The Faith and Alcoholics Anonymous

Religious Serials & Series Articles

01-040 The Faith and Alcoholics Anonymous, by Ted Le Berthon CATHOLIC MIND, Vol. 53: 19-28, January, 1955

CATHOLIC MIND, Vol. 53: 19-28, January, 1955

by Ted Le Berthon

One of the dark and perhaps malevolent ironies of our times is that, despite the steadily mounting increase, from year to 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 - or even all other - means had failed, alcoholics are on the increase in the United States.

I learned this unhappy fact in a recent interview with Father Ralph S. Pfau, who told me: "They're increasing by leaps and bounds."

Father Pfau should know. A priest of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, he has devoted himself exclusively for the past eleven years, with ecclesiastical permission, to the study of the problem of alcoholism and the means of combatting it. He is familiar with all the theories as to the causes of alcoholism, and all the so-called cures, in and out of sanatoria. He is conversant with the findings of all reputable research groups. He knows the spiritual, medical and psychiatric approaches.

During 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 - all who have any connection with the alcoholic in some capacity. He has lectured - often in several cities and towns in the course of a week - before A.A. groups. He has given thirteen retreats every year, always spaced four weeks apart, to A.A. groups, an over-all 70 per cent of whom are non-Catholics. During the past seven years he has written a series of seven "Golden Books" for A.A. members, a series recently recommended by the Gregorian University in Rome as a "superb and effective undertaking of rehabilitation, social, moral and spiritual."

When 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 why.

"That's a large question," he said. "One certain reason is that people are drinking more than ever before. Another is the still widespread misconception as to what constitutes an alcoholic, as differentiated from any other type of drinker or drunkard. Another is secularism.


"The A.A. is a spiritual program, in which the members, admitting they are powerless over alcohol, and that their lives have become unmanageable, turn their will and their lives over to God as they understood Him. Too many alcoholics, their friends and their relatives seem to have a greater faith in science than in God. They will first and for a long time try medical and psychiatric help, or almost anything. Just as with many persons confronted by other grave problems, they will turn to God only after every purely human remedy has failed. This, in fact, is the case with the overwhelming majority of those who finally join A.A. And that is one reason why only one-tenth of all alcoholics in the United States embrace the A.A. program today."

Father Pfau derived this estimate of one-tenth by comparing the A.A. membership rolls - there are about 150,000 members - with 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.

"The public," he said, "is still largely unaware of the distinct difference between a drunkard and an alcoholic. A man or a woman may get drunk often, or may drink excessively every day, and not be an alcoholic, if he or she drinks wilfully, whether for the 'kick,' or to escape monotony, or to drown a sorrow, or for any other reason. He or she may remain a heavy drinker or a periodic drunkard. But a true alcoholic does not get drunk for any conscious reason. The true alcoholic is not a wilful but a compulsive drinker. In fact, by the time a heavy drinker or drunkard has become an alcoholic, he or she does not want to get drunk, fears even to take one drink, knowing this is like lighting a fuse that will lead to an inevitable explosion, and knowing full well by long experience the likely horrible consequences. The true alcoholic gets drunk against his or her will."

Father Pfau defined a true alcoholic as "any man or woman who, haven taken one drink, cannot guarantee his or her sobriety."

He emphasized that there is no such thing as an ex-alcoholic.

"Once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic, i.e., a person who cannot take one drink. A.A. members who have been sober a year, five years, or ever since the movement was founded, know they're still alcoholics. To use medical terminology, they know that compulsive drinking is an allergy coupled with an obsession.

"Unfortunately, too many priests have been unable to help alcoholics, in or out of the confessional, because they don't realize that there is such a thing as compulsive drinking. A penitent may confess to habitual drunkenness, and say: 'Father, I just can't help it, I just can't stop drinking, and believe me, I have tried, and I'm ashamed of my failure.' So what does many a well-meaning priest do? He tells the fellow he must stop, that he is making life a horror for himself, his family and his friends, and will wind up going insane, losing his soul, or both. So what 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 coming of doom.

