Father Ralph Pfau


Glenn F. Chesnut

Also search under the following common variants and misspellings: Glenn Chesnut, Glen Chesnut, Glen Chestnut, Glenn Chestnut, Glen F. Chesnut, Glenn F. Chestnut, Glen F. Chestnut, Glenn C. South Bend

Glenn F. Chesnut, Father Ralph Pfau, Father John Doe and his Golden Books, Glenn Chesnut
Glenn F. Chesnut, Father Ralph Pfau and the Golden Books: The Path to Recovery from Alcoholism and Drug Addiction, January 2017, ISBN 978-1532-0089-55, e-book ISBN 978-1532-0089-62, vi + 240 pp., paperback $19.95 U.S., e-book $3.99 U.S.

Recovering our inner balance and perspective by freeing ourselves from our obsessive guilt, shame, and neurotic perfectionism.

Father Ralph was one of the four most-published AA authors

The others being Bill Wilson, Richmond Walker (author of Twenty-Four Hours a Day), and Ed Webster (author of The Little Red Book).

This is the first major study of one of the four most-published and most influential early authors of the famous twelve-step alcoholism and addiction recovery program.

Father Ralph Pfau was one of AA's four most-published and most-formative authors (along with Bill Wilson, Richmond Walker, and Ed Webster) during the new movement's earliest thirty years, during which it grew from only 100 members to almost 300,000.

CLICK HERE to read the book online,
or download it as an MS Word DOC file,
or as an Adobe PDF file.

In the first ten years Pfau spent working to spread AA, he said "I have traveled nearly 750,000 miles.... I have spoken before nearly two hundred thousand members of AA at retreats, meetings and conventions, and personally discussed problems with more than ten thousand alcoholics." He produced fourteen extremely popular books, called the Golden Books, under the pen name "Father John Doe," along with other books and recordings.

When he joined Alcoholics Anonymous in 1943, he became the first Roman Catholic priest to get sober in the newly formed movement. An alcoholic and drug addict, he had spent the previous ten years being removed from parish after parish, as his drinking and addiction to "downers" got out of control over and over again.

A.A. author Father Ralph Pfau
Father Ralph Pfau

He taught the spirituality of imperfection, drawing from St. Thé rèse of Lisieux's Little Way and St. Augustine's teaching of God as Truth Itself -- the forgiving God who touches us in our fallenness, in acts of sudden psychological insight in which our whole perspective on life undergoes sweeping positive quantum changes. Over and over he calmed people's fear of God by reminding them that perfection was a myth, and that no human being could do it all. He was one of the most creative and interesting American Catholic theologians of his era.
Other topics include his founding of the National Catholic Council on Alcoholism, the NCCA Blue Book, the major influence of Spanish translations of his writings on early AA in the Spanish Catholic world, scrupulosity and obsessive-compulsive perfectionism, the problem of guilt and shame, the influence of St. Augustine's anti-Pelagian writings, theological disagreements with Father Ed Dowling, Fr. Ralph's argument that AA dealt only with the via purgativa (and was not involved in the via illuminativa or via unitiva), his insistence in the early days that the Big Book taught only natural theology and natural law morality, his work to spread the teachings of the early cognitive-behaviorist psychiatrist Dr. Abraham Low and Recovery Inc. (which used the modern study of semantics to counter Freud and Schopenhauer), his theory of sinner saints "sanctified" because their willingness to keep on trying has been "sanctioned" by God, his campaign to win sainthood for Matt Talbot, the Third Covenant Controversy at the AA International in 1950, his falling out with Bill W. over anonymity (and their making peace in Toronto in 1965).
Father Ralph Pfau and St. Bernard's Church
A side altar at St. Bernard's Church in Gibson County in southern Indiana,
where the White River flows into the Wabash. Father Ralph served as pastor
here from 1937 to 1939, until his drinking got totally out of hand.

Also, at the end of the book, a detailed study of the first Roman Catholics who joined AA during its first five years (1935-1940).

CLICK HERE to listen to Glenn Chesnut's talk on "Ralph Pfau (Father John Doe) and the Golden Books," which he gave at the 6th National A.A. Archives Workshop in Clarksville, Indiana (just across the Ohio River from Louisville, Kentucky) on September 27, 2001.

