September 2002 Print

The Traditional Catholic and Twelve-Step Programs

Sean Romer

This article is for Catholics who hope to learn whether they could benefit from twelve-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.). Space restrictions do not permit an analysis of all twelve-step programs, so the focus of this article is on A.A., which is:

  • The original twelve-step program
  • The largest twelve-step program
  • The inspiration for hundreds of other twelve-step programs.

Because the main subject of this article is the religious underpinnings of A.A., most of what is written here is applicable to other twelve-step programs.

The idea for this article had its genesis in a letter from Fr. Peter Scott, U.S. District Superior, (reprinted here with his permission):

It is certainly true that the religious content of the 12-step A.A. meetings is abominably liberal and indifferentist, and that it will always shock and disturb a traditional Catholic with strong convictions. However, it cannot be denied that these meetings truly do work, for psychological reasons, and that they really do help alcoholics to acknowledge, confront, and come to terms with their personality disorder and drinking problems. It is the only easy, common way which truly does work.

Consequently, there is a sufficiently grave proportionate reason to bear with the evil of indifferentism, provided that there is no danger to the Faith.1

Fr. Scott's observation is echoed by that of Fr. Ed Dowling, S.J., an early influence in A.A. circles, who wrote, "Catholics are in a vastly worse spiritual danger in drinking than they are in A.A."2

The purpose of this article, then, is to address a delicate and prudential question: how does a Catholic who needs the help afforded by A.A. twelve-step meetings prepare himself to benefit from what is advantageous while mitigating dangers to his faith? The answer is that he does so by:

  • Obtaining direction from his confessor. The recovering alcoholic should speak with a priest and obtain the necessary spiritual advice, without which the indifferentism of A.A. could endanger his faith.
  • Increasing his prayer life. The interior life must be proportionally more intense as one exposes oneself to such an occasion, even if it is a necessary occasion.
  • Knowing what to anticipate and preparing for the risks. By describing A.A., its methods and influences, this article attempts to provide sufficient knowledge for Catholics to make informed decisions.

Treating Alcoholism

Alcoholism deprives a man of control over his life by destroying his peace of mind, his body, and his spirit. The will to live is diminished, hope is poisoned by despair, and the world becomes a joyless place. An alcoholic feels alone and trapped: though he may have been guilty of irresponsibility and gluttony early in his drinking career, at the advanced stages he no longer exercises free will–he is effectively enslaved by the bottle. Such a man sees little prospect for improvement after experiencing many drunken episodes followed by failed efforts to control or stop his drinking.

It is small wonder, then, that alcoholism is a common source of unhappiness, poverty, birth defects, deterioration of mind and body, impaired leadership, collapse of moral values, abuse, unstable homes and family disruptions, divorce, violent crime and other public disorders, imperiled highways, disease, insanity, suicide, and death.3

Remedies for alcoholism have varied through the ages, but even the most promising ones have delivered only short-term or limited success. Representative cases include:

• The Washingtonians, a temperance fellowship with an evangelizing Protestant outlook, begun in Baltimore in 1842. At its peak it boasted 4,000,000 members, but it faded from view by 1860.4

• The Pioneers, founded in 1898 by Fr. James Cullen, S J., and inspired by the temperance work of Fr. Theobald Matthew. The Pioneers is a Catholic temperance movement formally approved by Pope St. Pius X in 1905; its most well-known member was Venerable Matthew Talbot. The group was begun in Ireland and is present in a number of countries around the globe, but its members remain few in number.

There is a group, however, that claims success in enabling large numbers of alcoholics to attain and maintain sobriety: Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.). Founded in Akron, Ohio, in 1935 by two alcoholics, Bill Wilson and Robert Smith, M.D. ("Dr. Bob"), A.A. reports to have helped over 2,000,000 men and women in over a hundred countries since its inception.


Overview of Alcoholics Anonymous

Alcoholics Anonymous is a society of alcoholics who meet to reinforce one another in their efforts to become and stay sober. The A.A. fellowship takes its name from its text Alcoholics Anonymous. Known affectionately by A.A. members as the "Big Book," it was compiled by Bill Wilson in 1939 from the experiences of original A.A. members.

This preamble, read aloud at A.A. meetings, describes A.A. from the viewpoint of A.A. members themselves:

Alcoholics Anonymous is a fellowship of men and women who share their experience, strength and hope with each other that they may solve their common problem and help others to recover from alcoholism.

The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking. There are no dues or fees for A.A. membership; we are self-supporting through our own contributions. A.A. is not allied with any sect, denomination, politics, organization or institution; does not wish to engage in any controversy; neither endorses nor opposes any causes. Our primary purpose is to stay sober and help other alcoholics to achieve sobriety.5

The primary purpose of the A.A. program is recovering from alcoholism, a maladaptive habit manifested in certain people for reasons that are not very well understood. Many other recovery groups have emulated the A.A. technique, and participants report success in using the Twelve Steps to conquer ills such as drug addiction, compulsive eating, and gambling obsessions.

