Why We Drink
Some readers may have noticed that references to alcohol are not infrequent on this site. To some, that may produce a concern. To others, it may bring joy. It is the intent of this page to convert any of the former to the latter: as John A. Oesterle says in his introduction to St. Thomas Aquinas’ Treatise on the Virtues, “The meaning of virtue in modern time has lost some of the original force it once had. Thanks in part to an extremely rigid moral tradition, stretching perhaps back at least to Puritan times, virtuous living has been linked with joyless living, and the very notion of virtue has been narrowed to signify principally some form of temperate conduct. And just as temperance, in turn, has been primarily restricting to restraining the appetite for alcoholic drink (in which respect, temperance has sometimes been confused with abstinence) so virtue, though actually much broader in meaning than temperance, has been largely confined, in the minds of many, to another area of temperance…”
If you would like to read the rest, and I suggest you do, purchase a copy of the book. Or bombard the VP inbox with emails until we give in. Either way, the following was printed in the April 2009 Print Edition of Veritatis Praeco.
“Hinc bibere usque ad hilaritatem per se `quidem non est illcitum, hence to drink even to the point of hilarity is certainly not illicit per se” – Dominic Prummer, O.P. (thank you to “Joshua” for the correction)
Somehow, some when, throughout the United States, something awful and mysterious happened. All over the great nation – perhaps it was in the 1940’s, with the war consuming all thought, or in the 1960’s with the rise of the so-called “Spirit of Vatican II” – Catholics stopped drinking. Not altogether, of course, but they stopped drinking in a way which could explicitly be called “Catholic”; in other words, they stopped drinking well, they stopped drinking with any appreciation of the artistry that is the art of brewing and distillery, of the highly refined skills that go into making beer and wine and spirits. This appreciation is itself an art, not to be performed recklessly, but to be practiced and improved like any other critical activity (see Sean P. Dailey’s article on InsideCatholic.com, “The Lost Art of Catholic Drinking”). Yet somehow, it came to be seen, perhaps through ecumenically Protestant-shaded glasses, as something sinful. Teetotalism began to find its way into the Catholic world, notably into Catholic universities, to which the typical reaction is either unthinking acceptance or unrestrained rebellion. Such prohibitionist restriction justifies itself by claiming to protect man and particularly the youth from the evil of alcoholism: but the uncomplicated fact is that alcoholism is an evil that arises not from alcohol, but from a lack of moderation; and keeping men away from the external means of an internal sin does not ameliorate their malady.
Traditionally, Catholicism, as the religion of reason and virtue, has sought to foster a healthy and moderate attitude towards both consuming and enjoying alcohol: in the words of G.K. Chesterton, “We should thank God for beer and burgundy by not drinking too much of them.” Indeed, drinking, if done rightly, can and ought to be an indirect act of praising the Almighty; so too, for that matter, should be brushing teeth or cleaning one’s sock drawer. But whereas the latter are not pleasurable things, moderate drinking of good drink is eminently enjoyable, as is its creation: a neatly-ordered drawer of socks may let one’s mind rest easy, but the crafting of fine beverages which bring other men great joy is an ennobling action. Perhaps that is one of the reasons that much of the brewing techniques in modern times, as well as many contemporary styles of beer, were invented by the monks, as a service of love and joy.
The delectation of imbibing alcohol is derived not solely from inebriation – which ought to be kept “imperfect” or not “destroying the use of reason” in the words of St. Thomas Aquinas – but also from the goodness of taste and the nourishment of community and camaraderie, which are in many ways inseparable. It is unfortunate that many people have never had a good beer; or, being inundated with the mass-produced results of centralization and unchecked capitalism, have never developed a taste for the finer things. As is commonly the case with quantity-focused production, large breweries cheapened the quality of their products, lowered standards, but kept the alcohol. Beer devolved into a means to drunkenness. The micro-brew revolution which began in England some decades ago, and which has taken off in the United States, thankfully revived the art of crafting beer (see Joseph Pearce’s book, Small is Still Beautiful, published by ISI), and with it the art of appreciating beer has returned; styles once hard to find are becoming increasingly common; rejoice!
Truly, there is no better time for good drink to bring lightheartedness (what Prummer, via Thomistic moral inquiry, calls “hilarity”) than that of a celebration. Be the occasion during winter, summer, or anywhere between, be it a wedding, baptism, or just a get-together of good friends, there is always a drink to match: a round of porters or perhaps a good whiskey on a cold winter’s night to oversee a discussion among friends, a refreshing gin and tonic on a sunny Saturday afternoon with family all around, a bottle of Medoc Bordeaux to celebrate the perpetual union, in the spirit of Christ at the wedding feast of Cana, of two loving souls. Likewise should there be brought levity to the minds and hearts of those in mourning and sadness; for one’s grief is often best abated by shifting focus to goodness. St. Brigid, who legendarily changed dirty bathwater into beer, would regularly give it to the lepers to lighten their suffering; and in the words of St. Columbanus, “It is my design to die in the brew-house; let ale be placed to my mouth when I am expiring so that when the choir of angels come they may say: ‘Be God propitious to this drinker.’”