Science, Religion and Alcoholism

Religious Serials & Series Articles

01-031 Science, Religion and Alcoholism, by John Doe INTEGRITY, Vol. 5: 17-29, September, 1951

INTEGRITY, Vol. 5: 17-29, September, 1951

by John Doe

I am an active Catholic layman, conscious of the privileges and the obligations of my faith.

I am also an alcoholic.

For 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.

Unlike 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.

And 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.

By 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.

I 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.

When 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.

But 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.

This went on for years with something under two weeks - and that only attained once - as my record period of abstinence.

Then 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.

It 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.

That is a fact and the fact raises some questions.

How 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?

If 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?

If 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?

If 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?

One 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.

This 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.

For 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.

Theological Study of the Problem

Immediately 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.

The 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.

AThe 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."

It 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.

In 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.

That is no new conclusion, but it is refreshing to find it arrived at with such patient and understanding study of contrary opinion.

The 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."

Before 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."

Distinction Between Drunkenness and Alcoholism

The 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.

The 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.

For 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:

(1) 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?

Father 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."

In 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."

That 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.

In my case I had not yet fully admitted That I was an alcoholic. But whatever the reason, the fact stands and it demands recognition.

So 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 disease.

The 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 the other.

A Triple Sickness

So 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."

The alcoholic will agree to that. In fact, he will be glad about it as a just and clarifying judgment.

Then 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."

Here are the Twelve Steps:

(1) 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.

The 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.

Which 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?

Inadequate Use of Religious Means

To 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.

The 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.

Let's 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.

This 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?

He 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.

The 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 asceticism.

If 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.

I 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.

For 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."

It 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.


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