Catholic Spirituality

12 Steps 4 the Rest of Us

Spirituality and the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous

Steve Graves

It isn't an exaggeration to describe Alcoholics Anonymous program as the most successful and influential spiritual movement of the 20th century. The program has saved over one million members from the dread disease of alcoholism since its inception in 1935. The heart of the program is based on 12 simple steps - and Jesuit spirituality.

The 12 steps of A.A. have been adopted by others entrapped in self-destructive behavior. Successful 12 step programs have been established for drug addicts, compulsive gamblers and people suffering from sexual and eating disorders.

Similar programs, such as Al-Anon and Adult Children of Alcoholics have been established to help family survivors and loved ones cope with the damages and hurts caused by alcoholics.

The 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous is not a religious program but it is built on spiritual principles.

Today, many non-alcoholics have began to recognize that practicing the 12 steps can lead to a happier, more serene life no matter what their religious affiliation. Some may find that we can use the 12 steps to grow in spirituality even if we don't have an active addiction.

*As Fr. Edward Dowling, S.J. said in 1947, ". . . participation in it almost invariably results in poor Christian's becoming better Christians."

I hasten to add that I believe the 12 Steps can help good Christians become better Christians and good Jews better Jews. The program is completely compatible with all mainstream religions including Christianity, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism.

It should be understood that the A.A. steps, principals and program in no way substitute for membership and participation in your parish, church, or temple. Indeed, doing so contradicts the "Big Book," the guide for A.A. members and groups, which specifically encourages it's members to worship God at the church of their choice. And Catholic Christians in particular are obligated to worship in community on the Sabbath day at Mass.

The Church recognizes that the great religions of the world teach values and principles shared by Christians.

The Second Vatican Council's Declaration on the relation of the Church to non-Christian religions states: “The Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these religions. She has a high regard for the manner of life and conduct, the precepts and teachings, which, although differing in many ways from her own teaching, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that truth which enlightens all men”.

This isn't indifferentism nor does it relieve Christians from Christ's command to preach the Gospel. As Catholic Christians, we must uphold THE FULLNESS AND DEFINITIVENESS OF THE REVELATION OF JESUS CHRIST. (Dominus Jesus)

The point is that just because an idea or organization is not Christian doesn't mean that it is antithetical to Christianity. If you prefer, we may say that the A.A. program is built on principles shared by other world religions.

The program is a spiritual Rorschach test and the principles can be used to supplement the faith life of any believer.

As a Catholic, I see Ignatian Spirituality at work in the program. This isn't a coincidence. A Jesuit priest and confidant of A.A. co-founder Bill Wilson, was influential in formulating the spiritual foundation for the program. A Buddhist is likely to feel at home with the concept of surrender.

A.A. is a synthesis of the simple spiritual principles common to all of the great monotheistic religions. The steps call us to recognize our powerlessness, to surrender our will and our lives to God, to conduct a moral inventory, to make a general confession to God and another human being of the exact nature of our wrongs,to improve our conscious contact with God through daily prayer and meditation, to continue to take personal inventory of our weakness and strengths and finally a recognition that we must share what we are given with others.

St. Ignatius would approve. As would, I believe, Gandhi and maybe Mohammed.

As long as a Christian uses A.A. principles to complement, rather than displace their faith, then there should be no concern about universalism.

Unfortunately, some bible literalists and fundamentalists charge that A. A. is somehow un-Christian. I think it more accurate to state that the A.A. program is based on non-Christian specific principles that are integral to Christianity.

In fact, the steps and spiritual principles are completely compatible with scripture and scripture supports A.A. principles.

As a Catholic Christian, however, I recognize that Christians may wish to more fully integrate their faith with the A.A. 12 step program.

With this in mind, I offer 12 Steps with Scripture for anyone who might wish to use the 12 Steps to supplement their spiritual life. It may also be useful to those Christians active in recovery who wish to integrate their A.A. life with their Christian beliefs.

Each step is paired with scripture and some may find that these pages make a fine introduction to "Lectio divina", the ancient Catholic tradition that combines prayer, scripture study and meditation.

12 Steps for the rest of us*

1. We admitted we were powerless - that our lives had become unmanageable.

2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could save us.

3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.

4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.

5. Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.

6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.

7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.

8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.

9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.

10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.

11. 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.

12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to others and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

*Slightly modified version of Alcoholics Anonymous 12 Steps.


*An interview with Edward Dowling, S.J. by Frank A. Riley, The Queen's Work