It’s “Catholic to Drink”
An Interview on Catholicism and Alcoholism
Oftentimes it can be difficult to understand the trial of addiction and how it can affect families since many do not have first-hand experience of such afflictions. As a result, Angelus Press decided to reach out to a traditional Catholic who struggles with alcohol addiction and find out first-hand about his experiences. We posed some common questions about alcoholism and Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) to him, as he has gone through AA, has maintained sobriety for some years, and is a practicing traditional Catholic husband and father. For understandable reasons, he will remain anonymous.
First, let’s discuss addiction as a whole. What would you say to someone who says that drinking is not an addiction?
Sure, that’s the basic one. “Drinking” is not an addiction. Compulsive consumption of alcohol, or drinking out of a physical—or mental need—is absolutely an addiction. That’s alcoholism.
So before I go any further with this answer or the whole interview, I’ll be clear, I’m not a doctor, and I’m not qualified to speak on the physiological or psychological effects, other than how it affected me. Nor am I a therapist or a priest. But I can speak about my experiences, and the experiences of the many recovering men and women I have come to know.
In the literature of Alcoholics Anonymous, alcohol is described as “cunning, baffling, powerful.” I agree with that characterization. And addiction is a tricky thing to discuss, because it has only been in the last few decades that medical professionals as a whole have started to refer to it as a disease. I also want to be very clear: addiction is something that is not fully understood. Scientists and doctors cannot explain why addiction is such an unstoppable force in the brain. Obviously, it’s not the same as a disease that is contagious, but once someone has become dependent on alcohol, it has the same affects as any other disease. It changes a person physically and psychologically. It’s a vicious cycle that is oftentimes impossible to escape without help from another. Speaking personally, I would not have stopped drinking if I hadn’t been, literally and figuratively, stopped by another person.
And I could not have maintained my sobriety without assistance from therapists in the form of cognitive behavioral therapy.
The allure of alcohol is indescribable to someone who is not in the throes of it, but a close, if somewhat crude, analogy would be the need to relieve oneself. Once you are at that point of desperation at finding a restroom, you will be singularly focused until that need is met. And if need be, won’t you enter into a restroom that ordinarily would be totally distasteful? That’s the bargain you would make in that situation.
Getting a drink is the same way for an alcoholic. The brain is screaming, drowning out all other common sense, and making it seem, to the alcoholic, that this is the best option. Actually, that it’s the only option. And because your brain chemistry is altered, you listen to some pretty crazy suggestions. Add this cognitive drive to an already-primed pump of social interactions that are telling the alcoholic that it’s ok, and the acceptance that alcohol consumption is part of being Catholic just stacks the deck. To go back to the previous analogy, the social norms of our culture for the alcoholic is like the trickling stream in the background.
“It’s Catholic to drink?” Really? I think some will find that view unfair.
I don’t mean it that way. Just that our traditional Catholic culture—broadly speaking of course—puts a stronger emphasis on drinking than many others. For one, drinking is not in and of itself sinful. So it’s seen as an acceptable “vice” for us, a way that we can have some enjoyment without sinning. And I don’t disagree with that. What gets me nervous, and what I fell into was the idea that any social gathering or celebration went hand-in-hand with alcohol. Now, I’m not blaming Catholic culture! Just that it’s a more slippery slope.
Explain what you mean by a slippery slope?
See, I was primed at the pump. I have a family history of alcoholism, I have a mental predisposition to drink—or to alter my consciousness in some way—in order to put aside distasteful thoughts or emotions, and third, I have a natural affinity for the effects of it. But I also made quite a few terrible choices, the chief of which, was being very imprudent in my treatment of alcohol. Listen, I’m not saying I’m a poor victim, not at all. I knew that I had at least the first and third condition that I listed above. (I wouldn’t learn that second part until later.)
So, I knew even if I wouldn’t admit it to myself, that I was playing with fire. I gave in to that peer pressure, and I drank anyway. The culture is a part—a small part, but still a part—of the equation for me, as well as for other traditional Catholics I’ve met.
Then, at some point it was less and less of a choice, the culture became less of an encouragement, and more of an excuse. Later, the drinking itself was an absolute compulsion, and finally a full-on physical addiction.
You say peer pressure like you’re on the playground. You were a grown man with children when you were a drinker. Couldn’t you have just stopped drinking?
