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 Brazen Head - Oldest Pub in Ireland

The Brazen Head - Oldest Pub in Ireland

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.’”

  1. B. Rickman
    June 20, 2009 at 2:44 pm

    It would be an excellent excersice for Catholics to, again, reintroduce the world to the art of home brewing as my husband and I have done. We brew our own beer and wine and have an excellent time learning how the various fruits, grains, yeasts and other natural elements come togeather to make a wonderful embibment. Not to mention, what it has done for our relationship as man and wife!

  2. Joshua
    June 20, 2009 at 3:19 pm

    While I agree with the statement, Hinc bibere usque ad hilaritatem per se was not said by St. Thomas Aquinas, but by Dominic Prümmer and had qualifications

    Imperfect inebriation is, on its own part, only a venial sin. The reason is that such an inebriation is, of itself, a light disorder not destroying the use of reason. Also, with an existing sufficient extrinsic cause, for example, for taking away melancholy, at nuptials and other worldly festivities, imperfect inebriation if, of itself, no sin, unless still if scandal or some grave inconvenience arose hence. Hence to drink even to the point of hilarity {lightheartedness} is certainly not illicit per se, but a cleric, a head of the family and other persons constituted in dignity ought to avoid hilarity of this sort, since grave scandal and other grave inconveniences are able arise easily from hence.

    Ebrietas imperfecta est ex se solum peccatum veniale. Ratio est, quia talis ebrietas est ex se deordinatio levis non destruens usum rationis. Existente sufficienti causa etiam extrinseca, e. gr. ad melancholiam pellendam, in nuptiis aliisque festivitatibus mundanis, ebrietas imperfecta ex se nullum est peccatum, nisi tamen inde scandalum aliudve grave incommodum oriatur. Hinc bibere usque ad hilaritatem per se quidem non est illicitum, sed clericus, paterfamilias aliaeque personae in dignitate constitutae evitare debent huiusmodi hilaritatem, quoniam facile exinde oriri possunt grave scandalum, aliaque gravia incommoda. Dominicus Prummer, O.P. Manuale Theologiae Moralis: Secundum Principia S. Thomae Aquinatis

  3. Mark
    June 20, 2009 at 7:18 pm

    I’m afraid I must disagree.

    I concede all points about it not being sinful, but that is a red herring: not all things allowed are expedient.

    Quoting medieval Saints is little better, as the pros and cons of something like drinking are heavily culturally conditioned. In the past, drinking was simply a part of life. Juices naturally fermented without pasteurization. And thank God, as that kept the bacteria down.

    However, there are many good reasons not to drink today.

    I’m not saying it’s a sin in moderation, but I am disturbed by a “defiant” attitude among some traditional Catholics who seem to embrace things like drinking and smoking just to be non-PC, as if to just rub it in Protestant faces that, “Haha, we’re allowed to do this!”

    Not everything allowed is expedient.

    First of all, because it could and does give scandal to those Protestants. Remember how the Apostles conformed to Jewish laws as long as they were not, in themselves, immoral, in order to not scandalize them. Same thing with drinking. There is no obligation to drink, generally, so why insist on it if it scandalizes some or if it’s availability and allowance is an occasion of sin for others?

    Yet many Catholics, the tone of this very article, seems to revel in scandalizing puritanical types. Why? A movement of teetotaling Catholics helps to make things more palatable for them. And does the mere temporal enjoyment of alcohol really outweigh the spiritual consequences of such scandal?

    I dont think so, but the need to “balance the scales” of cognitive dissonance in this regard may explain the bizarre tendency of many Catholic alcohol-apologists to raise drinking to practically the level of a mystical experience, of virtue, or at least to try to argue that it constitutes a positive good of personal moral enrichment (ie, the “artistry” and “camaraderie” arguments)…when really it is AT BEST morally neutral.

    Secondly, we live in a world where society is simply different. Technology has changed things. This isnt the medieval rather weak beer and wine anymore. Distilled liquor is essentially a hard drug, and the use of cars and heavy machinery makes the gravity of the risk of intoxication much higher.

    Again, if someone can do it in moderation, I certainly wont say they are sinning. But the thing is…EVERYONE says they can before-the-fact. And yet, somehow, lots of people end up not after a few drinks. At the start of the party, no one says “I’m gonna get drunk and kill someone on the highway”…but as reason is quieted more and more…it just gradually happens.

    You think you can be moderate…but so does everyone else. So did every drunk driver.

    We have to weigh the good obtained against evil caused. 1 million people have died in the past decade from alcohol related causes. Sure, in itself, alcohol is morally neutral, and individuals can be moderate, but is the good of a little buzz worth the evil of a million deaths and all the families’ grief?

    Again, I wont condemn the individual drinker, but as a society should we really allow the social phenomenon of drinking? Is the little buzz worth all those deaths?

