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William McDonough garners distinction in writing

William McDonough, lower left, attended the Denny Prize reception on April 6 with his family.
William McDonough, lower left, attended the Denny Prize reception on April 6 with his family.
Catherine Tsen 11

William McDonough challenged his colleagues to reconsider the concept of sin as it relates to alcoholism in a reception at St. Catherine University on April 6. The associate professor of theology was honored with the Denny Prize for Distinction in Writing, for his paper on “Sin and Addiction: Alcoholics Anonymous and the soul of Christian sin-talk.”

McDonough said his work stemmed from a conviction that Christian churches have much to learn about what sin is and how it can be healed through Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). He said he has observed in AA participants a certain maturity and serenity in faith that seems to be formed through something other than church membership.

“AA holds that sin and addiction are different but related realities, and they often operate together in one human life,” said McDonough. “My paper contends that AA has bridged what we could call the divide between the therapists and the theologians about talk of sin — giving us an approach to human failure that is both therapeutic and theological.”

McDonough’s work is divided into two parts. The first part discusses the view of Alcoholics Anonymous that alcoholism is not in itself a sin, but instead a ‘symptom of deeper trouble.’ The second part takes a deeply philosophical tone, regarding the classical Christian lists of capital sins through the eyes of Thomas Aquinas.

“In a beautiful phrase from Thomas Aquinas, some of our behavior comes ex fragilitate — ‘out of our human brokenness’ — and is not sin at all. AA has recalled and deepened the recognition of what is done ex fragilitate in a human being’s life,” said McDonough. “AA invites the alcoholic into lifelong membership and a fellowship dedicated to recovery — one’s own and others. It also invites the alcoholic into a lifelong process of being loved back into his or her own humanity by God, with the help of other human beings.”

In McDonough’s work, the Second Step of the 12-Step program — which asks alcoholics to concede that a power greater than themselves could restore them to humanity — becomes the most important step.

“The conclusion of the paper applies this insight to all our lives, healing what is ex fragilitate in the lives of all of us,” said McDonough. “AA can help Christian ethicists rediscover a profoundly theological truth: To be cut off from God, in sin, leaves us powerless over parts of our lives. It turns out that what heals alcoholics, is precisely what heals all of us, namely God’s grace.”

A riveted audience listened to McDonough’s insight during the evening of April 6. Following his presentation, Trustee Emeritus Chuck Denny and his daughter, Anne, presented McDonough with the endowed Denny Prize, which includes a monetary award enabling the honoree to continue his work.

The annual award for faculty and staff was established by the Denny family 16 years ago to recognize the significance of writing in all fields of study. It honors Eleanor McCahill Denny ’26, who attributed her abiding love of books, words and elegant writing to her teachers at St. Kate’s.

Senior Vice President of Academic Affairs Colleen Hegranes joined the others at the reception in thanking the Denny family for their continued support. She said the endowment is fitting for the University, as it applauds excellence in writing, a core value of the University.

Honorable mention: Susan Welch

“Writing is the key to liberal arts learning, and having outstanding writers on our faculty is part of what makes St. Catherine’s the excellent institution that it is,” said Hegranes.

Susan Welch was awarded with an Honorable Mention on April 6.

During the reception, Assistant Professor of English Susan Welch was also awarded an Honorable Mention for her essay, “Ariston: The Legacy of the Artists of St. Catherine.”

Patricia Olson, the Sister Mona Riley Endowed Chair in the Humanities, suggested that Welch write a history of the University literary magazine in honor of the “Year of the Liberal Arts.” She took on the task with assistance from Sister Margery Smith, an English professor emeriti and archivist, who wrote for the Ariston in the 1940s.

Welch said her goal in writing the history was to underline what the first Ariston women were up against, as each of them tried to establish her artistic voice.

“An artist is like the canary in the coal mine. She doesn’t uphold the established order; she challenges it. But sheer originality was not the mandate given to these first St. Catherine students,” said Welch. “As they tried to establish their voices as artists, these women had to take into account what women in every society must take into an account — the model of the female as an obedient sacrifice.”

For her essay, Welch worked with Olson to include reproductions of artwork that was published in the literary magazine over the years, including the frontispiece from the first edition of Ariston in 1906.

“I wrote this piece to honor those early fiction writers, and poets, and painters, and the artists of today, who cherish the profound sense of female spirituality that exists on this campus,” said Welch.

Where to read them...

Submissions for the Denny Prize were judged by Ranae Hanson, Garvin Davenport and Paul Yuckman — all noted writers and scholars from the Twin Cities community.

McDonough’s work, “Sin and Addiction: Alcoholics Anonymous and the soul of Christian sin-talk,” will be published in the fall 2011 issue of The Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics. Welch’s historical essay, "Ariston: The Legacy of the Artists of St. Catherine," will be published as a separate segment of the 2011 edition of Ariston, which is scheduled to come out in early May. It will also be available as a stand-alone essay in various University events and venues.

April 14, 2011 by Melissa Kaelin

See also: Alumnae/i, Faculty, Liberal Arts