Author tells how Jesuit priest profoundly influenced Alcoholics Anonymous
For her first talk in the home state of Alcoholics Anonymous’s two Yankee Protestant founders Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith, author Dawn Eden Goldstein stressed the spiritual basics — humility, love, and service – behind the good works of both non-denominational AA and one of the fellowship’s best Catholic friends, the late Jesuit Father Edward Dowling.
Goldstein built her talk at St. Michael’s College Oct. 17 around her new book — “Father Ed: The Story of Bill W’s Spiritual Sponsor” — that describes the priest’s keen interest in and profound influence upon AA and his close friendship with Wilson, who grew up in southwestern Vermont. “Dr. Bob” came from the Northeast Kingdom.
Goldstein spoke about Father Dowling’s essential humility, alongside his delight in connecting the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius, founder of the Jesuits, to AA’s “Twelve Steps,” leading to a lifetime close friendship with Wilson that amounted to being the AA founder’s “spiritual sponsor,” as the late Wilson once put it.
The speaker, a former writer and copy editor, was received into the Catholic Church in 2006 after being raised in Judaism and then having a born-again Christian experience in 1999.
Edmundite Father David Theroux, director of the campus-based and event-sponsoring Edmundite Center for Faith and Culture, introduced the speaker and shared some of her history: Born in New York City, Goldstein began her working life as a rock-and-roll historian. She went on to editorial positions at the New York Post and the Daily News before publishing her first of several books in 2006. In 2016, she became the first woman to earn a doctorate in sacred theology from the University of St. Mary of the Lake. In 2023, she received a licentiate in Canon Law from the Catholic University of America.
She said that as a non-alcoholic, she personally identified closely with Father Dowling’s words that his not being an alcoholic made him “underprivileged,” given the great gifts that he had witnessed through AA.
She said the priest, who died in 1960, “loved ministering to humble people” – that is, “the least of these” of Matthew’s Gospel, which were words Father Dowling “took very much to heart.”
Goldstein said that fact motivated her to speak on three points relating to Father Dowing, Wilson and humility: “How Father Ed as a young Jesuit gained his love of humility; how he brought his life of humility into work of AA and friendship with Bill; and how his encounter with the humility of AA members strengthened him in his ministry.”
She shared engaging and sometimes humorous stories that brought forth the priest’s humanity and simplicity: a star baseball player nicknamed “Puggy” in his St. Louis youth, his spiritual crisis that amounted to a “dark night of the soul” in novitiate with the Jesuits that helped him relate to alcoholics “hitting bottom,” his physical suffering from a calcified spine. She also told of Father Dowling’s great interest in journalism and politics, including activism advocating for true democracy, with insights ahead of his time (as were his pre-Vatican-II ecumenical instincts on the spiritual front, she said).
Goldstein said Father Dowling felt what really saved him in his early spiritual crisis was “the negative path to God.” He said that if he ever found himself in Heaven, “it will be by backing away from hell,” she related.
“That’s how young Puggy found humility and made his surrender,” said Goldstein, who characterized this as a perfectly valid spiritual path, both in AA experience and Catholic theology.
— Mark Tarnacki
—Originally published at smcvt.edu/about-smc/news