    Also, Catholicism is more puritanical than some would think. Contrasting “protestant dourness” to “Catholic joy” is a commonplace, but the spiritual life is really a lot more ascetic than all that. St Francis was incredibly joyful. He was also extremely abstemious, a vegetarian, etc. The two are not mutually exclusive, in fact abstinence causes joy. That is what makes us different from protestants. A joy in abstinence, but not a lack of the abstinence.

    Freely choosing to not drink provides a powerful witness to the counter-cultural nature of the Faith and against the binge-drinking culture of today, which we should want to distance ourselves from as much as possible.

    The reason that Northern European countries came to rule the world IS in part because their puritan nature made them act, well (I hate to say it, but it’s true), less “immature” than some of our “celebratory” Catholic countries, who had(/have) a certain childish passionateness and incompetence often linked to drinking and the associated revelry. You cant succeed if your people are riddled with alcoholism.

    Again, I fully admit some individuals can be moderate and they cannot be condemned, but in a society that tolerates alcohol use (or even positively celebrates it)…the sociological reality is that lots of people are NOT going to be temperate.

    Catholicism, remember, rejects radical individualism. A communitarian outlook is consonant with Catholicism, and is part of what makes us different than the puritans. We believe, with the great greek philosophers, that man is not some totally independent moral agent, but is in large part the product of his society, of the community. Plato said it is very difficult to be a good person in a bad State.

    Yes, we admit free will and that individuals can have self-control and drink temperately…but it is also simply a sociological fact that a society with a taboo against drinking has much less alcoholism than a society that tolerates or celebrates it. And this “social pressure” motive is not a bad motive, in fact it fits right into the Catholic view of the community. Just because “the just man is a law unto himself” doesnt mean that society IN GENERAL should tolerate something IN GENERAL when lots of individuals CANT be trusted with it. And if they really are good people, those who can be trusted should be fine with the idea of giving the thing up for the sake of removing a moral hazard for their weaker brethren.

    Catholics shouldnt flaunt our tolerance of drinking like this. It accomplishes nothing and is inspired by motives that are morally neutral AT BEST, and at worst perpetuates one of our societies’ greatest moral (and physical) hazards.

  4. Raskolnikov
    June 20, 2009 at 7:38 pm

    So Mark… just what was Christ doing giving men who had “well drunk” even more wine? John 2:1-11.

  5. June 20, 2009 at 8:33 pm

    For the record, there are many of us “Protestants” — the word can be confusing — who are not teetotallers, and have a hard time taking the practice seriously.

    Those of us who do drink are usually able to keep from being self-righteous about it. The abstemious wing has less success in this regard, leading to easy caricatures and a favorite old joke: “What’s the difference between a liberal baptist and a conservative Baptist? A liberal Baptist will say hello when you meet in the liquor store.”

    Martin Luther, incidentally, provides a useful insight into the thinking of the Reformation churches. He drank, to be sure, and often drew teaching examples from the experience. He also ate meat, and from pictures one must conclude that he ate quite a bit of it.

    But in his writings, he frequently argues against drunkenness and gluttony and general, and in particular tries to make two curious cases: First, that the cultivation of hops for beer had created an economic problem for Germany, by displacing other crops; and second, that God had originally intended human beings to eat a simple vegetarian diet.

    In other words, some Protestants — at least those inclined to seek advice from Luther — can find in one writer the rationales for drinking, abstaining, eating meat and remaining vegetarian. (Although, to my knowledge, nobody has ever actually attempted to do any such thing).

  6. Joshua
    June 21, 2009 at 8:18 am

    Mark, if you study moral theology you will find several things

    1. In human (i.e. voluntary acts) there is no morally neutral in the concrete. Drinking itself may be neutral, but THIS or THAT act is always morally bad or morally good. If morally good then it can in fact be meritorious,if done in grace andfor the glory of God.

    Besides, what does Scripture say? It says that wine was created for man’s joy, not for drunkeness.

    2. It can be a sin not to drink. For instance, when one believes it is sinful and persists in that error culpably. Or when not drinking goes against sobriety (the standard the Angelic Doctor uses is that if someone were to drink so little as to not sense the good of it, he may sin).

    3. There is a valid point about scandal…St. Paul does mention that in Romans 14:21 (along with eating meat). But he is speaking of a brother in the Faith, not heretics, not schismatics, not pagans. It would be ridiculous to suggest that I sin by “scandalising” a Hindu who might see me at an In & Out. Do some study of Romans, and St. Thomas’s commentary on it. What is spoken of there is very specific and remember that scandal properly speaking is when you cause someone to think it is alright to do an evil thing.