"Had the priest caught him before the drinking became compulsive, he could have impressed him with his sinfulness. Of course, sin is involved, past sin, when the drinking was wilful. But now a compulsion neurosis has developed, and the man is suffering from a disease of the will. The element of free will is never wholly absent, and the sin is at the root of the disease, but in some obscure and complex way.


"The 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 of drinker or drunkard. On the other hand, secular-minded educators, psychiatrists and operators of liquor-cure sanitariums need to recognize that there is such a thing as sin, instead of regarding compulsive drinking solely as a neurosis. As with many other subjects, there is too much 'either-or' thinking on this one. Alcoholism is a disorder of the entire personality, highly complex and often fatal. Socially, it seems bound up with a general increase of drinking due to a lack of religious certitude and a far-spread moral relativism.

"More and more women, and more and more young people are becoming alcoholics. In the early years of the A.A. movement, some 16 per cent of the members were women. Today 35 per cent are women. Eleven years ago when I was lecturing before A.A. groups, I rarely met a member who was under forty years of age. Today, at virtually any A.A. meeting, one sees quite a sprinkling of young men and women in their late teens and early twenties."

Father Pfau, a sturdy and sinewy man of middle stature, stared at me through spectacles, the lenses of which make his large eyes seem even larger, as if I'd asked him to explain the riddle of the Sphinx.

"Who 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 disorder, 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 told me revealed they'd either been over-pampered or over-neglected as children. Even those who had made outstanding successes in business, the professions, the arts or the sciences had always felt unsure of themselves."

Contrary to the belief of many, Father Pfau does not believe that most had been escapists, out to avoid feelings of physical, mental or spiritual inferiority by taking to drink and entering into a quasi-dream world where they could seem magnificent, heroic, invincible.

He passed a hand over his wavy brown hair and smiled ruefully.

"Its the old story of which comes first, the chicken or the egg. It's hard to say, with some, whether a Big Shot complex is the cause or only the effect of the drinking. True, many initially drink to rise above some sorrow or frustration, some disappointment in their home life or business life. But others never had touched a drop when depressed or faced by some critical situation. Then there is the celebrating kind. These had drunk from an excess of high spirits, often while riding the crest of 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 at the thought of getting drunk - but they get drunk anyhow."

What are the signs indicating that an occasional drinker, periodic drunkard, or any other type, may be drifting towards compulsive drinking?

"When, " said Father Pfau, "the drinker progressively increases the quantity and frequency of his or her drinking, thus evidencing a progressive weakness of the will."

When Father Pfau, a sensitive, intense person with a glow on his leathery face that seems of the spirit rather than of physical health, gets on the subject of the A.A. as the answer to any alcoholicls hopes or prayers for deliverance, he speaks unsmilingly, with profound and fervent conviction. Prior to interviewing him, I had heard him address an A.A. group, and had seen and heard them at moments convulsed with laughter at his sometimes droll insight into the self-deceptions of the drinking tribe. Laughter plays a large part at any A.A. meeting, a laughter at the ghosts or devils of the past.


While 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 is the thirty-eighth I have written about A.A. for various newspapers and magazines. I have seen innumerable men and women who had long been the despair of families and friends, priests and ministers; persons who had sown agony and bewilderment for long years among all who knew them, reborn spiritually, mentally and physically through the A.A. program. Among them were men and women who had 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 has known so many more of them.

I asked him why it was that frequent and often long jail sentences, incarceration in public mental hospitals and private 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 futile in the case of so many drunkards.

"Some 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, seldom rehabilitative, much less preventive of future drinking, quite expensive and out of reach of most persons. And they lack any spiritual approach, much less stressing any complete surrender to 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 to do so, before, in final desperation, and by God's grace, joining A.A."


I then put the $64 question - "Why is it Father, that so many Catholics could not stop their excessive and destructive drinking 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 channels of grace seemingly failed them?"

"Seemingly is the word," he said. "The A.A. program was the answer to their prayers, their seeking! It was God's will, in His own good time, for them, for meeting their particular need. The A.A. is the spiritual experience that works for most compulsive drinkers, be they Catholics, Protestants, Jews, or of no formal religion."

