Scott Weeman, founder of Catholic in Recovery, speaks to a church group. (Courtesy Catholic in Recovery)
Scott Weeman, founder of Catholic in Recovery, speaks to a church group. (Courtesy Catholic in Recovery)

 Ann, a cradle Catholic who lives in Portland, took a hiatus from faith practice during college. She tried to resume church life after starting a family. But her drinking got in the way.

Saturday night Mass didn’t work because Ann would be into the booze by then. Sunday mornings were out because of hangovers.

“I did not have a relationship with God like I needed,” said Ann.

Once she entered AA eight years ago, she was deeply attracted to the program’s spiritual content. “The center of AA is about giving your life over to a higher power,” Ann said. She soon realized that a relationship with God was not just something nice, but was the path to keep her from drinking herself to death.

In AA, talk of God is general and vague so no one feels blocked from recovery. But Catholic addicts like Ann say they need explicit spiritual content. She found an Evangelical Christian program, but wanted the sacraments linked to her healing. In 2019, a web search yielded Catholic in Recovery, and Ann was amazed to find a regular meeting just five minutes from her Southeast Portland home.

There, she met a woman religious we’ll call Sister Philip. The nun, who is a food addict, had pioneered the Portland chapter of Catholic in Recovery in 2018. With Sister Philip’s encouragement, Ann went to confession for the first time in years and attended Mass.

“I prayed for God to get me back in the Catholic Church, and God sent me Sister Philip,” Ann said. “We have the answers in the Catholic Church. The sacraments have the answer. It’s all so healing.”

Ann reports that people who join Catholic in Recovery and attend adoration of the Eucharist find that the presence of Christ takes away their fear, which is a root of addiction.

“You can’t have those conversations in AA,” Ann said. “The only way I don’t drink is because God gives me the power. God takes care of my drinking. I don’t even think about it anymore.”

‘We can talk Jesus’

While 12 Step programs rest on a foundation of divine presence and grace, references to the higher power by design remain general so that no one feels excluded. But for some Catholics, being able to talk about Christ is central and, Sister Philip said, can strengthen and speed recovery.

“In Catholic in Recovery we can talk Jesus,” said Sister Philip. “We have a physical problem with a spiritual solution. In our church we have such riches that can be a great help for people struggling with addiction. And when it’s aimed right, help comes so quickly.”

Sister Philip, one of the first people to expand the ministry after its founding in San Diego in 2017, is impressed with the depth of sharing at Catholic in Recovery meetings.

Those who have admitted they need help with addiction know what it means to depend utterly on God. Great Christian thinkers over the millennia have said that such surrender is the first step in anyone’s spiritual progress.

Ann, the recovering alcoholic, said the Catholic Church is a natural fit for addiction ministry because it has taught for centuries that humans are imperfect and require God’s grace to survive.

Confession is one of the best gifts of the church for addicts, said Sister Philip, who would like to see the Catholic Church do more for addiction recovery.

“People are dying from this, and as a church we have done little to help,” said Sister Philip, who has been in 12 Step groups for 45 years.

She wants all priests to have a better understanding of addiction, knowledge helpful in the confessional. Well-meaning confessors who end up shaming addicts only deepen the addiction, Sister Philip warned.

On top of just being the right thing to offer, Ann sees Catholic in Recovery as an evangelization opportunity. “People in recovery are literally dying for a relationship with Christ,” she said.

The Catholic in Recovery website offers starter packets for parishes that want to begin a meeting. There is a fee for the packet and a regular payment required for continuing support from the organization’s small staff.

‘Happy to see you’

The local Catholic in Recovery group welcomes people with addictions of all kinds, including booze, drugs, food, gambling and lust. Scripture is a common part of Catholic in Recovery meetings. One man in the local group, a food addict, said he has learned to ask Jesus not just for comfort, but for strength.

To those afraid to enter a group, Ann has a message: “We are all there because we have the same problem. You will see people who have been exactly where you are and know what it’s like to cross the threshold. They will be so happy to see you.”

Sister Philip said that if a group sounds like too much, perhaps a phone call will do.

Deacon Kevin Welch, director of pastoral ministries for the Archdiocese of Portland, said he believes in Catholic in Recovery.

“Addiction can affect anyone, even those who come from loving, faith-filled families,” Deacon Welch said, adding that he, like most people, knows of a family member or loved one who is suffering.

“We want to do everything to help,” he said. “But the truth is, as they seek recovery, they’re learning how to trust their Higher Power; we loved ones must do the same. Recovery is something that can only happen with God’s help.”

Recovering addicts who know a church community is behind them are better positioned to avoid the stigma that only makes addiction worse, Deacon Welch said.

Learn more

Sister Philip: 503-347-9942

‘You don’t ever have to drink again’

Catholic in Recovery emerged in San Diego in 2017 when one Catholic alcoholic wanted a program in which he could be upfront about his faith.

After Scott Weeman entered Alcoholics Anonymous in 2011, he rediscovered his Catholic identity but found that specific religious thought was not welcome in AA. At the same time, he knew Catholicism was vital for his recovery.

“Spiritual awakening happens,” said Weeman, who often tells fellow alcoholics, “You don’t ever have to drink again. You are a beloved child of God.”

Weeman’s 2017 book, “The Twelve Steps and the Sacraments,” sets out a model linking addiction recovery and the sacraments of the church, the gifts that help sustain God’s presence among humans.

“We neither water down the 12 steps nor weaken the sacraments,” Weeman said in a video presentation last year. “Imagine a world in which the Catholic Church is the go-to place for individuals and families desperate to overcome addictions.”

Catholic in Recovery recently received a $100,000 gift, a kind of Catholic genius grant from Our Sunday Visitor. The money is funding retreats, an expansion of the ministry and a digital app.

“We are facing an enormous addiction problem that is destroying the lives of individuals and tearing apart families,” Weeman said.

There are more than 40 Catholic in Recovery groups in the nation and several dozen online meetings.

— Ed Langlois