Once I had reached that point of dependency, no. Not alone. At some point, I could have turned down another path. But in regard to the peer pressure, I know, it sounds like I’m blaming others. That’s not my intent here at all. What I am carefully trying to do is to shine a light on the large role that alcohol plays in our Catholic culture, and why those of us Catholics who are predisposed to alcoholism should be cautious. For instance, there is the blessing of wine on St. Stephen’s Day, the monastic traditions of brewing, the countless quotes and lauding of wine and spirits by the great Catholic authors, and even the integral part of our Faith—the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. I am not trying to say this culture is bad, not at all! Just that if you have other factors that could contribute to alcoholism, you should be “fearless and courageous from the start”—another quote from Alcoholics Anonymous—and be willing to live very carefully around alcohol lest you allow yourself to fall into that spiral. Again, most people are perfectly fine around alcohol. But some can become addicts very quickly if they are not willing to be honest with themselves from the very beginning about their tendencies and genetics.
Additionally, I’ve heard of cases where alcoholics within our Traditional circles are told, “you can overcome this through prayer and willpower.” I was told the same. But I was spiritually sick, as well as physically and emotionally. The alcoholic’s soul (I am making a generalization here) is suffering from addiction, the warped decision-making I mentioned above, and the sin of drunkenness for so long, that to ask him to jump directly into prayer is a nearly impossible request. It takes time, and it takes help from someone who is versed in addiction. This would be like asking someone who has just torn his ACL to start physical therapy without the required repair first on his knee. One Catholic doctor said, “Addiction then displaces and supplants God’s love as the source and object of our deepest true desire. It is, as one has called it, a ‘counterfeit of religious presence.’”
That’s why the advice that I “just need to pray more” did nothing. I understand that this seems like a strong claim for a layman to make, but Fr. Peter Scott, a priest of the Society of Saint Pius X, in this publication some 16 years ago wrote, “A purely spiritual solution does not work, for these people have a severe personality disorder that requires natural and psychological help.”
I found a very interesting quote from Fr. Ralph Pfau, a priest of the Indianapolis Diocese, who dedicated the first 11 years of his priestly life to studying alcoholism and alcoholics:
“Unfortunately, too many priests have been unable to help alcoholics, in or out of the confessional, because they don’t realize that there is such a thing as compulsive drinking. A penitent may confess to habitual drunkenness, and say: ‘Father, I just can’t help it, I just can’t stop drinking, and believe me, I have tried, and I’m ashamed of my failure.’ So what does many a well-meaning priest do? He tells the fellow he must stop, that he is making life a horror for himself, his family and his friends, and will wind up going insane, losing his soul, or both. So what does the true alcoholic do? He hurries to the first bar and buys a bottle to cushion the horror of the present and soften the coming of doom.
“Had the priest caught him before the drinking became compulsive, he could have impressed him with his sinfulness. Of course, sin is involved, past sin, when the drinking was willful. But now a compulsion neurosis has developed, and the man is suffering from a disease of the will. The element of free will is never wholly absent, and the sin is at the root of the disease, but in some obscure and complex way.”
You’ve quoted Alcoholics Anonymous twice. Isn’t AA non-Christian? How do you reconcile that with your Catholic Faith?
It is fully agnostic, to be sure. But I have not found anything in the core of the program which is antithetical to Christianity or even Catholicism. The guidelines, or 12 Steps as they are known, are imbued with reliance on divine Providence, and a push to get alcoholics to realize they are powerless without grace and God’s help. True, that in many cases, the literature and traditions of the program refer to “Your Higher Power” instead of God, and does not of course recommend the spiritually vital steps of confession or a retreat. This was done on purpose in order to help as many suffering alcoholics as possible, and to not turn away those who would see it as a purely religious program.
Interestingly, though, the foundations of Alcoholics Anonymous can be traced to the Ignatian Retreats. It was a Catholic nun, Sr. Mary Ignatia, who worked with a recovering alcoholic and a medical doctor to develop the steps and the program. There are correlations between Catholicism and AA literature that are impossible to ignore for those of us who know our catechism. As an example of the Catholic roots: when a newly-sober person was released from treatment, Sr. Ignatia gave this alcoholic a badge of the Sacred Heart. She asked the person to promise to return it to her if they ever felt the urge to drink again—forming the basis of the chips or tokens that alcoholics still carry today.
On the flip side, yes there is a danger in AA of valuing generic spirituality over sound doctrinal belief. Any Catholic who enters the program should have eyes wide open, and work with a spiritual director to help him through this potential minefield. Again, Fr. Scott:
“[Alcoholics Anonymous] openly encourages all to believe in their god or ‘power,’ as they understand it. As such, it is a danger to the Faith of the weak. … AA’s purpose is not to promote anti-Catholic philosophies, but to help alcoholics, albeit by purely naturalistic means. I always feel uncomfortable recommending our faithful to attend AA, but sometimes there is no other choice.”
I fully understand Fr. Scott’s reservations. I needed the additional help. I spoke with a priest within the first few days of my sobriety, he recommended AA, and once I had been attending meetings for a few months, I began a more deliberate practice of my Faith for the first time in many years. So I am not trying to contradict Fr. Scott, but to give you my own experience which shows that as long as a Catholic is cautious, does not replace his Faith with the wishy-washy “theology” of AA, but instead takes its principles as starting points to then dive in deeper with a confessor, it can absolutely work.
