suffering from addictions to everything from alcohol to food are finding
spiritual wisdom and serenity from the 12 Steps.
John was never a stereotypical,
fall-down, slur-your-words drunk. Drinking was fun, and alcohol was associated
with good times, as he learned well growing up in an Irish Catholic home on
Chicago's South Side. "Whenever company came over, the bottles came out;" he
remembers. When he got older, John and his drinking buddies organized their
social lives around bars and beer. "I liked drinking. I didn't want to give it
up;" he says.
But John eventually realized that
drinking was not only causing many problems in his life, it was also the source
of a spiritual malaise that Catholicism alone could not cure. For that he needed
the support of other alcoholics; he needed the 12 Steps and Alcoholics
Anonymous. His decision to turn his drinking problem over to God-made 19 years
ago and every day since-has led to a true spiritual conversion and to such peace
and happiness in his life that he can truly say he's grateful to be an
alcoholic. "This was the thing I needed to be saved from;" says John, who like
all 12-Step members, requests anonymity. "It really was a crisis of faith:"
For decades, millions of hurting
people have turned to the 12 Steps for help with addictions to everything from
alcohol and drugs to gambling and sex. What they find is a program that not only
helps them get "clean and sober" but also one that offers a framework for
creating a healthy, mature relationship with God-or a "Higher Power," in 12-Step
language. Often meeting in the basements of churches, synagogues, and mosques,
12-Step programs have become America's "stealth religion;" as one writer terms
them. An estimated 15 million Americans are currently involved in some form of
recovery, making 12-Steppers more numerous than Episcopalians, Jews, and Muslims
Not surprisingly, many of them are
Catholics or former Catholics. For some Catholics, 12-Step programs become a
substitute for the faith of their birth, an alternative spiritual path they find
less judgmental, more inclusive, and more relevant. In some ways, the programs
seem to offer many of the "good" parts of religion --- spirituality, community,
ethics --- without doctrinal requirements. But many Catholics involved in
12-Step programs, including John, find that the steps mesh well with
Catholicism. For them, AA has only deepened their Catholic faith.
Yet many Catholics remain ignorant
or even suspicious of the 12 Steps, in part because the program's emphasis on
anonymity appears secretive. Also, because AA sees addiction as a disease,
outsiders may worry that the sense of personal responsibility associated with
more traditional views of sin will be lost. They wonder how AA fits-or doesn't
fit-with Catholicism. Or they suspect that it may be a cult at worst or
watered-down spirituality at best.
Those on the inside know better.
"Far from offering 'spirituality lite' to its members, or encouraging
self-indulgent navel gazing-as I sometimes see 12-Step programs caricatured in
the media-I have found that AA fosters a solid and selfless spirituality,"
writes Sister Molly Monahan (a pseudonym) in Seeds of Grace: Reflections on
the Spirituality of Alcoholics Anonymous (Riverhead).
An alcoholic in recovery for 20
years and a nun for 50, Monahan definitely sees connections between Catholicism
and the 12 Steps. She also believes non-alcoholics can benefit from what is
essentially a sound spiritual program. "The disease of alcoholism, for me,
reveals some basic truths about human nature itself in its sad, lost, and sinful
state, and Alcoholics Anonymous reveals some things about what God desires for
all of us, alcoholics or not," she writes.
"In fact, when my faith in my
Catholic religion, and sometimes even in the existence of God, is weak, my
experience in AA comes to my rescue. I can literally see and hear the effects of
faith in a roomful of people whose trust in a Higher Power has restored them to
health of body, mind, and soul."
From the very beginning, AA was a
spiritual program. Founders Bill Wilson, a New York stockbroker, and Dr. Bob
Smith, an Akron, Ohio surgeon, had both been involved in the Oxford Group, a
Christian movement that emphasized universal spiritual values in daily living.
Wilson had drawn on those spiritual principles to become sober, and he in turn
helped Smith give up drinking. When the two men reached out to a third
alcoholic, they essentially started the first AA group.
In 1935 "Bill W." described recovery as a spiritual experience in the handbook
Alcoholics Anonymous, known in AA
parlance as "The Big Book." In addition to stories of dozens of recovering
members, the book also lays out the core philosophy of the 12 Steps, a path that
recognizes that the mammoth task of getting and maintaining sobriety must be
broken down into manageable pieces. Life is a process, AA teaches, and so is
recovery. That's why no one is ever completely "recovered" but rather always a
The first three steps describe
reality: human beings' powerlessness over their addiction, their need for a
Higher Power, and the importance of surrendering to that Power. It's all about
undoing the illusion that we are in charge, that we are God, sometimes referred
to as "functional atheism. Having had this spiritual awakening, the next set of
steps details how to become aware of and make restitution for the messes that
resulted from a life of addiction by taking a "moral inventory" and making
amends. The final steps are about maintaining this relationship with God and
going out and being of service to others.
