Back to Posts
Sep 12, 2018

The Real Catholic Teaching on Underage Drinking

Dr. Andrew Swafford

In talking with Catholic college students, I’ve come to find that underage drinking is a hot topic. Inevitably, students point to the fact that they can go to war and vote at eighteen. So why in the world can they not enjoy a beer?

First things first: Catholics have long considered drunkenness a mortal sin; St. Paul refers to it as a sin that excludes one from the kingdom of God (see Galatians 5:21). The reason is that in the act of drunkenness we are forfeiting two of God’s greatest gifts—our intellect and will. In drunkenness, we willingly defile our rational nature. It also lends itself to a host of other sins, notably sexual ones by weakening our inhibitions.

I would recommend using the legal limit as a benchmark for drunkenness. Frankly, a serious Catholic should never need a designated driver. This means that when one starts to “feel” it, it’s time to slow down or back off. I’ve heard serious Catholics nod their heads in agreement that drunkenness is a mortal sin. Then they go on to define drunkenness as setting in only when one blacks out. This is absurd. It’s a case of excusing one’s own drunkenness and yet somehow still pretending to maintain the letter of the law. To make things very concrete, drunkenness has set in when you cannot (or should not) drive a car.

OK, Drunkenness: Bad. But Underage Drinking?

First, a Catholic is obliged to obey the civil law. Outright disobedience to the civil law must be treated with the utmost seriousness. (Only if a law is clearly unjust—such as with Martin Luther King, Jr.’s disobedience of segregation laws—should a law be disobeyed). An inconvenient law (i.e., the drinking age) is not an unjust law. St. Paul is very serious here:

“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities” (Romans 13:1; see 13:1-7).

In many states, it’s legal for someone to drink underage in the presence of their parents—so that’s not an issue. The same is true if one travels overseas, where the drinking age in Europe is generally eighteen.

Many will respond by pointing to the prevalence of mild speeding, say, going five miles per hour over the speed limit. They then proceed to draw a moral equivalence between this and underage drinking. But I would suggest the analogy does not hold for the following reason: the customary enforcement of the law is relevant with speeding. Widespread and more or less universal custom takes on the authority of law. It’s more or less recognized that going five miles per hour over the speed limit is still within the bounds of the law. And that’s why we generally aren’t nervous when driving five miles per hour over the speed limit with a policeman immediately behind us. Also, if we were pulled over for going three miles per hour over the speed limit, we would be justifiably upset—because such an action would contradict nearly universal custom in terms of the enforcement of speeding laws in our country.

But the case is different with underage drinking: in the vast majority of places across the country, one certainly would not drink underage while standing next to a police officer. For this reason, in order for the analogy to hold, one would have to compare underage drinking to something like going twenty miles per hour over the speed limit. At any rate, speeding also does not have the aspect of scandal attached to it, as does underage drinking (see below).

A Culture of Lukewarmness

In my experience, underage drinking tends to go hand-in-hand with a culture of lukewarmness, a general lowering of zeal, and a subtle openness to other forms of sin. Where a culture of underage drinking prevails as the norm (and especially among otherwise serious Catholics), at a point having one or two social drinks turns into three or four (or five and six and beyond); and all of a sudden, those who were steadfast against drunkenness—but who insisted that underage drinking is OK—find themselves occasionally on the brink of drunkenness (and sometimes well past that point).

And occasionally, these same otherwise stand-up Catholics find themselves in compromising situations, often sexually—either individually after a night of drinking, or with someone else.

Over time and as such a culture becomes predominant—again, amidst otherwise serious Catholics—the general temperature of their zeal for holiness begins to go down; they often still go through the Catholic motions, but the vigor and vitality that comes from knowing Jesus personally—to the point where one gives him their entire life—subsides. Often, their lives begin to revolve around a party culture: “Which party should we go to?” Or, even on an ordinary day in the middle of the week: “What are we drinking tonight?”

