The Spiritual Treatment Of The Alcoholic By The Clergy

Religious Serials & Series Articles

01-063 The Spiritual Treatment Of The Alcoholic By The Clergy, The Rev. Dr. Paul B. McCleave MODERN TREATMENT Vol. III, May, 1966


The Rev. Dr. Paul B. McCleave *

The TITLE of PASTOR, PRIEST OR RABBI does not necessarily mean a person capable of spiritual treatment of the alcoholic. The prejudice, the hostility, or the total lack of understanding which many clergymen have for the alcoholic prevents them from being able to render effective treatment. However, the converse is also true, that there are many clergymen who have deep understanding and compassion and who offer moral and spiritual help to the alcoholic. They can and will be of great assistance to the physician as they work together in the treatment of the alcoholic. It is essential that the physician knows the clergyman personally.

The clergyman sees the problem in its wholeness; he sees the physical, spiritual, emotional, and social aspects of a patient. The cause of his illness may be in any one of these four areas, and as he progresses in his illness he may become ill in all four areas. Spiritual treatment is needed in each of these areas if the clergy are to help arrest the disease. Pastoral care and divine love penetrate deeply into the life of the patient; this is what he desires and needs. Thus, with compassion for a person and an understanding of the problem, the clergyman can and does enter into the life of the alcoholic.

Spiritual treatment of the problem of the alcoholic is threefold; it must concern itself with: (1) social stigma, (2) the alcoholic himself, and (3) the alcoholic's family. The physician has failed for too long to understand the value of the clergyman, who can give guidance and help in these cases. It is in these three areas that the physician can use the clergyman in this essential treatment.

* From the Department of Medicine and Religion, American Medical Association, Chicago.


Suppose a junior executive of a business charged with the responsibility of a major division of that business goes to his physician for an annual checkup and finds he has a malignant tumor. The management of the business would then proceed to find the finest of medical facilities and care, to arrange for a leave of absence, and to work with the patient and his family in every way in order to return him to his important post. But, if that same junior executive were an alcoholic, because of our social-cultural attitudes toward alcoholism, more than likely management would find ways to replace him in his position. Yet, the alcoholic is as seriously ill as is the man with a malignant tumor.

Through the years in the development of our social culture, we have looked upon the alcoholic in a strange and curious way. We have made him something that he isn't. What we have done in our cultural attitude is to make alcoholism associated with a social stigma. We have shamed the alcoholic into the closet of our home, we do all that we possibly can to "cover-up" and to hide the patient; we feel that an alcoholic in the family is a point of weakness within the family. Our pride is broken and we are forced to hide rather than to seek medical care and spiritual treatment.

How frequent it is that a husband will make excuses for his wife; that she has a headache or she was not able to get all the things done at the house and thus will not be able to attend the party or the dinner. Similarly, a wife will make excuses for a husband. The excuses that we make are not only for our spouse; we go further, we instill in our children pretense and deception to protect an ailing parent - they are not to tell the neighbors or friends that Mother or Daddy is ill.

For too long now, we have felt that there is an inadequacy in the individual who is an alcoholic. We call him a "weak sister," one who has no willpower. We absolve him by the excuse that the stresses, the tensions, and the pressures upon him are too great, so he finds help in drink. For too long now we have looked upon the patient as one who is ill because he is immoral or sinful, rather than looking upon him as a seriously sick person.

Today is a period of enlightenment as far as the alcoholic is concerned. Many concerned persons have in the past few years spoken openly about the problem; seminars have been carried on throughout the country, and numerous organizations and agencies are trying to tell the story of the alcoholic. It is here that the clergyman can assist in countering this social stigma. The power of the pulpit is greater than most are willing to admit. The clergyman can prepare society to receive and to accept the alcoholic as a sick person and to break down the barriers of social stigma which can destroy the life of one who should be seeking care and treatment. Thus, he assists the physician as well as the alcoholic. In this way he begins his spiritual treatment.

This is no small task. It requires a complete and full knowledge of the illness of the alcoholic so that society can have the facts through which it can alter its attitudes. It is a plea on the part of the clergyman to his congregation that the alcoholic is a person, a child of God waiting to be received by those about him. As a member of the church, they should turn with compassion and responsibility to the one who is ill as much as they would turn to the family experiencing a tragic death.