CLICK HERE to read a transcript of this talk with photographs.

The memorial to Father Ralph Pfau at the St. Francis Retreat Center in San Juan Bautista, California
The memorial to Father Ralph at Serenity Point, at the St. Francis Retreat Center
at San Juan Bautista, near the California coast about forty miles south of San Jose. An
A.A. retreat has been held there for over sixty years. Photo by Juan Rodriguez.

Table of Contents

Part I. Father Ralph Pfau

1. Ralph Pfau ("Father John Doe") as Major Twelve-Step Leader
2. Early Life
3. The Myth of Perfection, Natural Theology, and St. Augustine
4. Abraham Low and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
5. Forgiveness and Acceptance: Receiving God's Sanction
6. Simple Sanctity and the Little Way of St. Thérèse
7. Winning Acceptance for A.A. within the Catholic Hierarchy
8. Later Life
9. Seeking Balance among the Natural Instincts
10. The Hierarchy of Spiritual Values
11. Father Ralph's Understanding of God as Truth Itself
12. A Historical Note on Truth Itself and Being Itself
13. Quantum Change: Modern Psychological Theories
14. Making a Decision

Part II. The First Roman Catholics in Alcoholics Anonymous

1. Earliest AA: the Oxford Group and the Protestant Liberals
2. The Cleveland Catholics and Sister Ignatia
3. The Unitarians Join the Plea for a Nonsectarian AA
4. Akron Reading List and Father Ralph Pfau's Golden Books
5. What Roman Catholics and Protestant Liberals Taught Each Other

About the Author

From Ernie Kurtz: "Glenn Chesnut is the leading expert
on spirituality among today's AA historians."

The author earned a doctorate in theology at Oxford University and had a long career teaching religion and history at the University of Virginia, Boston University, and Indiana University.

In his early years, he was closely associated with the Catholic Nouvelle Théologie (New Theology) movement, and served for three years as the American representative for Éditions Beauchesne in Paris, the leading French Catholic theological publishing house.

More recently, he has authored books on a number of topics in A.A. spirituality and history.

Among these was the famous book, Changed by Grace (2006), on the Oxford Group and its influence on Alcoholics Anonymous, a book which is considered by many of the experts to be the best historical account in print of AAs Evangelical Christian roots.

He joined with early AA figure William E. Swegan, the major spokesman for the wing of early Alcoholics Anonymous which stressed the psychological side of the program, to write The Psychology of Alcoholism (2011). This important work is the sole detailed statement of belief which we have from the small circle of AA atheists and agnostics who made up one faction of the movement during the 1930s, 40s, and 50s.

Glenn F. Chesnut at the National AA History Symposium in Sedona, Arizona in 2016
Glenn Chesnut at the National AA History Symposium
which was held in Sedona, Arizona, in March 2016
Photo by John R. Miller, Happy Destiny Photography

And in addition to this present book on Father Ralph Pfau, a year and a half ago he published a book on another of the most important Catholic figures in early AA history: the Jesuit priest Father Ed Dowling, S.J. (1898-1960), who served as sponsor and spiritual guide to Bill Wilson (1895-1971) for twenty years during the formative period right after the AA Big Book was published: Glenn Chesnut, Father Ed Dowling: Bill Wilson's Sponsor (2015). We can see Father Dowling's influence on AA history, among other places, in the book on the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, every chapter of which Bill W. submitted to Father Ed to be read and commented on before its publication.

He currently lives in the San Francisco Bay area, continuing his research into the history of the twelve-step program and the wider foundations of spirituality, metaphysics, and the meditative awareness of the divine.

For more about Glenn Chesnut, see his Résumé and the brief biography on the Unmeasured Distances website.

A selected section of the book

The Myth of Perfection

Ralph first gave a long discussion of his new understanding of the issue in The Golden Book of Resentments, which he published in 1955, twelve years after joining Alcoholics Anonymous. He gave that section of the booklet the provocative title "The Myth of Perfection," and began it with a quote from St. Augustine: "Let us admit our imperfections so we can then begin to work toward perfection.

