The following article first appeared in Jesuits magazine in 2015.
By Fr. James Harbaugh, SJ
There’s a connection between the Society of Jesus and Alcoholics Anonymous. Officially approved works like A.A. Comes of Age have spoken about this connection for more than 50 years, but the Jesuit influence on A.A. still is not well known. Yet it’s a story that is well worth knowing for the light it sheds on both the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius and the 12 Steps approach of A.A.
The connection began at a particular historical moment for A.A. and one of its co-founders, Bill Wilson. A.A. began in May 1935, in Akron, Ohio, when Bill, from New York City, met Dr. Bob Smith, an Akron physician. Both were long-time alcoholics; both had had some connection with a Protestant spiritual movement, the Oxford Groups. In December 1934, Bill had a powerful spiritual experience while detoxing in a hospital for alcoholics. He had come to believe that working with other alcoholics was essential to maintaining his sobriety. Disheartened in Akron by the failure of a business trip, he used Oxford Group connections to hunt up another alcoholic. It turned out to be Dr. Bob, and from their first conversation, they began to craft a program that would help alcoholics recover as they had.
Over the next few years, the group grew slowly, in Akron and in New York City. The members decided to codify their experience and practice in a text, Alcoholics Anonymous, also known as “The Big Book,” published in 1939.
Over the next year, a lot went wrong in Wilson’s life: the book didn’t sell; he and his wife lost their home in Brooklyn to foreclosure and were forced to move to the A.A. clubhouse in Manhattan; and a close friend of Wilson’s in A.A., Hank P., began drinking again. Historians now think that Hank had mental-health issues in addition to alcoholism. In any event, he went from New York City to Akron to trash Wilson’s reputation with A.A. members there.
By late 1940, some members of A.A. were deeply concerned about Wilson’s worsening mood. He suffered from depression for much of his life, and the circumstances were exacerbating his condition.
At this critical juncture, Wilson met someone who quite possibly not only saved him from relapse but also helped to ensure that A.A. would continue to grow and spread over the years that followed.
In December 1940, according to a story Wilson told more than once, he was upstairs in the Manhattan clubhouse on a bitterly cold winter night. Around 10 p.m., the doorkeeper told him that he had a visitor. Wilson very nearly had the visitor sent away, feeling that he was in no condition to offer any encouragement to an alcoholic inquirer. But his belief that he had to offer hope of recovery, no matter the situation, won out.
Upon seeing a roughly dressed man who walked with difficulty, Wilson believed that his guest was an alcoholic. But then his visitor opened his pea coat and revealed a Roman collar. He was in fact Fr. Ed Dowling, a Jesuit from St. Louis who had come to New York unannounced, specifically to see Wilson.
Father Dowling was noteworthy for championing Pre-Cana Conferences, a program of marriage preparation for couples who wish to marry in the church. While not an alcoholic himself, he was counseling some of the first A.A. members in St. Louis and was one of the few to have read “The Big Book.” His awkward gait was due to rheumatoid arthritis.
Father Dowling had come to New York to tell Wilson that the 12 Steps had a lot in common with the Spiritual Exercises. They each employ spiritual principles that help practitioners gain freedom from what Ignatius of Loyola called “inordinate attachments,” and which A.A. calls “alcoholism.” Wilson had never heard of Ignatius or the Spiritual Exercises. Nevertheless, this meeting was critical for Wilson and the fellowship he had helped to begin.
First, Wilson realized that what he had glimpsed spiritually was not a chimera; instead, he had happened upon a process with a rich history in different religions and spiritual practices. This renewed his hope when he was at a low ebb in his recovery. He also saw in Fr. Dowling a spiritually wise person who became, in essence, his spiritual director for the rest of his life.
While Wilson never became a Catholic, he always treasured Fr. Dowling’s counsel. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Wilson produced a commentary on “The Big Book” called “Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions” that was shaped by the larger history of spirituality that he got from Fr. Dowling. Those were also years when Wilson’s depression was most severe, and Fr. Dowling’s support helped him greatly. Finally, in 1955, A.A. held its second international convention in St. Louis. At that conference, Ed Dowling spoke, and Wilson publicly told the story of their 1940 meeting and voiced his gratitude for their friendship.
The meeting of the two men also led to 12-step retreats, which draw on A.A. ideas and other spiritual themes to convey the larger spiritual background behind A.A. members’ working of the Steps, as Fr. Dowling had done for Wilson.
The retreats, which are not officially connected to A.A., began around 1950 across the United States and some continue today. Surely it is no accident that many of them are offered by Jesuits, some of whom are members of A.A. or other 12-step groups, and at Jesuit retreat houses from California to New England.
Fr. James Harbaugh, SJ, specializes in recovery retreats.