A.A., Catholics and Temperance

This is the 85th anniversary of the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous, back in 1935 by Bill Wilson, a WW I veteran and stockbroker, and Dr. Robert Smith, a retired surgeon.

They developed their 12-step program in the ‘Big Book’, with a religious and theistic basis, five of the steps mentioning ‘God’ (hence, the difficulty of the program for atheists). Their doctrine is simple: The only way out of alcohol addiction is total and unremitting abstinence, admitting that one is ‘powerless’ over one’s addiction, relying upon a ‘higher power’, to see one through the rest of one’s life, sober.

However many people A.A. has helped – and it seems to have helped many – there are some skeptics. As this article from the Atlantic points out, it is nearly impossible to empirically verify the success rate of A.A., as they keep no records, their members are unknown (anonymity being an essential feature), and almost all of what evidence there is, is anecdotal.

So, is A.A. the only answer to problem drinkers, and what is a problem drinker, anyway?

Like most things, we should approach this question through the eyes of faith: I am all for reliance on a ‘higher power’, and think that without God we are doomed to a quasi-Pelagian crash and burn. Yet we should also avoid a kind of Calvinistic despair of our own free-will, and that we are not ‘doomed’ to anything, be it heaven or hell, in this life, or the next.

Hence, we should rely upon ourselves, along with a little help from our friends, and that we are never truly ‘powerless’. The human will is a powerful thing, and, as the saying goes, God helps those who help themselves, or, more scholastically, grace builds on nature. People in A.A. know this to be true, that they must exercise their will-power, especially at the beginning, and that the cravings – or at least the desires – may never completely go away, and may at times return with a vengeance, which is why they have 24-7 mentors to call, anytime, anyplace.

Whatever one decides, it would also be good to ask themselves why people are giving up alcohol: Like vegetarianism, going meatless may be a good thing for some – many religious orders have done so as part of their rule –  but we should not extend this to think eating meat is intrinsically evil. The same with wine, a gift of God to cheer men’s hearts. Alcohol is not evil, and I find it tragic that many of us misuse this wonderful gift – and who of us has not, at some point or other? – but that does not mean the gift itself is bad.

The same could be said of other groups that follow A.A.’s pattern, now with gamblers, overeaters and sexaholics anonymous… They all differ from A.A. in quite fundamental ways, each addiction a different thing, even if they use more or less the same 12-step program.

As the aforementioned article suggests, and as modern psychiatry has it in the DSM-V, one’s dependence upon alcohol is not an either/or – either you have complete control, or you have no control – but rather falls upon a spectrum. For some, alcohol is ruining their lives, and for these, A.A. may well be a viable path. Catholics should treat with caution the more evangelical and Calvinistic strains within its principles – not least, that diminishing of free-will – but use what good there is, as well as immersing oneself in the Church’s sacraments and the grace they offer.

For those who fall lower on the ‘misuse’ spectrum, and who still have the potential to scale things back, perhaps a better and more felicitous treatment would be to have them learn moderation, to re-temper their use – or, better, enjoyment – of alcohol, as we must learn for any pleasures in this wonderful world God has given us, and to treat and heal the underlying problems that prompted them to drink, or do anything else, intemperately and harmfully to themselves and others – to delve into and strive to heal their self-esteem issues, anxiety, trauma, depression. For these will still be there, regardless of whether one is completely sober or not, especially the brittle white-knuckle version of sobriety. Cold turkey may be one way, and for some necessary, but ‘tis not the only way. Aristotle taught us all those years ago, virtue resides in a ‘mean’ between two extremes, the way we might best live joyfully amidst the good things of this good earth.

At least, it’s food, and drink, for thought.