The 12 Steps & Catholicism

From Father John’s weekly letter to his Parish, Our Lady of Mt Carmel in Tempe, AZ – January 2011

Dear Friends,

Our Annual Mass of Gratitude for the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous takes place Saturday, January 8 at 9am followed by a Pancake Breakfast in the Hall. Come join with those who have been blessed with recovery from addiction with the help of the 12 Steps and their families and friends. Addiction and compulsive behaviors have made the life of many a person and their loved ones unmanageable to varying degrees. Gratefully we live at a moment when recovery is possible in ways that weren’t prior to the program that was started by Alcoholics Anonymous.

One of my purposes in making this an annual celebration is to make clear the connection between religion and spirituality that is often severed because of a faulty understanding of 12 Step Programs. I also want to show that you can be in recovery and still be a very good Catholic. In other words there is no conflict between the 12 Steps and Catholicism.

Many of the first members of AA first tried to solve their “drink” problem by joining the Oxford Group. This Movement in the late 19th and early 20th century stressed that the way to upright living was through a rigorous moral formation and accountability through small groups. This approached failed to help the alcoholic but it did help to lead to the development of the 12 Steps.

The founders of AA knew that they would fail if they tried to promote their new found success with traditional marketing or advertising. The reason for this was that they understood that anything that would pump up the ego of the alcoholic was extremely dangerous to his sobriety as alcoholics find sobriety only through a process of deflating their overly swollen egos. Humility is essential to recovery. But the problem they faced was how could they manage to have AA accepted as a legitimate moral program and not be seen as some fringe or cult-like group if they refused to promote it?

After publishing the book Alcoholics Anonymous, a Jesuit priest named Fr. Ed Dowling happened to get a copy and he marveled at the similarity between the 12 Steps and the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. Fr. Dowling managed to track down Bill W, the cofounder of AA, which was not so easy since AA at that time was very strict about the anonymity of its members. He knocked on Bill W’s door on a very windy New York evening and Bill’s first thought after seeing the disheveled priest was that this was another drunk looking for help! Fr. Dowling wanted to know where Bill had gotten these 12 Steps and if he used any of St. Ignatius works. Bill, a bit confused by the question admitted he had no idea what the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius were. At that point both men began to realize that God was doing something big in the history of spirituality. All AA did was arrange the spiritual principles that the ages had handed on down in a new way that enabled alcoholics to recover. Fr. Dowling, and many other clergymen endorsed the program of AA giving it the needed nod from organized religion.

Bill W continued a friendship with Fr. Ed and often consulted many other clergymen so as to make sure the new program of AA was on solid spiritual grounds. Bill also would frequently stress that AA was not a substitute for religion and that AA would be forever in debt to the religious men and women who nurtured AA at its beginning. And in the book Alcoholics Anonymous, members are encouraged to return to their places of worship where they will find “new avenues of usefulness and pleasure” and where they and their families can be “bright spots” in their congregations. In other words the recovered person and their recovered family can offer much to those who sit in the pews with them and still suffer because of alcoholism or addiction. Thank you to the many, many recovered members of our parish and their families who have so generously shared their “experience, strength and hope” of pain and healing with those who still suffer in our parish. Remember you never know when you will be needed to help another, but you can’t help another if you are not there to pass it on!

And to the families whose loved ones have died as a direct result of alcoholism or addiction or who are still wounded by the scars of this disease please come and pray with us for your loved ones. Together let us continue to “trudge the road of happy destiny”. Until January 8 may God bless you and keep you!

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference. Living one day at a time; Enjoying one moment at a time; Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace; Taking, as He did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it; Trusting that He will make all things right if I surrender to His Will; That I may be reasonably happy in this life and supremely happy with Him forever in the next.  Amen
. — Reinhold Niebuhr

Love,
Fr. John Bonavitacola

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