Father Ed: The Story of Bill W’s Spiritual Sponsor by Dawn Eden Goldstein (2022, Orbis Books), 408 pages.
Two major trends in America, one demoralizing and one concerningpreachy, are about to clash.
The demoralizing trend is the prevalence of addiction. Alongside the familiar demons of alcohol, tobacco and gambling, newer demons such as easily mass-produced opioids and the dark lures of the internet pose a serious threat.
The remoralizing trend is the revival of faith-based understanding of cultural and social problems and their remedies. For example, we are seeing an increase in interest in homeschooling and school choice; the religious element is not far below the surface in either. In addition, there is a renewed appreciation of Catholic social thought, beginning with the memory of Pope Leo XIII Rerum Novarum and extends to talk of post-liberal integralism.
We don’t yet know which moralization will prove stronger, although there is plenty of evidence that America is turning away from the do-it-all attitude that has led to so much chaos, crime, and tragedy.
In That Moment of Reckoning, Dawn Eden Goldstein’s book, Father Ed: The Story of Bill W’s Spiritual Sponsor, is favorable because it not only commemorates a neglected historical figure, but also points to a tried and tested solution. The “Bill W.” in the title is Bill Wilson (1895–1971), the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), and “Father Ed” is Jesuit priest Edward Dowling (1898–1960). When Dowling died, Wilson, his friend and mentee of two decades, wrote, “Ed was the greatest human soul I am sure will ever know.”
Of the two, Wilson is the better known. After founding AA in Akron in 1935, Wilson led a self-help movement that still quietly thrives today. On one level, AA therapy is open to all, no questions asked; In fact, the style of abbreviated surnames (Bill W.) reflects the nominal anonymity of his membership. And yet, at a deeper level, AA is a way station to faith. AA’s website describes itself as a “community” that adheres to “spiritual principles.” And the Twelve Steps – the heart of AA’s path to rehabilitation and salvation – contain seven mentions of “God” or “Him.”
Dowling, a lifelong resident of St. Louis, first encountered this big book— the Bible of AA — in 1939, whereupon a fellow priest who had himself struggled with alcoholism pointed out the similarity between the Twelve Steps and that Spiritual Exercises by St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit order in the 16th century. That exercises, a series of prayers and meditations, were of course familiar to all Jesuits. Indeed, in 1925, as a mere novitiate, Dowling had expressed a desire to delve deeper into theology exercises, “from a philosophical, theological, sociological, educational point of view”. As young Dowling wrote to his sister, “the exercises To rank humility among the highest moral achievements—such fertile ground for love.”
In fact, a decade before AA, Dowling saw that exercises “as providing a set of principles that could be practiced in any area of life.” He displayed the energy that has long characterized the Society of Jesus and looked forward to “making its principles known in these diverse areas.”
In chronicling how the Protestant Wilson and the Catholic Dowling worked together in this pre-Vatican II period, Goldstein casts a keen eye on the nuances of mid-century America, when ecumenism was often suspect. She explains that Protestant temperance literature “typically bullies alcoholics with warnings about the sinfulness of their behavior.” In contrast, the big book was implicitly “Catholic” and an “intense call to self-examination, conversion, and trusting surrender to God’s transforming grace.”
Goldstein itself is a transformational study. Born Jew and once a pop music writer who saw rock ‘n’ roll as a religion of sorts, she worked for tabloids in New York City before converting to Catholicism. In 2016, she became the first woman to earn her doctorate in Sacred Theology from the University of St. Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Illinois; It is therefore well justified to describe how the sacred can coexist and work with him inside– the secular.
Thanks to AA and the big book, Dowling had a new lens through which he could see personal anguish. Never an alcoholic himself, despite struggling with depression, he applied the 12-step principles to what he called his “nicotine addiction.” But Dowling always felt a call to look outside. As Goldstein puts it, “After encountering AA, he devoted much of his pastoral work to adapting the Twelve Steps to help people with any kind of problem.” Such problems included marriage counseling, poverty, and discrimination. (Goldstein is flippant about Dowling’s application of the Twelve Steps to homosexuality.)
Read father Ed to be taken back to another era when Catholic influence was at its peak, when Hollywood was making church-centric films such as boy town, the song of bernadette, I go my way, and The bells of St Mary’sand when Dowling’s St. Louis was a major hub because of another film from that era, Meet me in St Louis. Personalities such as Charles Lindbergh, Gerald P. Nye, Kennesaw Mountain Landis, Judy Garland and Fulton Sheen appear, skilfully contextualized. We even meet the descendants of Dred Scott, who Dowling befriended and helped, and Father William Bowdern, the priest who inspired William Peter Blatty’s novel-turned-film The Exorcist.
Dowling was an activist—briefly with the America First movement and longer as a champion of labor and civil rights. But for much of his life he was slowed down, even crippled, by ankylosing spondylitis, an arthritic condition. So much of Goldstein’s biography is epistolary and intellectual; To capture Dowling’s life, she dug deep into the archives at Maryville University Library and the Jesuit Archives & Research Center.
In her scientific hands, Dowling comes to life as a man on a mission – and indeed with many missions, both practical and spiritual. For all his close association with Wilson, Goldstein writes that Dowling’s “true purpose went well beyond sobering up drunks.” Speaking to an AA group in Delaware, Dowling explained
An overall plan for personal adjustment is found in Alcoholics Anonymous Life Plan. . . . When the AA movement was formed, the immediate problem with Bill, the founder, was alcoholism. It’s a program no less effective for other things.
What other things”? In a play from 1944 in The work of the queena now-defunct publication by the Jesuits, Dowling claimed,
If you can’t stop biting your fingernails, snarling at your mother-in-law, or obsessing over some other worsening habit, simply replace your vice with alcohol in the following 12 steps and see if you have the courage to even start Program. It is very handy for men and women who drink too much loneliness, fear and discouragement these days.
In fact, the cleric had thought through many angles: “By shifting their therapy from the expensive clinical couch to the cheap coffee bar, from the inexperienced professional to the amateur expert, AA has democratized mental health.”
Yet for all his secular-sounding pitching, Dowling never lost sight of his ultimate mission, which was to connect AA with Christianity:
About 1900 years ago a man named Peter sat down and wrote a letter to the members of some new groups that were forming. And this is one [thing] He said: “Be sober and watchful, for your adversary the devil prowls like a roaring lion seeking whom to devour. Whom do you resist, strong in faith.” Strong in faith. God keep you so.
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The passage that fulfills duty here is 1 Peter 5:8–9.
Six decades after Dowling’s death, we see roaring lions of humiliation still devouring, perhaps hungrier than ever. This is the bad news. The good news is that Americans are realizing that various social experiments — including decriminalized, even legalized, even supports, drug use – have proved disastrous. And although there is no consensus on what exactly to do instead is a realization that we need to change something.
So Goldstein chose a good time to remind us of the Twelve Steps. For example, there is the fourth step, in which we take “a thorough and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.” That’s good. And there are eleven more, all just as good.