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FURROW, Vol. 8: 79-86, February, 1957
AMERICAN CHURCH AND A.A.
on alcoholism and Alcoholics Anonymous have already
appeared in THE FURROW, and I propose to take for granted
of the A.A. aims and recovery programme. It is necessary,
the outset to stress the generally crystallized medical
alcoholism is a disease or an illness or a departure from
health requiring treatment, of which the compulsive drinking
addict is the symptom only. Though not completely satisfying,
working definition is that alcoholism is a physical allergy
alcohol combined with a mental obsession to take more after
drink. Physical treatment of alcoholism can rarely by itself
lasting and satisfactory recovery. The mind and the soul
as an illness, the term I am selecting for use, is
not a peculiarly Catholic illness, but a universal one.
however, it has been estimated that over forty per cent
150,000 recovered alcoholics presently in A.A. are Catholics,
properly an object of Catholic anxiety. The North American
has gained a long start in the matter of rehabilitation,
and it may
be of interest to know something of the American Church's
towards this grave and widespread problem. What I write
is the fruit
of visits to the United States and Canada in the last two
partly from personal experience and partly (and more importantly)
from the willingly-given experience of very many priests
that I met.
I am, incidentally, a member of A.A. with almost ten years
behind me; but any views I may be taken to express are purely
personal views and not necessarily those of A.A. as a whole.
are an estimated four to five million alcoholics in the
United States alone to give point to Archbishop Cushing's
THE PRIEST that "Every priest is bound in conscience
himself through serious study and careful analysis with
common of the causes of this plague." Father Ford has
added: "I take
it for granted that the seminary has an educated responsibility
this matter. I think it clear that the task of preparing
the sacred ministry must include preparation for meeting
pastoral problem as widespread and devastating as the alcohol
problem .... In the pastoral theology course every seminarian
time during his four years of theology, and preferably towards
end, should be given practical instruction in how to deal
excessive drinkers, potential alcoholics, alcoholics and
of alcoholics. They should be introduced to A.A., its members
techniques, and taught how essential it is nowadays to co-operate
with A.A. in order to ensure the arrest of alcoholism in
numbers of alcoholics....Alcohol problems are so extensive
pervasive in the lives of the Catholic faithful and clergy
seminary has an educational responsibility to meet these
my American visits I never came across any priest who had
not a working knowledge of A.A., both of its capabilities
and of its
limitations. The local A.A. group was often connected with
and, though usually at least as much Protestant as Catholic
membership, was very often given the use of the Catholic
Hall for its
meetings, nearly always at a nominal rent. Priests seemed
frequent visitors at meetings and were welcomed by all for
experience, advice and encouragement. It is good to write
same interest is being manifested in our Irish seminaries.
been invited to send, and has sent, speakers to the senior
the seminarians at Maynooth College and St. Peter's, Wexford,
last two years. The students displayed a great interest
many pertinent and realistic questions. I had the pleasure
one of them subsequently in a Texas city, where a knowledge
alcoholic problem was certainly no hindrance to him.
University holds a Summer Course on Alcohol Studies, to
which the Church sends some priest students. Here they have
opportunity of learning about the technical scientific sides
alcoholism, as well as meeting many A.A. members, going
A.A. meetings and learning about its methods. Social workers,
doctors, teachers and Protestant clergy also attend these
and there is ample opportunity for discussion and interchange
views. One of the priests who has attended the course has
it: "A.A. has done what no scientist has been able
to do, and that is
to bring the alcoholic to a state of maintained and happy
sobriety .... The most severe criticism (and that from priests)
heard of the course is that it plays down the spiritual
part of the
problem of alcoholism. It does no such thing. The professors
admit what we all know, that it is a threefold sickness,
psychological, physiological and spiritual. They feel they
about the mental part of the problem; very little about
drive that is found in the alcoholic; and when they get
spiritual part of the program, like the intelligent scientists
are, they know enough to leave it alone. Instead, they bring
moral theologians - one a Lutheran, the other a Catholic.
Ford, who is one of the leading Moral theologians in the
States, gives a most interesting lecture on 'The Moral Theology
Beverage Alcohol.' For scientists to leave the spiritual
the theologians is commendable, and not condemnable, in
organization known as The National Clergy Conference on
Alcoholism (N.C.C.A.), is composed of Catholic clergy and
annually to discuss alcohol problems. Its stated aims are:
Rehabilitation of priest alcoholics, using the helps offered
coupled with the sacraments of the Church. 2. Prevention
alcoholism among priests through the dissemination of information
through an educational programme, especially in seminaries.
