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February 14, 1942
GRACE OF GOD STILL NEEDED
IN SURE CURES FOR ALCOHOLICS
Daniel M. O'Connell, S.J.
a result of an article of mine in AMERICA (December 6, 1941),
mentioning the laudable work of Alcoholics Anonymous, I
received several letters asking if there were Catholic branches
of this organization and also for the address and telephone
number of the original Alcoholics Anonymous. The latter
can be reached by writing to their address, Post Office
Box 658, Church Street Annex, New York City. They are not
listed in the metropolitan telephone directory.
most encouraging letter came to me from Cleveland, Ohio.
The writer stated that he was a young Catholic man, educated
in Catholic parochial, secondary and collegiate (two years)
institutions. He has been a member of Alcoholics Anonymous
for the past seven months. I quote from his letter the part
which is of especial interest to Catholics.
in this city is in excess of 1,500, comprising more than
30 groups meeting once a week. We use five hospitals, including
Catholic Charity. The first hospital used was a Catholic
hospital, one in a nearby city. It is unfortunately true
that about 75 per cent of our cases are Catholic. Our greatest
successes have been with those of our own faith. In our
own group we have deleted the expression "power greater
than ourselves and substituted God. The first members, so
I am told, were loath to believe in a Supreme Being; hence
the other expression."
statement that "75 per cent are Catholic" is,
I hope, to be restricted and explained by the fact that
the writer's group is Catholic and hence has come into contact
with Catholics rather than non-Catholics. But at its worst
calculations, the assertion would underline emphatically
the points I tried to make previously, namely, the need
of more instruction on the cardinal virtue of Christian
temperance and the field of zeal open especially to the
Catholic laity in being good shepherds who bring back to
the fold victims of intemperance, especially of our own
Faith. Great praise is due to this Cleveland group because
it has made itself Catholic in principle. Whether it is
the first such among Alcoholics Anonymous, I cannot say,
though the general Cleveland chapter of A.A.'s is seven
the hope that this movement and similar ones for temperance
may grow among Catholics, I am adding some pertinent facts
about Alcoholics Anonymous. They declare quite frankly that
their approach to the disease is based on their own drinking
experience and on what they have learned to expect from
the help of medicine and psychiatry. To this the Catholic
groups, at least, would add: from the grace of God. The
latter Alcoholics Anonymous can say in all humility with
Saint Paul: "By the grace of God, I am what I am."
fact, the group might take St. Paul as their patron. One
of their fundamental requisites is sympathy, and surely
this Apostle had that quality in an outstanding degree.
Among Cardinal Newman's most typically appealing sermons,
there is one entitled "Saint Paul's Gift of Sympathy."
In it he skillfully develops the Apostle's manifestation
of this winning virtue. Dr. W.D. Silkworth, Chief Physician
at the Charles B. Towne Hospital, New York, writing of Alcoholics
Anonymous in the Journal Lancet, stresses this point of
sympathy: "This peculiar ability, which an alcoholic
who has recovered exercises upon one who has not recovered,
is the main secret of the unprecedented success which these
men and women are having." Sympathy begets sympathy.
As Dr. Silkworth expresses it: "Then, too, the patient's
hope is renewed and his imagination is fired by the idea
of membership in a group of ex-alcoholics where he will
be enabled to save the lives and homes of those who have
suffered as he has suffered."
is encouraging to note that Dr. Silkworth, in his summary
of the essential features for the cure of drunkenness, insists
explicitly: "That he (the patient) recommit himself
daily, or hourly if need be, to God's care and direction,
asking for strength." In fact, the Doctor urges several
points of Catholic moral theology: "try to adjust bad
personal relationships;" that he make reparation for
the past, "setting right, so far as possible, such
wrongs as he may have done in the past;" that he "pray
daily, or hourly if need be," a laudable practice in
Catholic asceticism, known among us these long centuries
past as "renewing one's morning intention."
mention these obvious practices to show that our Catholic
laity is well prepared to engage in and to super naturalize
this movement of Alcoholics Anonymous as a means of true
Catholic Action. The same has been done in many similar
movements whose beginnings were not religious, in our understanding
of that necessary element. Dr. Silkworth, who evidently
is held in high esteem by Alcoholics Anonymous, seconds
this position, if, as I trust, he uses "Deity"
in the Catholic meaning: "Newcomers have been unable
to stay sober when they have tried the program minus the
rightly insist on modern medical means placed at their disposal
by Providence. Hospitalization under a competent physician
is essentially the first step for an alcoholic on his return
journey to normality, and even to a saintly life. (Matt
Talbots are always possible with the grace of God.) But
delirium tremens, a "wet brain" and similar calamities
are to be feared in the case of heavy drinkers, who do not
receive at once the physical readjustment to be had ordinarily
only in a hospital.
shall be indebted to Dr. Silkworth for two further points.