Adverting to the founding of A.A., I reminded Father Pfau that the founder, and the composer of the now famous twelve steps of the A.A. program, was neither a Catholic, nor, at the time at least, a formal member of any church. Rather he was a sick and terrified drunk who, after winding up in the psychopathic ward of a public hospital, had one night prayed God to deliver him from the torments and despair of compulsive drinking. Suddenly, on what must have been a mysterious night indeed for him, he found himself writing down those twelve steps. I asked Father Pfau:

"How was it that soon afterward Father Edward Dowling, S.J., discerned that the twelve steps bore an essential resemblance to the initial or purgative steps in The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola? And how was it that when this was pointed out to to the founder of A.A., he disclaimed having ever read The Spiritual Exercises or any other spiritual books, Catholic or otherwise?"

Father Pfau stared at me chidingly.

"Those spiritual laws always existed thus long before St. Ignatius formulated them in a particular way. They still exist. Adherence to them can still help any human being, whatever his or her problem. The fact that A.A.'s twelve steps coincide with St. Ignatius' delineation of the purgative way is significant. For 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 writers, 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 of spiritual progress, and then only for one unique kind of person, an alcoholic, a compulsive drinker.


"That is why A.A., by its nature, cannot be allied with any denomination or sect or any other kind of organization. A.A. neither endorses nor opposes any creed or cause. It simply is a fellowship of men and women who are alcoholics, and who share with each other their experience, strength and hope, toward solving their common problem and towards helping still others arrest their alcoholism. The A.A. neither evangelizes nor proselytizes. Its entire therapy is contained in the book Alcoholics Anonymous, compiled by the founding group eighteen years ago. A.A. is not endowed by anyone, yet has no dues, charges or fees, and welcomes to membership the poorest of the poor. Free-will collections are taken up at meetings to defray hall rentals and other incidental expenses, but no one knows how much any other member contributes."

Father 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.

"Within the past few years, a writer in Reader's Digest, displaying a shocking ignorance of even the barest elements of the A.A. therapy, described it as nothing more than 'a rehash of Salvation Army techniques.' Owners of sanatoria or treatment centers, in seeking publicity or else in ignorance have written articles that have prevented many alcoholics from coming into A.A. An article in The Sign may have kept many Catholics from seeking help through A.A. for fear of being required to do something contrary to the Church's teachings."

I 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 a religious indifferentism. For was not A.A. a sort of pseudo-Catholicism, instilling Catholic principles yet devoid of liturgy and sacraments? Might not some members conclude that liturgy and sacraments were non-essentials, "trappings" or encrustations? Seeing that they "went to God directly" and were helped by Him regardless of their denominational affiliation or even if they had none, might not some reason that membership in any church body was unnecessary? I asked Father Pfau, therefore, if there was any danger of a Catholic losing his faith as a result of joining A.A.

"I never knew one who lost his faith," he said. "On the contrary, the A.A. program has inspired many fallen-away Catholics to return to the Church. It has spiritually re-awakened them. Moreover, some A.A. non-Catholic members have become Catholics, a few through having gone on retreats."

His next statement startled me - until he went on to explain it.

"But no one should try to convert a fellow member. Catholic members should not try to convert non-Catholic members. They are 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 few months, start going apostolic. Such a Catholic, on meeting with little or no success, and generally arousing antagonisms, inevitably winds up going on a big binge! Why? Because, in his disappointment, he succumbs to a typical alcoholic self-pity. His pride has been hurt. What he fails to realize is that he is no stellar example of the Faith, and that he attempted to do what a saint, rich in graces and years of holiness, and with deep insight into human nature, would not have attempted. The Catholic member who suddenly goes apostolic simply wants to be a Big Shot convert-maker. The same goes for members of other churches who try to make converts.

"As 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 in all A.A. matters without expecting the least interference or criticism from any group or any of his fellow members.'"

I asked him if churchgoers as often become alcoholics as unbelievers do.

