsession.
too many priests have been unable to help
alcoholics, in or out of the confessional, because they
realize that there is such a thing as compulsive drinking.
penitent may confess to habitual drunkenness, and say: 'Father,
just can't help it, I just can't stop drinking, and believe
have tried, and I'm ashamed of my failure.' So what does
well-meaning priest do? He tells the fellow he must stop,
is making life a horror for himself, his family and his
and will wind up going insane, losing his soul, or both.
does the true alcoholic do? He hurries to the first bar
and buys a
bottle to cushion the horror of the present and soften the
the priest caught him before the drinking became
compulsive, he could have impressed him with his sinfulness.
course, sin is involved, past sin, when the drinking was
But now a compulsion neurosis has developed, and the man
suffering from a disease of the will. The element of free
never wholly absent, and the sin is at the root of the disease,
but in some obscure and complex way.
alcoholic is both a sinner and a neurotic. Many priests,
ministers and rabbis need to know this, and to be able to
distinguish between a true alcoholic and any other type
or drunkard. On the other hand, secular-minded educators,
psychiatrists and operators of liquor-cure sanitariums need
recognize that there is such a thing as sin, instead of
compulsive drinking solely as a neurosis. As with many other
subjects, there is too much 'either-or' thinking on this
Alcoholism is a disorder of the entire personality, highly
and often fatal. Socially, it seems bound up with a general
increase of drinking due to a lack of religious certitude
far-spread moral relativism.
and more women, and more and more young people are
becoming alcoholics. In the early years of the A.A. movement,
16 per cent of the members were women. Today 35 per cent
women. Eleven years ago when I was lecturing before A.A.
rarely met a member who was under forty years of age. Today,
virtually any A.A. meeting, one sees quite a sprinkling
men and women in their late teens and early twenties."
Pfau, a sturdy and sinewy man of middle stature,
stared at me through spectacles, the lenses of which make
large eyes seem even larger, as if I'd asked him to explain
riddle of the Sphinx.
knows?" he said, gesturing with his hands. "Medical
science doesn't pretend to know. With any individual, it
may be a
certain physical condition, a mental state, a spiritual
or all three. However, having talked with a few thousand
alcoholics in my time, I'd say that, prior to having become
alcoholics, they'd long felt insecure. The stories most
revealed they'd either been over-pampered or over-neglected
children. Even those who had made outstanding successes
business, the professions, the arts or the sciences had
felt unsure of themselves."
to the belief of many, Father Pfau does not believe that
most had been escapists, out to avoid feelings of physical,
or spiritual inferiority by taking to drink and entering
quasi-dream world where they could seem magnificent, heroic,
passed a hand over his wavy brown hair and smiled
the old story of which comes first, the chicken or the
egg. It's hard to say, with some, whether a Big Shot complex
the cause or only the effect of the drinking. True, many
drink to rise above some sorrow or frustration, some
disappointment in their home life or business life. But
never had touched a drop when depressed or faced by some
situation. Then there is the celebrating kind. These had
from an excess of high spirits, often while riding the crest
success. But whatever the temperament, whatever the original
reasons for wilful drinking, by the time they become compulsive
drinkers, they don't know why they get drunk, are horrified
thought of getting drunk - but they get drunk anyhow."
are the signs indicating that an occasional drinker,
periodic drunkard, or any other type, may be drifting towards
" said Father Pfau, "the drinker progressively
increases the quantity and frequency of his or her drinking,
evidencing a progressive weakness of the will."
Father Pfau, a sensitive, intense person with a glow on
his leathery face that seems of the spirit rather than of
health, gets on the subject of the A.A. as the answer to
alcoholicls hopes or prayers for deliverance, he speaks
unsmilingly, with profound and fervent conviction. Prior
interviewing him, I had heard him address an A.A. group,
seen and heard them at moments convulsed with laughter at
sometimes droll insight into the self-deceptions of the
tribe. Laughter plays a large part at any A.A. meeting,
at the ghosts or devils of the past.
never a member of A.A., I have always - for the fifteen
years past - been stirred by its often seemingly miraculous
results. I have attended scores of meetings, and this article
the thirty-eighth I have written about A.A. for various
and magazines. I have seen innumerable men and women who
been the despair of families and friends, priests and ministers;
persons who had sown agony and bewilderment for long years
all who knew them, reborn spiritually, mentally and physically
through the A.A. program. Among them were men and women
been besotted, foul-appearing, malodorous, denizens of skidrows,
in and out of jails and mental hospitals, their lives protracted
nightmares. Yet they had become transformed, via A.A., into
dignified, fine-appearing, responsible and productive human
beings. So I could understand Father Pfau's fervor, he who
known so many more of them.
asked him why it was that frequent and often long jail
sentences, incarceration in public mental hospitals and
liquor-cure sanitariums, outdoor work on police farms, supervised
probationary periods and the efforts of psychiatrists, physicians,
social workers and street evangelists had generally seemed
in the case of so many drunkards.
drunkards have been sobered up in these various ways,"
he said, "but rarely were these compulsive drinkers.
