What does it mean to be a Catholic man? In recent years, many podcasts, YouTube videos, articles, and books have been devoted to the subject. The number is not surprising. As many argue, the Catholic Church in the West is in decline, Catholic communities have lost their rich cultural appeal, and many young Catholic men are left anxious about their future. In seeking internal peace, these men can access a wide variety of programs and templates to emulate in order to live out “authentic” Catholic manhood.
Against the backdrop of this noise in Catholic media ecosystems about being a “real Catholic man,” I found Dawn Eden Goldstein’s book, Father Ed: The Story of Bill W.’s Spiritual Sponsor, to present an inspiring model in ways that I don’t think the author specifically intended. Although no biography can provide a template for living – and Father Ed Dowling’s journey is unique in many respects – Goldstein effectively captures the powerful working of God’s grace in a man who accomplished much but who thought of himself very little. One could reasonably argue that Fr. Dowling’s example is the antidote to much of what modern Catholic manhood “experts” stand for. In his life story, we see what is possible for men when we die to self and allow God’s will to reign in our lives.
Goldstein’s first biography begins with Dowling’s upbringing and his first steps on the way to the priesthood. Dowling, like many young men, was at the same time ambitious but aimless. He was an accomplished athlete but could not make the transition to professional baseball. He held several different jobs, each depending on where he was at the time, trying everything but pursuing nothing. In one encounter, a Jesuit priest asked him if he ever considered the priesthood. Dowling responded, “Who would ordain a lazy slob like me?” After all, “Puggy,” a nickname that stuck with him all his life, had too much energy and lacked focus. Many of his friends and family were surprised he had entered the seminary.
Dowling’s early life is reminiscent of many a young man whose natural male drives and anxieties explain many of his choices. The story of his teens and early 20s reminded me of my own, when I was paralyzed by options. Fr. Dowling wanted to be important but lacked any means to do so. He wanted to be successful and well-respected, but his youth was a liability. It was not that Dowling was at first virtuous and then sought an ambitious outlet for his virtue, but rather it was through his ambition that God led Dowling to himself. For example Goldstein writes that Dowling did not seem to pursue the priesthood with clear convictions, but rather his decision appears to have been largely motivated by anxiety about his future. And the Jesuit order, with its structure and influence in society, no doubt provided him with some comfort.
Not surprisingly, he struggled to fit into the tightly ordered system of rules and regulations at seminary. There, he underwent a period of intense internal suffering and personal crises of faith. As Goldstein summarizes,
“The things he had enjoyed in the world, such as reporting for a newspaper, playing baseball, tracking the minutiae of local and national politics, and hanging out with friends (and friendly waitresses) in all-night diners—none of these were sinful in themselves, but they weren’t compatible with the Jesuit priesthood. If he were truly called to the Society of Jesus, he would have to sacrifice his hopes of being able to do those and a thousand other things he enjoyed.”
Within a couple of years, however, Dowling emerges in Goldstein’s book with renewed purpose and vision. Dowling had always longed to reach people, to be important, and to make a difference. It was in seminary where he discovered that first he must devote himself entirely to God.
From the time of his ordination forward, the book reads like an adventure. In Father Ed, we see the transformation of a man, from the rough-and-ready, ambitious Eddie, to the affable, empathetic Fr. Ed Dowling – a man who lived for others and whose energy never escaped him, even to his last day on earth.
Keeping pace with Dowling’s limitless ideas and activities is a challenge. There seemed to be very little opportunity for Goldstein to dive into his inner world or motivations, in part because Dowling himself revealed very little about his thoughts and feelings in his letters and interactions with others. Instead, we learn about the large number of projects that Dowling was involved in and the people he touched: his position within The Queen’s Work and partnership with Father Daniel A. Lord, SJ; his role in the first Cana Conferences working with married couples; his initiatives aimed at making politics more democratic; his efforts to combat racism and prejudice, particularly in his hometown and through the Civil Rights Movement; and his close relationship with Bill W., the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous. All the while, he ministered to individuals in their moments of despair and struggle, always desiring to be with people in their times of trial.
