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The Catholicity of 12-Step Programs

Alcoholics Anonymous, as well as the dozens of 12-step self-help programs modeled on it, owes its origins to a twentieth-century Evangelical movement known as the Oxford Group (not to be confused with the Oxford Movement of a century earlier). 

Founded on a belief in the necessity of personal conversion, a transforming spiritual experience, confession, and restitution, the Oxford Group flourished in the 1920s and 1930s. 

The alcoholics who later became AA first achieved sobriety though this movement, which sought to practice “original Christianity.” After only a few years, AA broke away to become a more narrowly focused organization whose primary purpose is to help alcoholics recover.

Those earliest AAs, including co-founders Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith (“Bill W.” and “Dr. Bob” to AA members), retained much of the initial vision gained in the Oxford Group, and, as we shall see, were also deeply influenced by Catholic theology. AA’s emphasis remained on personal conversion, a “spiritual experience” sought through working the 12 steps of recovery-the first of which is to admit that one is powerless to save oneself from alcoholism.

Writing in 1962, looking at the disorder and fear among nations, Wilson commented: “I am sure we AAs will comprehend this scene. In microcosm, we have experienced this identical state of terrifying uncertainty, each in his own life.[“As Bill Sees It (New York: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, 1992 [1967]), 166.] Smith also noted that the alcoholic who “hits bottom” is simply experiencing in a more intense way the spiritual crisis all around him: “AA is simply a way of capitalizing on this inherent situation. In the world around us, however, the bottom is being hit all right, but this is always someone else’s fault.[” Ernest Kurtz, Not-God: A History of Alcoholics Anonymous (Center City, Minnesota: Hazelden Educational Materials, 1991 [1979]), 381.] New Age therapist Tav Sparks is on target when he writes in the neo-gnostic journal ReVision: “Chemical dependency, as an acute, life-threatening form of physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual emergency, is in fact a vivid microcosmic archetype of the universal human dilemma.[” Tav Sparks, “Transpersonal Treatment of Alcoholics: Radical Return to the Roots,” ReVision: the Journal of Consciousness and Change, Fall 1987, 63.]

The task for a Catholic apologist is to connect the AA’s microcosmic experience with the true religious macrocosm of Catholicism. We need to show that 12-step recovery makes most sense-historically, logically, and spiritually-within a Catholic understanding of the Fall and the Redemption. 

Alcoholism and Original Sin

There are three principal points of contact between AA and Catholic doctrine which make this rapport clear: (1) the analogy between AA’s understanding of alcoholism and the Catholic doctrine of original sin; (2) the emphasis in both AA and Catholicism on understanding man as a unity of body, mind, and soul; (3) the consequent need for a redemption or remedy embracing both body and soul and effected by God himself since only he can do it.

The book Alcoholics Anonymous (known as the “Big Book”) defines alcoholism as “an illness which only a spiritual experience will conquer.” AAs maintain that their addiction is not consciously chosen and therefore should not be termed “sin” in the proper sense. They make a distinction similar to that Catholics make between original and actual sin. The new Catechism of the Catholic Church explains this as follows: “By yielding to the tempter, Adam and Eve committed a personal sin, but this also affected the human nature that they would transmit to their offspring in a fallen state. That is why original sin is called ‘sin’ only in an analogical sense: it is a sin ‘contracted’ and not ‘committed’-a state and not an act” (CCC 404)

Although it is proper to each individual, original sin does not have the character of a personal fault in any of Adam’s descendants. It is a deprivation of original holiness and justice, but human nature has not been totally corrupted. It is wounded in the natural powers proper to it, subject to ignorance, suffering, and the dominion of death, and inclined to sin-an inclination to evil that is called “concupiscence” (CCC 405).

The common opinion that there is-or may be-a genetic predisposition to alcoholism is therefore no problem for Catholics, who already believe human beings inherit a flawed human nature. Social and psychological factors in the development of alcoholism also can be acknowledged by us because original sin has influenced both human society and the human psyche. If God made all things good in the beginning, then the chain reaction of sin and infirmity must have had a start-an original “fall” at some point. The doctrine of original sin therefore locates the origin of evil in the abuse of freedom by created beings rather than in God himself. The doctrine acknowledges that men and women, whether alcoholic or not, are in a state of bondage they did not personally choose and from which only God can save them.

At this point, it is necessary to recall that, according to Fr. John C. Ford, alcoholism is more than simply the concupiscence and self-will which afflict all the descendants of Adam and Eve. According to Ford, alcoholism is the pathological concentration of this self-will in a physico-spiritual bondage to alcohol-with the consequent loss of control and the inability to stop without outside help. 

