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Psychological Healing
in the Catholic Mystic Tradition


Questions and Answers


I am from an alcoholic family, had my own problems with alcohol, married an alcoholic. i believe God helped me to no longer desire alcohol. i have been told by counselor that i am codependent and should go to al-anon. have been for awhile but cant seem to stick with it. what do you think of aa and al-anon? i was born and raised catholic and know it is the true church. i have been trying to do Gods will for years and years now. some of the aa and alanon seem catholic, and some of it seems anti-christian. i very much agree with what you say though i havent read it all, i think God led me to it. my husband is drinking again and is physically addicted but not violent. his daughter has a lot of problems. i just want to help people. do you think al-anon is okay? the catholic church seems to say aa and alanon are okay but i still dont know?


Outline of the Answer
• Watered-down Religion
• Addictions: Their Core and Strength
• Social Support
• Purging Disordered Desire
• The True Catholic Perspective
• Deliverance Prayer
• Co-dependence

Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) groups (and Al-Anon groups for the family of an alcoholic) can be useful to an extent. The problem is that these groups simply offer a watered-down, secular version of Catholic Christianity, and many people who don’t really know what religion is make such groups into their own “religion.” Therefore, as you have seen, some meetings are as far from Catholicism as hell is from heaven.


All 12-Step programs begin with two steps whose essential purpose is to admit one’s total helplessness and to make a total surrender to God. But, oh, many persons have gone through all twelve steps—several times—and have given only a tacit nod to the first two steps.

It’s similar to the way many Catholics enter a church. Although they are supposed to genuflect to the tabernacle, they make only a tacit, hasty, and careless sign of the cross, like brushing a fly from their faces.


The truth is, if people lived the Catholic faith as it is supposed to be lived, there wouldn’t be any problems with addictions in the first place.


Addictions: Their Core and Strength

Well, the core of any addiction involving intoxication or euphoria is your feeling so deprived of your primal desire—real love from your parents[1] —and being so angry about it, that you use the addiction to hide (i.e., deny) the cause of the anger: your parents. Thus you settle for any satisfaction of intense excitement to stifle the truth of your parents’ failures—and then, because the intensity of the satisfaction is, according to its own materialism, short-lived, you crave it more and more, over and over. All of this is a way to avoid facing a truth that, despite your unconscious awareness of it, you secretly fear.


If a father fails in his role as a proper father, then he will also fail in his duty to separate the child from its infantile yearning for a mother’s love. In distress and anger at this failure, the child will desire to return to a fantasy of an idealized mother, thus setting up the dynamic of an addiction.

Addictions can therefore serve the unconscious purpose of numbing emotional pain. Such pain could be the result of the absence of a mother’s gentle love because the mother was physically absent or because she was emotionally absent due to her being either emotionally cold or being controlling and domineering. Such pain could also be the result of the absence of a father’s guidance and protection, especially in regard to learning how to contain a domineering mother.


Addictions draw their strength from your lack of trust in God. When you lack trust in God, and when despair is therefore the unconscious essence of your life, then nothing in you can stand up to the overwhelming urge for momentary pleasure and say, “Wait! This isn’t right.”


Many women alcoholics have had an abortion at some time in the past (or their mothers had abortions), and this secret thorn-in-the-flesh only adds to the woman’s self-loathing, guilt, and despair, especially if she abandoned her faith in the first place because of her parents’ hypocrisy. 


Therefore, any addiction is in itself proof that you are preoccupied with the immediate sensory gratification of your own body—desiring to escape the demands of personal responsibilities and return to an idyllic infantile feeling of care-free bliss—as a psychological defense against your lack of belief in something greater than your own body.[2]

And what could this “something greater than your own body” be? Simple. It’s the Body and Blood of Christ. When you have the Body of Christ and the Blood of Christ—which is faith and love—there is nothing you lack. The entire meaning of life is mystically embodied in the Eucharist, not in the revered Blue Book of AA.