As for the
medical and mechanical so-called cures for compulsive drinking,
most are essentially punitive, often downright barbaric,
rehabilitative, much less preventive of future drinking,
expensive and out of reach of most persons. And they lack
spiritual approach, much less stressing any complete surrender
God's care, God's will, God's love, as does A.A. Many, perhaps
most, A.A. members sought every other remedy, or were obliged
do so, before, in final desperation, and by God's grace,
then put the $64 question - "Why is it Father, that
Catholics could not stop their excessive and destructive
despite desperate prayers, frequent recourse to the Sacraments,
the making of retreats and the taking of pledges, but have
attained sobriety after joining A.A.? Hadn't the Church's
of grace seemingly failed them?"
is the word," he said. "The A.A. program was the
answer to their prayers, their seeking! It was God's will,
own good time, for them, for meeting their particular need.
A.A. is the spiritual experience that works for most compulsive
drinkers, be they Catholics, Protestants, Jews, or of no
to the founding of A.A., I reminded Father Pfau
that the founder, and the composer of the now famous twelve
of the A.A. program, was neither a Catholic, nor, at the
least, a formal member of any church. Rather he was a sick
terrified drunk who, after winding up in the psychopathic
a public hospital, had one night prayed God to deliver him
the torments and despair of compulsive drinking. Suddenly,
must have been a mysterious night indeed for him, he found
writing down those twelve steps. I asked Father Pfau:
was it that soon afterward Father Edward Dowling, S.J.,
discerned that the twelve steps bore an essential resemblance
the initial or purgative steps in The Spiritual Exercises
Ignatius Loyola? And how was it that when this was pointed
to the founder of A.A., he disclaimed having ever read The
Spiritual Exercises or any other spiritual books, Catholic
Pfau stared at me chidingly.
spiritual laws always existed thus long before St.
Ignatius formulated them in a particular way. They still
Adherence to them can still help any human being, whatever
her problem. The fact that A.A.'s twelve steps coincide
Ignatius' delineation of the purgative way is significant.
persons, while in the purgative way, are making spiritual
progress, but are far from having attained spiritual perfection.
That is why contrary to the implications of some shallow
A.A. is not a religion, for a religion is a program of perfection
in its ultimate object. The A.A. program is only a program
spiritual progress, and then only for one unique kind of
an alcoholic, a compulsive drinker.
is why A.A., by its nature, cannot be allied with any
denomination or sect or any other kind of organization.
neither endorses nor opposes any creed or cause. It simply
fellowship of men and women who are alcoholics, and who
each other their experience, strength and hope, toward solving
their common problem and towards helping still others arrest
alcoholism. The A.A. neither evangelizes nor proselytizes.
entire therapy is contained in the book Alcoholics Anonymous,
compiled by the founding group eighteen years ago. A.A.
endowed by anyone, yet has no dues, charges or fees, and
to membership the poorest of the poor. Free-will collections
taken up at meetings to defray hall rentals and other incidental
expenses, but no one knows how much any other member contributes."
Pfau deplored the fact that A.A., as he put it, had
been "misleadingly" discussed from time to time
in both secular
and Catholic periodicals.
the past few years, a writer in Reader's Digest,
displaying a shocking ignorance of even the barest elements
A.A. therapy, described it as nothing more than 'a rehash
Salvation Army techniques.' Owners of sanatoria or treatment
centers, in seeking publicity or else in ignorance have
articles that have prevented many alcoholics from coming
An article in The Sign may have kept many Catholics from
help through A.A. for fear of being required to do something
contrary to the Church's teachings."
have heard and read of various misgivings about the A.A.
for many years. The arguments of some Catholics - not themselves
A.A. members - had been that A.A. members could develop
religious indifferentism. For was not A.A. a sort of
pseudo-Catholicism, instilling Catholic principles yet devoid
liturgy and sacraments? Might not some members conclude
liturgy and sacraments were non-essentials, "trappings"
encrustations? Seeing that they "went to God directly"
helped by Him regardless of their denominational affiliation
even if they had none, might not some reason that membership
any church body was unnecessary? I asked Father Pfau, therefore,
if there was any danger of a Catholic losing his faith as
of joining A.A.
never knew one who lost his faith," he said. "On
contrary, the A.A. program has inspired many fallen-away
to return to the Church. It has spiritually re-awakened
Moreover, some A.A. non-Catholic members have become Catholics,
few through having gone on retreats."
next statement startled me - until he went on to explain
no one should try to convert a fellow member. Catholic
members should not try to convert non-Catholic members.
not ready to try to convert anyone, and should not introduce
religious controversy and consequent friction at A.A. meetings.