The Catholic apologist should therefore remember that he is upholding an analogy-not an identity-between alcoholism and original sin. Ford’s approach is useful because he identifies alcoholism as a distinct problem existing also within a larger human and spiritual context. Ford agreed that the therapeutic and medical approach to alcoholism treatment is sometimes exaggerated.[ John C. Ford, “The Sickness of Alcoholism: Still More Clergy Education?” Homiletic and Pastoral Review, Nov. 1986, 15.]

He summed up his ideas and experience as follows: “I do not believe in telling an alcoholic, ‘You are a sick man-you’re not guilty of anything’ because he is guilty of many things . . . But from a common-sense point of view we are often able to point out to an alcoholic . . . that his moral responsibility was considerably diminished. I believe in telling an alcoholic, ‘Yes, you are a sinner, but your sins can be forgiven by the grace of Christ.'” [Ibid., 16.] 

Unchosen Bondage

It is therefore possible to use the Genesis account of original sin as the backdrop for a Christian interpretation of 12-step recovery. Ernest Kurtz perceptively writes: “The admission of the first step marked acceptance that ‘bottom’ had been hit. It also echoed a deeper admission, the irony of ‘original sin’ as described by the Book of Genesis. 

“In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve had sinned by reaching for more than had been given. They ate of the forbidden fruit because the serpent promised that eating it would make them ‘as gods.’ Their punishment was loss of the garden they had been given. The alcoholic, in drinking, had sought inappropriate control over reality more than was granted to human finitude. 

“The promise of alcohol was likewise one of Godlike control: Alcoholic drinking sought to control how outside reality impinged upon the alcoholic as well as his own moods, feelings, and emotions . . . 

“The penalty for such abuse was the loss of any ability to use properly, reaching for more than had been given resulted in a loss of even that which had been given. To this understanding, the alcoholic surrendered by the very admission ‘I am an alcoholic'” [Kurtz, 182-83.]

Thus the alcoholic finds himself in a state of unchosen bondage from which he cannot free himself. His situation is a living parable of the human condition itself, apart from and without Christ.

The original unity of Adam and Eve was meant to be a source of blessing for their descendants. After the Fall, this mysterious human solidarity became also the means of transmitting a flawed human nature. This seems, at first glance, unjust-but not implausible, given the contemporary genetic and social factors which many believe contribute, for example, to the development of alcoholism. 

The same human solidarity which made it possible for us to fall representatively in our first parents also makes it possible for us to be redeemed representatively in Christ, the Second Adam (Rom. 5). So we should not complain about our lot. Unlike the angels who are pure spirits and whose decision for or against God is irrevocable, our fallen nature is redeemable. That is why the Church sings at the Easter Vigil, that Adam’s fall was a felix culpa, a happy fault, which brought us a Savior we had no right to expect or demand. The Catholic apologist should again reason by analogy with what the sober alcoholic already accepts. 

The Whole Man: Body, Mind, and Soul

An important convergence between AA and Catholic faith is the understanding of man as a unity of body, mind, and soul. Writing to Dr. Albert L. in 1959, Wilson wondered: “How long will it be before the world becomes willing to look at the whole man? In the world today we seem to be confronted by myriads of specialists who would relate all learning and human experience into their several fields. Never, it appears, was there such a tremendous need for a sane synthesis out of which new and better values could arise.” [Ibid., 381.] 

The Catholic apologist should put forward Catholicism as this synthesis, at least in its essentials. The “embodiedness” of the Catholic ethos-sacraments, sacramentals, icons, statues, rosaries, incense-join spirituality with material creation. As man is fallen in both body and soul, so must the remedy encompass both body and soul. 

Thomas Howard puts it this way: “In the harmony of Eden, everything that we did constituted an unceasing oblation of praise to the Most High . . . This was all torn apart at the Fall. We wrecked Creation by making a grab and saying, ‘This much of it shall be our own.’ The fabric ripped. Now, instead of the sacred seamlessness in which every fiber of Creation was knit together in a pattern that blazoned the glory of God, we had a torn garment . . .

“In this sense, we may be said to have introduced hell into our world at the Fall. For here we introduced the lie that we may have something of our own. Whatever the fruit that we snatched at may have been, it was not for us. We decided, however, that it should be ours nonetheless. This was a lie, and the result was division . . .

“The Incarnation reverses all this. Our salvation from that abyss and division comes to us in the figure of God-made-man. Spirit and flesh are knit once more into perfect integrity. The heresies have tried to make the Incarnation an illusion-God’s merely ‘coming upon’ the man or tenanting there briefly. False religions perpetuate the great divide between flesh and spirit, rather than between good and evil where Christianity says it lies.” [Thomas Howard, Evangelical Is Not Enough: Worship of God in Liturgy and Sacrament (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1984), 30-31.] 

