After the recent publication of my book Drinking With the Saints: The Sinner’s Guide to a Holy Happy Hour, an associate attempted to provide fraternal correction by informing me that the World Health Organization considers alcohol a Group 1 carcinogen. (The WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer made that declaration in 1988 because of links between alcohol and certain kinds of cancer.) When addressing alcohol in more general terms, the WHO limits its negative judgment to “the harmful use of alcohol” (emphasis added), which the organization claims in its global status report on the subject “is a component cause of more than 200 disease and injury conditions in individuals, most notably alcohol dependence, liver cirrhosis, cancers and injuries” (Global Status Report on Alcohol and Health, 2014 ed., xiii).
In a sense, the WHO is taking a stance little different from that of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which does not condemn fermented or distilled beverages per se but only their excessive use (see CCC 2290). As for the designation of alcohol as a carcinogen—a substance capable of causing cancer in living tissue—I have no doubt it is true. After all, most substances on God’s green Earth seem to be toxic under the right circumstances. After hearing about all the health risks involving sugar, for instance, my wife took to calling it “white death.”
But my WHO-quoting friend, who is also a devout Catholic, wanted me to draw a moral conclusion from these scientific deductions, and it is here that I must desist. Certainly, both layman and specialist alike can and should decry the horrific effects of alcohol abuse on individuals, families, and communities. But as the scholastics of old used to say, Abusus non tollit usum—the abuse of something does not negate its proper use. One need only cite the Eucharist as a sed contra to the alleged iniquity of alcohol. Consider the following statement: “For the Blessed Sacrament, in which he gives us not only his grace but his very self, our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, chose as its matter a Group 1 carcinogen of untrammeled malevolence.” Does that not sound a bit strange?
Nor should we waffle on the fact that wine is by its very nature a form of alcohol. St. Thomas Aquinas goes so far as to suggest that wine was chosen for the Eucharist not despite its alcoholic content but in part because of it. Aquinas reasons that just as bread is good for the body (gluten detractors notwithstanding), wine is good for the soul insofar as it “cheers the heart of man” (Summa Theologiae III.74.1). And wine produces that cheer, we hasten to add, by the C2H5OH contained therein.
Alcohol, then, is not something evil but something good: specifically, it is a transitory temporal good that is capable of being used well or badly and that comes to us thanks to a good and loving Creator. How else can one explain the enormous impact that religious orders have had on the production and development of alcohol? The wine industry in California, Argentina, and Australia; rompope in Mexico; pisco in South America; maraska liqueur in Croatia; Benedictine liqueur in France; Frangelico in Italy; abbey ales in Belgium—these are the liquid progeny of Franciscans, Jesuits, Dominicans, Benedictines, Trappists, and Augustinians. Either these orders were—and in some cases, still are—traffickers in soused sin, or a positive theology of drink is more than just a distinct possibility.
Lastly, we may point to that cloud of witnesses known as the communion of saints. Not all of the Church’s canonized heroes recommended or followed the same practices regarding the consumption of alcohol. Even within the New Testament we find “dry” saints like John the Baptist, who abstained in anticipation of the Messiah, and “wet” saints like Paul, who recommended wine for one’s health (see 1 Tim. 5:23). Nevertheless, almost all Catholic saints can be counted on to hold the following four convictions.
1. Alcohol is (potentially) good for you.
Historically, many forms of alcohol were invented for the sake of bodily health. Distilled liquors were known in Latin as aqua vitae (“water of life”). In Celtic lands, the term was translated into Gaelic and became known as visce beathaor visge beatha—“whiskey.” The first recorded instance of whiskey is as a recommended cure for paralysis of the tongue, and apparently it works: no imbibing Irishman since has ever been accused of being tongue-tied. Moreover, the delicious liqueur Chartreuse, after which the color is named, originally sold as a “vegetable elixir.” And bitters, a crucial ingredient in numerous cocktails, were first developed as patent medicines for maladies such as seasickness.
Notably, two of the aforementioned alcohols were the invention of the monastery: whiskey production was perfected in Ireland by monks and brought to Scotland by missionaries, and Chartreuse is still made by the Carthusian order according to a tightly guarded recipe that only two monks know at any given time. To this day, when a Carthusian brother catches a cold, he takes a tablespoon of Chartreuse.
Alcohol that predates Christianity was also put to good Christian use. There are several instances of saints recommending beer or wine as an alternative to water, which, prior to the rise of modern treatment plants, often bore pathogens. Both St. Arnulf of Metz and St. Arnold of Soissons became patron saints of brewers, because they advised their flock during times of plague to avoid water and drink beer. St. Arnulf is famous for declaring that “from man’s sweat and God’s love, beer came into the world,” while St. Arnold is credited with inventing filtration in the brewing process.
And it wasn’t just male saints trying to justify their thirst. St. Hildegard of Bingen, who was declared a Doctor of the Church by Pope Benedict XVI, was a strong advocate of beer, mead, and wine. Consider the following advice from Causes and Cures, one of her medical treatises:
For beer fattens up man’s flesh and bestows a beautiful color to his face on account of the strength and good vitality of the grain. But water debilitates man and, if he is sick, sometimes produces a bluish discoloration around the lungs. For water is weak and does not have a strong effect.
Beer was also used as a vitamin supplement: its nickname in the Middle Ages was “liquid bread” in part because of its nutritional value. The beer known as doppelbock, which is rich in carbohydrates, calories and vitamins, was invented by the Paulaner monks in Munich specifically for the season of Lent to compensate for the fast. It is said that they gave up all food during this penitential season and lived entirely on their beer. Named Salvator after our Savior, Paulaner doppelbock is still produced today, albeit by a secular company.