Most importantly, the steps are
worked within a community of people who suffer from similar addictions. Radical
acceptance is the cornerstone.
"In AA, we find acceptance from
people who honestly admit to being just like us in all our frailty. We are
carefully listened to. We are thought worth saving, and people like our sponsor
and friends give us the time, their attention, their energy," writes Monahan.
"No matter how many times we may fail at becoming sober, we are never kicked
out, never `excommunicated."
Through this radical acceptance, people come to see God as loving --- a message that may have been preached, but not always modeled, at their churches. In AA, it is no longer an abstract teaching; it's a lived experience. People involved in 12-Step programs know God loves them because that God has helped them overcome something they previously knew to be impossible to beat.
It's easy to forget how
revolutionary was when it was first founded. It not only launched the
small-group movement but also the self-help movement, both of which rely on the
ability of the afflicted to heal themselves better than professionals. That
struck a blow not only to health professionals but also to clergy. In fact, many
religion observers, including author Phyllis Tickle, believe the founding of AA
-- more than anything else-was responsible for much of the massive change in
religion in the 20th century.
"Before that, there was nowhere to go and say, `I have a problem with alcohol'
`I'm obsessed with sex,' or `I
don't think God loves me,"' she says.
AA created the "I'm hurt; you're
hurt let's help each other" paradigm that seems so obvious to us today. "But
back then, it used to be if your husband was a drunk, it was because something
was not right between you and your God, or him and his God," says Tickle. "That
freedom to share sadness, sorrow, and human weakness and not be condemned was
AA and other 12-Step groups also
drastically changed the religious landscape of the 20th century with the simple
use of the generic "Higher Power" to refer to the divine. "It's not Yahweh, not
God, not anything the church in this country had used before that," says Tickle.
Not only did this language make AA
accessible to people of all faiths, people with ill-defined faiths, or even
people with no formal faith, it also opened the door to increased ecumenism and
interreligious relationships. "This is a clean, clear, popular statement in
American culture of accepting the presence of possibly more than one God."
Although there were many other
contributing factors, AA and other 12-Step programs also had a hand in the "I'm
spiritual but not religious" attitude so prevalent today. "There is no question
that it contributed to spirituality coming to be seen as something different
from religion," says Tickle.
New images of God
Celeste gets annoyed when people
talk about the "spiritual part" of 12-Step programs. "There's nothing but a
spiritual part of this program. I don't think you could go through the program
without a relationship to a Higher Power," says the 40-year-old midwife,
farmer's wife, and mother of four in Oregon. "That's the whole thing-that God
does this for us. Our obsession is lifted; there's no white-knuckling. It's not
about will power. It's about clearing the path and being willing."
She found relief from compulsive
overeating and other self-destructive behaviors in a 12-Step program called
Recoveries Anonymous, which rather than focusing on an individual behavior, such
as alcoholism or overeating, focuses on the solution: the 12 Steps. For Celeste,
the crux of recovery has been admitting powerlessness and turning her life over
to God. "Do I believe God is the center of this and is going to take away my
obsession, or am I trying to take away my obsession? God has to be the center,"
That God is the linchpin in 12-Step
programs is obvious; five of the 12 Steps explicitly mention God. But then the
question becomes, who is this God who helps people overcome their addictions,
turn their lives around, and become happier, healthier people? The founders were
intentionally vague, even in the use of the terminology of "Higher Power," so
that the program would be accessible to people of any faith or even atheists
(although some disagree that 12-Steppers can be atheists, as the program so
explicitly demands faith in a God). Even the 12-Step group itself can serve as a
member's Higher Power.
For many Catholic 12-Step members,
the Higher Power they encountered in the program looks quite different from the
God they learned about in Sunday school.
Celeste experienced a major
transformation in her image of the divine. "I used to have so much shame and
guilt, thinking, `If only I would behave this way, God would love me.' What I
learned from this program is that God loves me, period," she says. "My new image
of God is as completely loving, versus my childhood image of a white-haired guy
up in heaven who's pissed every time I do something wrong or sin."
Many Catholics come to their first
12Step meetings with an image of a punitive God in the sky with a tallysheet of
each person's wrongdoings, says Father Roy Drake, S.J., who has conducted
12-Step retreats all over the world.