Then he explained what that statement meant in the simple Hoosier language of the small towns and countryside of Indiana: "There ain't nobody perfect in this world . . . . All of our lives we expected perfection, and when we again and again found instead imperfection, faults, failings, even serious ones, we became 'disillusioned' -- which in reality was only a vicarious form of self-pity . . . .

"We first thought our parents were perfect. Then we found out they weren't! Frustration number one. Then we met the gal (or guy) of our dreams. And think we to us: here is perfection. And then we married her (or him)! Frustration number two . . . .

"Then along came our children. And without doubt they were perfect. 'Isn't he the most perfect thing that ever lived?' And then the policeman brought T. Jonathan home one day . . . . Our child? Never! But it was our child. More frustration . . . .

"But we held on to the mirage to the very last: We were perfect, and if you didn't believe it, all you had to do was to ask us! . . . "The truth? No one is perfect . . . . Like a little Scriptural proof? 'If anyone among you says he is without sin, he is a liar and the truth is not in him.' Just a longer way of saying: There ain't nobody perfect."

Perfection is a myth based on spiritual pride. But in fact we will never have a perfect family, perfect friends, perfect business associates, or a perfect body. Sometimes we will get sick, or have aches and pains. We will also never have perfect emotional lives. Fr. Ralph comments:

"How many come to us and complain: 'I have been trying so long -- for years -- to control myself and I still get upset, I still get jittery, I still get angry, and I still get nervous.' Well, what did they expect? Perfect control? Perfection?"

This is the alcoholic mind at work, Fr. Ralph says, the 'persistent struggle to reach that smooth feeling.' When alcohol stops doing it, some people then turn to drugs. Ralph tried to use combinations of alcohol, barbiturates, and bromide compounds to help him get through each day -- never too keyed up, never too depressed, never upset or disappointed by anything that happened -- but just sailing along, as it were, on a waveless sea under a cloudless sky. But that was not the way the real world ever worked, no matter how hard we tried to make continual microadjustments in our mood with alcohol and other chemicals:

"There will be days when we will be feeling wonderful and there will be days when we will be feeling lousy; and there will be days when one is quick to anger and days when nothing upsets; and there will be days when we feel mean as all get out and days when we feel like doing a good turn even for our worst enemy. But then, life and emotions are like that, very uneven and imperfect, even in the best of men."

We also need to remember that perfection is a myth when we get too worried about the wandering thoughts running through our heads. We may even be kneeling in church and trying our best to maintain a worshipful and prayerful state of mind, when a wildly inappropriate train of thought suddenly pops into our heads and threatens to lead us into total distraction. Angry thoughts, envious thoughts, sexual thoughts, the yearnings of worldly ambition, and temptations of every other sort may erupt without warning in the minds of even the holiest of us, and throw us into at least a brief spiritual struggle before we can lay them once more to rest. Even Jesus himself was not exempt: the story of his active ministry began with the story of the temptation in the wilderness and ended with the story of his temptation in the garden of Gethsemane. And as for the rest of us, as Fr. Ralph pointed out, "We may live to be a hundred, but we shall still have distractions, and 'bad' thoughts, and 'screwy' thoughts, until we're dead."

Ralph was speaking partly to his own spiritual problems of course: his tendency to scrupulosity, the sense of personal failure which he had when he first entered A.A., and so on. But he found that this message also spoke to a central spiritual problem found among large numbers of Catholic alcoholics. It is amazing how many newcomers to A.A. who are of Catholic background are initially terrified by the spiritual dimension of the program because of their belief that they have sinned so wickedly against God -- not just by their out of control drinking but in many other ways -- that God would never hear their prayers for help. Most of them need, not being scolded and berated for their wickedness and supposed lack of will power and ordinary responsibility, but constant reassurance that God loves them and is going to keep on helping them recover, even if it takes months and years to begin getting their lives back in order again. And then Ralph discovered to his amazement, that up to sixty per cent of the people attending his weekend spiritual retreats were Protestants. They were just as terrified of God (and of the demands of real holiness) as the Catholics were!