    4. Indeed with regard to those denying the goodness of wine, I recall St. John Chrysostom:

    For wine was given us of God, not that we might be drunken, but that we might be sober; that we might be glad, not that we get ourselves pain. “Wine,” it says, “makes glad the heart of man,” but you make it matter for sadness; since those who are inebriated are sullen beyond measure, and great darkness over-spreads their thoughts. It is the best medicine, when it has the best moderation to direct it. The passage before us is useful also against heretics, who speak evil of God’s creatures; for if it had been among the number of things forbidden, Paul would not have permitted it, nor would have said it was to be used. And not only against the heretics, but against the simple ones among our brethren, who when they see any persons disgracing themselves from drunkenness, instead of reproving such, blame the fruit given them by God, and say, “Let there be no wine.” We should say then in answer to such, “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. But you, while omitting to reprove and correct the sinner, treatest your Benefactor with contempt!”

    and further down

    (after calling the denial of the good of wine blasphemy): But since our discourse has now turned to the subject of blasphemy, I desire to ask one favor of you all, in return for this my address, and speaking with you; which is, that you will correct on my behalf the blasphemers of this city. And should you hear any one in the public thoroughfare, or in the midst of the forum, blaspheming God; go up to him and rebuke him; and should it be necessary to inflict blows, spare not to do so. Smite him on the face; strike his mouth; sanctify your hand with the blow, and if any should accuse you, and drag you to the place of justice, follow them there; and when the judge on the bench calls you to account, say boldly that the man blasphemed the King of angels!

    5. It is precisely those countries with “hang-ups” over alcohol that tend to abuse it

  7. John Fannon
    June 22, 2009 at 4:44 pm

    Wine works wonders every day
    Throws off all melancholy
    Makes the wisest go astray
    Makes the busy toy and play
    And the poor and needy jolly.

    Wine makes trembling cowards bold
    Men in years forget they’re old
    Women leave their coy disdaining
    Who till then were shy and cold
    Makes the niggard slight his gold
    And the foppish entertaining

    Wine makes wonders every day…

    Alfred Deller Consort (Tavern songs, catches and glees of merrie England)

  8. June 23, 2009 at 10:12 pm

    Drinking songs have fallen sadly by the wayside. I suppose that’s due to the lack of community down at ye olde pub, these days.

  9. June 25, 2009 at 11:52 pm

    Yet many Catholics, the tone of this very article, seems to revel in scandalizing puritanical types. Why? A movement of teetotaling Catholics helps to make things more palatable for them. And does the mere temporal enjoyment of alcohol really outweigh the spiritual consequences of such scandal?

    This is, though well intentioned, not correct. St. Thomas teaches that while it is a sin to give scandal, it is also a sin to take scandal when one knows better or ought to know better(II,II Q XLIII:a8). The fact is that our Blessed Lord turned water into wine, He chose wine to be the form under which his substance should be made truly present for us, and the Holy Ghost through St. Paul instructed Timothy to drink wine make him better from illness. If protestants do not understand that yet claim to adhere to the bible only it is their fault for taking scandal since they are not making use of their God given reason.
    And if they believe it was grape juice they need only make a simple study of the Greek to find out that the word for wine, “οίνω” appears at the Wedding at Cana, the mention of the Eucharist in John VI and also at the Last Supper, in St. Paul’s admonition to Timothy (I Timothy V:23) and also in the condemnation of drunkards in Paul’s epistles. How do men get drunk off grape juice? There is no just or proportionate reason to not take up something good because someone else is a fool, and when I say fool I do not mean those who do not engage in it, I mean those Protestants who foolishly believe it is against a biblical command which does not exist.

    There are a number of health benefits from moderate drinking of good alcohol, just as there are health benefits for smoking in moderation (here I exclude cigarettes which are full of chemicals, I mean pipe tobacco and cigars). Moreover, since these things are good in moderation they can merit grace for us through the virtue of Eutrapalia.

    On the other hand, deciding not to drink does not earn one any grace, nor does it cultivate virtue. While not drinking keeps one from developing the vice of drunkenness, it does not impart virtue either since it fails to cultivate the virtue of sobriety, which is drinking alcohol but not to excess.

    Moreover one can actually commit a sin by persisting in the error that drinking and smoking are evil.

    We must also remember, that the virtues entailed here are the mean between excess and defect, and that mean is relative to the individual. I can drink 5 or 6 beers and not even approach imperfect inebriation. My wife on the other hand can not have more than two or she will. George Burns smoked 14 cigars a day and lived to be over 100, others might die in their 50s from cigarettes. One has to accommodate the use to his temperament and physical needs.

  10. Michael
    May 16, 2012 at 2:10 pm

    Remember that in IIa IIae q. 149 of the Summa, Aquinas quoted the writings of Jesus ben Sira: “Sober drinking is health to soul and body”. Sober drinking means getting buzzed, not drunk. The problem is, these are essentially the same thing: intoxication. It is impossible to measure where buzzed becomes drunk. When his disciple Abraham asked whether three cups of wine was a lot, Abba Sisoes answered: “If Satan is not in it, it is not much.”

  11. April 25, 2013 at 11:35 am

    very nice post, i certainly enjoy this site, persist in it

  12. May 8, 2013 at 6:57 pm

    Outstanding. I agree.

  1. January 21, 2014 at 6:55 pm
  2. February 10, 2022 at 3:43 pm

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