"So many people are suffering
guilt, shame, and low self-esteem," he says. "At 12-Step meetings they hear the
message of unconditional love, that God's love is infinite and unconditional. I
can't merit it, nor do I lose it when I'm bad."
AA and other 12-Step programs also
help people see God as active-no, make that essential-in their everyday lives,
because only God helps them overcome their addiction each and every day. While
previous experiences of church often have felt like intellectual exercises, the
12 Steps are all about experience. No one discusses theory at an AA meeting;
they only talk about their own experiences.
"Before, I knew about God, I read
about God, I heard about God. But in 12-Step groups, I met God. I experienced
God," says Drake.
All that happy talk about God's
unconditional love, combined with the now commonly-accepted view that most
addictions have at least some biological component, makes some question whether
AA can be compatible with the traditional Catholic view of culpability and sin.
People in AA don't use the word
sin, but there is probably no group of people more aware of their own faults
than people in 12-Step programs. Steps 5, 6, and 7 specifically mention "our
wrongs," "defects," and "shortcomings." And the "powerlessness" of Step 1 isn't
about lack of responsibility but rather about an inherent brokenness in human
beings-a teaching that could have been taken straight from the Catechism of the
"Although there is no judgment
about anyone's behavior, AA really emphasizes the fracturedness of human
nature," says Father Phil, a retired priest of the Rockford, Illinois diocese
who has been involved in AA and ACOA (Adult Children of Alcoholics) for almost
"But if we're made in the image of
God, there's a goodness in each of us," he says. "Then sin is really a failure
While AA acknowledges people's
brokenness, its primary goal is their healing and redemption-but the two are
related. For it is only through acceptance of their own powerlessness and
submission to God that addicts get well. In a word, that's grace.
"AA talks about being redeemed from
the bondages of the self. There is a freeing, a salvation," says Father Phil.
"We're saved through grace, and grace is healing."
While traditional Christianity has
some, times overemphasized the "pie in the sky" redemption after death,
12-Steppers experience God's healing every day. "It's `One day at a time,"' says
John, quoting a popular AA saying. "If 1 worry about the afterlife, I'll be
"If I'm spiritually connected to
God, I know a taste of heaven. If I don't tend to my spiritual life, I'll go to
hell-and I don't mean after I die."
For the Fourth Step, which requires
a personal inventory, some AA literature suggests using the traditional Seven
Deadly Sins (pride, greed, lust, anger, gluttony, envy, sloth). But that
inventory isn't about merely listing wrongdoings, like a school child tallying
up how many times he lied to his mother. Rather, the program emphasizes getting
at the root of one's actions and then asking God for healing.
If that sounds a lot like the
sacrament of Reconciliation, it is. For Celeste, who has always been a
practicing Catholic, the moral inventory in Step 4 didn't replace Confession, it
only deepened it.
"Rather than focus on each incident
of how I've hurt people, I now look deeper into what caused those incidents, my
selfishness and fear," Celeste says. Then, when she makes amends, she can do so
That's just one way the 12 Steps
have changed Celeste's experience of church. " has allowed me to experience it
at a deeper level," she says. "In some ways, it gave structure to my faith. I
think spiritual truths are spiritual truths. This program gave it to me very
clearly. Now I recognize spiritual truth in my Catholic faith more clearly."
Her prayer life also has become
more consistent, in accordance with the 11th Step's requirement of regular
prayer and meditation. Most 12-Steppers do some s of daily check-in prayer to
reflect on the previous day and look ahead to the next one with an openness to
God's will. Celeste used to do this inventory first thing in the morning and
last thing at night but now finds she often has to squeeze it in while pulling
weeds in the garden or driving in the car. "It really calls me back and gives me
focus," she says.
For Mary, a Chicago woman who
overcame a compulsion with food through Overeaters Anonymous, prayer also was
instrumental in her spiritual conversion-one that ultimately led her to join the
Catholic Church. "I had no prayer life before OA," she says. "I had no
relationship with God. I thought a lot about God and I had this spiritual
yearning, but I never got spiritually fed."
Before her first OA meeting, Mary
wolfed down an entire pizza. Five days later she had committed to a healthy food
plan and was sticking to it. Such a radical transformation from her previously
unmanageable life convinced her of God's involvement in the process. "I knew I
didn't do it myself," she says. "It made me know God was active in my life."
With that knowledge she was able to
begin to pray to this God, first with popular AA prayers like the Serenity
Prayer. "As I started to experience God more directly, I was able to converse
with God and say what I was feeling, including a lot of pent-up anger," she
After getting involved in a
centering prayer group, she now sits in silence twice a day. "It's not just
talking to God, but meditation is listening to God," she says. "I used to spend
a lot of time telling God how to best solve my problems. Now I'm much more open
to listening for God's will."