The focus of twelve-step programs is overcoming the malady that members share in common. Membership is open to anyone with the same problem, without regard for religion, nationality, economic status, sex, or education. With such a mélange, it is not surprising that points of difference are de-emphasized or even suppressed for the sake of unity.

For the traditional Catholic, this policy of uncritical tolerance can make a twelve-step meeting a hazard to his faith. For example, he might be tempted to use the term "Higher Power" when referring to God simply from repeated exposure to it, or so as not to offend the agnostics and atheists present. The failing can be even more severe: this author knows a woman who quit the Catholic Church because she wanted to just "worship God in A.A." Though many members of twelve-step programs would protest that their meetings are not a substitute for religion, many, too, describe A.A. as their "church." In any event, clearly there is at least a risk of syncretism stemming from a premise that makes a virtue of heterogeneity.


Meeting Format

Though the exact format for conducting an A.A. meeting is left to the discretion of the groups, the following arrangement is the norm for speaker meetings.

1) The meeting is called to order by the chairman.

2)  Members observe a moment of silence followed by the Serenity Prayer.

3) The chairman reads excerpts from the Big Book, and then introduces the speaker.

4) The speaker talks for about 45 minutes, describing a) his alcoholic drinking, b) how he attained sobriety in A.A., and c) how he remains sober in A.A.

5) The chairman makes closing remarks, passes the basket to collect money for rent, and observes the sobriety birthdays of members.

6) The meeting closes with the protestant Lord's Prayer.

Meetings typically last for about one hour. Members often come early and stay late to chat with friends; some go out afterwards for a meal or coffee.

Some components of the meeting deserve further explanation.


Group Prayers in A.A. Meetings

The two prayers known and used by most A.A. members during the meetings are the Serenity Prayer and the protestant Lord's Prayer.

The popular form of the Serenity Prayer is:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

The origins of the Serenity Prayer are not known. Possibilities include Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, pietist Friedrich Oetinger, rationalist and pantheist Baruch Spinoza, and the Roman philosopher Boethius.6 Though the origins of the prayer are uncertain, what is certain is that A.A. quickly popularized it, members observing that "Never had we seen so much A.A. in so few words."7

The protestant Lord's Prayer is too well known to be repeated here. Like the Serenity Prayer, there is nothing inherently un-Catholic about it. A stumbling block for Catholics, however, is the practice of standing, holding hands, and reciting this prayer in common with persons of other religions. A.A. members view this activity as a testimony to the common bond among members. Not only Protestants and Catholics, but Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and members of other religions join in with this group prayer. A.A. members who participate assert that this activity is not an endorsement of a particular religion per se, but is something that lets members feel as if they really belong.8 In short, the reasons are primarily emotional and psychological.

Such a naturalized approach to spiritual matters ought to be avoided by Catholics. Further, some chairmen become a bit too clever when they invite members to participate in the closing prayer. Some merely suggest a moment of silence for the alcoholic who still suffers; a more unusual invitation, though, begins, "Who drove us home when we couldn't? 'Our Father, Who art in Heaven,...'" When confronted with such activity in A.A. meetings, Catholics are well-advised to simply stand back while the prayers, hand-holding, and other novelties take place.


Readings from the Big Book

The Big Book is so named because A.A.'s founders reasoned that alcoholics, characterized in A.A. as "egomaniacs with inferiority complexes," would be more likely to believe they were getting their money's worth with a large, bulky book. Thus, the book was printed on the printer's cheapest, thickest paper, with text surrounded by unusually large margins. The gimmick worked.

A portion of the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous is read at the beginning of most meetings as an introduction for newcomers and a reminder for old timers.

Rarely have we seen a person fail who has thoroughly followed our path. Those who do not recover are people who cannot or will not completely give themselves to this simple program, usually men and women who are constitutionally incapable of being honest with themselves. There are such unfortunates. They are not at fault; they seem to have been born that way. They are naturally incapable of grasping and developing a manner of living which demands rigorous honesty. Their chances are less than average.

There are those, too, who suffer from grave emotional and mental disorders, but many of them do recover if they have the capacity to be honest.

Our stories disclose in a general way what we used to be like, what happened, and what we are like now. If you have decided you want what we have and are willing to go to any length to get it–then you are ready to take certain steps.

At some of these we balked. We thought we could find an easier, softer way. But we could not. With all the earnestness at our command, we beg of you to be fearless and thorough from the very start. Some of us have tried to hold on to our old ideas and the result was nil until we let go absolutely.

Remember that we deal with alcohol, cunning, baffling, powerful! Without help it is too much for us. But there is One who has all power-that One is God. May you find Him now!

Half measures availed us nothing. We stood at the turning point. We asked His protection and care with complete abandon.

Here are the steps we took, which are suggested as a program of recovery:

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

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

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

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

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

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

7)  Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.

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

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

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

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.

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.

