Twelve Steps to Man

Christianity and the Origins of Alcoholics Anonymous

It usually happens about every third or fourth meeting. A member of Alcoholics Anonymous will tell his story, and inevitably what I have come to call "the Catholic moment" will arise. The person will reveal that he was raised a Catholic—or a Protestant or Orthodox Jew, etc.— but never knew God until he got into AA. Not that he has anything against Catholics, mind you, it's just that—well, there are all those rules, or the nuns who hit him with rulers, or—well, as one older gentleman bluntly put it in one meeting, "Organized religion sucks."

For the past few months I've been doing research for a book on the role of Christianity in Alcoholics Anonymous. I've come to the conclusion that the primary role of the Catholic Church in AA is as a piñata—indeed, the one acceptable target in an organization that prides itself on acceptance of every conceivable kind of faith. This is a shame but not surprising, considering that one of the most remarkable Catholic priests who ever lived, a man who played a vital role in the founding of AA, has been all but forgotten, even in the halls of AA itself.

His name was Father Ed Dowling. He was a descendant of Farrell Dowling, who had been exiled to Connaught, Ireland, in 1654 by Cromwell. A compulsive smoker and overeater who had crippling arthritis that forced him to use a cane, Dowling understood suffering, although by all accounts his ebullient sense of humor and love of baseball made him a joy to be around. Dowling would get from his living quarters at St. Louis University to his office at Queen's Work Hospital several miles away by standing in the middle of the street and whistling. He would arrive at work some days in a limousine and others on a garbage truck. "He had a good time on both rides," one witness said.

In November 1940, Dowling, who was not an alcoholic, nonetheless became interested in the then new program of Alcoholics Anonymous. The organization was only a few years old and struggling. It had been formed when Bill Wilson, a New York stockbroker and alcoholic, had had a religious experience in a hospital while trying to dry out. Alcoholics Anonymous was an amalgam of Jungian psychology, which emphasized the value of religion in working wonders where science failed; Christianity lifted from the Oxford Group, a nineteenth-century activist evangelical group; and the then progressive medical theory that alcoholism is a disease. The foundation of AA was, and is, the Twelve Steps, which encourage followers to admit they are alcoholics, list all their faults and share them with another human being, pray and meditate, have a spiritual awakening as a result, and "carry the message" to other alcoholics.

In those early days, the going was rough. Wilson was broke, very few alcoholics he tried to help were getting sober, and thousands of copies of the Big Book of AA that he had written were sitting in a warehouse unsold. On a rainy night in November 1940, Wilson was lying in bed on the second floor of an AA club on 24th Street in New York when his wife announced a visitor. When Wilson heard a slow, limping shuffle, he sighed. Another drunk coming to pester him.

The visitor was actually Fr. Ed Dowling, using a cane due to his arthritis. Dowling introduced himself and explained, "A Jesuit friend and I have been struck by the similarity [between] the AA Twelve Steps and Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius."

"Never heard of him," Wilson replied. Dowling roared with laughter. Then he started to talk. The effect he had on Wilson was recorded later by Robert Thompsen, Wilson's biographer: "Bill could feel his body relaxing, his spirits rising. Gradually he realized that this man sitting across from him was radiating a kind of grace that was filling the room with a strange, indefinable sense of presence. Father Ed wanted to talk about the paradox, of A.A., the 'regeneration,' he called it, the strength arising out of total defeat and weakness, the loss of one's old life as a condition for achieving a new one."

Dowling spoke of suffering as a paradoxical path to holiness. As he would later put it, quoting Whittaker Chambers, "And yet it is at this point that man, that monstrous midget, still has the edge on the Devil. He suffers. Not one man, however base, quite lacks the capacity for the specific suffering which is the seal of his divine commission."

That night Wilson opened up to Dowling, doing the fifth step—admitting your wrongs to another human being—with the priest. Dowling encouraged Wilson in his work, often quoting Wilson's own language from the Big Book back to him. That night Wilson slept soundly for the first time in months.

The two men would become dear friends, and Dowling would become an important and much loved figure in AA until he died on April 3, 1960. Yet his name is nowhere to be found in virtually all the AA literature, with the exception of a very obscure book called The Soul of Sponsorship: The Friendship of Fr. Ed Dowling, S.J. and Bill Wilson in Letters by Robert Fitzgerald, S.J. The book was a special edition of 1500 copies. It offers a rich rebuke to modern members of Alcoholics Anonymous who criticize religion in meetings.

Dowling once gave Wilson a copy of The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola, and Wilson claimed to have been inspired by them while working on the book Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions. Wilson was fascinated with the Church but could never bring himself to convert to Catholicism. His primary problem was with the doctrine of infallibility. "It is ever so hard to believe that any human beings, no matter who, are able to be infallible about anything," he wrote. "There seems to be so little evidence all through the centuries that God intends to work that way." Dowling responded that Wilson was right that human beings are not infallible. But "a Power greater than ourselves" is not, and that Power can speak through human beings.

It's hard to understand why AA has let the memory of Dowling fade, but it would be of great service to the organization to reintroduce him. AA's origins in hardcore Oxford Group Christianity have been watered down by the Oprah culture, although the problem may go even farther back than that. In his comprehensive book Not-God: A History of Alcoholics Anonymous, Ernest Kurtz notes that two conflicting impulses have been internalized in Western cultures: Enlightenment secularism and its reaction, romanticism. "Thus," Kurtz writes, "in yet another paradox, moderns readily accept 'feeling' even as they resolutely reject 'belief' as a wellspring of personal action, at least so long as it does not intrude upon the autonomy of others."

This is the place AA finds itself in today; like so much of our culture, it was to become narcissistic and detached from age-old traditions. Indeed, it is often openly hostile to some traditions, as I found out for myself. This is probably why there are virtually no Catholics like myself in the organization.

Yet Father Dowling points to a way out. In 1955, Dowling addressed AA at its twentieth-anniversary celebration in St. Louis. He noted that AA members like to think of the Twelve Steps as humanity's steps to God. Yet Dowling proposed that God had also taken steps to man. The Twelve Catholic Steps are the incarnation and life of Christ. "Down the ages He comes closer to us as head of a sort of Christians Anonymous," Dowling said, "a mystical body laced together with His teachings."

Mark Gauvreau Judge is a freelance writer who lives near Washington, D.C. His most recent book is If It Ain't Got That Swing: The Rebirth of Grown-Up Culture (Spence 2000).

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