Social Support

Nevertheless, AA offers something in which the Catholic Church often fails: intense social support in avoiding specific behaviors. People go to AA meetings because each meeting focuses on doing whatever it takes to avoid alcohol. This amounts to a functional sobriety. That is, it’s effective for as long as the support lasts.

But if bishops and priests could preach about living a genuine holy lifestyle the way AA “preaches” about day-to-day life without alcohol, there would be mystical sobriety based on total surrender to God, and the Church wouldn’t be in the mess it’s in today.


It’s true that some persons have a predisposition (a) to craving alcohol as a defense against emotional vulnerability or (b) to becoming addicted to alcohol once it is used as such a defense. And once addicted, such persons can be subjected to changes in body chemistry that are beyond their control.
Still, if alcoholism is a disease, it’s an unusual one. A person with cancer, for example, can’t just wake up one morning and say, “You know, I’m sick of this illness. Today I’m going to stop having cancer.” And yet an alcoholic has to do almost precisely that. He or she has to say, “Today I’m going to stop drinking. And if I can’t do it myself, I will get into a treatment program that will force me to stop drinking.” In other words, treatment for alcoholism is behavioral. If you’re an alcoholic, your behavior has to change. You have to stop drinking. Then, once you have stopped running from the truth of your emotional pain, you can start to see the spiritual matter clearly, and so you can start the inner work of psychological and spiritual change in regard to facing, and not running from, the lack of trust in God that underlies your addiction. It’s all a matter of your personal responsibility to God, regardless of any genetics or brain chemistry that have contributed to, but not caused, the addiction.


Purging Disordered Desire

As much as AA puts an emphasis on overcoming an addiction through the 12 Steps, a different and all-encompassing “step” is more important: the process of purging disordered desire. That is, for true healing, we must do more than suppress disordered behavior through “functional sobriety”—we must purge the desire that underlies the disordered behavior. Essentially, our entire attitude to the disordered behavior must change—and this is true in regard to any sinful behavior, not just in regard to alcoholism.

For example, to be free of alcoholism, the attitude of thinking of alcohol as a means to avoid responsibility must be purged. To be free of an eating disorder, the attitude of thinking of food as a means of comforting oneself when under emotional strain must be purged. To be free of sexual sins, the attitude of thinking of sexuality merely as a physical pleasure must be purged. In short, even though we stop committing a particular sin, we are not spiritually free of that sin until we purge from ourselves the desire to commit that sin. We can’t “get over” a sin just by not doing it because we have to go down “underneath it”—that is, deep inside ourselves—to see the dark desire to sin that lurks in the depths of our unconscious.


Note carefully that confessing merely that you “used” or “got drunk” does little to free you from the grave sin in which you are stuck. Your real sin is in your lack of trust in God; that is, your sin is in using alcohol to deaden your emotional pain rather than turning to God in heartfelt prayer when you need comfort. Until you confess the real sin your desire for the addiction will torment you with temptations regardless of how many times you confess the act of “using.”


In Canto I of Book I (Hell) of Dante’s Divine Comedy, Dante finds himself lost in a dark woods (symbolizing the spiritual blindness of a heart hardened by sin). He tries to escape by climbing up a beautiful mountain, but he is driven back to the woods by three animals, a leopard (symbolizing lust), a lion (symbolizing violence) and a wolf (symbolizing malice). Back in the woods he meets the shade of Virgil, an ancient Roman poet, who proposes to guide Dante down through Hell to get to Purgatory and ultimately Paradise. 


The Mountain, which on the mystical level is the image of the Soul’s Ascent to God, is thus on the moral level the image of Repentance, by which the sinner returns to God. It can be ascended directly from the “right road” but not from the Dark Wood because there the soul’s cherished sins have become, as it were, externalized, and appear to it like demons or “beasts” with a will and power of their own, blocking all progress. Once lost in the Dark Wood, a man can only escape by so descending into himself that he sees his sin, not as an external obstacle, but as the will to chaos and death within him (Hell). Only when he has “died to sin” can he repent and purge it. Mount Purgatory and the Mountain of Canto I are, therefore, really one and the same mountain as seen on the far side, and on this side, of the “death unto sin.”