Many of us exclaimed, "What an order! I can't go through with it." Do not be discouraged. No one among us has been able to maintain anything like perfect adherence to these principles. We are not saints. The point is, that we are willing to grow along spiritual lines. The principles we have set down are guides to progress. We claim spiritual progress rather than spiritual perfection.

Our description of the alcoholic, the chapter to the agnostic, and our personal adventure before and after make clear three pertinent ideas:

a) That we were alcoholic and could not manage our own lives.

b) That probably no human power could have relieved our alcoholism.

c) That God could and would if He were sought.9


The Speaker's Talk

After being introduced, the speaker tells his A.A. story. This practice of sharing one's "experience, strength, and hope" has its roots in the shared confessions made at the early Oxford Group meetings (discussed later), and also carries shades of a tent-revival testimony. In A.A. parlance, the speaker describes "what I was like, what happened, what I am like today." He typically mentions his sobriety date, when he took his first drink (most alcoholics have an uncanny ability to remember this event), and his experiences working the Twelve Steps.

The purpose of the story is to edify listeners by encouraging them in efforts to practice the A.A. program and so stay sober. It really is astonishing to listen to former skid-row alcoholics who once lived in cardboard boxes beneath bridges describe how they overcame their alcoholism, patched up matters with their families, repaid debts, returned to church, became responsible citizens, and then turned their attention to helping the next alcoholic.

Frank descriptions of the life of an alcoholic are not for weak stomachs, however. Non-alcoholics are routinely shocked to listen to alcoholics laughingly recount tales of family quarrels, run-ins with police, criminal activity, immorality, divorce, jail time, and a host of other nightmarish activities frequently punctuated with winks and nods and foul language. Just as astonishing is when other alcoholics laugh at these accounts, which are sometimes jokingly called "drunkalogues." One is well-advised to remember that the alcoholic is telling a story that other alcoholics can identify with; this shared experience, humor, and esprit de corps creates a common emotional and psychological bond that helps alcoholics overcome feelings of isolation and difference, and so take the daunting actions prescribed in the Twelve Steps.

Even so, practicing Catholics will be scandalized by some of what is said in meetings. This author recalls a Catholic woman who described getting a tattoo to remind her of the son she had aborted when her husband left her; almost as shocking was the subsequent congratulations the speaker received from the audience for successfully overcoming her difficulties. Catholics, of course, can in no way give the impression they condone such activity. It is not rare (but not sufficiently common, either) for audience members to leave meetings when they take exception to a speaker's comments.


Sobriety Birthdays

Alcoholics with a sense of humor have observed that congratulating an alcoholic for staying sober "is like congratulating a hobo for not jumping from a moving train." Even so, A.A. members celebrate the anniversary of their last drink: such a commemoration is an act of gratitude for the blessing of sobriety, and a testimony to the newcomer that they too can live without drinking.

At A.A. conventions–large gatherings of alcoholics–it is customary to conduct Sobriety Countdowns: the audience stands, and as the chairman counts off the increasing years of sobriety participants take their seats and clap and cheer until only the alcoholic with the most years of sobriety is left standing. By the end, the event has become something like a sporting event pep rally.


How It Works

A.A. emphasizes a remedy to alcoholism based on the "moral and spiritual regeneration" of its members. Reduced to a simple formula, the A.A. approach looks like this:

Problem: the alcoholic lacks the personal power to control his drinking.

Solution: there is an external source of power that can remedy the problem.

Action: the Steps provide a means for tapping into that power.

One assumption in A.A. is that "two people with the same wound by telling their stories can heal each other."10 Alcoholism nearly always leaves a man feeling isolated and hopeless. By listening to the story of a kindred suffering spirit, an alcoholic's sense of "terminal uniqueness" is sufficiently diminished for him to take actions he does not yet believe in-i.e., the Twelve Steps.

Here is one account of this identification between alcoholics:

It seemed to Tom that he felt a (new) sense of assurance....He didn't feel alone now; and he didn't feel altogether helpless. His attention reverted to the newcomer just a few feet away from him, and the thought struck deep into his mind: this man was as Tom K. had been only a few hours ago.... That thought had meaning: it meant that Tom was now different than he had been. He did not feel superior to his companion but he experienced a feeling of maturity and of quiet strength. Something had happened to him, something that made for a changed outlook. Then Tom surprised himself. He said very quietly, "Tell me about yourself."11

What does it take for an irritable, restless, and discontent alcoholic to forget the turmoil inside his own head and reach out to help another suffering alcoholic? What brings him to the point of finally being willing to, in the words of A.A. members, "trust God, clean house, and help others"? Bill Wilson said it was "deflation (of ego) at depth, and more of it."12 An alcoholic who has reached a personal low and is willing to go to any lengths to relieve his suffering will be willing to attempt the way of life described in the Twelve Steps.


Taking the Steps

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.



Sponsors are A.A. members who tell newer members how to stay sober in A.A. A sponsor, then, is very much like a coach.

