The Catholic Register
September 10, 2023

A.A. principles are true life principles

Fr. Ed Dowling saw in Alcoholics’ Anonymous much more than men struggling with drink

A.A. principles are true life principles

Jesuit Fr. Ed Dowling, above, was the spiritual mentor and confidante to Alcoholics’ Anonymous founder Bill Wilson.

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    Michael Swan
    The Catholic Register

The 12 steps to recovery, pioneered by Alcoholics Anonymous since 1936, have become so deeply ingrained in our culture that its presentation has become a cliché on TV. Scene: A sombre group of tired-looking adults sitting in a circle, a few with coffee cups in hand, in a room that has clearly known better times with happier crowds. The viewer immediately knows what’s about to happen. One of the group will stand up, state their name and confess to being an alcoholic.

Aside from this scenario often being set in a church hall or basement (as it is in real life), the television audience might not immediately make the leap from this moment to the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola. But well before television invaded our living rooms and our brains, back when the medical establishment thought a bunch of alcoholics in a room together could not hope to change the course of a spiralling, pernicious addiction, an American Jesuit priest saw that connection.

Fr. Ed Dowling was not the kind of genius the Jesuits are famous for. He wrote hundreds of articles and pamphlets, but no thick, serious books. He gave thousands of lectures, but mostly in church halls and school gymnasiums. He was never a professor at a university. He advised no presidents, prime ministers, kings or queens, despite a life-long interest in politics.

Fr. Ed by Dawn Eden Goldstein
The friendship between Alcoholics Anonymous founder Bill Wilson and his spiritual mentor and confidante Fr. Ed Dowling is told in Catholic author Dawn Eden Goldstein’s biography Fr. Ed: The Story of Bill W.’s Spiritual Sponsor, released in January and now in its third printing.

The chain-smoking journalist-turned-priest was never a parish pastor or retreat master. He certainly heard many confessions and offered plenty of Masses. But his most visible ministry through most of his 40 years in the Jesuits was as a priest-journalist, contributing columns and feature articles to the Jesuit publication The Queen’s Work. In the middle of the 20th century, The Queen’s Work was the lifeblood of the Sodality of Our Lady in the United States.

The Sodality, which the Jesuits founded in the 16th century, was meant to draw Catholics together to share their commitment to the faith. It lives on in our time as the Christian Life Communities, who meet in small groups to share Ignatian spirituality and the Spiritual Exercises.

Dowling’s trust in the spirituality of lay people, his sense that faith in Christ should heal the broken-hearted, his compassion for those who have been wounded and rejected or just stuck in life led him to see something more in Alcoholics Anonymous than just a few struggling men talking to each other about trying not to drink.

In 1940, Dowling became the spiritual mentor and confidante to Alcoholics Anonymous founder Bill Wilson, at a time when the continued existence of A.A. was very much in doubt. The story of that friendship between a Jesuit priest and an agnostic, alcoholic, failed stock broker has now been told in its full spiritual context by Catholic author Dawn Eden Goldstein in her new biography, Fr. Ed: The Story of Bill W.’s Spiritual Sponsor. Just off the press last January, the book was in its third printing by summer.

“Father Ed arrives unannounced at A.A.’s Manhattan clubhouse on a sleet-stricken night in November 1940. The maintenance man — clearly annoyed at being made to answer the door late at night — heads upstairs to tell Wilson: ‘Some old damn bum from St. Louis is here to see you.’ Then, aided by his cane, Father Ed painfully plods up the wooden staircase toward the A.A. co-founder’s bedroom, poised to change Bill’s life forever,” Goldstein writes.

As Dowling gradually shows a sceptical Wilson the spirituality embedded in the 12-steps, the A.A. movement itself takes on new life. That new life was itself a kind of miracle.

“Before A.A., alcoholics were universally considered hopeless,” Goldstein told The Catholic Register weeks after the book hit the shelves. “The odds of anyone ever recovering from active alcoholism, those odds were so low. The treatments that were offered to alcoholics were extreme — such as electroshock therapy, lobotomies.”