Dorothy Sayers [3]

Sadly, most persons resist this process of purging. They cling to the comforting belief that changing behavior is all that matters. But it’s not.

The True Catholic Perspective

To approach your problem from a true Catholic perspective, then, it will be necessary to confront the fact that unless you thirst for Christ—and the living water He offers—more than any pleasure in this world, you can never be healed from your childhood emotional wounds.

Overcoming an addiction to any substance, therefore, is not a matter of constantly resisting the substance, it’s a matter of understanding that, compared to Christ, any substance (when used as a psychological defense) is about as desirable as putrid, muddy water.


My love so delights the soul that it destroys every other joy which can be expressed by man here below. The taste of Me extinguishes every other taste . . .


—as told to Saint Catherine of Genoa
Spiritual Doctrine, Part III, Chapter VII

Deliverance Prayer

Recite the following prayer as often as needed to resist temptations as they arise.


In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ I renounce the spirit of [alcohol addiction / yearning for comfort / avoidance of emotional pain / avoiding responsibility / hiding truth] and the bondage it has over me. And I ask our Lord Jesus to send it to the foot of the Cross.
I affirm my love for God and my trust in His perfect justice and providence. Amen.


Co-dependent behavior is a matter of someone enabling (e.g., making excuses for, or lying for) someone whose social life is crumbling because of an addiction. The sad truth is that whenever you have “too much to lose” to take up the cross and be honest about the addict’s behavior, then you are essentially as dependent on the addiction as the addict.

You can overcome your tendency to co-dependence by placing your dependence totally on Christ, not on the affection or attention of another person.


Whoever loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me; and whoever does not take up his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me.


—Matthew 10:37-38

Therefore, if you are truly willing to overcome the fear of taking up your cross and dying to yourself, and if you live this truth in your heart, you will have all the strength you need to cope with an addict in your midst. Remember, Christ will never abandon you: I will not leave you orphans (John 14:18). Secure in this knowledge, you can witness the truth of their dysfunctional behaviors to others without being paralyzed by the fear that they might abandon you. And bye-bye co-dependency.


Who wrote this web page?


1. True love is not just a matter of food and shelter. True love is a process of giving—not the giving of material things that merely bribe others to like us, but the giving of qualities such as patience, kindness, compassion, understanding, mercy, forbearance, and forgiveness, qualities whose ultimate purpose is the salvation of other souls. If your childhood was not grounded in these noble values, such that you grew up with a pure and humble faith in God, then—sad to say—your parents did not love you.

2. Here we can see the role that a father’s lack plays in an addiction. Trust requires that the child grow to depend on and respect the father as a teacher and protector, through his being different from the mother from whom the child originated; that is, the father is a different body and a different gender from the mother. The father—and only a father—can therefore teach the child to enter the world and encounter difference safely and confidently. But if your father is lacking, you will grow up lacking trust in anything other than your own immediate sensory experience.
      And if your father failed in his duty and left you emotionally crippled, then how do you remedy the mess you’re in now? Well, you surrender to the spiritual healing process and pray earnestly for Christ to lead you to God the Father.

3. From her commentary on Canto I of Cantica I: Hell (L’Inferno) in Dante’s The Divine Comedy, trans. Dorothy Sayers (Baltimore, MD: Penguin Books, 1949).



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A Catholic Explanation of a Universal Problem
by Raymond Lloyd Richmond, Ph.D.
Includes the text of this webpage plus much additional information.

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Fear. One small word, and yet so much hangs on it.
Fear keeps alcoholics drinking, addicts addicted, and wretched sinners stuck in sin like quicksand. In fearing the darkness of the human psyche you never get to feel the true joy of real light. Because, after all, the light of truth illuminates the dark and shows the darkness for what it is. So there you are, in full irony: in your fear of the dark, you end up fearing love itself.
Still, despite the fear, there is hope. The shards of broken love can be repaired.

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