Review: The apostle to Alcoholics Anonymous
“Funny, eccentric and amusing” are not descriptions one usually applies to a Catholic priest, but Edward Dowling, S.J., was not a typical cleric. InFather Ed: The Story of Bill W’s Spiritual Sponsor, by Dawn Eden Goldstein, we encounter a remarkable individual whose intellect, enthusiasm and humility helped Alcoholics Anonymous burgeon into a worldwide haven for spiritual growth for those struggling with addiction. (An excerpt from the book was published in the February 2023 issue of America.)
Though he died in 1960, Father Dowling foresaw (and hoped for) many of the changes in the Catholic Church initiated by the Second Vatican Council—most notably, the active participation of the laity in the Mass and other pastoral activities. He was a vivid communicator, as comfortable quoting Shakespeare as he was with streetwise humor.
Dowling’s sense of social justice anticipated Pope Francis by decades, as he argued that the Catholic faithful were morally obligated to vote, remedy social ills and participate in civil disobedience. He supported labor unions and deplored overreaching capitalism. He identified abortion as “among the symptoms of a society that failed to care for the poor.” In the 1930s and ’40s, Dowling pointed out that George Washington was a slave master and aristocrat, an idea that shocked his contemporaries.
Working with Bill Wilson as a spiritual advisor, Dowling helped launch a fledgling group into a presence that can be found in approximately 180 nations worldwide.
Was he perfect? No, and he would be the first person to admit as much. His vices included overeating to the point of obesity and excessive smoking. Eden Goldstein also notes that Dowling was drawn to Senator Joseph McCarthy because they both aligned with U.S. isolationism and anti-communism. He also briefly supported the conservative “America First” movement in 1941. The author surmises that Dowling may have quit the organization as its antisemitic rhetoric came to the fore. Father Dowling’s name disappears from the committee’s rolls shortly after Charles Lindbergh addressed two rallies. (Senator Gerald P. Nye had also “stirred up a crowd” at an America First rally with accusations against Hollywood studio heads Louis B. Mayer, Darryl Zanuck and Sam Goldwyn and others—and members of the audience began to shout mockingly after nearly every one of them, “Jews! Jews!”)
It is to the author’s credit that she points out Dowling’s foibles, demonstrating not only the breadth of her research on the subject but her own objectivity.
Edward Patrick Dowling was born in St. Louis on Sept. 1, 1898, into an Irish-American family. In his youth, he proved to be a strong athlete who could “fire a baseball from home plate to second base without getting off his haunches.” He was even offered a tryout with the Chicago White Sox while attending St. Mary’s College in Kansas City, Kan. All of that changed in his early twenties. For many of his 62 years on earth, Dowling suffered from a painful condition called ankylosing spondylitis, a long-term inflammation of the joints. Walking, dressing and traveling proved difficult and painful, but Father Ed, as he was called, managed to live an active existence filled with a passion to heal others—be it from alcohol addiction, marital strife or generalized anxiety.
One of the worst traumas of Dowling’s life was the death of his brother James during the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918. There is some evidence that Dowling might have been the source of James’s infection. James’s death shattered the family and “forced Puggy [Ed’s nickname] to grow up more quickly.” Eden Goldstein recalls the tensions of a world war and the pandemic that Dowling lived through. Readers today will certainly relate to those stressors as Covid-19 and the Russian invasion of Ukraine weigh upon us over a century later.
Though he was drawn to the priesthood and felt a “gentle pull toward the Eucharist,” Dowling started working for the St. Louis Globe-Democrat newspaper after graduation from St. Mary’s. Initially, his lifestyle did not seem to comport with a religious vocation. According to the author, Dowling liked staying out late, sleeping in and living as a newspaper reporter. Eventually, however, he made the decision to enter the Society of Jesus around 1918. He entered the Jesuit novitiate in Florissant, Mo., in 1919.
But if this was where Dowling sought peace, it was not to be. The rules of the novitiate required the maintenance of silence save for two hours a day, a daunting reality for a gregarious young man. Further, physical contact was barred—even a handshake or a pat on the back. He admitted in a letter to his sister Mary that “there were weeks in the novitiate when I felt that I could not honestly remain a Catholic.” Dowling found comfort in his correspondence and visits from her, who would remain a lifelong source of support. He also found solace in the pages of Thomas à Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ.
Father Dowling found strength in helping the anxiety-plagued student, the troubled married couple, the addict.