Co-operation with the Most Reverend Ordinaries and Religious
Superiors by placing at their disposal the knowledge and
of the N.C.C.A.
conferences of the N.C.C.A. are specifically for priests
and, since 1953, have been held in different parts of the
They have so far, and at the invitation of the Archbishops
been held in Indiana, Brooklyn, N.Y., Boston, Kansas City
Philadelphia. The 1957 meeting will be held in Cincinnatti
in 1958 at Detroit; in 1957 at the invitation of the Archbishop
Cincinnatti, and in 1958 at the invitation of the Cardinal
of Detroit. They last for three days, are opened by the
Archbishop or his deputy and close with a Holy Hour of Reparation.
Quite frequently, different bishops take the chair at the
sessions, which are devoted to a number of practical aspects.
is at present conceded that some four or five out of every
hundred persons who take alcoholic drink develop the illness
alcoholism, irrespective of social position, profession
or income. It
is my firm opinion, gained from ten years experience in
a number of
different countries, that the percentage of alcoholics among
is below the general figure and is small. And so it would
to exaggerate it or give it too much prominence in this
I feel it would also be unwise to ignore or turn a blind
eye to the
problem of the alcoholic priest. Comparatively rare though
he may be,
nevertheless he requires and is due proper treatment and
rehabilitation opportunity just as much as his far more
fellow-sufferers. In most American dioceses it seemed to
me that the
old fashioned methods have been largely abandoned and that
priests now are sent for treatment to rest houses, hospitals
homes. Twenty-six of these are listed by the N.C.C.A., and
nineteen of them the A.A. programme is either available
suggested to the patients. Eleven of these homes are exclusively
priests. Five are supported by the archdiocese or diocese.
usually make no charge for their own diocesan priests, but
offering is accepted. Those owned privately charge from
75 to 125
dollars a week. The majority afford facilities for celebrating
Although the number of homes may seem large, most of them
limited accommodation, for five or six perhaps, and at over
them lay patients are accepted as well.
custodian of one of these diocesan homes has said: "We
A.A. has been a tremendous asset to our rehabilitation work
of the positive approach it makes to this most difficult
alcoholic needs to be taught or to adopt a positive programme
rehabilitation, a programme that will help him correct his
mental and spiritual problem." And Sister Ignatia,
of whom I will be
writing more later, says: "Whether the patient be priest
the sooner he is able to return to his work or profession,
only to a limited degree, the sooner does he grasp the programme
achieve recovery. It is not wise that he be given opportunity
brood too long over Yesterday and Tomorrow." Sister
know, for she has been working for alcoholics for twenty
retreats are given for members of A.A. up and down the
States, and these are attended by as many Protestants as
Many conversions have taken place. One archbishop has so
confidence in A.A. that he has appointed one of his priests
to work with A.A. by giving them retreats. The State of
Ohio has an
A.A. population of over 8,000 and very frequently there
is an A.A.
retreat, well attended.
most impresssive event I witnessed during my stay in
Cleveland last year was a Memorial Mass for dead A.A. members
city held on Remembrance Day last May. The cathedral was
by and filled with members and their relations for this
specially arranged and celebrated by the bishop, who also
Not all who were there were Catholics. A look round the
gave me food for thought. There were eight hundred people,
of them receiving Holy Communion, nearly all of them at
one time or
another written off by the world at large as hopeless and
drunks, and yet there they were, well and recovered, gathered
together to do their duty by their dead through prayers,
and by their
living fellow members through this example of unity, perseverance
gratitude to God.
visited three wards established exclusively for alcoholics
the Sisters of Charity of St. Augustine, situated at Johnstown,
Pennsylvania, and at Akron and Cleveland, Ohio. They are
conducted on much the same pattern. The Akron ward was the
be started, the Cleveland ward is the largest and the Johnstown
was started two years ago. Sister Ignatia, who was responsible
starting the Akron ward, was four or five years ago transferred
Cleveland Charity Hospital to give her more scope and space.
she is the guiding star and inspiration of a ward separated
rest of the hospital, which has accommodation for twelve
men and five
women patients at one time. Her charity and her indomitable
and energy are the main reasons for the starting success
there. Alcoholics all over America owe her far more than
ever hope to repay. A small, slight woman, she has the heart
courage of a lion.
Hall is the name given to her ward in Clevland. It
consists of three ward-rooms, a dining hall, separate lounges
and women, a kitchen where coffee, sandwiches and other
refreshments are available all day and for most of the night,
small chapel in which the Rosary is recited every afternoon
patients. The length of stay is normally five days, but
exceptional circumstances it may be prolonged to seven.
No patient is
admitted more than once. After the first two days, and when
patient is on his feet again, he is expected to take his
share of the
chores, keeping the ashtrays cleared, looking after the
coffee, helping to nurse the latest admissions and the like.
senior patient is made "Mayor" of the ward for
his last day, and his
responsibility is to allot tasks to the other patients and
they are carried out, and of course to take his own share.
