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


An A.A. old-timer observed that “the Twelve Steps are twelve tools that will fit any nut.” The philosophy behind the Twelve Steps supposes that alcoholics are spiritually and emotionally cut off from the God of their understanding, and that they must repair the harm they have done to that relationship and so re-establish that connection. The Twelve Steps, then, are the means by which that relationship is mended. There is more than a hint of the New Age mantra that “the journey to the true self is the core of the recovery process”13 embodied in such a philosophy. That hint is no accident (more on that point follows later).

1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol, that our lives had become Unmanageable.

The alcoholic admits he lacks the power needed to control or stop his drinking. Essential to this admission is the notion that his dilemma is in fact a form of illness, a sort of allergy-“that the body of the alcoholic is quite as abnormal as his mind.”14 This concept was novel in 1939 when A.A. was conceived; in fact, the physician who first consistently advocated it, Dr. William Silkworth, did so anonymously, for fear of being derided by his colleagues. Today it has evolved into the proposition accepted by most psychological professionals that alcoholism is a type of disease.

2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

The alcoholic concedes that there is a power outside himself that will enable him to achieve sobriety. Alcoholism had been a greater power, one that destroyed lives; the task now is to accept the idea of a healing power that can reverse the damage. If insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results, then sanity is attempting a new solution.

3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.

The alcoholic embarks on the Twelve Step way of life. The qualifier “as we understood him” was an early A.A. concession. Bill Wilson said, “We have to deal with atheists, agnostics, believers, depressives, paranoids, clergymen, psychiatrists, and all and sundry. How to widen the opening so it seems right and reasonable to enter there and at the same time avoid distractions, distortions, and the certain prejudices of all who may read, seems fairly much of an assignment.”15

The Big Book suggests that members use this prayer to accomplish Step Three: “God, I offer myself to you-to build me and do with me as you will. Relieve me of the bondage of self, that I may better do your will. Take away my difficulties, that victory over them may bear witness to those I would help of your power, your love, and The Way of life. May I do your will always!”16

4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.

The alcoholic examines his life, looking for instances in which he harmed others, and patterns of behavior that were unhealthy or destructive. The inventory is not the same thing as an examination

of conscience; rather, it focuses primarily on resentments, fear, and anger, and why those emotions popped up (e.g., threats to self-esteem, security, money, ambitions, relationships). Further, the goal of the moral inventory is not reconciliation with God as the Catholic understands it, but removing the mental and emotional blocks that shut off the alcoholic “from the sunlight of the Spirit.”17 In short, the motivation is natural, not supernatural-proper in its own sphere, but no replacement for the Sacrament of Penance.

5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.

Admitting one’s failings to another human being helps instill a sense of humility, without which sobriety is in elusive phantom. Even so, this step in no way gives absolution, though it does mirror the Sacrament of Penance. Alcoholics are usually encouraged to take their Fifth Step with an A.A. sponsor, but this is not a strict requirement. Some people have, however, been discouraged from going to a clergyman, being told that “he doesn’t understand alcoholism-he can’t keep you sober.” Catholics should avoid sponsors of this ilk like the plague.

6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.

An alcoholic who has been thorough in his inventory will inevitably be entirely ready. If he is not ready for God to free him of his failings, it is an indication that he has not been sufficiently painstaking in the five prior steps-in which event this step is an invitation to return to Step One and begin anew.

7. Humbly asked Him to remove our Shortcomings.

Having accomplished Step Six, the alcoholic offers this prayer: “My Creator, I am now willing that you should have all of me, good and bad. I pray that you now remove from me every single defect of character which stands in the way of my usefulness to you and my fellows. Grant me strength, as I go out from here, to do your bidding. Amen.”18

8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.

The next action for the alcoholic is to make reparations for the harm he has caused others. The form the reparations must take is also identified in this step. It is usual to discuss Step Eight with one’s sponsor, who provides feedback and advice. For a Catholic, consulting one’s confessor is very prudent.

9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.

Step Nine is what separates the long-term, sober A.A. member from the A.A. member who relapses into drinking. Alcoholics often have done horrible and criminal things, and have much to atone for; if they balk at making reparations, however, they will likely drink again.

10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it

Step Ten mirrors a Catholic’s daily examination of conscience, but instead of using a guide like the Decalogue, the A.A. member uses questions from the Big Book: Where have I been selfish? Where have I been irritable?

11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.

For the A.A. member, if prayer is talking to God, meditation is listening to him. The highest form of prayer, A.A. maintains, is to be completely submissive to the Divine Will, wanting only what God wants, asking for nothing unless He wants it.

The wording of this step is sufficiently elastic that it can be employed by a Catholic.

12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

A spiritual awakening involves four things: 1) surrender to the A.A. program, 2) prayer to a God of one’s understanding, 3) companionship with other alcoholics, and 4) carrying the A.A. message to other alcoholics.

Bill Wilson thought of “spirituality” as reliance on the Creator. The spiritual awakening mentioned in Step Twelve is the restoration of the relationship between the alcoholic and God. Continued sobriety-the alcoholic’s litmus test for being connected to God-is contingent upon continuing in A.A., and carrying the A.A. message to other alcoholics.