A.A. sponsors are the people who take the 2:00 a.m. phone calls from an alcoholic who cannot sleep because he wants to take another drink; normally hear an alcoholic's Fifth Step inventory; meet newcomers at meetings; and encourage the alcoholic when he is at his emotional lows and scold him when he is being egotistical or unreasonable.

A sponsor is not, however, a replacement for a priest: only a priest can give a Catholic sound spiritual advice and absolve him from his sins. A sponsor is also not a licensed therapist–he is very much an amateur in the matter of alcoholism, and he has no legal protection or obligations should a man he is sponsoring confess a crime or some immoral activity.

A sponsor is, however, a person who has worked the Twelve Steps himself, and can help the newcomer by answering questions about the A.A. program. Sponsorship is a valuable aid to the recovering alcoholic, but it has definite limits.



The A.A. World Service Office in New York publishes literature that explains the program the Twelve Steps, the history of the fellowship, and other topics of interest to A.A. members, alcohol treatment professionals, family members, and other parties. Most A.A. books are sold at A.A. meetings, typically at lower cost than can be found at local booksellers.

Several popular titles are:

  • Alcoholics Anonymous (a.k.a., the "Big Book")
  • Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions
  • Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age
  • As Bill Sees It (The A.A. Way of Life)
  • Dr. Bob and the Good Oldtimers
  • Pass It On: The Story of Bill Wilson and How the A.A. Message Reached the World
  • Daily Reflections
  • The A.A. Grapevine

The Slogans

The slogans are bite-sized pieces of the A.A. program. When an alcoholic is too hungry, angry, lonely, or tired to formulate a coherent thought, a slogan will remind him to quit trying so hard, and to open himself to the sunlight of the Spirit–which cannot be effective in a soul filled with grim determination or angst.

Typical slogans include:

  • "Easy Does It"
  • "Live and Let Live"
  • "Let Go and Let God"
  • "First Things First"
  • "One Day at a Time"


The Role of Anonymity

An alcoholic can be haunted by the ignominy of alcoholism long after he has attained sobriety. Keeping his membership in a Twelve Step group, then, is a way to shield him and his family from being socially stigmatized.

Another reason A.A. is anonymous is that anonymity is an antidote to an alcoholic's overdeveloped ego. Should one member come to view himself as indispensable, or appoint himself spokesman for A.A., he might begin to think he is different from his fellow alcoholics–and for the alcoholic, being different is lethal.

Finally, anonymity protects the A.A. program. Should a public figure who is an A.A. member drink again, it could undermine the good reputation A.A. has established in a community.


The "Group Conscience"

With thousands of meetings attended by hundreds of thousands of members, A.A. must face a number of administrative tasks, even on the level of a single A.A. group. Enter the group conscience: a consensus of members reached after all sides of an issue have been considered. This is an extension of the democratic principle that typifies numerous A.A. initiatives, traditions, and policies. Many A.A. members, though, believe that the "God of recovery"19 makes his will known through these group conscience discussions; in such manner, simple pragmatic decisions sometimes take on an aura of inviolability (and remember that A.A. was conceived over 25 years before the beginning of Pope John XXIII's council).


Influences and Personalities

A.A. is an amateur synthesis of elements from religion, medicine, and psychology. It was developed through trial and error efforts, many of them painful, over a period of several years. Early on it was essentially a Protestant fellowship with strong Catholic components. Later it was modified to accommodate different religions and philosophies. The A.A. of today has gone through numerous permutations since 1935.

It is beyond the scope of this article to describe all the influences on A.A. A few of the more significant ones, important when A.A. was conceived and laying the groundwork for much that followed, should be mentioned–particularly the religious influences.


Bill Wilson

A New York speculator, Bill Wilson was a Vermont-born Yankee and one of the two co-founders of A.A. Raised with almost no religion, he married Lois Burnham in her family's Swedenborgian Church in 1918.20 Known among its members as the Church of the New Jerusalem, Swedenborgianism is a naturalized version of Protestant Christianity; well-known adherents included John Chapman (a.k.a. Johnny Appleseed), Helen Keller, and Robert Frost.21

In 1947 Wilson took instruction from Archbishop Fulton Sheen, but later broke off his investigation into Catholicism with the quip, "The thing that irks me about all religion is how confoundedly right they all are."22 Wilson later added that, had he converted, it would have been perceived as an endorsement of Catholicism by a co-founder of A.A., which he believed would jeopardize the fellowship.23

Wilson was an avid reader of Professor William James of Harvard, whose The Varieties of Religious Experience provided silage for many of the naturalistic concepts later embodied in A.A.–in fact, though James was long dead, Wilson called him a "co-founder" of A.A.24 Wilson also read Glen Clark, Mary Baker Eddy, Charles Filmore, Fosdick, Emmet Fox, Gerald Heard, and E. Stanley Jones.

