The Value of a Catholic Approach to Recovery

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Michael Murphy, Ed.D., writes as a Catholic psychologist with more than three decades of experience combining clinical psychology and the Catholic faith. He writes regularly for CIR on topics related to addiction recovery, mental health, and Catholicism.

As we witness the emergence of Catholic in Recovery, I find myself excited again at the thought of what a Catholic approach to recovery can add. Alcoholics Anonymous, the original recovery program (which just passed its 84th  birthday), is still going strong and has probably saved thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of lives. 

AA was based on the heavily Christian Oxford Group, and some of the steps are based on Catholic spiritual practices like the exercises of St. Ignatius. So Catholicism and Christianity can be found in the roots of AA. Could a program of recovery rooted even more deeply in the Catholic faith save as many people? Or more? Or even, as the Gospel suggests, the whole world?

In my field of psychology I have been trying to answer similar questions for many years. In that time, I have found ways that faith can help with the recovery process (and ways that the recovery process can help the faith). I have practiced therapy both as a secular and as a Catholic psychologist. I have also run Catholic 12-step recovery groups. I have taught adult education courses on Catholic/Christian psychologies and have led retreats on the same subject. It is against this background that I eagerly read The Twelve Steps and the Sacraments and have for several months participated in the online weekly meetings for the leaders of local Catholic in Recovery groups.

As more than one author has pointed out, Christian psychology has a long past but a short history. Christians have practiced psychology (unofficially) for thousands of years but officially for only about fifty. St Paul’s writings were heavily psychological (see Romans 7, for example) and over the intervening two millennia, many of the faith’s leading theologians like Augustine and Aquinas have written extensively about psychology.

When I started doing research on the subject in the late 1990s, the first thing that came up in a Google search of the term ‘Catholic psychology’ was Thomas Aquinas, whose most recent book was published in 1274! Other things that came up a little later in the same search were diatribes against psychology written by traditional Catholics. One reason for this was that, following Freud, the first century of clinical psychology was overwhelmingly hostile to Catholicism and other religious faiths. A number of popes and segments of the Catholic Church returned the favor by being adamantly opposed to psychology, psychiatry, and ‘modernity’ in almost all their forms. Things started to change in the 1970s, but the practice of Christian mental health is still just becoming better known.

Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) has played a big role in psychology’s growing acceptance of faith and spirituality. A quick review of the story can set the stage for a consideration of Catholic in Recovery.  In the ‘Big Book’ of AA (the ‘bible’ of that program and a foundational document for most of the other 12-step programs), there is a chapter entitled “The Doctor’s Opinion.” Written in 1939 by Dr. William D. Silkworth, a prominent addiction psychiatrist of the time, and included in every edition of the Big Book since, Dr. Silkworth gives his views on the underlying causes of alcoholism and how AA had been able to help even the most ‘hopeless cases’ achieve sobriety and live productive lives. Dr. Silkworth’s most important opinions are that there is a biological component to addiction that places its cravings beyond the control of an addicted person’s willpower and that only a spiritual approach (and the help of a Higher Power) can help alcoholics and people with other addictions to recover. 

Dr. Silkworth’s opinions were radical at the time, but they have stood the test of time. Dr. George Vaillant, a Harvard Medical School psychiatrist, has conducted a number of studies which have confirmed many of Dr. Silkworth’s opinions. Dr. Vaillant’s opinion, published just fifteen years ago, is as follows:

“Alcoholism, if not interrupted, is a cunning, baffling, and persistent foe that kills 100,000 Americans a year … However, a review of the world literature suggests that professional medicine can do little to halt alcoholism long-term. In contrast, available research suggests that AA is the most effective means of long-term relapse prevention…”

According to Dr. Vaillant, there are four factors that are commonly present in AA and in successful relapse prevention for most addictions: 1) external supervision (a sponsor, the group); 2) ritual dependency on a competing behavior (going to meetings; doing service work); 3) new love relationships (making friends in recovery); 4) and deepened spirituality (prayer and meditation). These factors are already present in the Catholic in Recovery model (with even higher doses of spirituality available through Mass and the sacraments) and could be tailored to address general recovery issues.

Through the work of Dr. Vaillant and others, we now have well-respected scientific studies to back up this claim about the importance of spirituality for recovery from addiction. Could a similar approach work for recovery from conditions like depression (the fourth most debilitating disease in the world) and anxiety and other mental health problems as well as addiction?

Many psychological problems like depression and low self-esteem are based on deeply ingrained habits that seem likely to respond to such an approach. The fact is that a number of existing Christian mental health programs have been employing spiritual components successfully for years. Any many traditional Catholic activities like retreats and prayer are being directed at psychological problems.

This last point may be the least written about aspect of the Christian recovery movement: its potential to play a bigger role in the renewal of the Church and of the world itself. Most of us did not become Christians just to get over our mental health problems or addictions, but rather because of the truth, love, and meaning we found in the Church. The Catholic Church is more than just a source of grace that helps with recovery, it is a way of being in but not of the world that can lead to peace. The Church is bigger and more powerful than any addiction, recovery movement, church scandal, or environmental crisis. Pursuing mental health from this perspective could be a special charism of Catholic in Recovery.

In future posts we’ll explore the evidence for an outward, transformative effect of a Catholic approach to recovery and its centrality to some of the oldest (and newest) Gospel traditions, Christian programs that already exist, and the diversity of ways in which Catholic in Recovery groups are functioning. 

In the meantime, I encourage you to read “The Doctor’s Opinion” online here. You can also check out Dr. Vaillant’s paper “Alcoholics Anonymous: Cult or cure?” online here as well.


Dr. Murphy is married with three grown children and is a member of Holy Family Parish in Concord, Massachusetts. He can be reached at He and Jacqueline McLean host the website