SOME DANGERS IN ALCOHOLICS ANONYMOUS
By Paul L. O'Connor, S.J.
Dr. Braceland in his article "Psychiatric Aspects of Chronic Alcoholism," in the Ecclesiastical Review for December, 1941, recommended that the priest who, in line of duty, comes into contact with cases of acute alcoholism, should investigate the working of the group called Alcoholics Anonymous. Any priest who investigates that group will be astonished at the success it has achieved in the permanent cure of seemingly inveterate alcoholics. He may feel justified, on the strength of that record, in summoning the members of that group and handing his patient over to them. Before he does this he should realize fully the dangers to faith inherent in the method of Alcoholics Anonymous and at least be prepared to counteract these dangers.
As Dr. Braceland pointed out, Alcoholics Anonymous claim that they appeal to a man's religious sense but do not interfere with his belief. That distinction is, I think, too fine for practical experiment. It seems to be an impossibility to work in the vague realm of religious sense and still leave a man's faith strictly alone. The thing smacks of Protestant endeavors like the YMCA.
Alcoholics Anonymous say officially that they have no connection with any organized religion, and there is no reason for thinking they are not sincere in this statement. Whether they realize it or not, their methods are shot through with the methods of Buchmanism or the Oxford Peace Movement or whatever you care to call that much publicized revival movement that swept across the country several years ago and finally blew itself out some miles west of Hollywood. Buchmanism, also, appealed to a man's religious sense and did not interfere with his belief - as long as he believed in Buchmanism.
The fact that Alcoholics Anonymous is a group of reformed alcoholics who, without even the reward of publicity, work with others who have fallen victim to this disease, is well known. Their program of rehabilitation is not so well known. When their patient is painfully recovering from his latest spree and when, finally admitting that he has failed to cure himself, he sincerely desires help from this group, the following program is outlined to him.
1. You cannot cure yourself. You must have supreme confidence in some Power greater than yourself. How you define this Power does not matter at all. You must effect a conscious relation with this God, as YOU understand Him, whether it be as a Creative Intelligence or as a Spirit of the Universe or whatever you care to make Him. As soon as you do this you will find that a new power, a new peace and sense of direction will flow into you. You will find this God deep within you, for in the last analysis that is only where He may be found. He will restore you to sanity.
2. You must make a searching and fearless moral inventory of yourself, listing all your faults and grievances.
3. You must admit to God, to yourself, and to another human being the exact nature of your faults, and must humbly ask God to help you remove these defects of character.
4. You must make a list of all persons you have harmed, have the intention of making amends to all, and whenever possible make these amends.
5. You must completely renounce alcohol in any form.
6. You must continue, through prayer and meditation, to improve your contact with God, praying for knowledge and for power to continue carrying out His will.
7. Once reformed, you must work with alcoholics in effecting their renovation.
The priest should be especially wary of the dangers that lie hidden in points 1,3, and 7. They are not insurmountable, but they are very real dangers.
The Catholic who is striving to recover from alcoholism is at a definitely critical point in his career. If, with the help of his religion and the sacraments, he conquers this vice, he is well on the way to becoming a staunch, active Catholic. But if at that critical time he is told again and again, as he will be told by the Alcoholics Anonymous, that it makes absolutely no difference what he believes as long as he believes in some Power greater than himself, and then recovers, he is not going to have a great deal of use for Catholic dogma and what will appear to him to be the Catholic boast of, "we have God's grace on our side."
This difficulty might be obviated if the priest himself, or better yet, a Catholic member of Alcoholics Anonymous, work with the alcoholic, leave out the generalities of "Power greater than himself," and fed him the strong Catholic stuff of "God, the loving Father, Jesus Christ, the God man and model, the Holy Spirit, the source of strengthening grace."
Secondly, the confession required can be a source of grave scandal if made to a private individual or to a group. Here again the Catholic can be offered the Sacrament of Penance and the consequent sacramental grace in addition to psychiatric healing. The danger does not cease once the alcoholic is cured. He is then advised to attend informal meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous, and there discuss quite frankly his former sorry state and consequent vagaries.
Thirdly, the reformed alcoholic's work with patients, while it has proved highly successful in keeping him on the straight and narrow, is for the Catholic bristling with dangers to his faith. No man, even one well grounded in his faith, can argue long and earnestly with an agnostic or a heretic, assuring him constantly that it makes no difference what he believes as long as he puts himself in the hands of one stronger than himself, and still stand fast to the doctrine of the One True Church. Temptations to faith are one of the two temptations where the best defense is hasty flight.
The very essence of the technique of this organization is the surrendering of the will to some Superior Being in order that He or It may direct their whole lives. When the Catholic sees that the Universal Intelligence of the Pantheist or the Inspiration of the Christian Scientist seems to be doing just as good a job as his own God, the doubt will easily arise, "Perhaps it doesn't make any difference just what you believe."
The antidote might be for the priest to recommend Catholics to work with other Catholics. Here he would be up against the organization's recommendation of helping anyone whenever that help is needed, which at first blush looks much like true Christ like charity.
These few warnings are by no means a condemnation of Alcoholics Anonymous. Their work is good work and one sorely needed today. Their results are enviable. Their methods can be baptized. Dr Braceland's recommendation, that the priest investigate Alcoholics Anonymous still stands. They are anxious to work with priests and they can be reached in most large cities through doctors or hospitals. The priest, before he releases any patient to them, however, should be well aware of the dangers present in such a cure, and should be prepared to take precautionary measures.
ECCLESIASTICAL REVIEWę, Vol. 106: 285-288, April, 1942.