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Dec 30, 2019

What the Church Says about Drunkenness

Nicholas LaBanca

Over the last several years, I’ve grown to have quite an affinity for beer. I don’t know if I’d pin myself as one of those snobby hipsters who only drink high end beer that costs $30 per six-pack, but I very much enjoy having the opportunity to relax with friends kicking back a stout or a porter. Yes, I tend to gravitate toward the heavier beers, and it’s nice to enjoy that with many of my Catholic friends and family during get-togethers (with the occasional whiskey as well!).

As the great author G.K. Chesterton once said:

“In Catholicism, the pint, the pipe, and the Cross can all fit together.”

The same way that a foodie will enjoy seeking out great food to try, I, along with many others, relish in trying new brews as often as I can while savoring the classic ones. Not to mention many parishes and dioceses sponsor events like Theology on Tap at local bars.

All that being said though, this is a far cry from the way that I approached drinking only a few years ago. In my college days, things were a bit different, and it continues to be for many of my peers, as well as with those slightly younger than me. Sometimes an affection for a good beer or drink turns into affection for “getting wasted”. To quote Chesterton again:

“We should thank God for beer and burgundy by not drinking too much of them.”

Consecrated in the Truth

Especially with New Year’s Eve coming up, we as Catholic Christians should beware of the temptation of drunkenness, especially for drunkenness’ sake. What does the Church teach on the subject, and why does she exhort us to exercise the virtue of temperance? What have the saints and Sacred Scripture had to say? It has to be acknowledged that getting black out drunk (or really, even drunk period) is incompatible with being a disciple of Christ, and if we aren’t aware of the gravity of drunkenness in regards to our spiritual state, we owe it to ourselves and to our Lord to consider the issue carefully.

A quick look on sites like Urban Dictionary will come back with dozens of terms for being drunk. It’s these words that many of us have heard from our peers on any given weekend. For instance, “We’re gonna hit the bars and get plastered.” “Last weekend we had a great time getting hammered.” “This weekend I just plan on drinking and getting wasted.” I’m leaving out the more colorful terms, but you get the picture. So often it seems that the end goal of the typical weekend party is not mainly to get together with friends, but to “get wasted” and potentially not remember the night. 

We as Catholic Christians must keep in mind, however, that we have been called to be “atypical” persons by virtue of our baptism. We can’t necessarily fault our non-Christian friends, especially if they’ve been brought up outside the Church and are merely following the common trends of society with no one to show them otherwise. But we must be able to give a counter-witness to a culture which has indulgence at the top of its list, and we must do so in a radical way. As Jesus prayed to the Father regarding those that he had given Jesus:

“Consecrate them in the truth. Your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I sent them into the world.”

John 17:17-18

The Art of Refined Drinking

Sadly, there are many of our fellow Catholic friends who on this point do not give a counter-witness, but go right along with the culture on the typical Saturday night. We are not called to go into the world just so we can live as those who do not know Christ, but to bring Christ to them, whether through words or action. What good is it to go to a 5:00 p.m. anticipated Mass on Saturday evening when our intention a few hours later is to get so drunk that we’d rather nurse the inevitable hangover all through Sunday morning and early afternoon? Is that discipleship, and putting God first, or is it just getting Mass out of the way so we can do our own thing, without having to worry about standing in a church Sunday morning with a head-pounding hangover?

A fantastic book came out a few years back by author Michael P. Foley called Drinking with the Saints: The Sinner’s Guide to a Holy Happy Hour. It goes without saying that each and every one of us on this earth are sinners (see Romans 3:23), but our Lord Jesus has called us to be saints, joining those who have already gone before us in heaven. In the foreword, Foley rightly explains how beer, wine, and other alcoholic beverages are gifts from God. Catholics are not teetotalers, rejecting drinking in and of itself. It is a good thing to enjoy the fruits of God’s creation. Where error and sin come in is not in alcohol itself, but in the state of drunkenness. Foley expounds on this:

 “The art [of temperate and refined drinking] calls for a certain mindfulness or contemplative presence: the wise drinker thoughtfully appreciates the rivulets trickling over his tongue rather than mechanically quaffing torrents in order to short-circuit his God-given intelligence. Spring-break binges and other such riotous extremes are as alien to genuine Catholic tippling as pornography is to fine art.” 

Clearly, guzzling down cans from a 30-pack of cheap beer is not considered “the refined and temperate art of drinking”. Being drunk severely limits our mental capacities, which is why so many bad choices can be made in just a single night of partying and drinking. God has given us a will and an intellect to point us toward the good, the true, and the beautiful. Why would we willingly indulge in anything that we know will hamper our cognitive functions?

What St. John Chrysostom Says

It’s interesting to see just exactly what the saints have had to say on the subject of drunkenness. Across the board, saints throughout the ages have praised drinks like beer, wine and even Chartreuse, specifically because such drinks can have a good effect when taken in moderation. For example, St. John Chrysostom, a fourth century Doctor of the Church, once said in a homily:

“Let there be no drunkenness; for wine is the work of God, but drunkenness is the work of the devil. Wine makes not drunkenness; but intemperance produces it. Do not accuse that which is the workmanship of God, but accuse the madness of a fellow mortal … For what is more wretched than drunkenness! The drunken man is a living corpse. Drunkenness is a demon self-chosen … ”

What St. Thomas Aquinas Says

To show just how foreign drunkenness is to the Christian way of life, we need only to look to the Angelic Doctor, St. Thomas Aquinas, in his Summa Theologiae. One of the questions in the Summa that he writes on is very direct. He asks “Is drunkenness a sin?” The way that the Summa is set up involves St. Thomas writing an “objection” to the questions, typically three or four objections. Following the objections, St. Thomas answers, “On the Contrary”, refuting those same objections, and then goes into greater detail as to why the objections are wrong. Take a look at the second objection to this question on drunkenness:

“Every sin is voluntary [per St. Augustine]. But no man wishes to be drunk, since no man wishes to be deprived of the use of reason. Therefore drunkenness is not a sin.” (ST II-II, Q 150, A 1, arg 2)

Did you catch that? Even the objector, who does not see drunkenness as a sin, cannot fathom how any man would wish to be drunk. How far have we fallen in our own time and place where many of our peers absolutely do wish to be drunk so that they actually can be deprived of their reason! St. Thomas replies that one may become drunk without sinning, for instance, when they are unaware that the beverage they are drinking is very strong. However, he also points out that “drunkenness may result from inordinate concupiscence and use of wine: in this way it is accounted a sin, and is comprised under gluttony”. Many of us are aware that gluttony, the inordinate desire to continue to gorge ourselves, can be a deadly sin. This doesn’t apply only to eating, but clearly drinking as well. The next question St. Thomas asks is a logical one, “Is drunkenness a mortal sin?” He answers:

“The sin of drunkenness, as stated in the foregoing Article, consists in the immoderate use and concupiscence of wine … [I]t may happen that a man is well aware that the drink is immoderate and intoxicating, and yet he would rather be drunk than abstain from drink. Such a man is a drunkard properly speaking … 

“On this way drunkenness is a mortal sin, because then a man willingly and knowingly deprives himself of the use of reason, whereby he performs virtuous deeds and avoids sin, and thus he sins mortally by running the risk of falling into sin. For St. Ambrose says: ‘We learn that we should shun drunkenness, which prevents us from avoiding grievous sins. For the things we avoid when sober, we unknowingly commit through drunkenness.’ Therefore drunkenness, properly speaking, is a mortal sin …

“To take more meat or drink than is necessary belongs to the vice of gluttony, which is not always a mortal sin: but knowingly to take too much drink to the point of being drunk, is a mortal sin.” (ST II-II, Q 151, co; ad 2)

The Virtue of Temperance

St. Thomas points out that we of course must freely choose the action of becoming drunk for it to be mortal sin. But as it is with all grave matter, if we do so willingly and with full knowledge, we lose the sanctifying grace in our souls and should not delay seeking recourse to the Sacrament of Confession. Thankfully, each of the deadly sins have a corresponding virtue, and the one virtue that we should strive to grow in, especially if we have an issue with drunkenness, is the virtue of temperance. 

Being temperate means that we know when to stop ourselves from going too far off the edge, and that we know when to say “no”. Being drunk doesn’t occur merely when we blackout or can’t remember the night before. We can arrive at that stage of drunkenness well before then. Here’s what the Catechism of the Catholic Church has to say about drunk driving, for instance:

“The virtue of temperance disposes us to avoid every kind of excess: the abuse of food, alcohol, tobacco, or medicine. Those incur grave guilt who, by drunkenness or a love of speed, endanger their own and others’ safety on the road, at sea, or in the air.”

CCC 2290

Virtue Requires Practice

If we practice the virtue of temperance we can avoid getting to that point of no return. If we have been baptized, and were filled with the Holy Spirit at Confirmation, we possess many graces that will help us perfect this virtue and others in our lives. The Catechism goes on to teach about temperance, and the other virtues in the following manner:

“Temperance is the moral virtue that moderates the attraction of pleasures and provides balance in the use of created goods. It ensures the will’s mastery over instincts and keeps desires within the limits of what is honorable … Temperance is often praised in the Old Testament: ‘Do not follow your base desires, but restrain your appetites.’ In the New Testament it is called ‘moderation’ or ‘sobriety.’ We ought ‘to live sober, upright, and godly lives in this world.’ …

“Human virtues acquired by education, by deliberate acts and by a perseverance ever-renewed in repeated efforts are purified and elevated by divine grace. With God’s help, they forge character and give facility in the practice of the good. The virtuous man is happy to practice them.”

CCC 1809, 1810

If we replace vice with virtue, we will find as Christians that we receive a lot of help from our loving God, making the practice of virtues such as temperance not as difficult as one might think. 

Proclaim Christ Always

To put it plainly, there is a fine line between drunkenness and drinking with friends. The latter should be encouraged, and is encouraged by many saints. But the former can lead us to separation from God by our own free choice of falling into sin. We should reflect upon the words of St. Paul in Sacred Scripture: 

“Do you not know that the unjust will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators … nor drunkards nor slanderers nor robbers will inherit the kingdom of God. That is what some of you used to be; but now you have had yourselves washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.”

1 Corinthians 6:9-11

We as Catholic Christians actually have great hope with that Scripture passage in mind. We have been washed with baptism, sanctified through Confirmation, and we commune with our Lord in the Holy Eucharist. Let’s act like we have been changed for the better. Since we are a new creation in Christ, we have a share of that divine grace he pours upon the whole Church. Let’s tap into those graces, especially as we get closer to the end of the year, and let’s proclaim Christ and be Christ to all in whatever social situation we may be in.

You May Also Like:

The Real Catholic Teaching on Underage Drinking

All About Alcohol: Drunkenness, Underage Drinking, and Whisky for Teething Babies

Catholics, Alcohol, and Drinking

Nicholas LaBanca is a cradle Catholic and hopes to give a unique perspective on living life in the Catholic Church as a millennial. His favorite saints include his patron St. Nicholas, St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. John Mary Vianney, and St. Athanasius of Alexandria.

Featured photo by Yutacar on Unsplash

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