Aren’t the 12 steps of AA affecting or even destroying man’s personality?
Destroying, as in turning someone into a zombie? No. But it certainly did affect my personality. Because of the program, and working with a licensed addiction professional, I was able to be introspective for the first time in my life and to change my entire way of thinking—in terms of my relationships with others, my emotions, anger, and my narcissistic behavior. It was my skewed thinking that contributed to my decisions about using alcohol as a solution.
This is the whole point behind cognitive behavior therapy, or CBT, as I’ve mentioned above. This process is like teaching someone to shoot a basketball properly if they’ve never been taught the correct hand position before. It’s re-learning how to react (Behavior) in various scenarios, whether they are emotions, interactions, or events in a more introspective, thoughtful and less reactive way (Cognitive). After a bad day at work, I had never matured to the point of dealing with those problems—so I drank. After a good day at work, I know this sounds insane, but I didn’t feel like I deserved that good day—I didn’t know how to be happy! So I drank. Many alcoholics have, at their root, some sort of similar dysfunction (or as Fr. Scott said above, “severe personality disorder”) that can be greatly assisted by this sort of discussion and therapy.
Isn’t AA often ineffective?
I wouldn’t say that exactly. The numbers of those who have stayed sober versus those who have relapsed vary wildly based on what sort of data one looks at. For instance, how does one categorize someone who has relapsed once, then stayed sober? And gathering this data is challenging both due to the anonymous factor, as well as the reluctance for people to admit they have relapsed. Finally, there is no formal “check-in” at AA meetings. Many alcoholics attend meetings almost daily in their first year, and gradually taper off. So getting numbers of people who follow AA principles is very difficult. I’ve seen publications saying that the success rate is 5%. I find that immensely hard to believe, just from my own experience—seeing the same faces in meetings often, who are all seeing success in one form or another.
Three studies done recently by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, and the Journal of Addictive Diseases all reached a similar, if broad, conclusion: Those who follow a the principles of AA are twice as likely to remain sober than those who “white knuckle” through it on their own. These are factors of 25% vs. 50% in one study, 36% vs. 70% in another, etc.
Isn’t there a time you can claim “Mission Accomplished”?
Haha, I’m being sort of tongue in cheek, but that is really the answer. There is no medical or psychological cure. Only a desire to stay sober, and the tools gained through conferences with priests and therapists—in my own experience. One of the things that has kept me sober every day so far is my unwillingness to forget the desperate corner I had drunk myself into. Almost lost my family, professional life in shambles, friends who didn’t trust me anymmore… I don’t dwell on it, per se. But I remember it. And that is a heck of a motivator.
Yes, there are some drugs that have been tested, and are now available which take away the compulsion to have more than one drink—which is the hallmark of an addict. I would presumably be willing to leave a cocktail or a beer half-finished on the table if I took this. But I am not convinced that becoming reliant on another substance is a good decision for me. See, I’m an addict. My addiction is not necessarily alcohol—though that was how it manifested. My addiction is “I want more.” As Catholics, we know that drunkenness is gluttony. And gluttony is never being satisfied, always wanting excess. Thankfully, I am learning more every day on how to put my intellect over my passions.
At the end of the day, no, there is no cure. But being a Catholic is very good training on how to be a successful recovering alcoholic. And vice-versa!
Isn’t it at Compline where the verse is read about how we are to be sober and watchful, since our adversary is like a roaring lion? Same principle. We are watchful as Catholics against sin and corruption. As a recovering alcoholic, I am watchful against the complacency that could lead to relapse.
It is impossible to avoid the occasion of sin? Or to turn down a drink gracefully?
Thankfully, turning down a drink was never a huge stumbling block once I quit drinking, but I know it is challenging for others. “No, thank you” is pretty powerful. If they press, I’ll sometimes say a little more deliberately, with definite eye contact, “I’m not having any tonight, but thank you,” or sometimes I’ll inject humor by saying, “No, thanks, I don’t drink; alcohol and I don’t get along.” If it is a very tricky situation, like a toast of a family member at a wedding, and I am pushed, then I’ll go nuclear and say I’m a recovering alcoholic. I’ve never had it not work—though it’s a bit of a blow to the pride.
And, I think it’s very possible to avoid the occasion of sin. Habits may need to change, such as not frequenting the happy hour watering hole. I personally have never stepped back into my favorite bar. And perhaps your house will need to become “dry.” What I found to be the most helpful in avoiding the occasion was being honest with my family and close friends about my addiction, and conveying to them the seriousness and importance I placed on being sober. It’s just like the concept of Catholic friendship in general—our love for each other should be in the form of helping each other get to Heaven.