Moral Re-Armament and Alcoholics Anonymous

Religious Serials & Series Articles

01-050 Moral Re-Armament and Alcoholics Anonymous, by Reverend John C. Ford, S.J. N.C.C.A. "BLUE BOOK", Vol. 10, 1960

N.C.C.A. "BLUE BOOK", Vol. 10, 1960

Reverend John C. Ford, S.J.

Some of the original inspiration of A.A. came from the Oxford Groups, which are now called MRA, or Moral Rearmament. It was an Oxford grouper who first came to Bill W., the co-founder of A.A. in November, 1934, to tell him how he had found sobriety with the help of God and the Oxford groups. And when Bill W. went to Akron, Ohio, in May, 1935, and almost had a slip, it was through Oxford group people that he was introduced to Doctor Bob S., the other co-founder.

But A.A. severed all connection with the oxford groups early in its history. The New York A.A.'s withdrew in 1937, the Akron A.A.'s in 1939-at a time when the total membership of A.A. in both cities was about a hundred people.

Some of the reasons for this withdrawal are given by Bill W. in Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age. He says that the four absolutes of the Oxford groups (absolute honesty, purity, unselfish- ness, and love) were too much for recovering alcoholics to appreciate, that they rebelled against the "rather aggressive evangelism" of the Oxford groupers, and could not accept the principle of team guidance" from the group. Furthermore, the Oxford groups sought prestige through publicity for its prominent members, while A.A. was developing a fundamental principle of anonymity.

A.A. has always acknowledged the debt it owes to the Oxford groups in its early days. Fortunately, however, when they parted company, A.A. left behind those elements of Buchmanism which are unacceptable to Catholics. For instance, Catholics would object to open confession within the group practiced by many Buchmanites. But in A.A. the fifth of the Twelve Steps reads, "We admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs." A.A. members often "tell their story" at A.A. meetings, but a group confession, in an objectionable sense of the phrase, is not part of their policy or their practice. There are also to be found still traces of Oxford group terminology in A.A.; for instance, the word group itself. And the phrase "group conscience" which occurs in A.A. literature is reminiscent of a Protestant type of private revelation, or at least of a theological position which does not do justice to the unique place occupied by the Church of Christ. In A.A. however, the phrase group conscience, if it ever had definite theological meaning has long since lost it. It merely means the opinion of the major et sanior pars. And although it is the hope of all concerned that decisions be arrived at prayerfully, or in a spirit of submission to the will of God, it is not the thought of anyone that God has made A.A. the instrumentality of special, private revel- ations. Besides, the decisions in question do not have to do with religious or theological matters, but only with the practical measures to be taken to help the sick alcoholic to recover.

Apparently the differences between the fundamental attitudes of the early A.A.'s and the Oxford groupers were so pronounced that there was never a real ideological integration of A.A. into that movement. There was initial inspiration and association rather than integration. A.A. sprang from the Oxford groups but almost immediately sprang away from them.


The questions that are occasionally raised today, about participation of Catholics in A.A. are these: is A.A. a kind of religion, or a non-Catholic religious movement? If so, Catholics must obviously take no active part. Or is it at least a movement which contains peculiar dangers of religious indifferentism for the Catholics who participate in it? Is it unacceptable for Catholics in the way that MRA is unacceptable?

Catholic participation in MRA was ably discussed by R. Bastian, S.J., and J. Hardon, S.J., about two years ago: "An evaluation of Moral Rearmament," American Ecclesiastical Review,(135: Oct. 1956, pp. 217-226). The authors unhesitatingly reject active cooperation of Catholics in this movement. MRA is a religious movement with a fundamentally Protestant, theological orientation, and involves Catholics in serious dangers to their faith. Nevertheless, Father Hardon does not believe that A.A. is a similar religious movement, or is subject to such censures as these, nor does he believe that participation in A.A. is dangerous to the faith of Catholics. On the contrary, he is emphatically of the opinion that A.A. should not be repudiated by Catholics. Father Hardon has kindly permitted us to print the following excerpt from a letter of his:

"This is in reply to your welcomed letter... to which I have given considerable thought and offer the following as my personal opinion. In answer to the first question, whether I consider A.A. as the same thing as MRA, I would say they are not the same. Evidently I feel that I know more about MRA than about A.A., yet enough about the latter to say that the two differ in several important respects:

"1- MRA is directly concerned with a man's relations with God; whereas A.A. is immediately concerned only with the specific problem of drink.