It’s almost as if the house party culture—which might not be as bad as the average fraternity party at a state university—begins to dominate the lives of otherwise serious Catholic college students. And this is subtle and deceptive: while not being as “bad” as a typical fraternity house, these students slide into a lifestyle that they sometimes couldn’t have imagined years or months prior; but it becomes the norm, and their zeal for the spiritual life is sapped. In fact, I would wager that I have almost never (if ever) seen a student involved in underage drinking who is totally on fire for Jesus.

To ‘Evangelize’ Is a Lame Excuse 

Sometimes evangelization is the reputed reason why some students want to engage in and permit (and even encourage) underage drinking. On its face, perhaps there is an air of plausibility here. But observing such a dynamic over several years, I can only conclude that rather than seriously evangelizing others, the purported evangelizers simply begin to lose their spiritual edge.

There are all kinds of neutral grounds where one can evangelize (e.g., sports, intramurals, meals, etc.). Jesus constantly reached out to sinners, but never in compromising situations. That is, Jesus was not with sinners when they were sinning (or even came close to it).

The Sin of Scandal

The other aspect that is typically almost entirely missing in this discussion is the charity we owe to our brothers and sisters and the recognition that our actions affect others. As I’ve said to some of my students—tongue and cheek, of course: “Look, if I drive by your house at 7 a.m. and I see your girlfriend’s car outside, I’m not going to assume that she slept on the couch.” And the same is true of the young freshman who looks up to these students—who inevitably says: “If that’s what good Catholics do, then it must be OK.”

Listen to Jesus’ words when it comes to leading others into sin, whether intentional or not:

“Temptations to sin are sure to come, but woe to him by whom they come! It would be better for him if a millstone were hung round his neck and he were cast into the sea, than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin” (Luke 17:1-2).

A “little one” here could refer to age or one’s spiritual state. For an upperclassmen to lead an underage underclassmen into sin—either by encouragement or example—fits Jesus’ words exactly.

We’re Our Brother’s Spiritual Keeper

The same teaching shows up in 1 Corinthians 8, where the issue is whether or not Christians can eat meat sacrificed to idols. Paul explains that it may be all right for those who know that the idols are not real. But for the sake of those weaker in faith, do not do it—because those weaker in faith may see their brethren eating food sacrificed to idols and it may unwittingly lead them into idolatry. The principle is clear: charity demands that we take into account how our actions affect others. St. Paul writes:

“For if anyone sees you, a man of knowledge [i.e., a mature Christian], at table in an idol’s temple, might he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols? Thus, sinning against your brethren and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ (1 Corinthians 8:10, 12).

In fact, St. Thomas Aquinas insists that the sin of scandal itself can be a mortal sin: “because [the person] has such contempt for his neighbor’s spiritual welfare that he declines … to forego doing what he wishes to do” (ST II-IIae, q. 43, a. 4). We are our brother’s keeper, and this is true spiritually as well.  

With Whom Do We Have This Discussion?

Underage drinking is not the issue I start with in talking to your average college student; for many, the problems are much more severe (habitual unchastity, drunkenness, etc.). But it’s important to address this with our Catholic leaders because every year other new budding Catholic leaders (i.e., freshmen) watch their example—and then imitate it in the ensuing years. These Catholic leaders set the spiritual tone for campus. If they are dulled, then the overall spiritual ethos of campus goes way down.

As I said, underage drinking cultivates a culture of lukewarmness, a sapping of spiritual zeal—it’s a sort of gateway to the party culture described above. If Jesus is really Lord of my entire life, then the question is simply this: am I willing to be inconvenienced for the sake of the Gospel? To the extent that the answer is “no”—to the extent that I insist on underage drinking just because I want to—to that extent perhaps my own conversion has not yet fully taken hold.

In short, I have found that this is often the last step in a radical conversion—much like modesty for many women. In order to pass through this threshold, one has to move beyond simply asking: “At what point have I done something wrong?” in a minimalistic way, to asking: “Are these actions—these movies, these parties, etc.—taking me toward or away from my ultimate end?” And further, one asks this same question with respect to those who may be influenced by my actions—either by knowing me directly or by reputation: am I helping or hindering their pursuit of their ultimate end?

