Saturday, June 30, 2012

“Matt Talbots are always possible with the grace of God”

[Please note that this article was published seventy years ago, three years after the book, Alcoholics Anonymous, was published and Matt Talbot had been deceased for seventeen years. Our title is copied from a sentence in the text.]

By Daniel M. O'Connell, S.J.
AMERICA, February 14, 1942

As a result of an article of mine in AMERICA (December 6, 1941), mentioning the laudable work of Alcoholics Anonymous, I received several letters asking if there were Catholic branches of this organization.

The most encouraging letter came to me from Cleveland, Ohio. The writer stated that he was a young Catholic man, educated in Catholic parochial, secondary and collegiate (two years) institutions. He has been a member of Alcoholics Anonymous for the past seven months. I quote from his letter the part which is of especial interest to Catholics.

"Membership in this city is in excess of 1,500, comprising more than 30 groups meeting once a week. We use five hospitals, including Catholic Charity. The first hospital used was a Catholic hospital, one in a nearby city. It is unfortunately true that about 75 per cent of our cases are Catholic. Our greatest successes have been with those of our own faith. In our own group we have deleted the expression "power greater than ourselves and substituted God. The first members, so I am told, were loath to believe in a Supreme Being; hence the other expression."

The statement that "75 per cent are Catholic" is, I hope, to be restricted and explained by the fact that the writer's group is Catholic and hence has come into contact with Catholics rather than non-Catholics. But at its worst calculations, the assertion would underline emphatically the points I tried to make previously, namely, the need of more instruction on the cardinal virtue of Christian temperance and the field of zeal open especially to the Catholic laity in being good shepherds who bring back to the fold victims of intemperance, especially of our own Faith. Great praise is due to this Cleveland group because it has made itself Catholic in principle. Whether it is the first such among Alcoholics Anonymous, I cannot say, though the general Cleveland chapter of A.A.'s is seven years old.

In the hope that this movement and similar ones for temperance may grow among Catholics, I am adding some pertinent facts about Alcoholics Anonymous. They declare quite frankly that their approach to the disease is based on their own drinking experience and on what they have learned to expect from the help of medicine and psychiatry. To this the Catholic groups, at least, would add: from the grace of God. The latter Alcoholics Anonymous can say in all humility with Saint Paul: "By the grace of God, I am what I am."

In fact, the group might take St. Paul as their patron. One of their fundamental requisites is sympathy, and surely this Apostle had that quality in an outstanding degree. Among Cardinal Newman's most typically appealing sermons, there is one entitled "Saint Paul's Gift of Sympathy." In it he skillfully develops the Apostle's manifestation of this winning virtue. Dr. W.D. Silkworth, Chief Physician at the Charles B. Towne Hospital, New York, writing of Alcoholics Anonymous in the Journal Lancet, stresses this point of sympathy: "This peculiar ability, which an alcoholic who has recovered exercises upon one who has not recovered, is the main secret of the unprecedented success which these men and women are having." Sympathy begets sympathy. As Dr. Silkworth expresses it: "Then, too, the patient's hope is renewed and his imagination is fired by the idea of membership in a group of ex-alcoholics where he will be enabled to save the lives and homes of those who have suffered as he has suffered."

It is encouraging to note that Dr. Silkworth, in his summary of the essential features for the cure of drunkenness, insists explicitly: "That he (the patient) recommit himself daily, or hourly if need be, to God's care and direction, asking for strength." In fact, the Doctor urges several points of Catholic moral theology: "try to adjust bad personal relationships;" that he make reparation for the past, "setting right, so far as possible, such wrongs as he may have done in the past;" that he "pray daily, or hourly if need be," a laudable practice in Catholic asceticism, known among us these long centuries past as "renewing one's morning intention."

I mention these obvious practices to show that our Catholic laity is well prepared to engage in and to super naturalize this movement of Alcoholics Anonymous as a means of true Catholic Action. The same has been done in many similar movements whose beginnings were not religious, in our understanding of that necessary element. Dr. Silkworth, who evidently is held in high esteem by Alcoholics Anonymous, seconds this position, if, as I trust, he uses "Deity" in the Catholic meaning: "Newcomers have been unable to stay sober when they have tried the program minus the Deity."

A.A.'s rightly insist on modern medical means placed at their disposal by Providence. Hospitalization under a competent physician is essentially the first step for an alcoholic on his return journey to normality, and even to a saintly life. (Matt Talbots are always possible with the grace of God.) But delirium tremens, a "wet brain" and similar calamities are to be feared in the case of heavy drinkers, who do not receive at once the physical readjustment to be had ordinarily only in a hospital.