"2- MRA professes to give men a new insight into religious truths by means of revelation from God; A.A. uses established truths which are known from sound ethics and natural theology.

"3- MRA began as a type of Protestant revivalism and only later developed its present transectarianism. Its principles are still, to my mind, avowedly or implicitly Protestant. A.A. has never, to my mind, been formally associated with Protestant thought and its principles, (to the best of my knowledge) are acceptable to Catholics without prejudice to their faith.

"4- MRA from the beginning has been looked upon as a kind of religion; A.A. is not so regarded by its leaders or active members.

"About the second question, whether A.A. should be repudiated by Catholics, I would answer emphatically, no. Years of experience have shown how much good can be accomplished through A.A. It would be a pity to deprive Catholics of its benefits. However, I do believe that proper care should be taken to safegaurd the religious interests of Catholic A.A.'s by having them associate by preference with persons of their own faith, be directed by a priest, learn to depend on the Catholic means of sanctification, especially the Sacraments-all of which I am sure is being done..."


It cannot be denied that there are religious elements in the A.A. program. A.A. encourages its members to turn to God as they understand Him, and to rely on the help of God. Thus there are elements of natural religion, and elements which Catholics Will interpret in terms of supernatural grace. Dependence on God is of the essence of religion. It is also fundamental to the A.A. program. Furthermore, these ideas as they appear in A.A. betray rather obviously their Christian origins. But since A.A. avoids in its own organization program every trace of denominational or organized religion, its members never speak of the religious elements of the program. They speak rather of the spiritual side of the program. A.A. has no official theology and professes no theological system. The only theological proposition I find in A.A.'s more or less official literature is the proposition that alcoholics should depend on God as they understand Him, accept His help, and do His will. This minimal theological content is eminently acceptable to Catholics. The Twelve Steps are a practical, ascetical program based on this minimum of theology. They, too, have nothing in them to which Catholic Spiritual writers would have to take exception. On the contrary, they are remarkably consonant with Catholic asceticism.


Now undoubtedly Protestants when interpreting the Twelve Steps will be likely to do so according to their own theological presuppositions, and Catholics will do likewise. But the steps as they stand are objectively compatible with Catholic theology and asceticism and so are capable of adoption by Catholics. Most important of all, A.A. itself has no theological system either in theory or in practice which gives the twelve steps any other official A.A. meaning within the organization.

The founders of A.A. made it an essential part of their program almost from the beginning not to become theologically involved, not to be theologically committed to anything. In Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age, in a footnote for p. 232, Bill W. has this to say:

"Speaking for Doctor Bob and myself I would like to say that there has never been the slightest intent, on his part or mine, of trying to found a new religious denomination. Doctor Bob held certain religious convictions, and so do I. This is, of course, the personal privilege of every A.A. member.

"Nothing, however, could be so unfortunate for A.A.'s future as an attempt to incorporate any of our personal theological views into A.A. teaching, practice, or tradition. Were Doctor Bob still with us, I am positive he would agree that we could never be too emphatic about this matter."

All these are convincing reasons for asserting that membership in A.A. is far from being a forbidden participation in a non- Catholic religion or in a non-Catholic religious movement.

In the beginning, however, many expressed fears of the practical dangers to faith that might arise from an atmosphere of religious indifferentism. These dangers have simply not materialized. Catholics by the thousands have returned to the practice of their faith through A.A. Whatever may be said of others, Catholics do not make A.A. their religion. Rather, they use it as a means to remove an obstacle to the practice of their religion, the obstacle being the beverage alcohol. They do not forsake their Catholic faith or practice for a new A.A. faith and practice. There are many Catholics in A.A. who because of bad marriages do not practice their faith and cannot approach the Sacraments. Some of these get some of the "consolations of religion" out of their A.A. associations. But it is the bad marriage, not A.A., that keeps them from practicing their faith. There are others who while drinking lost their faith and became agnostic. Most of these, the great majority in fact, on sobering up return to their faith. A few do not. But in their case the net result is that instead of dealing with a drunken agnostic you find yourself dealing with a sober agnostic. Obviously, your chances of saving a soul are better in the latter case.

There is no doubt about the fact that there are practical dangers of religious indifferentism wherever we go in the United States today. In this country it is a part of the air we breathe. There is no escaping it in A.A. or anywhere else. But it cannot be said that A.A. offers any peculiar hazards in this regard. In the beginning this was feared. But the wonderful record of returns to active Catholic faith and practice shows just the opposite.


