Alcoholism Drives Man Beyond 12 Steps and Into the Church

John Garcia shares his journey of healing.

John W. Garcia, founder of Sober for Christ, says Catholics who are alcoholic need more than the 12-step program.
John W. Garcia, founder of Sober for Christ, says Catholics who are alcoholic need more than the 12-step program. (photo: Courtesy of John Garcia)

John W. Garcia, known as “Johnny” to his friends, has seen the dark side of life. The 39-year-old California native came from an abusive home and sought to alleviate his pain through alcohol. He soon found that as his drinking increased so did his suffering.

Garcia’s attempts to overcome alcohol and eventual drug abuse included Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, inpatient and outpatient treatment centers, more than 10 medications and psychotherapy. He had periods of sobriety but also many relapses, never finding true contentment.

Garcia even found that some of the means proposed for his benefit actually made things worse, including the medications he was given. His breaking point came in 2006, when he relapsed once again and was sentenced to 16 months in prison. It was here that he understood for the first time what the Church has to offer those suffering from addictions, especially the healing found in the sacrament of penance.

Today, Garcia embraces the Church’s means of healing and enthusiastically shares them with others, as he explained recently to Register correspondent Trent Beattie.

What was wrong with the way you attempted to deal with your addictions before coming back to the Church?

My family background was lacking in faith formation. The most basic things — keeping the Ten Commandments, Mass attendance and going to confession — were simply not part of my life growing up. They weren’t discussed and weren’t put into practice.

This spiritual void was filled with modern psychology’s vision of man, which does not include an immortal soul. Modern psychology deals with behaviors, but does not deal with the cause of those behaviors, which is found in the soul. Viewed from philosophical terms, psychology is the study of the soul, as we can see from the etymology of the word psyche, the primary meaning of which is soul.

However, modern psychology will tell us something different, as was the case with me.
I was dual-diagnosed as being alcoholic and bipolar, put on many different medications and went through various treatment centers, all the while not realizing the real cause of my problems. I bought into the mindset that the only cure for my problems was 12-step programs, including the first such program, Alcoholics Anonymous.

The real source of my problems stemmed from a consequence of original sin — our concupiscence (or the tendency toward sin) — that I did not control, but gave in to by committing personal sin. I thought I had a personality defect or disease that caused my misbehaviors, but finally realized it was my own free will consenting to sin. Only after learning this truth could I really strike at the root of the problem. This is done by totally giving oneself to God through his Church. What follows is serious reception of the sacraments and use of the sacramentals, along with prayer (the Rosary, in particular) and cultivating the theological of virtues of faith, hope and charity in the soul through sanctifying grace.

The 12 steps (which include “admitting our wrongs” and “willingness to be healed”) seem very compatible with Christianity, so where does the problem come in?

There is good to be found in the 12 steps, so it’s not as if they are entirely opposed to all the Catholic Church teaches. Things such as sharing your problems with another person and taking things one day at a time are great, but they aren’t the whole story of how God wants to heal us. This is why the 12 steps should not be seen as the final destination, but as stepping stones, so to speak, for someone coming into the Church.

The 12 steps can mimic what the Church has to offer, thereby misleading people as to what is truly taking place. For instance, many people have told me they don’t have to go to confession because they talk with their sponsor. Then I explain that sponsors can be helpful, but they can’t forgive our sins; only a Catholic priest can do that. This is how Jesus set up his Church, as seen in John 20, when he says to his apostles, “Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them.”

There’s relief in talking to a sponsor, but there’s more relief — not to mention sanctifying grace — in going to confession. This is where awesome miracles take place all the time. St. Augustine says, “It is a greater work to make a just man out of a sinner than to create heaven and earth.” This is what Jesus does through his priests when they forgive mortal sins — the spiritually dead are raised to life.

But doesn’t that qualify as being healed by the “higher power” mentioned in the 12 steps?

When you say “higher power” to a Catholic, he would think of the Trinity — Father, Son and Holy Spirit. What he may not realize is that in the 12 steps the “higher power” does not have to be the Triune God. It can be anything or anyone, as long as it’s not you.
In my 10 years with AA, there were people who made a celebrity, their sponsor or even a doorknob their higher power.

This contradicts the First Commandment: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before me.” In one sense, any sin could be thought of as idolatry because we’re putting a created thing before God. However, to raise it to a whole new level of formal idolatry is even worse. Unfortunately, many people do just this. It can lead to all kinds of trouble because, as exorcist priests have pointed out to me, demons are, in fact, higher powers. Surrender to a god other than the true God actually opens the person up to the possibility of demonic influence.

This surrender to gods is what addictions are, really, so anyone who has lived in a state of sin for a long period of time would benefit not only from confession but also deliverance prayer. I personally was transformed by the deliverance prayer of Pope Leo XIII prayed over me by a trained exorcist priest. If you’ve opened yourself up to demonic influence through Ouija boards, tarot cards, horoscopes, [certain forms of] rock music, drugs, alcohol abuse or any other means, I recommend deliverance prayer. It can even be helpful to people who don’t remember having certainly committed such sins.

Many people would wonder why you refer to sin regarding alcoholism, which is widely seen as a disease out of one’s control.

It is true that we cannot control our behaviors — whether they be drinking or otherwise — without God’s grace. It’s not just a matter of sheer willpower which saves us apart from God’s help. It’s also true that there can be difficult things to endure while giving up drinking, including withdrawal symptoms. However, this doesn’t mean alcoholism is a disease in the sense we would use the term for cancer or malaria.

