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Proud to be Sober, Proud to be Catholic

I noticed a decided anti-Catholic bent at the AA meetings I was attending, but my sobriety has only benefited from my religious upbringing.

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By Harry Healy

07/28/14

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Forgive me for leading with a rather painful and obvious pun, but I have a confession to make: I am a member of Alcoholics Anonymous who is also a practicing Catholic. 

I was born this way. My godparents, Francis and Frances, as it happened, renounced Satan for me, and all his empty promises, when I was an infant. My mother taught me to say the Lord’s Prayer and the Hail Mary when I was three or four years old, and explained to me, in her way, the concept of the Holy Trinity. It remains as mysterious to me now as it was then.    

I attended a Catholic school. The sacraments of Confession (now better known, perhaps more poignantly, as Reconciliation), First Holy Communion, and Confirmation were incorporated into my education. Those roots took deep hold. But shortly after I graduated, I “got on” with my life.

Outside the odd wedding or funeral where my presence was required, a guilt-panged Easter or two, I was away from the church for the decades that dovetailed with my drinking and drugging. I remember firing up a big joint before Midnight Mass one Christmas, and the utter horror of the “high.” I almost fainted out of paranoia and anxiety. 

I survived the decades I wasted on alcoholism and landed in AA, and without being too thin-skinned about it, I noticed a decided anti-Catholic bent at the meetings I was attending. That sentiment has persisted. Some pithy member will uncork a comment along the lines of, “In addition to being an alcoholic, I’m also a recovering Catholic” or kick off their story with, “I’m from an Irish Catholic family. I could end the qualification right there” to scattered titters of approval. All in good fun. No more harm in a lively Catholic bash than in telling a joke that ends in an anti-Semitic punch line, right? 

Many of these misguided japes are launched from the basements of various Catholic churches where AA has flourished for years. Who was it that said irony was dead? The unintentional variety that smacks of ignorance is alive and well. It would be refreshing to hear someone say that they were Catholic, didn’t apologize for it, and relate an at least partially positive experience. That almost never happens, but the first time it did, I left the meeting with a sponsor.

His name was Mike, and he was wiry and wizened and hairless of pate. He related a compelling story with the great grace of humor, and used the word “Dickensian” to perfect effect. Leaving room (in a very Catholic way, as a matter of fact) for the idea that many people had been damaged by their religious upbringings, his experience, he said, was exactly the opposite. 

He was born in a working-class Manhattan neighborhood, and he had a younger brother. His mother died when the boys were little, and they were left to the devices of their father, who worked when he was sober, which was almost never. The kids came up in grievous need, and the old man used to dispatch Mike to the local parish to beg for bread or milk, or money. Well apprised of young Michael’s home situation, somebody always helped the kid out, and the church helped sustain the tiny, struggling family. To some degree out of a sense of obligation, and to another degree out of necessity, Mike entered the seminary when he was 14. He was to that day, and to this one, a man of the cloth. Mike the Priest. What a great name for a sponsor.

Downtown Manhattan AA in 1993 was thoroughly medicated and further addled by well-meaning but quack-like therapy. The old timers I knew were seeking the solution at the gym or at the bank (not much has changed, come to think of it). I had an AA buddy who told everybody that my sponsor was a Catholic priest, delighting as the listener blanched. Truth be told, I ate it up. I am a contrarian by nature, and the most rebellious posture I could adopt was that of a Catholic who practiced his faith. But the end of my estrangement from the church didn’t come out of spite, and my desire to return to the fold was all mine, not Mike’s or anybody else’s. If I was the outlier in this loveable goofball crew, I had to be doing something right. And my background provided me with a God I could return to, if not comprehend. “Because it is God,” in the words of St Augustine, “you do not understand it. If you could understand it, it wouldn’t be God.”

While I was flipping my wig most of that first year, Mike the Priest responded with a Latin phrase, festina lente, which means “make haste slowly.” He guided me through the 12 Steps in a way that made me believe he had only my best interests at heart. He was never anything but kind and patient with me. Space and circumstance have interrupted our sponsor/sponsee relationship, though we remain great friends. He lives on the west coast, as bright and as vibrant, as happy as he has ever been. I consider him a true AA success story, and much of what I am today (although I’ll probably only be about 75% of what I might have been; very Catholic of me, I know, but I can’t help it) I owe to Mike. So you’ll understand if I get touchy about Catholicism, whose doctrine and practice formed and distilled the very essence of the man who has probably had the greatest influence on me. 

There’s no point in recounting the failings of the Catholic Church, stretching back some 2,000 years. There simply isn’t time. In a more contemporary vein, the incalculable heartbreak of the priest sex scandal of the early 2000s is still falling out. No one can defend the indefensible. This sin, this crime against God and nature needs no rehashing in this space, and was a disgrace in the most literal sense of the word. A dis-grace. Making matters worse was the church’s initial response to the explosive accusations: an oblique denial that cast the church in the same light as any other reflexively defensive bureaucracy, that is, treating these heinous allegations like a public relations problem. When the Pope John Paul II himself was apprised of the severity of this nightmare, he decided that this just couldn’t be true. He refused to believe it. You may have noticed that the former Karol Wojtyla was made a saint a few months ago. Holy yes, but human. All too human.

The “church” - the institution, the hierarchy, the various offices and curia, these are made up of men, but the church is the mystical body of Christ. The stark difference is between the mortal and the divine. 

One afternoon at mass, in a church I once slept in during my bouts of homelessness, I was made to understand. The pews were stuffed with white ethnics and Asians and African Americans and African Africans (catholic—small c—means universal). This was during the depths of the sex abuse scandal, and we were reeling, many of us teetering toward the door. But the faith of these people was great. They drew the distinction between God and men. The men, they pushed aside. Only God remained. But this was the mature response of the faithful, deeply wounded, yes, but true believers. How puny I felt. I was moved to tears.

 Maturity, sorry to say, is hardly the hallmark of the average AA member. There’s that infamous quote of Bill W.’s in Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, about how the AAs of that day were “childish, emotionally sensitive, and grandiose.” Our grievance culture has only intensified the righteousness of the perpetually offended. In the case of the priest abuse tragedy, that outrage is warranted, and in AA and everywhere else, that outrage sought its fullest expression. It’s been a tough era to be a Catholic. These scars aren’t going to heal within my lifetime. 

Amid the worldly sophistication of the urban areas where I’ve spent my adult life, I am one of few, and I accept that. I’m grateful I could re-energize my moribund faith, and it’s been slow going. And while our numbers may be small, our core is hard.

Harry Healy is a regular contributor to The Fix. He recently wrote about being a sober bartender and about the reason AA is anonymous.

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Last February, my oldest friend died of a heroin overdose at the age of 49. He beat me to recovery, and he beat me to death. He also gave a final, drug-alogue interview on my radio show 20 hours before he died.

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