Spiritual treatment from the pulpit can break the bonds of shame and pride. It is essential that this be done, for treating only the alcoholic is not correcting the problem of social stigma which chain us to our attitudes.


Each individual case has diverse and special-circumstances which must be carefully understood. Each alcoholic who is sent or goes to the clergyman, however, goes not only for help with his problems - he goes to find spiritual help. It is in this unique and important role that the clergyman can be of the greatest help.

The clergyman represents the spiritual hope of the patient. Though he may have come in the first place because of the personality of the clergyman, the patient looks upon the clergyman as a man of faith. Even if the patient is of another faith, the clergyman represents that which the patient is seeking. The cleric has one authoritative gift to give, that is, the power of divine love. This is the power that can treat and heal far more than the words and guidelines which the clergyman may have gained from the experience he has had with others. The cleric is not a buddy, a friend in the night, a free listening ear; he is the representative of personal faith, a faith which does more than person-to-person contact.

Alcoholism is not a sin in itself. Just because the patient is an alcoholic does not make him a sinful person. On the other hand, the hideous destruction that the patient causes is sinful. The breakdown of a marriage, the creation of fear in the lives of children, the careless work in a business operation, the destruction of the physical body, the financial loss to the family, and the accompanying attributes of a vain, contemptuous arrogant personality can be, and are, sinful. The patient has recognized some of these destructive features in his life and he needs the certainty of forgiveness. Where can he obtain this forgiveness? Does he turn to his wife, children, business associates, those he has hurt to ask forgiveness? It might well be that he does, but his need is much deeper than words. Too frequently the alcoholic feels that those who in words will say to him, "yes we forgive," do so in a condescending way. The clergyman assists the patient in a very personal, spiritual way to find God in order that he may have the full assurance that God has pardoned him.

Spiritual treatment is not one of condemnation. It encourages the alcoholic to recognize that he is still a child of God. The clergyman leads the patient into the presence of God so that a power greater than his own can assist in the healing process. The alcoholic stands in need of a power far beyond himself if he is to win his battle. The need here, then, is personal prayer - prayer that brings the patient into a full realization of the presence of God and, in that presence, the ability to find strength to meet his needs. The clergyman recognizes that in most cases the alcoholic has forgotten how to pray. In his state of illness, his prayer life may begin almost in child like faith. The patient will need help in the technique of prayer, ways and means of praying, and particularly, in guidance for which to pray.

The personal needs of the patient can be in many areas of emotional life. The clergyman offers to spend a great deal of time in compassionate counseling to understand these needs and then seek ways to meet them. Perhaps the greatest need will be that of a feeling of acceptance by loved ones, business associates, and society itself. Once the alcoholic feels that he has gained acceptance by God, he is in a position to realize he is not at a loss for a friend, for he understands that this is a real acceptance, not just a face put on by friends trying to be kind. From this point of acceptance, the patient can gain self-respect and begin to overcome the loneliness that affects his dreary life.

A religious faith can, and will, bring solace, strength, courage, patience, and purpose to the ill individual. The alcoholic is worried, fearful, grief-stricken, anxious and, most of all, in need of a purpose of life. His continued drinking stems from such unmet needs. Often, it is this lack of purpose which causes the patient to go further down the ladder of his disease, for some, even to death. Through alcohol, the patient temporarily overcomes these needs. However, unfortunately for the patient, tomorrow brings him up sharply to the fact that these needs have only grown greater. A personal religious faith can give access to these needs. The clergyman can show the physicians patient the way, and lead him to find these strengths which come through faith.

Spiritual treatment is the way to the "creation of a new creature." This treatment requires more than prayers and sacraments, it requires hours of compassionate understanding, and counseling, truly a pastoral ministry to the patient. God has given to reason and purpose of living. The alcoholic needs to comprehend his purpose in life.

Now, with reason and purpose of living in mind, the alcoholic moves into the progressive steps of arrest of his illness. He does become a "new creature." The burdens and stresses of his life begin to fall from him, he has become a man, he is someone, forgiven and accepted, a part of something bigger, a member of society.

In spiritual treatment remember that God works in many ways and through many courses. Prayers, sacraments, preaching, and counseling by the clergy are essential and vital to the treatment. However, total treatment requires all others who can assist in the care of the alcoholic: the physician, the family, members of A.A., understanding friends; for God uses all to care for one of His own. He works through the orderly process of nature as well as through the means of worship. Spiritual treatment is only a part of the whole treatment which is needed to make a patient a person of total health.