Bill and Lois were very interested in psychic phenomena. Bill's wife Lois recorded that she and Bill regularly experimented with extra-sensory perception (ESP).25 Wilson described–as if it were an everyday event–visitations from a spirit-guide who introduced himself as Boniface, an 11th century English Benedictine bishop and missionary to Germany, Bavaria, and France. Wilson said that, in addition to The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, he was helped in writing the squel to the Big Book, The Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, by this spirit-advisor.26 After being warned about Boniface by his Jesuit advisor Fr. Dowling, Wilson agreed that he should use caution, but that he did not want the Catholic Church to limit his conversations with the other world. Wilson writes candidly of his interest in spiritualism and seances in Pass It On.27 The records of these sessions, however, have been closed to public scrutiny.28 As part of medical experiments to treat chronic depression–which was a result in part of his extramarital affairs–Wilson took part in LSD experiments to see if it would cure him. Between the spiritism and experimentation with hallucinogens, Wilson exposed himself to all manner of demoniac influences, a gravely sinful act.29

Wilson believed in Divine intervention that could be confirmed by experiences, such as the Resurrection and miracles of healing. What he would not accept were miracles that he said were beyond human experience–what could not be demonstrated inductively–such as the Virgin birth, the True Presence, and papal infallibility.30

Wilson was, for a short time, a member of the Oxford Group, from which he derived many ideas later implemented by A.A. His primary spiritual advisors were Rev. Sam Shoemaker and Fr. Ed Dowling, SJ.


Dr. Bob

Robert Smith, or "Dr. Bob," was a proctologist and surgeon in City Hospital, Akron, Ohio, and the second co-founder of A.A. A Vermont-born Yankee like Wilson, Smith repeatedly devoured the Holy Bible–he was particularly fond of the Epistle of St. James, the Sermon on the Mount, and I Corinthians 13–and the writings of Emmett Fox and William James.

A stern, straight-forward, practical, and humble man, Smith and his wife Anne were, like the Wilsons, fascinated by ESP and other occult practices. Smith was also a member of the Oxford Group. He worked regularly with Sister Mary Ignatia, an Akron nun who provided great help in the hospitalization of alcoholics, and who was the source of much spiritual advice that made its way into the Big Book.


Rev. Sam Shoemaker

Rev. Shoemaker was an Episcopal clergyman, the rector of Calvary Protestant Episcopal Church in New York during A.A.'s formative years. Rev. Shoemaker was a close friend of Frank Buchman, the founder of the Oxford Group movement. Bill Wilson attended Oxford Group meetings at Shoemaker's Calvary House. Wilson asked Rev. Shoemaker to write the Twelve Steps themselves, but was turned down. Rev. Shoemaker spoke at many A.A. meetings, and his writings were printed in numerous A.A. publications.


Fr. Ed Bowling, S.J.

A gentle, charming man, Fr. Dowling used A.A.'s Twelve Steps to help overcome his problems with obesity. Recognizing Ignatian components in the Steps, he sought Bill Wilson out, only to learn that Wilson had never heard of the founder of the Jesuits (Wilson had not known of the humble Sister Ignatia's influence on Dr. Bob). Afterwards Fr. Dowling introduced Bill Wilson to the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius.

A graduate of St. Mary's Academy and College in St. Marys, Kansas,31 Fr. Dowling voiced the opinion that alcoholism leaves an invisible, indelible mark on the man inflicted with it, just as Holy Orders leave an invisible, indelible mark on a priest's soul.32 Though Fr. Dowling encouraged Wilson to consider becoming Catholic, he never pressed the point. A personable and humble individual, in light of some of his statements and actions (e.g., at Wilson's request, Fr. Dowling participated in one of Wilson's LSD experiments), one wonders how orthodox his example could have been. There is no doubt, however, that Bill Wilson admired Fr. Dowling, with whom he took his Fifth Step.


Sr. Ignatia

Compassionate, Irish-born Sr. Mary Ignatia of the Sisters of Charity of St. Augustine worked in the admitting office at St. Thomas Hospital in Akron, Ohio. A sensitive soul who had weathered a nervous breakdown of her own, she was able to alternately offer tough demands and tender care to offset the emotional highs and lows that often served as harbingers of her patients' drinking episodes. Fifteen thousand alcoholics became sober under her attention, and for her efforts she received a presidential commendation.33 In co-operation with Dr. Bob, Sr. Ignatia was largely responsible for St. Thomas becoming both the first hospital and first religious institution to open its doors to Alcoholics Anonymous.

Sr. Ignatia immersed herself in Thomas a Kempis's The Imitation of Christ and in The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, St. Augustine, St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, St. Francis of Assisi, and St. Therese of Lisieux. She influenced the thought, development, and content of Dr. Bob's contributions to the Big Book and to the Twelve Steps contained therein.34


William Silkworth

Dr. Silkworth worked at Towns Hospital in New York, where Bill Wilson was one of his frequent alcoholic patients. To Wilson the doctor shared his opinion that alcoholism was not just a malady of the mind and emotions, but of the body as well; Wilson was at once amazed, and set about to sober up his fellows with this bit of news that had been missing from prior efforts to help alcoholics.