In the 85 years since first alcoholics, then drug addicts and then all kinds of people who have lost their freedom to addictions and compulsions began talking each other through the 12 steps, millions have turned back from a path of self-destruction, despair and death.

“This showed the medical profession, as well as ordinary people, that there truly was hope for curing alcoholism,” Goldstein said.

How are the 12 steps of A.A. like the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius? Step one of A.A. is to admit we are powerless over alcohol. This is followed by entrusting one’s self to a higher power and conducting a thorough moral inventory. Week one of the Spiritual Exercises begins with an awareness of God’s love alongside an awareness of our own sinfulness. Steps eight and nine of A.A. move beyond a focus on the harm alcohol has done to the alcoholic by examining whom the alcoholic has harmed and seeking to make amends. Week two of the Spiritual Exercises broadens the focus from the retreatant’s relationship with God to God’s love for all of creation. As the 12 steps sharpen an alcoholic’s grasp of the reality of his life, the alcoholic seeks inner transformation in prayer and meditation through step 11. In week three of the Spiritual Exercises the retreatant considers Jesus’ arrest, trial and crucifixion and is asked to identify with Christ. The 12 steps end with encouragement to share the truth of the 12-step process, while in the fourth week of the Spiritual Exercises the retreatant is invited to experience and share the joy of the Resurrection.

The principles of A.A. are really life principles, and Fr. Ed Dowling was the first person to express that loudly and clearly. (Photo from iStock)

A.A. is not a church, a sect or a platform for proselytism. By steering clear of any particular creed or confession, the spirituality of the 12 steps remain available to all — believers, unbelievers and different spiritual traditions.

The 12 steps speak twice of a “higher power,” but leave it to every participant to conceive of that higher power in whatever way they wish. In those pre-Vatican II days, allowing people to conceive of God on their own terms, with or without the aid of a formal creed, was revolutionary. Dowling knew that the important thing was that people did think of God and place themselves in relation to a higher power.

“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,” was how this was proposed in step 11 in the 1940s. If people were praying and meditating, Dowling was sure they would find their way to God.

'(Fr. Ed) saw that the 12 steps were there to bring the Christian understanding of perfection — constant conversion and perfection through the Cross'

-- Dawn Eden Goldstein

“He saw that the 12 steps were there to bring the Christian understanding of perfection — constant conversion and perfection through the Cross,” said Goldstein. “In a way, that was very much prophetic of the Second Vatican Council. Fr. Ed came to understand through his experience with A.A. that anybody who followed the lights given to them, whether they be Christian or not, was on the road to perfection. They just might not know that the end of their perfection was union with God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in Heaven. They might not understand that the Christian ideal was where they were headed.”

Dowling was never himself an alcoholic. In that regard, he referred to himself as one of the “underprivileged.” As a very traditional Catholic, Dowling prized the experience of salvation so highly that he was genuinely envious of those who needed to be saved. But Dowling lived most of his adult life in the grip of pain, as arthritis gradually calcified his spine.

This experience of pain led Dowling to an understanding now familiar to Catholics who have been listening to Pope Francis.

“He felt that the Church had to go back to its original understanding, which Pope Francis has promoted from his very first interview (as Pope in 2013),” Goldstein said. “The understanding of the Church as a field hospital, as a place where sick people go for healing.”

Once Dowling saw the results of the 12-step method among alcoholics, he began starting groups for every sort of trouble he found. Dowling brought together people who had suffered mental illness, couples who faced strain and conflict in their marriage, grieving widows and widowers.

“The principles of A.A. are truly life principles — not only for getting dry. Fr. Dowling is credited with being the first person to really express that loudly and clearly — that A.A. steps were for everyone,” Goldstein said.

Goldstein makes no secret of her wish to see a cause for sainthood for Dowling.

“Fr. Ed’s life and witness speaks to our time,” Goldstein said.

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