“We should thank God for beer and Burgundy by not drinking too much of them.”
-G.K. Chesterton - Orthodoxy
On the heels of Memorial Day weekend, on the night when the parish festival season (and Summer in general) seems to actually begin, I thought it would be interesting to reflect briefly on what the Church says about alcohol consumption.
Many are familiar with the fact that it was Catholic monks who invented beer trying to find a way to sanitize their drinking water. Since then, Catholics have often been portrayed in stories (not entirely mythical) as lovers of "drink". Growing up in the Catholic culture I did on the south side of Indianapolis it seems that some Catholics almost approach alcohol as a religious duty.
Contrary to some religions, the Catholic Church has nothing condemning to say to alcohol use, up to a point. Obviously, when one achieves a state of drunkenness, then they have crossed over into the realm of deadly sin. St. Paul says in Galatians and 1 Corinthians that those who get drunk will not inherit the kingdom of God (pretty strong language!). Proverbs also notes several times that drinking too much is a serious sin as well.
St. Thomas Aquinas, usually known for his precision, leaves the question more loosely answered by noting that one ought to stop drinking just short of the point of "hilarity". The Angelic Doctor on this point seems to be unhelpful. St. Benedict offers more sound advice noting that we should "enjoy all things in moderation." AMEN!
St. Benedict's famous saying about all things in moderation really sums up the Church's teachings on so many things - not just alcohol.
A piece of candy during the day - fine
3 candy bars a day - probably not so good
Your favorite TV show for an hour - no big deal
3 hours of TV - probably not so good
30 minutes on Facebook - cool
16 hours of media consumption a day (average kid today) - danger zone
2 beers over a meal with friends - enjoyable!
10 beers because you want to get drunk - "you shall not inherit the kingdom of heaven"
Where these lines are at is not exact and they depend on many factors for each person, but we get the big picture here I think. Moderation, moderation, moderation
Some will criticize the Church for not banning alcohol all together. However, looking at Scripture, if alcohol was intrinsically evil (evil from the first drop) then would Christ have turned the water into wine? Certainly not. For me, that is a sufficient enough example to note why the Church doesn't condemn alcohol use in general.
Working with teenagers, I often get the question on the other side of the coin. They often ask some variation of "If alcohol, which kills brain cells and is harmful to one's body is okay in moderation why isn't marijuana?" It would seem, though, that illicit drugs are somehow fundamentally different than alcohol in how they work on the person. If I were to go and talk to someone who has been suffering from alcoholism for most of their life, it would still seem like the person was fundamentally "the same as ever" just that their body had been run down. However, if I were to speak with someone who (even for a much shorter span of time than the alcoholic) has been using marijuana, I would get the sense that at the very core of their person there has been a fundamental change for the worse, as if they are slower, less present, less human. Sure it is never good to abuse one's liver or any other part of the body, but to those who say there is no difference between booze and weed I would encourage them to talk to a few people from each camp first and see if the Church's differing stance on the two substances makes more sense.
The other question I get from teenagers is "why is it illegal if the Church is okay with me having a few drinks?" The answer is that the Church, especially through the writings of St. Paul, demands that we uphold the laws of the land which are not unjust, and the 21 year old alcohol limit is certainly a just law.
As usual, I think it is best to defer to G.K. Chesterton - "We should thank God for beer and Burgundy by not drinking too much of them." I respect people such as my parents who have chosen to abstain from alcohol - that is certainly an option. However, for those who do enjoy a drink here and there, it important to realize that for each person there is an invisible but knowable threshold that lies somewhere near a couple of drinks, and those who cross that line find themselves not just having another drink, but instead find themselves in serious sin. The difference between whatever number of drinks = moderation for you and "one more drink" is a whole lot more than just "one more drink" - so let us, if we so choose and are of age, allow a drink or two to make our celebrations even more festive and joyful, and may we have the prudence to discern, as with all things, the line between moderation and serious sin.