Carl Jung

Bill Wilson was introduced to the Oxford Group by an old boyhood friend in November of 1934. Wilson's friend, in turn, was introduced to the Oxford Group by "Rowland H.," a patient of Carl Jung's. Jung told Rowland that there was no hope for curing alcoholism of his extreme type–no hope that is, unless he were to experience a "vital spiritual experience." As a result, Rowland joined the Oxford Group in search of his spiritual awakening. In the Oxford Group meetings he passed along Jung's message to his friend, who later carried the message about a spiritual renewal to Bill Wilson.

Jung's peculiar philosophy morphed psychoanalysis and religion–in fact became a kind of religion. From Jung, Wilson received reinforcement in his thinking that religion of any sort was a tool for delving into one's self and removing impediments to the Divine influence.


William James

William James was a professor of psychology at Harvard University and an advocate of that American contribution to philosophy called pragmaticism. His The Varieties of Religious Experience was read by Bill Wilson, Dr. Bob, Rev. Shoemaker, Oxford Groupers, and many early A.A. members. James's philosophy was essentially Emersonian Transcendentalism married to practical Protestantism. One result was the notion of a sort of elusive God that James called a "Higher Power," a phrase appropriated by the A.A. program.


Emmet Fox

Emmet Fox was a New Thought minister who wrote and lectured on the philosophy of how a God-oriented mind changes the circumstances in one's life. This philosophy emphasized cultivating a conscious awareness of God through techniques such as reasoning, intuitive realization, affirmation, and visualization. God, to the New Thought advocates, was in you, and you were in God; you became aware of this phenomenon by regularly uniting your own mind with the Universal Mind.

Seminal New Thought members included Phineas Quimby (an expert in mesmerism, which is a form of hypnotism involving animal magnetism) and Mary Baker Eddy (who later started the Christian Science religion). Drawing on many Western and Eastern sources, New Thought is one of the sources of the present-day New Age movement.

New Thought contributed a great deal to the beliefs of A.A., particularly through Fox's lectures (Bill Wilson and other early A.A. groups often attended them)35 and books, his Sermon on the Mount being the most influential.


The Oxford Group

The Oxford Group was a nondenominational evangelical movement founded in 1908 by a disillusioned Lutheran preacher from Pennsylvania named Frank Buchman.36 Also called Buchmanism, the Oxford Group changed its name to Moral Re-armament in 1938 when England's Oxford University protested the use of its name.

The goal of the Oxford Group was to change the world "one person at a time." At Oxford Group House Parties, members "surrendered" on their knees and publicly described their deliverance from sins of alcoholism, smoking, and other vices. Its precepts were: surrender your life to God; take a moral inventory; confess your sins to God and to another human being; make restitution; give of yourself to others with no demand for return; pray to God to help carry out these principles. There were also four Absolutes: absolute honesty, absolute purity, absolute unselfishness and absolute love–moral standards by which every thought and action could be tested. There was no cross or shedding of blood; illumination came directly to the individual, who merely quieted his mind and his life so as to hear the voice of inspiration.37

Fr. John Ford, S J., wrote of the Oxford Group and A.A.: "The differences between the fundamental attitudes of the early A.A.'s and the Oxford Groupers were so pronounced that there never was a real integration of A.A. into that movement. There was initial inspiration and association rather than integration. A.A. sprang from the Oxford Groups but almost immediately sprang away from them."38 Though the association might have been brief, Wilson insisted that after Step One (which he attributed to Dr. Silkworth and the influence of Jung), all the remaining Steps were extensions of Oxford Group teachings. The split between the two groups stemmed from the Oxford Group's aggressively evangelical approach, which did not suit A.A. members. There was also strong resistance to the coercive authority exerted by Oxford Group leaders, who claimed to have received inspiration on how newcomers should conduct their lives.


The Question of Religion

Wilson's own astonishing recovery from alcoholism left him convinced that the Twelve Steps came from God, and that A.A. was a divinely instituted agent for channeling God's grace into the world. Wilson was also encouraged in this belief–for example, his long-time advisor Fr. Dowling saw Wilson as "possessed by truth, and stumbling toward greater truth." In a letter to Wilson, Fr. Dowling wrote, "Historically, there have been superhuman interventions–yourself, Horace Crystal, the Incarnation."39

At the same time, the founders of A.A. denied that they had begun a new religion. To the contrary, they repeatedly and consistently stated that they merely used material readily available from religion, medicine, and psychology–the common property of mankind, they maintained–to outline a manner of living that would help alcoholics. Wilson believed that institutions like the Catholic Church had the spirituality to heal alcoholics, but didn't have the method to reach them: one alcoholic talking to another.