Far from being an obstacle to faith and conversion, the “embodiedness” of Catholicism is a source of credibility. It “fits” human nature the way the right key fits a lock.

So far, we have established a certain analogy between alcoholism and original sin and consequently the need for a remedy which heals and restores both body and soul. To complete the analogy, we must now draw out the correlation between recovery and the Catholic vision of redemption.

The word “redemption” originally meant the buying back or ransoming of a slave. It is used in the New Testament to express what God in Christ has done for his people. Having entered the human story through the Incarnation, at the cross he has delivered us from slavery to sin and death by effecting the expiation and reconciliation with the Father which the human will-even with the knowledge of God’s law-cannot bring about by its own strength. That is why we need a savior and not just another teacher, philosopher, or lawgiver. The world’s religions and civilizations have never lacked moralists, and most of Christ’s moral injunctions have close parallels in earlier Judaism as well as in other religions, though he did express these truths with singular sublimity and boldness. But hearing and knowing these truths is not the same as living them. 

AA’s Big Book puts it this way: “Many of us had moral and philosophical convictions galore, but we could not live up to them even though we would have liked to. Neither could we reduce our self-centeredness much by wishing or trying on our own power. We had to have God’s help.” [Alcoholics Anonymous, 3rd rev. ed. (New York: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, 1992 [1976]), 62.] Paul said the same thing. “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do” (Rom. 7:18-19). Deliverance from this state must come from outside the self and not from within. The central Christian belief is that Christ in his own Person is the Deliverer. The Church, as his body, is that part of mankind that, by self-surrendering faith, has entered into the redemption and manifests and applies it in the world until the coming of God’s Kingdom in glory.

It is therefore evident that 12-step spirituality fits in much more easily with Christianity than with other religions and belief systems. I will briefly examine two of these non-Christian alternatives: atheism (agnostic humanism) and the New Age. 

12-Step Recovery and the Non-Believer

Though tolerant toward the non-believer, AA itself is fundamentally theistic. The atheist or agnostic humanist who has attained sobriety by placing provisional faith in the AA group as his “Higher Power” usually comes to acknowledge that no merely finite human strength can achieve sobriety. But AA is evidently human and finite, both in its individual members and as a group; therefore, AA itself cannot really be the ultimate Higher Power operative in recovery from alcoholism.[ Kurtz, 206.] For now-sober alcoholics who still have difficulties with traditional theism, it may suffice for the Catholic apologist to point to the alcoholic’s own experience as proof that no merely naturalistic or materialist explanation is plausible.

With most 12-step people, this is as philosophical as they want to get. Their own experience is that their best thinking only got them drunk again. All the same, the Catholic apologist should refer those who want intellectual arguments to C. S. Lewis and to Thomas Aquinas’s five proofs of God’s existence, as well as to John Henry Newman and Blaise Pascal on the “reasons of the heart” which lead us to God. 

If the sticking point is the sins of the “institutional Church” or of organized religion in general, one need not defend everything the objector dislikes. The apologist may simply remind the objector of the Big Book’s chapter “We Agnostics” and of its warning that self-righteous hostility to religion is simply a blind prejudice. Note that the faults and human limitations of AA members do not preclude God or a Higher Power working through them to help others. Might not the same be true of the Church? We Catholics are well aware of our sins; that is why we pray at every Mass, “Look not on our sins but on the faith of your Church.” The humanist objector might as well complain about sick people in hospitals or alcoholics at AA meetings (see Jesus’ words in Matthew 9:12). 

Twelve-Step Recovery and the New Age 

New Age beliefs likewise do not logically cohere with AA spirituality because New Age religion hinges on the self-liberation of the “god within” through one’s own efforts and esoteric knowledge. For New Agers, the basic human problem is not sin (whether original or actual) but ignorance of one’s true divinity. Salvation comes from the self. Swami Vivekananda once declared, “The Hindu refuses to call you sinners. Ye are the children of God, the sharers of immortal bliss, holy and perfect beings. Ye divinities on earth, sinners? It is a sin to call a man a sinner. It is a standing libel on human nature.” [John R. W. Stott, The Cross of Christ (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1986), 162.] 

Certainly, this is flattering to human nature, but is it realistic, given what the sober alcoholic knows about his own human finitude? AA’s Big Book states frankly that the alcoholic had to “quit playing God” because “it didn’t work.” [A.A. , 62.] Despite his strong belief in AA’s religious pluralism, Wilson himself wrote that “it seems absolutely necessary for most of us to get over the idea that man is God.” [Kurtz, 153.]