Ignatia gives a spiritual "pep" talk every morning
and thereafter A.A. members from the hundred or so city
and go throughout the day until late at night to talk to
and hammer home, through their own stories, the message
of hope and
recovery. Each evening, an A.A. member stages an A.A. meeting
patients, who are for the time of their stay cut off from
influences that might distract their attention from their
T.V., Radio, newspapers, letters and visits from their families
all banned. On the day of discharge, Sister will usually
have a talk
with the family. Patients are sponsored into the ward by
and when they leave their sponsor is there to take them
Over a thousand alcoholics pass through the ward every year.
charge for the treatment is eighty dollars, but practically
amount is covered through "Blue Cross" insurance.
gives a Sacred Heart badge of the Apostleship of Prayer
patient on his discharge, the understanding being that it
to her by the patient if he or she reverts to drink again.
regard, I overheard her asking one ex-patient who had returned
visit her, if he was still carrying his badge upon him.
that it was lying in a drawer at his home. "You know,"
she told him
gently, "It isn't the drawer that needs that badge!"
is my dearest hope, that one day soon some Order will be
inspired to start a similar apostleship of service for the
in this country of ours. Sister Ignatia has told me she
willingly help to train nuns for this work if they came
out to her
ward in Cleveland. She could certainly not fail to inspire
some of the overflowing love she has for the alcoholic who
to recover his body and his soul.
Edward Dowling, S.J. of St. Louis Missouri, is another
priest who is known and beloved by alcoholics throughout
for his work on their behalf and who, through his advice
encouragement in the earliest days of A.A., played an important
in the development of the Fellowship. He is always in great
a speaker at meetings and in spite of serious and constant
illness gives freely still of his energy. His work is not
alcoholics alone, for he is equally well known for his success
mending broken marriages. He was a visitor to Ireland a
want to quote again from a letter received by me from the
Chancellor of a very large American Archdiocese in 1949.
I do so
because there is still in this country quite an amount of
"unknowingness" about A.A. and its recovery programme.
I had written
to him to ask what the attitude of the Church in his archdiocese
towards A.A., because I felt that, armed with that knowledge,
might be able to approach the clergy of this country for
and support. (A.A. had not been long established in Dublin
time.) This was his reply:
the knowledge of my Superior, the Archbishop, I have
manifested a very deep interest in the Alcoholics Anonymous
in our city. From my observation and study, I am convinced
movement is the most sound and the most successful approach
ever been made in our country to the problem of the alcoholic.
city, I am under the impression that about one half of its
were at one time Catholics and that the Irish predominate
Catholics. The Twelve Steps of Recovery appeal to me as
entirely in harmony with the Catholic faith and morals,
clearly stated religious and moral principles in language
simple and easily understood. Honesty to one's self, humility,
contrition, purpose of amendment, unburdening one's soul
one's self of failing to another person, placing one's hope
confidence in God, making restitution, relying on prayer
meditation, and spiritual reading seem to me to be sound
principles necessary for rehabilitation. The apostolic step
this message to alcoholics and to help others rehabilitate
is also in conformity with the Christian teaching and seems
psychologically of utmost importance. Cases have come to
my notice of
priests who were victims of alcoholism being re-instated
through A . A .
A large number of lukewarm and indifferent Catholics have
an active practice of their faith; and strange as it my
instances are known of non-Catholics who have been brought
Catholic faith through the A.A. movement. The Chancery has
solicitous to avoid giving the impression that the archdiocese
trying to take over the A.A. movement, trying to dominate
movement or trying to interfere in either the organization
activities of the groups in this city. Possibly to some
there may be a danger of making the A.A. movement a substitute
Catholicism, and if that were so we would regret it. But
it is my
impression that the tendency has rather been that many Catholics
returned to the practice of their faith, and there is a
of honest and sincere non-Catholics being brought into the
faith by this movement..."
Chancellor wrote of "the apostolic step to carry this
message to alcoholics and to help others to rehabilitate
In Philadelphia, I noticed one day a poster issued by the
Army in an appeal for funds. The picture showed a young
on his shoulders a disabled boy only slightly smaller than
The caption read: "He's not heavy - he's my brother."
seems to me the secret of A.A. success. The recovered
alcoholic doing his best to help the alcoholic who wants
knowing that even if his effort is apparently lost on the
himself is acquiring strength and purpose through his effort.
his neighbour as himself through serving his neighbour,
positive and active approach to his own alcoholic problem.
aim of helping others that can never be fully achieved or
leaving the incentive to progress in his own rehabilitation
ardent even after years of sobriety.
this spirit, and with this aim, the Irish groups of A.A.
offer their services to any parish, diocese or seminary
that may wish
to avail of it.
23 St. Stephen's Green,