Going All in with Christ

It’s sort like of this: if you want to be a Jedi—if you want to go all in with Christ—this is what it takes: for at that point, there is no aspect of one’s life over which Christ is not king and Lord. There’s always something left for us to turn over to the Lord; and as I said, for many college students, underage drinking is the last thing to go.

Jesus said, “If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away” (Matthew 5:30). Here, he instructs us to radically avoid the near occasion of sin. A radical conversion—a person set on fire for Jesus Christ—does this with respect to his own life and with respect to his impact upon others.

What would happen if we went all in for Christ, in every single aspect of our lives? God is never outdone in generosity; when we go all in, he often blows us away with blessings we could never imagine.


You May Also Like:

Catholics, Alcohol, and Drinking

What’s Missing from Most Responses to the Sex Abuse Crisis

How to Determine the Morality of an Action


About Andrew Swafford

Dr. Andrew SwaffordAndrew Swafford is Associate Professor of Theology at Benedictine College. He is general editor and contributor to The Great Adventure Catholic Bible, published by Ascension Press. He is author of Nature and GraceJohn Paul II to Aristotle and Back Again, and Spiritual Survival in the Modern World. He holds a doctorate in Sacred Theology from the University of St. Mary of the Lake and a master’s degree in Old Testament & Semitic Languages from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He is a member of the Society of Biblical Literature, Academy of Catholic Theology, and a senior fellow at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology. He lives with his wife Sarah and their four children in Atchison, Kansas.


Get your favorite Ascension content sent right to your email!