I shall be indebted to Dr. Silkworth for two further points. In speaking of the textbook as it may be called, of the A.A. movement, a volume of 400 pages and entitled Alcoholics Anonymous, he makes the following observation, part of which I am italicizing: "There is a powerful chapter addressed to the agnostic, as the majority of the present members were of that description." This confirms the view of my Cleveland correspondent. It may also show that inebriety is had in corresponding proportions among non-Catholics as among Catholics, as I suggested above.
Doctor Silkworth then straight forwardly faces the question which arises in regard to any comparatively new treatment of a world-old problem: "Will the movement spread? Will many of these recoveries be permanent? No one can say. Yet, we at this hospital, from our observation of many cases, are willing to record our present opinion as a strong 'Yes’ to both questions."
The medical profession is rightly conservative in giving its imprimatur to new cures, medicines and matters properly within its field. Such approval, in general, has been given to Alcoholics Anonymous. The most recent instance I have at hand is from Dr. Merril Moore, Director of Research at the Washingtonian Hospital for Alcoholism, Boston, Mass. I had quoted from him in may above-mentioned article, and he was kind enough to send me additional matter on the treatment of this disease.

The strongest chapters of the A.A.Is are in Cleveland, New York City and Akron, Ohio. Claim is made for vigorous beginnings in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Denver, Kansas City, Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Richmond, Va., Houston, Tex. An original agnostic touch was accidental to the movement. In fact belief in God and His Providence for the weakest of His children is now, apparently, a fundamental desideratum in the A.A. technique. Does not then such a movement deserve our heartiest cooperation as Catholics?

The work has also the human appeal of success. There is no claim of a "sure-cure," but the cures freely placed on record are an incentive to zealous but hesitant workers in this field of Christian temperance. I quote in illustration from an editorial in the Houston Press, entitled "Alcoholics Anonymous."
"People of independent spirit like to settle (liquor) for themselves ...( others) inclined to reform come to the front with suggestions ... even for its abolition. But Alcoholics Anonymous ... have taken to the wagon by a technique of their own ... They say their cure works. They show as witnesses hundreds of lives restored...The press thinks their...unusual success so important that it begins a series of articles on Alcoholics Anonymous, written by One of Them...even the liquor industry ... would wish success to a technique that promises much to men and women who cannot handle their drinks."

I have read this series of articles. Naturally, as their author notes, they turn quite often into the autobiographical. He insists that alcoholics are definitely sick. It is the difference between them and other normal people who are able to "hold their liquor." The disease is mental as well as physical. For the alcoholic to recognize this is essential to his cure. The admission is hard. It has been made easier by the wide publicity given to medicine's discoveries in allergy, which fundamentally is the old proverb that one man's meat is another man's poison. "With true alcoholics," the writer declares, "it is never a question of control or moderation. Their only out is absolute abstinence." To a layman, this is medicine's sane advice on any allergy. To a moralist, it is "avoiding the occasions of sin."

Alcoholics Anonymous are not, as far as I can judge, Manichaean. Liquor in its various forms and in its medicinal and social purposes is a gift from the Author of all nature, they know. But just as sugar is a similar bounty and yet fatally destructive for a diabetic, so is alcohol in any form, except by a doctor's prescription, for certain men and women. Subterfuges abound for the real alcoholic: to switch from scotch to beer, wine, rum, gin; to drink whiskey only in milk; only post-meridian (standard time!); only in the company of others; only at home; never on an empty stomach; to take more physical exercise, etc. All these may be a great help to temperance for the ordinary person, but not for the individual who is alcoholic, according to those who freely confess they should know, viz., Alcoholics Anonymous. Hence their insistence on total abstinence for those who are by nature irresponsibly allergic to liquor. This physical and even mental predisposition implies no moral turpitude in itself any more than does, for example, a diabetic allergy.

Catholic temperance societies have long ago recognized these facts of nature. In addition they have endeavored to elevate the "pledge" to a supernaturally meritorious act. It is farthest from my mind to ignore their noble work. I hope by calling attention to the encouraging results of Alcoholics Anonymous, especially through their sympathetic point of view and their continuous giving of time to the alcoholic sick, men and women, to encourage our Catholic laity to do likewise, in humble footsteps after the Good Shepherd.

Alcoholics Anonymous deal with the actually afflicted. The Christian virtue of temperance goes much farther. It embraces all: the alcoholic; those who drink moderately; total abstainers; young and old, men and women. Has this universal obligation, I ask under happy correction, been as universally taught in our country as, say another cardinal virtue, justice?”

Note: The article mentioned by the author in the first sentence can be found at