This type of association raises larger problems than that of A.A. participation by our people. It is the general problem of cooperating with our brethren outside the Church in various good works and moral endeavors. For instance, we would like to introduce into the public schools, along with them, a program of moral and spiritual education. This is being attempted now in some cities with the blessing of the hierarchy. But as soon as the word God is used in any such program there is danger of theological error and heresy. And undoubtedly there will be heresy in some quarters because, undoubtedly, some will give the word God an heretical meaning.

The same problem arises in the character guidance programs which have done and are doing so much good in our armed forces. The moral instructions have to be given to the men on a non-sectarian basis if the program is going to be instituted at all. The problems raised by this kind of cooperation are much more serious in my opinion than anything that arises in connection with A.A. In spite of certain difficulties, I think the problems are being worked out satisfactorily, for the sake of the great good which can be obtained for our own servicemen and all servicemen in no other feasible way.

If we are going to cooperate with our non-Catholic brethren at all in matters of morals and the soul and the natural law of God (and Pius XII has urged such cooperation) we cannot avoid using words that have a religious and theological connotation; especially the words "God" and "grace of God." But nobody believes that we must forego all the good that can come from such cooperation merely because the other man's theology is erroneous, or the interpretation he may make is heretical.

I would call attention, however, once more, to the importance of a point made by Father Hardon. Catholic A.A.'s should be encouraged to strengthen their own spiritual lives by a fuller participation in the riches of their Catholic faith, especially by frequent reception of the sacraments. Sometimes Catholic A.A.'s gather together in associations formed for this purpose, like the Calix society, or the Matt Talbot Retreat Movement. At other times they proceed on an individual basis, or through Church societies of a more general kind to deepen their Catholic religious practice. Priests who work with A.A. find an endless and very fertile field for apostolic work of this kind. We are fishers of men. In A.A. the fish are just waiting to be caught. Once caught, the possibilities of spiritual growth and sanctification of these Catholic A.A.'s through the Sacraments of Christ are immense.

Excerpt from a letter to Father Ford from His Excellency, Most Reverend Thomas L. Noa, D.D., Bishop of Marquette, Michigan on the foregoing article.

"I just read your discussion on the relationship between A.A. and MRA in The Blue Book, volume 10, which arrived this week. In my opinion, there is a great difference between MRA and A.A. with respect to the application of religion.

"A.A. is concerned with guidance from above with respect to the removal of an obstacle, viz., the sickness of body and soul which results from alcoholism. It is a plain fact that A.A. is not connected with any religious denomination and avoids discussions on religion.

"MRA, as I know it, points to a total way of life and not merely to some problem in life. You refer to team guidance and a group conscience in MRA. According to my experience, from lengthier and shorter conversations with various individuals in MRA, this aspect constitutes a real danger to the purity and integrity of the faith of Catholics. They carry their notebook with them all the time, and are always making entries into it, relating from the inspirations and thoughts that they acquire from prayer and the quiet time. They share these thoughts with others and claim that policies are formed.

"In my opinion, there certainly is a certain select group of individuals who act as formulators of these thoughts and witnesses and testimonies. These individuals certainly do not have a divine authority for the entirely spiritual elements in these policies. Thus, Catholics receive spiritual guidance from persons who are not authorized to do so by the Church. To me this is the final conclusion based on a theological and psychological analysis of their way of life. Moreover, Frank Buchman's name is always inserted with explicit or at least implicit thought that he is always right.

"While some of the Catholics in MRA seem to profess great loyalty to the Church and teaching authority of the Church, they do not realize that the way of life of MRA is for them also necessary. Other Catholics speak quite openly that they need MRA in addition to the Church. Thus indifferentism and syncretism creep into their way of thinking.

"In 1955 and 1956, Bishop Charriere of Lausanne, Switzerland, drew up a list of seven points which would safeguard the position of Catholics. These points were not accepted by MRA on the plea that MRA is not an organization but an organism, and as such it cannot operate by way of human directive. These latter words are given exactly as written by one of their leaders in a letter which I have. My conclusion is that MRA proposes a system of morality based on inspiration from God.

"I fail to see how any dangers to the Catholic Faith can come from working with A.A. with respect to the problem of alcoholism. I feel that the general policy of the Church about joint conferences, but independent action, can readily be applied to A.A. but not to MRA "


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