"More so," was his reply. "But I'd say that most such churchgoers never had been truly religious, and in that respect are much like the non-churchgoers. Many a Catholic parish, for that matter, has its heavy-drinking faultfinders. They don't like their pastor. They'd prefer another bishop. They think of themselves as greatly misunderstood. They blame everyone but themselves for their drinking. Their favorite subject is themselves, and they take affront easily. They are face savers. They lie about the quantity and frequency of their drinking. They'll blame their wives - or husbands - or the economic system for their behavior. Often they come to think that the Church has failed them, rather than that they have failed the Church. This type often ends up as a compulsive drinker. Sometimes I suppose God permits such persons to sink to the lowest depths, until at last they realize how desperately they need Him. This is the essential story of many who have, at long last, embraced the A.A. program and, consequently, humility. Most such men - and women - return to the Church, to become genuinely humble Christians."

What percentage of all those who first enter into the A.A. program achieve ultimate sobriety?


"The percentage pattern," Father Pfau replied, "is very much the same in every A.A. group. About 75 per cent ultimately stay sober for keeps. Some 50 per cent, from the first day they start on the program, never take another drink. That means that about 25 per cent backslide one or more times, but eventually win out. Another 25 per cent fail."

Why, in his opinion, do these fail?

"Some just don't stick around very long. Others, after doing well for a time, revert back to drunkenness through failing to carry out the twelfth and last step, which reads: 'Having had a spiritual experience as the result of these steps (meaning the first eleven) we tried to carry this message to alcoholics (i.e., tried to bring in new members) and to practice these principles in all our affairs.' The twelfth step is simply a command to love as one has been loved, and on it depends lasting sobriety. The A.A. member who fails to realize there are other alcoholics who need the A.A. program, men and women who are going through the same hell on earth he or she once experienced, is virtually certain to slip back into compulsive drinking. God only gives to any of us as we give to others. When we stop giving, He stops giving.

"A 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 a constant loving fellowship with all other A.A. members. For one thing, each new member is given the phone numbers of long sober fellow members of the same sex. If this new member - or an old one, for that matter - at any hour of the day or night ever feels the old and terrible craving for that first drink, he or she can phone another member, and that member is supposed to hurry over and stand by until the crisis has passed. A man sees a man through. A woman sees a woman through. A.A. members know that an alcoholic can only be helped by another alcoholic who understands - as a non-alcoholic can never experientially understand - the power of that compulsion. Not to respond to such an S.O.S. is tantamount to ingratitude to God. It is to fail to love enough."


There are many facets to the A.A. therapy. Father Pfau summed up the five major reasons for the success of the A.A. program.

First, it approaches the problem from all three levels, spiritual, mental and physical.

Second, it gives each member a confidence he or she can achieve sobriety, because so many other members have.

Third, the deep conviction is implanted that "once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic;" that in the present knowledge of the problem, alcoholism may be arrested but cannot be cured.

Fourth, the aim at placing security upon the only true source of security, Almighty God.

Fifth, the application of the time valued group therapy, especially since many eccentricities may remain for a long time after initial sobriety, eccentricities seldom understood by non-alcoholics.

This fifth factor, Father Pfau emphasized, is very important, as, prior to joining the A.A., these alcoholics had been, for the most part, social outcasts, feared and loathed by most persons. Thus, in their heavy drinking years, they had felt isolated and inferior. Now they enjoyed a social life with others who had undergone the same agonies. They were members of a community of persons, all recognizing that they were unable to take that first drink.

Father Pfau said that whereas pledges or memberships in total abstinence societies might help other types of drinkers or drunkards, they are of no worth to true alcoholics, i.e., compulsive drinkers, whose wills have become so weak that they can validly promise nothing, but can only abandon themselves to Divine Providence.

"An A.A. member," he said, "takes no pledge, knowing that for a true alcoholic to promise never to take another drink would be ridiculous pride and presumption. An A.A. member, on arising each morning, humbly asks God to strengthen him or her against the taking of as much as one drink during that day. And as the days go into weeks, the weeks into months, the months into years, there 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."


Alcoholics Anonymous A.A.’s Eleventh Step

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