In speaking of the textbook as it may be called, of the
A.A. movement, a volume of 400 pages and entitled Alcoholics
Anonymous, he makes the following observation, part of which
I am italicizing: "There is a powerful chapter addressed
to the agnostic, as the majority of the present members
were of that description." This confirms the view of
my Cleveland correspondent. It may also show that inebriety
is had in corresponding proportions among non-Catholics
as among Catholics, as I suggested above.
Silkworth then straight forwardly faces the question which
arises in regard to any comparatively new treatment of a
world-old problem: "Will the movement spread? Will
many of these recoveries be permanent? No one can say. Yet,
we at this hospital, from our observation of many cases,
are willing to record our present opinion as a strong 'Yes1
to both questions."
medical profession is rightly conservative in giving its
imprimatur to new cures, medicines and matters properly
within its field. Such approval, in general, has been given
to Alcoholics Anonymous. The most recent instance I have
at hand is from Dr. Merril Moore, Director of Research at
the Washingtonian Hospital for Alcoholism, Boston, Mass.
I had quoted from him in may above-mentioned article, and
he was kind enough to send me additional matter on the treatment
of this disease.
strongest chapters of the A.A.Is are in Cleveland, New York
City and Akron, Ohio. Claim is made for vigorous beginnings
in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Denver, Kansas City, Chicago,
Detroit, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Richmond, Va.,
Houston, Tex. An original agnostic touch was accidental
to the movement. In fact belief in God and His Providence
for the weakest of His children is now, apparently, a fundamental
desideratum in the A.A. technique. Does not then such a
movement deserve our heartiest cooperation as Catholics?
work has also the human appeal of success. There is no claim
of a "sure-cure," but the cures freely placed
on record are an incentive to zealous but hesitant workers
in this field of Christian temperance. I quote in illustration
from an editorial in the Houston Press, entitled "Alcoholics
of independent spirit like to settle (liquor) for themselves
...( others) inclined to reform come to the front with suggestions
... even for its abolition. But Alcoholics Anonymous ...
have taken to the wagon by a technique of their own ...
They say their cure works. They show as witnesses hundreds
of lives restored...The press thinks their...unusual success
so important that it begins a series of articles on Alcoholics
Anonymous, written by One of Them...even the liquor industry
... would wish success to a technique that promises much
to men and women who cannot handle their drinks."
have read this series of articles. Naturally, as their author
notes, they turn quite often into the autobiographical.
He insists that alcoholics are definitely sick. It is the
difference between them and other normal people who are
able to "hold their liquor." The disease is mental
as well as physical. For the alcoholic to recognize this
is essential to his cure. The admission is hard. It has
been made easier by the wide publicity given to medicine's
discoveries in allergy, which fundamentally is the old proverb
that one man's meat is another man's poison. "With
true alcoholics," the writer declares, "it is
never a question of control or moderation. Their only out
is absolute abstinence." To a layman, this is medicine's
sane advice on any allergy. To a moralist, it is "avoiding
the occasions of sin."
Anonymous are not, as far as I can judge, Manichaean. Liquor
in its various forms and in its medicinal and social purposes
is a gift from the Author of all nature, they know. But
just as sugar is a similar bounty and yet fatally destructive
for a diabetic, so is alcohol in any form, except by a doctor's
prescription, for certain men and women. Subterfuges abound
for the real alcoholic: to switch from scotch to beer, wine,
rum, gin; to drink whiskey only in milk; only post-meridian
(standard time!); only in the company of others; only at
home; never on an empty stomach; to take more physical exercise,
etc. All these may be a great help to temperance for the
ordinary person, but not for the individual who is alcoholic,
according to those who freely confess they should know,
viz., Alcoholics Anonymous. Hence their insistence on total
abstinence for those who are by nature irresponsibly allergic
to liquor. This physical and even mental predisposition
implies no moral turpitude in itself any more than does,
for example, a diabetic allergy.
temperance societies have long ago recognized these facts
of nature. In addition they have endeavored to elevate the
"pledge" to a supernaturally meritorious act.
It is farthest from my mind to ignore their noble work.
I hope by calling attention to the encouraging results of
Alcoholics Anonymous, especially through their sympathetic
point of view and their continuous giving of time to the
alcoholic sick, men and women, to encourage our Catholic
laity to do likewise, in humble footsteps after the Good
Anonymous deal with the actually afflicted. The Christian
virtue of temperance goes much farther. It embraces all:
the alcoholic; those who drink moderately; total abstainers;
young and old, men and women. Has this universal obligation,
I ask under happy correction, been as universally taught
in our country as, say another cardinal virtue, justice?