As a society we must never become so vain as to suppose that we have been the authors and inventors of a new religion. We will humbly reflect that each of A.A.'s principles, every one of them, has been borrowed from ancient sources....Let us constantly remind ourselves that the experts in religion are the clergymen; that the practice of medicine is for physicians; and that we, the recovered alcoholics, are their assistants.40

From a Catholic perspective, there is no denying that A.A. relies on naturalistic means to solve the problem of alcoholism–this in spite of the insistence of its members that it is a spiritual program. Though there is hope for sobriety through working the Twelve Steps of A.A., there are also risks which are inherent in the program's principles and assumptions. These risks, however, are not readily visible to the casual observer because A.A.'s ultimate principles are seldom revealed: efforts to delve into them are usually dismissed with a remark like, "The Twelve Steps got me sober–that's all I care about." As a result, one must extract from A.A.'s moods its ultimate principles. Its members are usually not conscious of any such principles, however. When presented with them, they will often, and honestly, deny them to be held–their sincerity making their uncritical acceptance more of an obstruction than an enemy. It is something like going over difficult terrain, composed of a number of attitudes, affections, assumptions, and gaps in understanding and knowledge under which Catholicism is indirectly menaced, smothered, sidetracked, and undermined.

Here are a few manifestations.

  • The Gnostic assertion that knowledge arises in the heart in an intuitive and mysterious manner is alive and well in A.A. Deliverance is attained through a certain intuition of the heart, by which A.A. members immediately and directly, without the aid of an intermediary, attain the reality of God.
  • Catholics sometimes receive from their sponsor specific guidance at odds with the requirements of the faith, perhaps infusing them with the idea that their Church needs to be "changed." When alcoholics are told that their Church "won't get them sober," Catholics are put in a false position where they are made to feel they must choose between sobriety and their faith.
  • When one is directly inspired by a Higher Power, all revealed knowledge gained from authority is suspect. This flies in the face of what the Council of Trent declared: that justifying faith is primarily an intellectual assent to divinely revealed truths.

Such is the nature of the human mind, so limited are its intellectual powers, that, although by means of diligent and laborious inquiry it has been enabled of itself to investigate and discover many divine truths; yet guided solely by its own lights it could never know or comprehend most of those things by which eternal salvation, the principal end of man's creation and formation to the image and likeness of God, is attained.41In such manner the Council of Trent laid the groundwork for why a loving God would not abandon us to our own devices, but gave us Revelation.

  • The indifferentism common in A.A. is manifested in erroneous assertions like God's "call is bigger than organized religion."42 Wilson wrote, "It was agreed that the book should present a universal spiritual program, not a specific religious one, since all drunks were not Christian."43 Sobriety, not truth, is the real arbiter.
  • A.A. members are encouraged to accept what is a false distinction between "religion and spirituality." Though A.A. is officially non-dogmatic, in practice religion is described as the man-made accretions like liturgies, rituals, and all external sources of control; while spirituality is the internal, spontaneous, happy, and energetic consequence of being in personal contact with God. A typical declaration is, "religion is for people who are afraid of hell; spirituality is for people who have already been there."
  • For the Catholic, when human efforts fail, the power needed to overcome alcoholism is divine, coming from the Blessed Savior. In A.A., however, the power can be anything with more strength than the individual alcoholic–A.A. endorses no particular notion of God. Thus, it can be the Sacred Heart. It can also be the loving support from the A.A. meeting itself, an undefined Universal Loving Spirit, or (as one member claimed) a Bekins moving van. It is up to the individual to decide what God means to him; the only condition is that it must help the alcoholic stay sober.
  • Value attached to suffering is denied, though the well-trained A.A. member will concede that a loving God can turn suffering to good. The focus on relieving suffering is good provided it springs from a supernatural motive; the typical A.A. member, however, has no such motivation: his goal is to avoid pain, and to be happy in life. Thoughts of the hereafter are tolerated provided they do not interfere with sobriety. Thus, a non-alcoholic Catholic can understand Sebastian, who is a baffling and sinister mystery to the non-Catholic A.A. member:

"Poor Sebastian!" I said. "It's too pitiful. How will it end?"

"I think I can tell you exactly, Charles. I've seen others like him, and I believe they are very near and dear to God. He'll live, half in, half out of the community, a familiar figure pottering round with his broom and his bunch of keys. He'll be a great favourite with the old fathers, something of a joke to the novices. Everyone will know about his drinking; he'll disappear for two or three days every month or so, and they'll all nod and smile and say in their various accents, 'Old Sebastian's on the spree again,' and then he'll come back dishevelled and shamefaced and be more devout for a day or two in the chapel. He'll probably have little hiding places about the garden where he keeps a bottle and takes a swig now and then on the sly. They'll bring him forward to act as guide, whenever they have an English-speaking visitor; and he will be completely charming, so that before they go they'll ask about him and perhaps be given a hint that he has high connections at home. If he lives long enough, generations of missionaries in all kinds of remote places will think of him as a queer old character who was somehow part of the Hope of their student days, and remember him in their masses. He'll develop little eccentricities of devotion, intense personal cults of his own; he'll be found in the chapel at odd times and missed when he's expected. Then one morning, after one of his drinking bouts, he'll be picked up at the gate dying, and show by a mere flicker of the eyelid that he is conscious when they give him the last sacraments. It's not such a bad way of going through one's life."