More frequently than not, the first contact the clergyman has with the problem of the alcoholic is the spouse seeking help to protect the marriage and the family, making an earnest plea to do something about and for the family. Again, in the case of the family as with the patient, the clergyman has a role to play. Fundamentally, he is one representing spiritual faith.

To many, a normal life is one of tranquility above all stress, tension, and crisis, but it is not the norm of the average family; tranquility is something for which to strive. It is required of a person to have a faith to confront the stresses, tensions, and crises of modern living, and face up to those things which we do not desire to face. In the care of the family of the alcoholic, it must be understood that many crises are going to have to be experienced if the patient and family are to overcome the disease.

The spouse of the alcoholic may need more assistance and guidance from the clergyman than does the alcoholic, they may well be on the way to total emotional and mental collapse. This person needs the confidence and the assurance which can come only from a deep personal faith in the divine love of God. A self-evaluation is necessary in order to better face the long slow healing process and treatment of the alcoholic to regain health.

The problem of the spouse has many facets, but some are very much in the realm of the clergyman's treatment. Confidence in oneself, pride, love, and affection have been replaced by bewilderment, mortification, loathing, alienation, and isolation. The whole spirit of the spouse has been destroyed, sometimes to a state of hopelessness. This requires more than a tranquilizer pill. It requires a "renewing of a faith that places the word "hope" as the strong element for the tomorrow's crisis. Once again, the clergyman begins spiritual treatment as to a child, not a mature man or woman. Spiritual counseling, prayer, God-given assurances, and the certainty of God's love are the ingredients of this prescription.

It has been said, "She (He) drove him (her) to drink." There are many cases where this is more true than not. The spouse must undergo a self-evaluation to see if he himself may be one of the basic problems. The cantankerous spirit, a loss of affection, the demand of the impossible, the condemnation of the spouse, and the lack of patience and understanding of the family can start the drinking process or force it to become a constant source of escape. Two spiritual factors, forgiveness and strength, are needed to overcome these basic problems.

It is too late to ask the alcoholic for forgiveness; the spouse needs the certainty of forgiveness from God. The clergyman's task is to lead the spouse to recognize and admit the problem, to seek forgiveness, and then to find a source of strength to assist in overcoming the problems. One of the greatest burdens of the spouse is that of having to face the problem literally alone. "I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills from whence cometh my help. My help cometh from the Lord, who made heaven and earth." (Psalm 121:1)

A tragic result that can lie in the path of the disease is the breakdown of marriage - the alcoholic that leaves the home in a drunken rage, the spouse who can stand it no more who runs to escape, each blaming the other as being the cause of the disease. Actually, this may be so, but on the other hand the converse is true. What is marriage? If the patient had a malignant tumor would not this cause love for one another to deepen in the marriage? The alcoholic is as seriously ill. The spouse needs to recognize this and be assured that arrest of the disease is possible.

The clergyman recalls the vows of marriage, that affection and love are still there, though hidden by feelings of scorn, pity, arrogance, and self-pity. The love of two is eternal. This love may burn brightly again as it is shared with the divine love of God. Though difficult for the spouse to believe, the clergyman may rekindle the spark. On the other hand, the clergyman does not realize that there are also certain times and circumstances when separation or divorce may be the best therapy.

Spiritual treatment is needed in some cases for the spouse to understand the role of compassionate love. The alcoholic is not "a cross to bear" or "a thorn in the flesh." Who is better than the clergyman to explain this role of compassionate love to the long-suffering soul? There is a great deal of difference between bearing with and suffering with the patient, and accepting the suffering with self-pity. The spouse will have to bear with the long treatment process as well as suffer with the patient during times of breakdown in the treatment. The anxious moments of the days of crisis require a deep, confident, compassionate love on the part of the spouse for the alcoholic.


Spiritual treatment is a vital factor in the treatment process of the alcoholic and his family. The clergyman can, in his role as a representative of spiritual faith, assist the physician in his role, as no one else. He leads both the patient and the spouse to a revitalized, strong, healthy spirit which in turn will effect the total healing process. Both the physician and the clergyman are needed by the alcoholic and his spouse if total health care is to be offered and total health accomplished.


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