With regard to spiritual growth, Wilson always spoke in biblical terms of “growing in the image and likeness of God.” [As Bill Sees It 51, 55, 159, 306.] He never spoke of becoming God. On this crucial point, there is a profound divergence between AA and the New Age. 

The incongruity is even more manifest when we examine the New Age belief in salvation through the working out of one’s own karma over many lifetimes. Madame Helena Blavatsky expressed this belief rather well: “It is owing to this law of spiritual development that mankind will become freed from its false gods and find itself finally SELF-REDEEMED.” [Mark Albrecht, Reincarnation: A Christian Appraisal (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1982), 212. ]For Blavatsky, reincarnation “is the destiny of every Ego, which thus becomes its own Savior in each world and incarnation.” [Albrecht, 112. ]This does not tally with AA’s first step. For a finite being estranged from God, self-salvation is impossible, no matter how many opportunities are given. Further, reincarnation does not explain the origin of evil. If there was no origin, evil is an eternal, fatalistic necessity built into the very nature of things and even into the nature of God, if “God” is an impersonal All.[ Ibid., 88-89.]

Swami Vivekananda draws the logical conclusion from such philosophical monism. “Who can say that God does not manifest himself as Evil as well as Good? But only the Hindu dares to worship him in the evil. . . How few have dared to worship death, or Kali! Let us worship death!”[ Douglas R. Groothuis, Unmasking the New Age (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1986), 144.] 

Beyond Good and Evil

The New Age rejects the God of the Bible, thinking an impersonal deity is more plausible and less morally problematic. But is it really? Such a God would be beyond good and evil altogether. AA speaks of a loving God, but love is necessarily a personal attribute. An impersonal deity could no more “love” than could a gas or a calculator. Only the doctrine of the Trinity-one God in three Persons-gives a basis for saying of him, “God is love” (1 John 4:8). [G. K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man (Garden City, New York: Image Books), 232.]

C. S. Lewis noted that good and evil increase at compound interest. [ C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, (1943; New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., 1960), 117.] Even Madame Blavatsky agreed. “Hurt a man by doing him bodily harm; you think that his pain and suffering cannot spread by any means to his neighbors, least of all to other nations. We affirm that it will, in good time.” [Albrecht, 94.] There is no reason to assume that good karma increases faster than bad karma. A finite being, estranged from God and powerless to save himself, would run up an ever-increasing debt of bad karma, unless the debt of justice could be satisfied by another. That is Christ did on Calvary.

In Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, Wilson acknowledged that “in some cases we cannot make restitution at all.” [ Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions (New York: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, 1992), 79. ]Certainly, we must make amends, for our own sake and for that of others, but it remains true that no mere human amends can wholly right the wrong done. Only God in human form can make perfect amends and reconcile in his own body both justice and merciful love.

A final drawback to the New Age worldview is that it sees the human body as a mere garment to be cast off for successive bodies, until the cycle of death and rebirth is ended through union with the impersonal Absolute. This contradicts AA’s emphasis on conceiving of man as composed of body and soul. Belief in the resurrection more nearly corresponds to a genuinely “holistic” understanding of human nature than does the doctrine of reincarnation. Here also the New Age is not logically compatible with the implications of 12-step spirituality. Only Catholic Christianity properly acknowledges God’s love and holiness as well as man’s fallen but still redeemable nature. 

Eastern Religions not Sufficient

Other religions fall short in this regard. Eastern religions do not clearly distinguish between the creature and the Creator and hence cannot logically accommodate any idea of salvation “from outside.” Popular Hinduism and Buddhism have a doctrine of salvation by the grace of the bodhisattvas and avatars, who are worshiped and invoked as successive divine manifestations, but, in the absence of a distinction between man and God, these are seen to be merely reincarnated men who have saved themselves by their own efforts and teach others to do the same. [Edmond Robillard, Reincarnation: Illusion or Reality, trans. K. D. Whitehead (New York: Alba House, 1982), 128.] 

Dominican Edmond Robillard cites the following incident as an illustration of the difference between Eastern and Christian worldviews: “I know a young French Canadian girl who accompanied the famous Maharishi Mahesh Yogi on a trip in the Himalayas. She witnessed a scene where a mother approached the great seer and pleaded with him to employ his powers to cure her sick child. Maharishi told her that he neither could nor would do anything for her child, since these sufferings resulted from the child’s karma, and Maharishi did not want to take this karma upon himself. It is hardly necessary to add how such a doctrine affects our idea of charity and mutual help among men.” [Robillard, 40.]