I thought of the joyful youth with the Teddy-bear under the flowering chestnuts. "It's not what one would have foretold," I said. "I suppose he doesn't suffer?"

"Oh, yes, I think he does. One can have no idea what the suffering may be, to be maimed as he is–no dignity, no power of will. No one is ever holy without suffering. It's taken that form with him..."44


The footwork taken to prepare this article included attending twelve-step meetings, reviewing literature on the topic, and speaking with members and critics of twelve-step programs. Any mistakes are the author's sole responsibility. The author feels compelled to point out that he is not a member of any group with the word "Anonymous" in the name. He is a parishioner of St. Michael's Catholic Church in Roswell, Georgia.

1. Letter from Fr. Scott to the author, November 8, 2000.

2. Fr. Robert Fitzgerald, S.J., The Soul of Sponsorship: The Friendship of Fr. Ed Dowling, S.J. and Bill Wilson in Letters (Hazelden Press, 1995), p. 27.

3. The Catholic Encyclopedia online, 01274a.html.

4. Online at

5. Copyright The AA Grapevine, Inc. (A.A. Central Office, 1947).

6. Online at

7. Bill Wilson, Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age: A Brief History of A.A., 3rd edition (A.A. World Services, 1957), p. 196.

8. Speech by Sister Mary Ignatia to the Catholic Hospital Association (Philadelphia, 1951).

9. Bill Wilson, et al., Alcoholics Anonymous, 3rd edition (A. A. World Services, 1976), pp. 58-60.

10. Fitzgerald, The Soul of Sponsorship, p. 42.

11. John Reese, But for the Grace of God (Vantage Press, 1957), p. 51.

12. Bill Wilson, Three Talks to Medical Societies (A.A. World Services, 1958), p. 15.

13. Roseann Lloyd and Merle Possum, True Selves: Twelve-Step Recovery from Codependency (Hazelden: 1991).

14. Wilson, Alcoholics Anonymous, p. xxiv.

15. A.A. World Services, Pass It On: The Story of Bill Wilson and How the A.A. Message Reached the World (A.A. World Services, 1984), p. 354.

16. Wilson, Alcoholics Anonymous, p. 63.

17.Ibid., p. 66.

18. Ibid., p. 76.

19. Mary C. Darrah, Sister Ignatia: Angel of Alcoholics Anonymous, 2nd edition (Hazelden Press, 1992), p. xvii.

20. Fitzgerald, The Soul of Sponsorship, p. 10.

21. Lois Wilson, Lois Remembers: Memoirs of the Co-Founder of Al-Anon and Wife of the Co-Founder of Alcoholics Anonymous (Al-Anon Family Group Headquarters, 1979), p. 2.

22. Fitzgerald, The Soul of Sponsorship, p. x.

23. Letter from Bill Wilson to Joe Dingles, October, 1957.

24. Samuel Shoemaker, Courage to Change: The Christian Roots of the 12-Step Movement (Baker Book House Company, 1994), p. 44.

25. L. Wilson, Lois Remembers, p. 139.

26. Fitzgerald, The Soul of Sponsorship, pp. 59, 81.

27. A.A. World Services, Pass It On: The Story of Bill Wilson, pp. 275-85.

28. Ernest Kurtz, Not God: A History of Alcoholics Anonymous (Hazelden, 1979), p. 344.

29. Rev. Francis J. Connell, C.SS.R, S.T.D., Baltimore Catechism No. 3, 3rd edition (Seraphim Company, 1995, originally by Benziger Brothers, 1949), Questions 212, 253.

30. Fitzgerald, The Soul of Sponsorship, p. 51.

31. Ibid., p. 14.

32. Fr. John Ford, S.L., Alcoholism: A Source Book for the Priest, an Anthology (i.e., The Blue Book, minutes from the proceedings of the National Clergy Conference on Alcoholism or NCAA, 1960), p. 167.

33. Darrah, Sister Ignatia, pp. 6, 38, 264.

34. Ibid., pp. 28, 39.

35. Igor Sikorsky, Jr., A.A.'s Godparents: Carl Jung, Emmet Fox, Jack Alexander (CompCare Publishers, 1990).

36. Darrah, Sister Ignatia, p. 31.

37.L. Wilson, Lois Remembers, p. 92.

38. Ford, The Blue Book, p. 395.

39. Letter from Fr. Dowling to Bill Wilson, October 1947.

40. Wilson, Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age, pp. 231-32.

41. The Catechism of the Council of Trent, trans. Rev. J. Donovan (The Christian Book Club of America, 1985, originally by W. Folds and Sons, 1829), Preface, p. 1.

42. Fitzgerald, The Soul of Sponsorship, p. 53.

43. L. Wilson, Lois Remembers, p. 113.

44. Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited (Back Bay Books, 1944), pp. 308-09.