  • In the middle of the 19th Century, alcoholism was wide spread in America and thus there were many successful attempts to limit its use by pointing out its moral deficiency. In the seminary, I came across a book of no small thickness explaining how Jesus did not use fermented wine at table. I once had a Methodist pastor tell me of a friend who was caught drinking at a party by one of his parishioners. When he pointed out to the scandalized person that Jesus also drank wine, the response was, “I know, I never liked that about him.” Such has been America’s somewhat abnormal relationship with liqueur.
    There are many good reasons not to drink, and many more good reasons for the state to forbid minors to drink. However, as my favorite Dominican priest quoting St. Thomas pointed out to me once in talking about this issue, “Not all crimes are sins and not all sins are crimes.” While the author here makes very good points about underage drinking having the ability to lead to laxity, scandal, and other undesirable things, we must be clear that it is not a sin for a 19 year old to have a drink. It may be imprudent or a scandal to others, but in itself, just because the State says it is illegal, does not make it a sin.
    That it is always a sin to break a law of the State is believed by the majority of Catholics because, as the late Cardinal George once said, “American Catholics are Puritans who go to Mass on Sunday.” In the moral realm Americans tend to adopt toward State law a puritanical thinking sometimes mixed with small amounts Jansenism.
    This does have its good points, a people who slavishly follow the laws of the State make for a well ordered society, and it does help keep people from being lax and disregarding State law as unimportant. But it is not Catholic.
    There is very good reason to detach young people from giving such over reaching authority to the State. Especially as we continue to face a State that is becoming more draconian in its laws. What if the State (Sweden) forbid spanking your child, would it be sin to pooch your five year old in the behind? What if the Sate forbid having more than two children (China), would it be a sin to get pregnant with the third? What if the State forbid celebrating Mass (Saudi Arabia)? Would saying Mass in a hotel room be a sin?
    Let’s look at a traffic example. It is illegal to run a red light. Very early in the morning, stopped at a desolate intersection, after stopping, I have run through a red light, thus breaking the law. Would I do so if a police car was parked on the side of the road? Absolutely not. Why? Not because the police officer would suddenly make me feel guilty of committing sin, but because I would not want to pay the fine. Or even more important and moral, I would not want to put the police officer in the awkward position of feeling obligated to chase me down for something that hurt no one – if in fact he thought he actually had a moral responsibility to do such a trivial thing. Would I be upset with a fine? No. Would I go to confession for it? Only if I got mad about it!” Because of course the State has every right to give me a ticket, just no right to tell me it’s a sin.
    Here is another traffic example. For the sake of the common good we drive on the right side of the road, it is illegal to drive on the left. If on a lonely country road in the flat land of Illinois I drive on the wrong side of the road in order see over the left side of a bridge am I breaking the law? Of course. But is it a sin? No.
    To be morally mature one must distinguish between State laws that exist because they protect the natural law, and State laws that exist only to protect the common good. In the case of State laws that reinforce the natural law to break one would always be to sin. In State laws that are meant to protect the common good it would be a sin only if the action does in fact hurt the common good.
    Why would a State that allows 19 year old people go to war, have abortions, smoke marijuana, have a sex change operation, marry and divorce, not allow 19 year old people to have a drink at a bar? Because young people under 21 tend to to have a higher propensity than older people to drink, get drunk, and drive recklessly. What ever other benefits a higher drinking age might bring, that is the purpose of the law. I have no argument with the purpose of the law, and perhaps it is even a good law, but that does not necessarily make it a sin to break it.
    Let’s take an absurd case. At a family meal, a 17 year old can have some champagne to toast her grandmother’s birthday because her father is there, but if her 20-year-old cousin who happens to be visiting without her parents is there she shouldn’t because it would be a sin? Who would readily believe such a thing?
    That is not to say that in a culture where underage drinking leads to other moral problems a strong case could not be made that a minor having a drink is hurting the common good and thus a sin. There is also the case to be made for the sin of entering into close proximity to the sin of drunkenness as well as the case for the sin of scandal as St. Paul points out in 1 Corinthians 8. However, in trying to convince Catholic minors not to drink in a party atmosphere arguments like this need to be used. To use the argument that the State says it is illegal and thus a sin may be easier and more effective, but it does in fact stunt a student’s moral growth. For one thing, it gives the student an overly legalistic approach to the moral law, it reinforces his latent Calvinism, it gives far too much moral authority to the State, it is simply not true.
    A healthy moral intelligence is able to judge well the competency of any lawgiver and the purpose of the law. The good God, our local Bishop, the State, my boss, all have different competencies and all require from me a different moral stance to their requests. As the State divorces itself more and more from the natural law we will want to increase our young people’s ability to detach from the State as a moral gate keeper while still giving the State its rightful place to regulate the common good.
    Of course an organization has every right to forbid underage drinking, or even drinking at all. Sports teams, some religious orders, and many other organizations all have forbidden drinking alcohol. Many years ago it was not uncommon for a Diocese to ask their newly ordained priests not to drink for the first five years or so of their priesthood. Under these cases, it would be a sin as the person has broken a promise.
    When one looks at the priest scandal, a curious thing arises. Sins of priest and bishops that were crimes were at times treated with great seriousness. However, sins of priests and bishops that were not crimes were easily overlooked. As the popes have pointed out many times, the modern age has lost its sense of sin. To legalistically use the State to reinforce sin does not help matters. To see sin as simply breaking a law is not much better. To educate our young in who they are as moral agents, the definition of conscience, and the proper goal of their actions is hard work. However, it is well worth it. It is my opinion that our young people will face much greater moral difficulties than we can presently imagine.

  • I disagree that you can be justifiably upset for getting pulled over at 3 over the speed limit. This seems to approach relativism in my opinion. Just because it works for you that typically you don’t get pulled over, does not make it not against the law. The law is very clear in stating the speed that is legal in that area. If you go 1 mile per hour over, you are breaking the law. If we make it seem like this is ok, it’s very easy for people to start being lax in other laws, natural or civil, that work for them or that people don’t enforce. The lack of a law being enforced does not somehow make it right.

    • It may be imprudent on my part to suggest this example; but underage students use this excuse in spades and I don’t think they’re on the same level (that is, underage drinking and going 3 mph over the speed limit). At any rate, “custom” is a real thing in the application of law, as is apparent in St. Thomas Aquinas’ treatment of human law: “for when a thing is done again and again, it seems to proceed from a deliberate judgment of reason. Accordingly, custom has the force of a law, abolishes law, and is the interpreter of law” (ST I-IIae, q. 97, a. 3).

  • >