In any case, the cult of the avatars and bodhisattvas is regarded by the Eastern sages as a concession to popular mythology. In the East, mythology and philosophy coexist on two different levels. For the Christian, on the contrary, “Myth has become Fact; in Christ, the wall of partition has come down,” as C. S. Lewis wrote. [C. S. Lewis, Miracles: A Preliminary Study (London: Collins Fontana Books, 1963 [1947]), 138.] With great insight, the Hindu scholar Ananda K. Coomaraswamy explained as follows why he could not become a Catholic: “A fundamental reason why I could not possibly do so is the Catholic claim to exclusive possession of the truth. Other religions, or rather metaphysical traditions, claim to teach the truth but do not claim exclusive possession of it. 

“Christianity has other weaknesses, notably the reliance upon the historicity of Christ. I could say, ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth,’ but could not say, ‘I know that he was actually born in Bethlehem.’ It is only Christ’s ‘eternal birth’ that really interests me.” [ Roger Lipsey, Coomaraswamy, 3 vols. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977), 3:174.]

This complaint against Christian exclusivity is quite common in both AA and in the larger society. Three observations must be made in reply. First, Coomaraswamy’s purported inclusivity is not as all-embracing as it seems. It implicitly excludes those who believe in a definitive revelation of God in history.

Second, Christian “exclusivity” is not an expression of cultural arrogance but of the recognition of what kind of salvation the human condition calls for. Eastern religions are religions of cosmic law and of self-salvation through asceticism and knowledge. Considered in themselves, they are blind alleys because self-redemption is impossible. As religions, they bear the imprint of what AA’s Big Book calls “self-will” and of the desire to “play God.” They cannot be ways of salvation in their own right for the same reason that mere willpower cannot give sobriety to the alcoholic. This is not intolerance but realism: “Half measures availed us nothing,” the Big Book says. [A.A., 59.]

Third, Christianity, too, is universal, but on God’s terms, not on ours. “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3.27-28). 

AA’s Fulfillment in Catholicism

Many AA members would be surprised to learn that in the very earliest days of AA, the 12 steps had not yet been written down. Bob Smith described the situation in 1935 in this way: “We already had the basic ideas, though not in terse and tangible form. We got them . . . as a result of our study of the Good Book.” [Dr. Bob and the Good Old-timers (New York: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, 1991 [1980]), 97.] One early AA member recalls that Smith used to stand up at the meeting with the Bible under his arm, saying that “the answers were there if you looked for them because people back in the Old Testament were just like people of this century and had the same problems.” [Ibid., 228.]

The Bible served as AA’s earliest meditation book.[ Ibid., 111.] Smith and his wife Anne were especially fond of the Epistle of James, with its emphasis on faith that works through charity: “For faith without works is dead,” as Anne would often conclude the morning devotion. [Ibid., 71.] Early AA was so impressed with the necessity of following James in putting their faith to work that they often thought of calling their new fellowship the James Club. Ibid. They also often meditated on the meaning of the Sermon on the Mount and on Paul’s words about true charity in 1 Corinthians 13. Ibid., 96. The Bible was the only reading material allowed to hospitalized alcoholics, and Smith regularly described AA as a Christian fellowship when inquirers came to him.[ Ibid., 111, 118.] At meetings, he cited his favorite Scriptures and used stories in much the same way that parables are used in the Bible.[ Ibid., 228.] 

In memory of his contribution to AA, Smith’ Bible is still displayed to this day on the podium of the King School Group in Akron, Ohio, with the following dedication inscribed by Smith himself: “It is the hope of the King School group-whose recovery this is-that this Book may never cease to be a source of wisdom, gratitude, humility, and guidance, as when fulfilled in the life of the Master.” [Ibid.] 

AA’s Christian and Biblical derivation is here made obvious. No less striking is the almost Catholic emphasis that true saving faith is faith which works through charity (i.e., surrenders unreservedly to God and cooperates with his grace by persevering in charity and in working the steps of recovery). God’s grace does not negate human freedom, but restores and empowers it. On the experiential level, AA members come very close to Catholic doctrine, often without realizing it. 

Catholic apologists must know how make clear this spiritual kinship, especially to alienated and unevangelized Catholics who may have encountered God’s grace in a recovery group. Evangelization is not arrogance on our part, but a practical recognition that we all need an external revelation to guide us-experience alone cannot provide spiritual discernment. Without revealed religion, focusing on oneself can become self-worship or a self-preoccupation bordering on it, and that would be the opposite of recovery and of Catholic faith alike.

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