Archbishop Fulton Sheen said that alcoholics expect praise for sobriety but not contempt for drinking. The first instance presupposes an element of free will, while the second instance is a denial of free will. It’s taking credit for our virtues but shirking responsibility for our vices — and by the way, even more vices follow in the wake of drunkenness.

Drunkenness is repeatedly referred to as a sin in the Bible. In Galatians 5, St. Paul lists the works of the flesh, one of which is drunkenness. He then says, “I warn you as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the Kingdom of God.”

Now if alcoholism were really a disease, why would St. Paul condemn someone who has it?

Similarly, St. Peter expects us to be sober and vigilant, as seen in 1 Peter 5. It would be extremely cruel for these great men of faith to expect a person to change his behavior if he had no control over it. The solution is simple: We do have the power, by God’s grace, to control our behaviors, and this grace is experienced most fully in the Catholic Church.

Even after you returned to the Church, you were under the impression for quite some time that you had a disease. When did that change?

I would still struggle after returning to the Church in 1997, not because anything was lacking therein, but because of major misconceptions about my situation. As stated previously, I was dual-diagnosed as alcoholic and bipolar, and then put on a series of medications. Curiously enough, the medications turned out to be more troublesome than the problems they were supposed to be helping.

The pain and confusion worsened, hitting a peak in 2006. I spent large amounts of money on my addictions, lost my job, and got into trouble with the law. I was sent to jail the next year, which was an all-time low point. I had been in lots of trouble before, but had never gone to jail. I was terrified and, in my desperation, started praying the Rosary daily, asking for Mary’s help. Shortly after this, I stopped taking medications and have not taken any since.

It was also in jail that I read the Bible, cover to cover, in two and a half months. I realized that up to that point I was reading Alcoholics Anonymous (commonly known as “The Big Book“) more than I was reading the Bible. When I started reading the written word of God more and more, I learned the true nature of my problem, which was my own sin, not a disease.

I realized that we are called to act becomingly as children of God, and sobriety is an essential aspect of this. It’s not an impossible goal, but a very realistic one that can be done by the grace of God and a firm resolve to make it happen. This is what is so great about understanding the cardinal virtue of temperance, which is also known in the New Testament as sobriety. It was such a relief to know that if I wanted to be sober I needed to practice human virtue, which requires an act of the will.

From Bible reading, I delved into the Catechism of the Catholic Church. I gained an even greater understanding of concupiscence, sin, free will, prayer, Marian intercession, redemption and grace. Even though I had been back in the Church for almost 10 years, it took that much time to let go of the 12-step mindset and make full use of what Jesus Christ has to offer us. That shows the tremendous importance of really knowing the truth, because the truth will set you free. I had the greatest gifts imaginable right in front of my face but couldn’t make the best use of them until letting go of fundamental errors in my thinking.

I was released early from prison on Oct. 17, which is the day St. Maximilian Kolbe (the patron of prisoners) was beatified in 1971. A few months afterward I consecrated myself and my family to Our Blessed Mother through the Militia Immaculata, founded by St. Maximilian. We renew our consecration every day as a family, placing ourselves under the protection of the Mother of God, whose major goal is to reconcile sinners with her Son. My wife, Laura, knows this, and, in fact, I wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for her own intercessory prayers.

My time in prison was both the worst and best time of my life. Never had I encountered so much evil, but never had I become aware of so much grace. It’s this same grace I want to share with others who are imprisoned, in a sense, in the 12 steps, and in their own sinful habits.

How do you go about doing this?

I have a website that contains the basic resources for overcoming addictions and becoming freer to practice virtue. I’ve spoken at conferences and on the radio programs Reasons for Faith Live and Straight Talk Catholicism and have recorded talks on CD and DVD for St. Joseph Communications. We’ve also developed, through John Paul the Great Catholic University in San Diego, a brand-new online course for those who want to overcome bad moral habits. It’s called How to Build Good Habits and Be Happy: A Course in Thomistic Ethics.

Additionally, we’re very happy to say that Dec. 10 is the date for our second Sober for Christ Conference in Covina, Calif. It’s free of charge, and it will also help to set those free who’ve been captive to sin. This is what we see in the lives of the saints, many of whom have overcome problems such as alcohol abuse, gambling and prostitution. St. Augustine, St. Mary of Egypt, St. Margaret of Cortona, St. John of God, St. Camillus de Lellis and many others have not only removed specific sins from their lives, but have totally surrendered themselves to God. None of them went to 12 step meetings, but received from the Church everything they needed to “get straight and fly right.”

Jesus Christ came to save us from sin, so if the 12 steps were necessary to do this, he would have given them to us. He didn’t do this, but he did give us his Mother, his Church and the sacraments — the most important of which is the holy Eucharist. Once you’ve fallen in love with Jesus in the holy Eucharist, there’s no need for extra-ecclesial organizations. There’s a deep, abiding peace that fills the soul like no support group could ever do.

The 12 steps can help you get through the day, but what the Church has to offer will enable you to see the day that never ends — that is, eternity in heaven — spent with our loving Father. St. Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 2 that “no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor [has] the heart of man conceived what God has prepared for those who love him.”

Register correspondent Trent Beattie writes from Seattle, Washington.