I’ve divided this out into 16 parts in order to keep each post to a reasonable length and allow me to really think about each part.
Traditional Catholic and Twelve Step Programs
by Sean Romer
as written for the Angelus magazine, September 2002
THE QUESTION OF RELIGION
Wilson’s own astonishing recovery from alcoholism left him convinced that the Twelve Steps came from God, and that A.A. was a divinely instituted agent for channeling God’s grace into the world. Wilson was also encouraged in this belief-for example, his long-time advisor Fr. Dowling saw Wilson as “possessed by truth, and stumbling toward greater truth.” In a letter to Wilson, Fr. Dowling wrote, “Historically, there have been superhuman interventions-yourself, Horace Crystal, the Incarnation.”39
At the same time, the founders of A.A. denied that they had begun a new religion. To the contrary, they repeatedly and consistently stated that they merely used material readily available from religion, medicine, and psychology-the common property of mankind, they maintained-to outline a manner of living that would help alcoholics. Wilson believed that institutions like the Catholic Church had the spirituality to heal alcoholics, but didn’t have the method to reach them: one alcoholic talking to another.
As a society we must never become so vain as to suppose that we have been the authors and inventors of a new religion. We will humbly reflect that each of A.A.’s principles, every one of them, has been borrowed from ancient sourcesâ€”Let us constantly remind ourselves that the experts in religion are the clergymen; that the practice of medicine is for physicians; and that we, the recovered alcoholics, are their assistants.40
From a Catholic perspective, there is no denying that A.A. relies on naturalistic means to solve the problem of alcoholism-this in spite of the insistence of its members that it is a spiritual program.
Though there is hope for sobriety through working the Twelve Steps of A.A., there are also risks which are inherent in the program’s principles and assumptions. These risks, however, are not readily visible to the casual observer because A.A.’s ultimate principles are seldom revealed: efforts to delve into them are usually dismissed with a remark like, “The Twelve Steps got me sober-that’s all I care about.”
As a result, one must extract from A.A.’s moods its ultimate principles. Its members are usually not conscious of any such principles, however. When presented with them, they will often, and honestly, deny them to be held-their sincerity making their uncritical acceptance more of an obstruction than an enemy. It is something like going over difficult terrain, composed of a number of attitudes, affections, assumptions, and gaps in understanding and knowledge under which Catholicism is indirectly menaced, smothered, sidetracked, and undermined.
Here are a few manifestations.
The Gnostic assertion that knowledge arises in the heart in an intuitive and mysterious manner is alive and well in A.A. Deliverance is attained through a certain intuition of the heart, by which A.A. members immediately and directly, without the aid of an intermediary, attain the reality of God.
Catholics sometimes receive from their sponsor specific guidance at odds with the requirements of the faith, perhaps infusing them with the idea that their Church needs to be “changed.” When alcoholics are told that their Church “won’t get them sober,” Catholics are put in a false position where they are made to feel they must choose between sobriety and their faith.
When one is directly inspired by a Higher Power, all revealed knowledge gained from authority is suspect. This flies in the face of what the Council of Trent declared: that justifying faith is primarily an intellectual assent to divinely revealed truths.
Such is the nature of the human mind, so limited are its intellectual powers, that, although by means of diligent and laborious inquiry it has been enabled of itself to investigate and discover many divine truths; yet guided solely by its own lights it could never know or comprehend most of those things by which eternal salvation, the principal end of man’s creation and formation to the image and likeness of God, is attained.41
In such manner the Council of Trent laid the groundwork for why a loving God would not abandon us to our own devices, but gave us Revelation.
The indifferentism common in A.A. is manifested in erroneous assertions like God’s “call is bigger than organized religion.”42 Wilson wrote, “It was agreed that the book should present a universal spiritual program, not a specific religious one, since all drunks were not Christian.”43 Sobriety, not truth, is the real arbiter.
A.A. members are encouraged to accept what is a false distinction between “religion and spirituality.” Though A.A. is officially non-dogmatic, in practice religion is described as the man-made accretions like liturgies, rituals, and all external sources of control; while spirituality is the internal, spontaneous, happy, and energetic consequence of being in personal contact with God. A typical declaration is, “religion is for people who are afraid of hell; spirituality is for people who have already been there.”
For the Catholic, when human efforts fail, the power needed to overcome alcoholism is divine, coming from the Blessed Savior. In A.A., however, the power can be anything with more strength than the individual alcoholic-A.A. endorses no particular notion of God. Thus, it can be the Sacred Heart. It can also be the loving support from the A.A. meeting itself, an undefined Universal Loving Spirit, or (as one member claimed) a Bekins moving van. It is up to the individual to decide what God means to him; the only condition is that it must help the alcoholic stay sober.
Value attached to suffering is denied, though the well-trained A.A. member will concede that a loving God can turn suffering to good. The focus on relieving suffering is good provided it springs from a supernatural motive; the typical A.A. member, however, has no such motivation: his goal is to avoid pain, and to be happy in life. Thoughts of the hereafter are tolerated provided they do not interfere with sobriety. Thus, a non-alcoholic Catholic can understand Sebastian, who is a baffling and sinister mystery to the non-Catholic A.A. member:
“Poor Sebastian!” I said. “It’s too pitiful. How will it end?”
“I think I can tell you exactly, Charles. I’ve seen others like him, and I believe they are very near and dear to God. He’ll live, half in, half out of the community, a familiar figure pottering round with his broom and his bunch of keys. He’ll be a great favourite with the old fathers, something of a joke to the novices. Everyone will know about his drinking; he’ll disappear for two or three days every month or so, and they’ll all nod and smile and say in their various accents, ‘Old Sebastian’s on the spree again,’ and then he’ll come back dishevelled and shamefaced and be more devout for a day or two in the chapel. He’ll probably have little hiding places about the garden where he keeps a bottle and takes a swig now and then on the sly. They’ll bring him forward to act as guide, whenever they have an English-speaking visitor; and he will be completely charming, so that before they go they’ll ask about him and perhaps be given a hint that he has high connections at home. If he lives long
enough, generations of missionaries in all kinds of remote places will think of him as a queer old character who was somehow part of the Hope of their student days, and remember him in their masses. He’ll develop little eccentricities of devotion, intense personal cults of his own; he’ll be found in the chapel at odd times and missed when he’s expected. Then one morning, after one of his drinking bouts, he’ll be picked up at the gate dying, and show by a mere flicker of the eyelid that he is conscious when they give him the last sacraments. It’s not such a bad way of going through one’s life.”
I thought of the joyful youth with the Teddy-bear under the flowering chestnuts. “It’s not what one would have foretold,” I said. “I suppose he doesn’t suffer?”
“Oh, yes, I think h
e does. One can have no idea what the suffering may be, to be maimed as he isâ€”no dignity, no power of will. No one is ever holy without suffering. It’s taken that form with him…”44
The footwork taken to prepare this article included attending twelve-step meetings, reviewing literature on the topic, and speaking with members and critics of twelve-step programs. Any mistakes are the author’s sole responsibility. The author feels compelled to point out that he is not a member of any group with the word “Anonymous” in the name. He is a parishioner of St. Michael’s Catholic Church in Roswell, GA.