It is the story of Dowling’s influence on Alcoholics Anonymous that Goldstein is most eager to share, perhaps because it is through AA that Dowling had his most readily observable impact. Goldstein’s book convincingly argues that without Dowling and his early partnership with Bill W., AA would not be the organization that it is today – if it existed at all. Dowling not only provided moral and practical support to Bill W. during his bouts of severe depression and discouragement at critical junctures for AA, but he was also instrumental in the spread of the organization in its earliest stages.
What makes Dowling’s story even more incredible is that he did all this while suffering from a crippling and irreversible arthritic condition that made even dressing himself challenging and caused constant pain. Goldstein finds in his letters to others and accounts by eyewitnesses that he never drew attention to it and certainly never allowed it to slow him down. Over the years, as Goldstein highlights, he developed a rich theology of suffering, in which he saw an opportunity to be united to Christ’s own suffering and share joyfully in his redemptive ministry. As Goldstein quotes from one of Dowling’s articles in The Queen’s Work, “Where God’s loneliness and mine are bridged by St. Paul’s union of suffering, I can find the closest approach to God, to power, to achievement, to happiness, to joy!” Dowling continued to embody this teaching, and even though he was hospitalized several times for heart conditions, he was always on the road for one of his numerous projects, speaking at conferences or organizing events. Ultimately, he died during a trip to Memphis to lead another Cana Conference.
Dowling was born in St. Louis, Missouri, and the city was his home throughout his entire life. However, Dowling would find the city and Catholic Church of St. Louis today very different than where he lived and worked. A 21st-century St. Louis Catholic myself, I’ve experienced the decline of the city’s Catholicism. The places where Dowling lived, learned, and worked in St. Louis have already been transformed. The seminary he attended, for example, is now defunct. The Archdiocese is currently in the midst of a strategic initiative and is set to close or merge many parishes. The planned changes in the restructuring program “All Things New” have unnerved many. Some St. Louis Catholics have argued that rather than closing parishes, the Archdiocese should be focused on teaching clear doctrine. They are convinced that the decades-long demographic trends could be reversed with powerful liturgy and rich Catholic culture.
Intentionally or not, many of these arguments align well with the pop theology espoused by the Catholic manhood crowd. Conversely, Fr. Dowling’s life as a Catholic man was embodied by his embrace of the Cross. Goldstein provides a good illustration of this comes from a conversation with a close contact of Dowling, Father Ronald Creighton-Jobe,
[Father Ed] believed, absolutely, all the teachings of the Church, and you get that coming out in his theology of suffering—“GladGethsemane”—because he lived with great suffering. My father was very ill. And [Father Ed] taught me as a child—I mean, I was basically a child—to embrace God’s love, and also what it means to hand over the difficulties of one’s life to the Lord and to grow.
I share Goldstein’s conviction that Dowling is worthy of consideration for sainthood, both in light of his inspiring witness and as a native of St. Louis. Not only that, but I believe her choice to tell Fr. Dowling’s story at this moment in St. Louis’s Catholic history is providential. Fr. Ed Dowling’s life is a powerful call to the young men (and women) of St. Louis to renew their faith and to renew this archdiocese. Dawn Eden Goldstein’s well-researched account of the life of Fr. Ed Dowling is an illustration of someone with personal appeal who, in deep prayer, lived for others with empathy and sensitivity. His story is of a man who embodied the faith totally. It is faith like Fr. Dowling’s that will bring people closer to the Church and revitalize our Catholic communities.
Father Ed: The Story of Bill W.’s Spiritual Sponsor, is now available from Orbis Books.
Image: Father Edward Dowling, SJ, takes a break from clipping newspaper articles at his office at The Queen’s Work, St. Louis, MO, June 20, 1941. From the Father Edward Dowling, SJ, Archive at Maryville University Library.
Daniel Amiri is a Catholic layman and finance professional. A graduate of theology and classics from the University of Notre Dame, his studies coincided with the papacy of Benedict XVI whose vision, particularly the framework of "encounter" with Christ Jesus, has heavily influenced his thoughts. He is a husband and a father to three beautiful children. He serves on parish council and also enjoys playing and coaching soccer.