The story about the continuing misfortunes of Paul Gascoigne are more than the usual article about a “troubled” celebrity, or a star fallen on hard times, with which our culture is so obsessed. Rather it is a reminder of the grief caused by alcoholism. Mr Gascoigne is an alcoholic, and his addiction is clearly ruining him, just as it once ruined George Best. Moreover, Mr Gascoigne’s alcoholism must cause distress to his family and his friends, many of whom, no doubt, have tried repeatedly to help him.
Everyone who has lived inside the institutional church, in a presbytery or a religious house, or a convent, will know about alcoholism, for alcoholism is, historically speaking, often regarded as the curse of the Catholic clergy. I doubt that figures are published or much serious research done into the problem any more, but Catholic priests are more likely to be alcoholic than other men, or so it seems to me. Any attempt to provide scientific backing to such a claim would be bedevilled by the question of just how you measure the incidence of alcoholism. But consider the facts: there are special drying out facilities just for the clergy, or there used to be; the figure of the alcoholic priest is a staple in literature – consider the “whiskey priest” in Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory, or even Father Jack in the television series Father Ted; and think of all the priests you may have known who drank too much. And count up the times you heard someone, somewhere, utter the line: “Father X is not an alcoholic, he just likes a drink” or one of the variants thereof.
Why are so many priests alcoholic? That is a fairly easy question to answer. There are the pressures of the job, being on call, sometimes for 24 hours a day. There is the simple difficulty of finding it hard to relax without a drink in your hand. There is the culture of drinking that is so common in Catholic milieux: the world of the Catholic social club, or the people always offering you a drink. There is the challenge of loneliness, and the challenge of boredom. And there is the possible genetic predisposition to alcoholism that some of us bear.
Alcoholic priests do enormous damage to the Church. I think that goes without saying. But what does even worse damage is the way the phalanx of people who surround, protect and enable each alcoholic priest (and these people are never absent), who all deny there is a problem. One can see that Fr X is an alcoholic, but he is surrounded by people who refuse to admit that his is true, which introduces into ecclesial discourse the dangerous disconnect with reality which is the source of so many of our problems. If we cannot face the truth of Fr X’s alcoholism, what truths can we face? If we cannot tackle this problem, how will we ever tackle anything?
To tell someone they are an alcoholic is cruel, for it shames them profoundly: it is always shameful to have to acknowledge that you are not free, but rather a slave to your lower impulses. But to leave someone in a state of slavery is much more cruel, and, in the end, will greatly increase the sum of human misery. When a priest drinks too much, that has to be confronted, and the sooner the better. There can be no solution to this or to anything else without acknowledgement of the truth.
Why am I writing this, and why now? Partly it is touched off by the pictures of Paul Gascoigne, but it is also because of a concern which we should all have for the welfare of the clergy. The spotlight on the safeguarding of minors and vulnerable adults, which has taken up much attention in the last two decades, should not deflect us from keeping ourselves alert to other areas of concern as well. As with child welfare, burying our heads in the sand is never a useful way forward. Alcoholism among the clergy was always a problem in the past; and it has not gone away. Denying we have a problem has not helped us in the past, and will only compound this, and other difficulties, we face.