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Wednesday, December 14, 2011

A Word About Priests as Alcoholism Counselors

This question occasioanlly arises, but often times not enough: should priests engage in alcoholism counseling? 

This is a complicated question, since there is more to this subject than the question itself.  First, we must look at the success of counseling and acknowledge that most counseling techniques fail to have an overwhelming effect on a resistent addict.

Counseling was all that was available to modern Americans prior to the 12 Steps, and medical professionals were routinely frustrated by their own poor results.  This is why the acceptance of AA came about in a short time despite its reliance on non-professionals and its spiritual orientation, two things anathema to pyschology and psychiatry.

Counseling only begins to have an effect when the patient is willing, but even here it seems that professionals had problems: counselors of the pre-AA period expressed their frustration with patients that wanted help but could not stay sober.  Counseling alone does not work to keep people sober, though it may help with contributing factors or co-occuring issues.

Now, let's look at the ordination of the Priest in the Orthodox Church.  In the prayer read over him, the Bishop asks that the new priest receive the ability to carry out certain acts:

1) the worthiness to stand before the Altar Table,
2) the grace to proclaim the Gospel,
3) the ability to minister the Word of Truth,
4) the right to offer gifts and Sacraments, and
5) the blessing to renew the people through the 'laver of regeneration.'

The ordination does not mention 'counseling.'  In fact, most men are not ordained because of their counseling skills, but usually because they have an interest in either theology or liturgics (even occasionally music, but this is rare based on my experience in seminary of seminarians singing!).  But, the 'laver of regeneration' is mentioned, rather than just saying 'Baptism.'

Why is this poetic term used?  Because, in the teaching of the Church, Baptism and Confession are innately linked together.  They are part of the same concept, summarized as the 'laver of regeneration' through the washing away of sins, first through baptismal waters and then through tears.  We are washed and renewed by our confessions.

Priests do not have to engage in counseling in order to convince an alcoholic to quit drinking, but he must be able to hear the confession of an alcoholic and understand this disease of the soul.  He must understand that he is just as powerless over the disease as the alcoholic is, and that his duty is to hear the please of the addict and ask that God would give the addict the courage to rely on God for healing.

This is very difficult, because so many of us want to rush in with advice and admonishment.  However, that's really not what we are ordained for.  We can teach and preach (see above), but we are not ordained to beat up or seize control.  We are powerless.  Only God has the power.  So, we clergy must learn to point the way to God.

This is the essence alcoholism counseling for priests: indicate the way to God, and encourage the alcoholic to surrender to God.  This ought not be out of force, and we certainly must not take the alcoholic's failure to grasp our advice as a personal rejection.  Rather, we must understand the nature of the disease of the passions that leads to addiction, knowing that the addict must overcome a great deal of fear to become sober.

Only when we acknowledge our own struggles with fear can we have the true compassion to counsel the addict.


  1. Alcoholics anonymous was first introduce to Canada by a minister that ordered a Big Book and sat down with it and helped a member of his congregation get sober.

    While the physical addiction may be foreign to the Priest, the spiritual truths that AA is based on are all in the New Testament so the territory should be familiar.

    That being said, I have seen my own Priest and the schedule he keeps and I really don't see how he could dedicate the time it takes to get a drunk on track with the AA program. I have a few crazy sponsees and often I need to talk with then every day, and need to sit down with them once a week to keep them from climbing on the ceiling fan. I just don't think a Priest can take that much time away from his other responsibilities.

  2. Yes, but I think most priests can't relate to the alcoholic's mental/spiritual addiction either. Most priests I talk to are highly frustrated with addicts because they keep trying to deal with them rationally, and then get disappointed. Priests not only don't have time, but they don't have the proper preparation to deal with the conflicted inner world of the alcoholic where up is down and visa-versa.