AA and Catholicism
For Mary and often for others,
involvement in a 12-Step program not only gave her a healthier image of God and
improved her prayer life, it also made her more open to institutional religion,
which she had shunned because of prior negative experiences. When she found
herself unemployed, a friend from OA helped her get a new job at a dynamic
parish, where she eventually became a Catholic at Easter Vigil.
Father Phil agrees that a healthy
sobriety often enables former addicts to incorporate the church into their
spiritual path. And he sees 12-Step programs as spiritual communities that fit
well with Catholicism. "Jesus said wherever two or three are gathered, there I
am. So whenever two or three are gathered searching for acceptance, healing,
love, and self-awareness, I think a Christian presence emerges out of that."
The teachings of the 12 Steps are
so universal, however, that adherents of many other faiths also find
compatibility between AA and the religion of their birth. Drake, the Jesuit
priest, recalls outlining the steps at a conference in India. "One man came up
to me and said, `That's precisely what we teach in Confucianism.' Another said,
`You must have read the Buddha.' And another: `It's what we practice as
It is true, however, that exposure
to such an egalitarian spiritual organization sometimes turns people off to
hierarchical religion for good. For many, 12-Step programs highlight the
distinction between "spirituality" and "religion," and they find religion
While a church basement is one of
the most popular meeting sites for 12-Step groups, some joke that AA should go
upstairs and the church move downstairs. That the church could learn a thing or
two from the success of the 12-Step movement seems self-evident. Although the
Catholic Church has seen the light about the importance of small groups, some
believe it could still take lessons from the success of "friends of Bill W.," as
members of AA often refer to themselves.
By connecting faith and experience,
AA has found a way to make spirituality attractive and available to many who
never thought they would spend so much time thinking about God.
For some, that personal
relationship with a Higher Power, combined with the community of meetings, is
enough. For many Catholic 12-Steppers, however, it is not.
In a chapter titled “My name is
Molly and I'm a Catholic," the writer/nun explains why she needs both.
"While I acknowledge with the deepest gratitude the ways in which AA has helped
me grow spiritually, I must also acknowledge that the seeds of its spirituality
fell on the rich soil of the ancient Christian tradition in which I was raised.
It is no doubt for these reasons that AA spirituality alone would never be
enough for me, austere as it necessarily is, without signs or symbols or
sacraments, without ritual or communal worship."
Spiritual director Carolyn Hudson,
who does workshops on 12-Step spirituality in the Diocese of Lansing, Michigan,
tries to make connections between the 12 Steps and Catholic sacraments. Not only
does she see the obvious affinity between Reconciliation and Steps 4 and 5, she
also believes working the program can go hand-in-hand with Mass and Communion.
"I think the 12 Steps can really
prepare us for the Eucharist. If we're in the darkness, we can receive the
Eucharist as healing, and if we've moved from the darkness, we can experience
the true joy of the Eucharist," she says.
Another area where the two
spiritual traditions agree is on the importance of community and of reaching out
to others who are hurting. In AA, sobriety is not an end in itself but leads
quite naturally to service to others. "Sobriety, unless it reaches out to
others, isn't sobriety," says Father Phil.
But the 12th Step's directive to
"carry this message to alcoholics" doesn't mean evangelization in the way many
Christian define the word. "AA is a program of attraction, not promotion," says
Phil. In addition, the program's tradition of anonymity, meant to curtail
personal ambition and pride, means no one individual can ever speak for the
program. There are no leaders, no spokespersons, and no gurus in A. A.
One way 12-Steppers are of service to others is through sponsorship, a sort of spiritual companioning along the 12 Step Any sober member of AA can sponsor an other member; no other training or credentials are needed. Often beginners in 12
Step programs call their sponsors
every day. The sponsors listen and share their own experiences.
That sense of reciprocity and
community is evident in the first-person plural word of the steps themselves.
It's not "I" am powerless; but "we" are powerless.
"I look around at meetings, and I
see miracles," says John. "I know the story of these people, and I know how far
do their lives had taken them. Yet I look at them today and see humor and caring
and lives well lived. I know they didn't get that way on their own and neither
did I. We needed each other, and we needed the Higher Power. As a Catholic, I
recognize that as becoming the body of Christ."
For more information ---about
Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-Step programs, visit AA World Services, Inc.
the Internet at www.aa.org. They also can reached at 212-870-3400, or by writing
World Services, Inc., Grand Central Station P.O. Box 459, New York, NY 10163.
Most phone books also list local AA offices.
U.S. CATHOLIC©-NOVEMBER 2003
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