For one thing it reveals pride and presumption. I've known
Catholics on the A.A. program who, having stayed sober a
months, start going apostolic. Such a Catholic, on meeting
little or no success, and generally arousing antagonisms,
inevitably winds up going on a big binge! Why? Because,
disappointment, he succumbs to a typical alcoholic self-pity.
pride has been hurt. What he fails to realize is that he
stellar example of the Faith, and that he attempted to do
saint, rich in graces and years of holiness, and with deep
into human nature, would not have attempted. The Catholic
who suddenly goes apostolic simply wants to be a Big Shot
convert-maker. The same goes for members of other churches
to make converts.
the founder of A.A. once wisely wrote: 'It is one of the
glories of A.A. that the individual may make his free choice
all A.A. matters without expecting the least interference
criticism from any group or any of his fellow members.'"
asked him if churchgoers as often become alcoholics as unbelievers
so," was his reply. "But I'd say that most such
churchgoers never had been truly religious, and in that
are much like the non-churchgoers. Many a Catholic parish,
that matter, has its heavy-drinking faultfinders. They don't
their pastor. They'd prefer another bishop. They think of
themselves as greatly misunderstood. They blame everyone
themselves for their drinking. Their favorite subject is
themselves, and they take affront easily. They are face
They lie about the quantity and frequency of their drinking.
They'll blame their wives - or husbands - or the economic
for their behavior. Often they come to think that the Church
failed them, rather than that they have failed the Church.
type often ends up as a compulsive drinker. Sometimes I
God permits such persons to sink to the lowest depths, until
last they realize how desperately they need Him. This is
essential story of many who have, at long last, embraced
program and, consequently, humility. Most such men - and
return to the Church, to become genuinely humble Christians."
percentage of all those who first enter into the A.A.
program achieve ultimate sobriety?
percentage pattern," Father Pfau replied, "is
the same in every A.A. group. About 75 per cent ultimately
sober for keeps. Some 50 per cent, from the first day they
on the program, never take another drink. That means that
per cent backslide one or more times, but eventually win
Another 25 per cent fail."
in his opinion, do these fail?
just don't stick around very long. Others, after doing
well for a time, revert back to drunkenness through failing
carry out the twelfth and last step, which reads: 'Having
spiritual experience as the result of these steps (meaning
first eleven) we tried to carry this message to alcoholics
tried to bring in new members) and to practice these principles
all our affairs.' The twelfth step is simply a command to
one has been loved, and on it depends lasting sobriety.
member who fails to realize there are other alcoholics who
the A.A. program, men and women who are going through the
hell on earth he or she once experienced, is virtually certain
slip back into compulsive drinking. God only gives to any
of us as
we give to others. When we stop giving, He stops giving.
member who doesn't carry out A.A. principles in family,
business, neighbor, racial and all other relationships is
violating that twelfth step. Also, the twelfth step demands
constant loving fellowship with all other A.A. members.
thing, each new member is given the phone numbers of long
fellow members of the same sex. If this new member - or
one, for that matter - at any hour of the day or night ever
the old and terrible craving for that first drink, he or
phone another member, and that member is supposed to hurry
and stand by until the crisis has passed. A man sees a man
through. A woman sees a woman through. A.A. members know
alcoholic can only be helped by another alcoholic who understands
- as a non-alcoholic can never experientially understand
power of that compulsion. Not to respond to such an S.O.S.
tantamount to ingratitude to God. It is to fail to love
are many facets to the A.A. therapy. Father Pfau summed
up the five major reasons for the success of the A.A. program.
it approaches the problem from all three levels,
spiritual, mental and physical.
it gives each member a confidence he or she can
achieve sobriety, because so many other members have.
the deep conviction is implanted that "once an
alcoholic, always an alcoholic;" that in the present
the problem, alcoholism may be arrested but cannot be cured.
the aim at placing security upon the only true source
of security, Almighty God.
the application of the time valued group therapy,
especially since many eccentricities may remain for a long
after initial sobriety, eccentricities seldom understood
fifth factor, Father Pfau emphasized, is very important,
as, prior to joining the A.A., these alcoholics had been,
most part, social outcasts, feared and loathed by most persons.
Thus, in their heavy drinking years, they had felt isolated
inferior. Now they enjoyed a social life with others who
undergone the same agonies. They were members of a community
persons, all recognizing that they were unable to take that
Pfau said that whereas pledges or memberships in total
abstinence societies might help other types of drinkers
drunkards, they are of no worth to true alcoholics, i.e.,
compulsive drinkers, whose wills have become so weak that
validly promise nothing, but can only abandon themselves
A.A. member," he said, "takes no pledge, knowing
a true alcoholic to promise never to take another drink
ridiculous pride and presumption. An A.A. member, on arising
morning, humbly asks God to strengthen him or her against
taking of as much as one drink during that day. And as the
into weeks, the weeks into months, the months into years,
ultimately results the expulsion of a compulsion - by Almighty
God. But even this is conditional on an A.A. membership
being life membership, dedicated to helping other alcoholics."