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The Theology of the Bottle

When he wasn’t ideating Morlocks and alien tripods, H. G. Wells took a moment to snark that “Belloc and Chesterton have surrounded Catholicism with a kind of boozy halo.”

There’s something to that: Along with their other accomplishments as authors, speakers, and defenders of the Faith, Hilaire Belloc and G. K. Chesterton invented—or at least perfected in their time—the jolly melding of Church and tavern that celebrated God’s presence in creation from tabernacle to tankard.

Belloc, especially, was known to “put it away to infallible truth” often and with enthusiasm. He is best remembered as a lover of the juice of the grape, authoring the Heroic Poem in Praise of Wine as well as a quatrain that appears in my Facebook feed roughly every six hours:

Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine
There’s always laughter and good red wine.
At least I’ve always found it so,
Benedicamus Domino!

That stanza appears to be an alternative to one that appears in his poem Heretics All, which Belloc works up during the long stroll to the Eternal City that he narrates in his masterpiece, The Path to Rome. I prefer that version—it scans better and there’s none of this very un-Bellocian “at least I’ve always found it so” business:

But Catholic men that live upon wine
Are deep in the water, and frank, and fine;
Wherever I travel I find it so,
Benedicamus Domino.

But those who recall Belloc only as a vinophile might be surprised to learn that he regarded not wine but beer as the supreme libation. As he explains in The Four Men:

[I]t was five miles since we had last acknowledged the goodness of God in the drinking of ale, which is a kind of prayer, as it says in the motto :

 “Laborare est orare sed potare clarior

which signifies that work is noble, and prayer its equal, but that drinking good ale is a more renowned and glorious act than any other to which man can lend himself. And on this account it is that you have a God of Wine, and of various liquors sundry other Gods, that is, imaginations of men or Demons, but in the matter of ale no need for symbol, only that it is King.

For liquor, though, Belloc seems to have harbored contempt. He claimed to have advised a friend with a drinking problem (perhaps Belloc himself, of course) not to quit cold turkey but to restrict himself to certain kinds of drink:

I made up this rule for him to distinguish between Bacchus and the Devil. To wit: that he should never drink what has been made and sold since the Reformation—I mean especially spirits and champagne. Let him (said I) drink red wine and white, good beer and mead—if he could get it—liqueurs made by monks, and, in a word, all those feeding, fortifying, and confirming beverages that our fathers drank in old time; but not whisky, nor brandy, nor sparkling wines, not absinthe, nor the kind of drink called gin.

This he promised to do, and all went well. He became a merry companion, and began to write odes.

We arrive in this meandering fashion at our question: How do we distinguish between Bacchus and the Devil? For even if one’s vision of the Faith does not have a boozy halo above it, the fact remains that in both letter and spirit Catholicism does not conflate temperance with abstinence, as so many Protestant groups—whether in letter or spirit—do. In short, Catholics drink.

So, at what point do we cross the line from praising God with ale to praising the devil with drunkenness?

Scripture endorses drinking wine to maintain good health (1 Tim. 5:23), to gladden the heart or help the suffering forget their woes (Sir. 31:27-28, Prov. 104:15, 31:6-7), and to celebrate festive events (John 2:1-10). It proscribes drunkenness (Eph. 5:18, Gal. 5:21, etc.), notes the slavery to alcohol that we might recognize as addiction (Is. 5:11, Titus 2:3), and warns that excessive drinking takes away understanding and leads to sin (Prov. 20:1, Is. 28:7, Hos. 4:11, Sir. 31:29-30).

It is curious, therefore, that we find teetotalism among Christians who preach sola scriptura, for the witness of Scripture distinguishes clearly between the use of alcohol and its abuse; between the permissibility of drinking—even its laudable usefulness—and the impermissibility, and potentially evil consequences, of drinking to excess.

The Catechism, accordingly, discusses alcohol in the context of the virtue of temperance, which is the rational governance of human appetites, ordered towards healthy moderation in all things:

The virtue of temperance disposes us to avoid every kind of excess: the abuse of food, alcohol, tobacco, or medicine (2290).

As for locating that margin of excess, the line between use and abuse, I can think of no better maxim than St. Thomas’s (possibly apocryphal) counsel to “drink to the point of hilarity”—that is, to that point at which alcohol ceases merely lightening the spirit and begins diminishing its rational faculties, which are God’s very image and likeness within us. Beyond that point we also court sin and bad judgment, and may become stumbling blocks for others.

But let us not let abuse take away licit use. God made wine (and King Beer) to give us joy, and the habit of moderation in all things will make sure it remains servant and never master. It is good, and anyone who says different is abiding by a mere tradition of men.


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