Can Catholics Enjoy Alcohol?

Notes on Drinking, on the Centennial of the 18th Amendment

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Temperance societies – social organizations which opposed drinking and drunkenness – were a powerful force in America by the late 19th century. In the early years of our nation's history, drinking had been commonplace for men, women and even children; and too often, drunkenness was the result. Christian denominations, from John Wesley and the Methodists, to the Calvinists. to the Latter Day Saints and the Millerites, called for abstinence from alcohol. In the 1790s, Dr. Benjamin Rush, a Philadelphia civic leader and educator and one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, researched the dangers caused by alcohol consumption, citing a correlation between drunkenness and disease, death, suicide and crime.

Armed with reports of the deleterious effects of alcohol, and supported by ministers of many denominations, local temperance societies campaigned at the state and national level for total national abstinence. Their efforts were successful when, in December 1917, Congress passed the 18th Amendment (also known as the Prohibition Amendment) and sent it to the states for ratification. One hundred years ago, on Jan. 16, 1919, the 18th Amendment – which prohibited the “manufacture, sale or transportation of intoxicating liquors for beverage purposes” – was ratified and became the law of the land.

Nine months later, over President Woodrow Wilson's veto, Congress passed the Volstead Act, or National Prohibition Act. The Volstead Act provided for the enforcement of prohibition, and included the creation of a special unit of the Treasury Department. The three distinct purposes of the Act were:

  1. to prohibit intoxicating beverages,
  2. to regulate the manufacture, sale, or transport of intoxicating liquor (but not consumption), and
  3. to ensure an ample supply of alcohol and promote its use in scientific research and in the development of fuel, dye, and other lawful industries and practices, such as religious rituals (including the Catholic Mass).

But despite a vigorous attempt by law enforcement agencies to prevent the widespread distribution of alcoholic beverages, the Volstead Act was ineffective and the production, importation, and distribution of alcoholic beverages — once the province of legitimate business — was taken over by criminal gangs. Organized crime flourished in America. In 1933, the 21st Amendment to the Constitution repealed the Volstead Act and alcohol was once again available legally in the U.S.

 

What Does the Catholic Church Say About Drinking?

Well, it's pretty clear that the Church isn't opposed to drinking! After all, the priest consecrates wine – real wine! – into the Blood of Christ at every liturgy. And Jesus Himself changed water into wine at the marriage feast in Cana. But what exactly does the Church teach? The Catechism of the Catholic Church (2290) speaks of the need for temperance:

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.

In the next verse (2291), the Catechism warns against the use of drugs, even in moderation, unless for therapeutic purposes; but there is no such warning against moderate drink.

The use of drugs inflicts very grave damage on human health and life. Their use, except on strictly therapeutic grounds, is a grave offense. Clandestine production of and trafficking in drugs are scandalous practices. They constitute direct co-operation in evil, since they encourage people to practices gravely contrary to the moral law.

 

What Does the Bible Say?

First, although the Bible doesn't forbid the consumption of alcoholic beverages, it does clearly condemn drunkenness. In Romans 13:13-14, we are told:

“...let us live honorably as in the day, not in revelling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarrelling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.

And Galatians 5:19-21 lists drunkenness among the “works of the flesh” which will keep the sinner from entering paradise:

Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.

In Proverbs 31:4-5, a wise mother warns her son of the dangers of excessive alcohol consumption:

It is not for kings, O Lemuel,
    it is not for kings to drink wine,
    or for rulers to desire strong drink;
or else they will drink and forget what has been decreed,
    and will pervert the rights of all the afflicted.

But in moderation, wine and strong drink are among the gifts that God has given us for our enjoyment. In Psalm 104 (verses 14-15), wine is listed among God's gifts:

You cause the grass to grow for the cattle,
    and plants for people to use,
to bring forth food from the earth,
    and wine to gladden the human heart,
oil to make the face shine,
    and bread to strengthen the human heart.

And in Ecclesiastes 9:7, the prophet is clear that we should enjoy alcohol as a gift from God:

Go, eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart; for God has long ago approved what you do.

 

A Cheerful Aside: St. Hubertus, the Hart, and the Jägermeister

It's not uncommon to see wines and other alcoholic beverages featuring religious imagery on their labels. Often monasteries depend on the sale of their own beer and wines to support their monks. To name just a few, in Massachusetts, the monks of St. Joseph's Abbey produce their own Spencer Trappist Ale. In Namur, Belgium, the monks at Rochefort Abbey have been brewing beer since the 16th century, and they produce brown beers: red-capped Rochefort 6, green-capped Rochefort 8, and blue-capped Rochefort 10. In Vina, California, a community of Trappist-Cistercian monks create handcrafted, award-winning wines.

But one of the most interesting of “religious” labels is that of Jägermeister, a German-made digestif which includes 56 herbs and spices and tastes like licorice. The 70-proof liqueur features on its label a deer with a cross between its antlers.

According to legend, St. Hubertus (Hubert, in English) had lost his wife in childbirth; in his grief, he withdrew into the forest region of Ardennes, where he spent all of his time hunting. On the morning of Good Friday, as the townspeople hurried to church to pray, Hubertus again set out on horseback to pursue a deer in the forest. He came upon a magnificent stag or hart; but as the animal turned toward him, Hubertus was shocked to see a  crucifix between its antlers. He heard a voice say “Hubert, unless thou turnest to the Lord, and leadest a holy life, thou shall quickly go down into hell.” Hubert was shocked; he dismounted and prostrated himself and asked, “Lord, what wouldst Thou have me do?” The crucified Christ responded, “Go and seek Lambert; he will instruct you.” Moved by the vision, he returned to devout practice of the faith, eventually seeking ordination. In A.D. 708, he was named Bishop of Liège.

During Hubertus' religious vision, he heard the Hirsch (German: deer) lecture him about holding animals in higher regard, and having compassion for them as God's creatures with a value of their own right. The hunter, he was told, should shoot only when a humane, clean and quick kill is assured. He should shoot only old stags past their prime breeding years, and should relinquish a shot on a trophy buck to instead euthanize a sick or injured animal that might appear on the scene. Also important, a hunter should never shoot a female with young fawns, to assure that the young deer have a mother to guide them to food during the winter. Hubert became the patron saint of hunters, as well as mathematicians, opticians, and metalworkers.

The legend of St. Hubertus was the inspiration for the label on Jägermeister's distinctive green bottle.

 

And If You'd Like to Read More...

...then you might want to check out John Zmirak and Denise Matychowiak's entertaining 2007 book, The Bad Catholic's Guide to Wine, Whiskey, & Song: A Spirited Look at Catholic Life & Lore from the Apocalypse to Zinfandel. Starting with the wines, beers, and liquors made around the world by monks, the authors explore everything from Irish history to the secrets of the Knights Templar, with drinking games, food, and cocktail recipes, and rollicking drinking songs.