Over 20 years later, the sting of his time at Florissant remained. At an A.A. gathering in 1944, he said. “I am not utterly unacquainted with atheism. I know and respect agnosticism, and I have been a bed-fellow of spiritual confusion.”
Dowling professed his first vows on Sept. 27, 1921. To say that this was the start of an illustrious career would not even begin to describe the energetic, productive, life-changing years that followed. Even as his physical condition deteriorated, Dowling wrote, lectured, counseled and advocated for a number of causes he fervently believed in: social justice, racial and gender equality, and proportional representation in voting.
Though plagued with doubt about his faith and tormented by a sense of unworthiness, Dowling lit up when ministering one-on-one with people. He found strength in helping the anxiety-plagued student, the troubled married couple, the addict. These “wounded souls” became the center of his ministry and the mainstay of his contentment.
Eden Goldstein notes that it was not until he began his work with Alcoholics Anonymous that he attained “the lasting sense of interior peace that came with knowing he was exactly where God wanted him to be.” He considered sitting with A.A. members at a meeting an experience of being in “the presence of holiness.” He not only recognized and related to their struggle, he found the words and counsel they needed to mend their lives.
Not until he began his work with A.A. did Father Dowling attain “the lasting sense of interior peace that came with knowing he was exactly where God wanted him to be."
Working with Bill Wilson, the founder of A.A., as a spiritual advisor, Dowling helped launch what was then a fledgling group into a “presence [that] can be found in approximately 180 nations worldwide, with membership estimated at over two million, according to Alcoholics Anonymous. There are more than 123,000 A.A. groups around the world and A.A.’s literature has been translated into over 100 languages.”
Perhaps no one benefited more from Dowling’s guidance than Bill W. himself. Although Bill had conquered his drinking habit, he was beleaguered by depression and also struggled with how to feed and care for his family. Finally, Bill W. struggled with how to adequately express the ideas embodied in A.A. All of these difficulties were met head-on by Dowling, who saw the promise of fellowship as a mechanism for healing. Bill W. found the comfort, support and spiritual buttressing he needed to grow A.A. into a global institution.
Perhaps more important, Dowling related to Bill W.’s troubles as one who had experienced “the peaks and valleys of the spiritual life…the dark night of doubt…as well as the certainty of God’s presence.”
Dowling was drawn to A.A’s unique call to “self examination, conversion and trustful surrender to God’s transformative grace.” If these aspects sound familiar, it may be because they mirror the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola. He believed that the Twelve Steps “would guide the alcoholic…to interior knowledge of the love of God.”
On a more practical but important level, Dowling worked to ensure that A.A. was racially integrated. In correspondence with his friend Joe Diggles, who reported that some A.A. groups in Chicago were excluding Blacks, Dowling wrote:
I believe that any A.A. group could telescope months and years of spiritual progress by the presence of Negro members. I am glad you are working on that dining-car waiter, and if he comes to St. Louis…ask him to look me up.
According to the author, Dowling put forces in motion that sped up the creation of the first Black A.A. chapter, which formed in 1945.
As someone who has witnessed a close family member’s sobriety and spiritual growth through A.A’s Twelve Steps, I appreciated Dowling’s contributions. I only wish my father, an alcoholic who died of cirrhosis, could have found his way to A.A. before it was too late.
There is more to Dowling’s life achievements than can be summarized in a review. For instance, he counseled married couples through Cana conferences and spoke candidly about the female orgasm and the inability of many married women to achieve it.
Eden Goldstein writes:
Dowling was saying that God cared about their sexual satisfaction. Not only should they refrain from feeling guilty for wanting their sex life to be satisfying, they should take their sexual problems—along with their intimacy issues—into their prayer life.
This was not just coming from a priest, but a priest in 1947. It demonstrates how Dowling appreciated the humanity of his flock in all aspects of their lives.
Eden Goldstein’s biography demonstrates her affection both for Dowling and for the Catholic Church. The scholarship, writing and research are impeccable.
At the conclusion of the book, Eden Goldstein describes the humble circumstances of Dowling’s funeral. She writes “In the hierarchy of Jesuit elites, Father Ed was the lowest of the low. He was not on the staff of America magazine, neither was he a professor…. All he did was counsel people with problems—including drunks, drug addicts and the mentally ill.”
One might be tempted to compare Dowling’s lack of credentials and lowly companions with the life of Christ. But Father Ed would most certainly scoff at this idea. He did not seek the glory of fame or material possessions but prayed incessantly for greater faith. In this way, he lives on as an example and inspiration for living a life for others.