Of course, alcohol’s health claims are a matter of great dispute. Nevertheless, the fact that alcohol can do damage to the body does not necessarily mean that alcohol cannot be beneficial. Bitters really do cure seasickness, and red wine really is good for the heart. And if you still think that alcohol is inimical to health, read the ingredients on a bottle of cough syrup.
2. Drunkenness, not alcohol, is to be condemned.
If alcohol is a kind of vitamin or medicine, it follows that some people may have an allergy to it and should thus avoid it (e.g., alcoholics) and that care should be taken by all regarding its proper use in order to avoid unhealthy side effects or addiction. Excessive use of alcohol is inherently wrong, while the moderate use of alcohol is not. Hence, the same St. Paul who admonishes the Ephesians not to get “drunk with wine, for that is debauchery” (Eph. 5:18) also advises St. Timothy to give up on his water diet and to start taking a little wine for his stomach problems (1 Tim. 5:23).
In passages of the saints’ writings where alcohol is examined critically, the object of opprobrium is not alcohol but intoxication. Drunkenness is potentially not only a mortal sin but the occasion of additional falls from grace. St. Ephrem the Syrian, for instance, composed an impassioned hymn about Noah’s inebriation (the first recorded instance of drunkenness in the Bible) in which he warns chaste maidens about the power of wine to take away their virtue.
Beware of Wine in that it disgraced Noah the precious;
He that had conquered the Deluge of water was himself conquered by a handful of wine;
The Flood that was outside him did not overcome him, but the wine that was within him in silence did steal.
If wine disgraced and cast down Noah, the head of families and tongues, forsooth, O lonely one, how it will conquer thee!
And to the list of age-old carnal vices that drunkenness can encourage, the Catechism of the Catholic Church adds the devastating modern phenomenon of drunk driving: “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” (CCC 2290).
On the other hand, because alcohol can be taken moderately and to good effect, it is frequently used favorably in metaphors by the saints. St. Francis de Sales compares daily spiritual exercises to the wine that a pilgrim consumes along the way in order to fortify himself and hasten his arrival at a sacred destination (Introduction to the Devout Life, ch. 13). It is noteworthy that the same cannot be said of the recreational use of other substances such as narcotics. One is hard pressed to find in the writings of the saints a comparison of the Beatific Vision to, say, snorting cocaine.
3. When abstaining, abstain for the right reasons.
Some founders of religious orders, like St. Benedict of Nursia, allowed their disciples a daily portion of wine and took it away from them when they misbehaved or showed up late for dinner. Others, like St. Dominic, are credited with miraculously filling the wine cellars of their order when supplies ran low. Still others, such as St. David of Wales and St. Bernard Tolomei, founded religious communities that abstained from all alcoholic beverages. Tellingly, St. David’s community disappeared and St. Bernard’s Olivetans soon relaxed their founder’s strict rules. The Benedictines and the Dominicans, on the other hand, have thrived for centuries.
If institutional abstinence is a failure, individual choice is another matter. Indeed, the saints who rarely or lightly touched the stuff are as numerous as the hairs on St. John the Baptist’s shirt. That said, in the accounts that I have studied, it is far more common to read of a saint who was generally abstemious (like St. Thomas More or Pope St. John Paul II) than to read of one who abstained entirely.
Either way, why would a Catholic saint wish to resemble even remotely a Latter-day Saint? For one of two reasons. First, in order to attain perfection. As St. Thomas Aquinas explains, in order to gain the wisdom that is sufficient for salvation, for most people it is necessary to abstain only from the immoderate use of wine. But for certain persons, Aquinas says, “it is requisite . . . that they abstain altogether from wine,” depending on the circumstances (Summa Theologiae II-II.149.3).
Second, abstinence within the communion of saints typically occurs as a form of penance or mortification, thereby affirming the goodness of alcohol. In an essay published in 1934, Fr. Leonard Feeney explains that weekly abstinence from flesh meat pays an “enormous compliment” to meat “by considering its absence from our table to be a hardship.” He continues: “One does not offer God by way of penance what one thinks is bad but what one thinks is good. And nobody really understands how good meat is until he tries going without it one day a week” (“Fish on Friday,” Fish on Friday and Other Sketches, 6).
This logic applies to other ascetical acts: clergy and religious, for example, take vows of celibacy not because conjugal union and family are evils to be avoided but because they are goods to be missed for the sake of a higher calling. The same logic applies to abstinence from strong drink. In Mormon teaching, alcohol and caffeine are believed to be harmful to the body, which is why “God gave a law of health to Joseph Smith in 1833” forbidding their use (mormon.org/faq/law-of-health). But for the Catholic, as we have seen, alcohol is a medicine that gladdens the heart of man. While the Mormon believer abstains from alcohol because it is bad, the Catholic ascetic abstains from alcohol because it is good.
4. Teetotaling can be immoral.
Total abstinence can be good, but it can also be bad. First, a refusal to drink alcohol can, under certain (rare) circumstances, amount to a morally culpable neglect of one’s health. In the words of St. Thomas Aquinas, “[I]f a man were knowingly to abstain from wine to the extent of molesting nature grievously, he would not be free from sin” (Summa Theologiae II-II.150.1.ad 1).
Second, teetotaling that is tied to a suspicion of or scorn for God’s creation is to be rejected as heretical. St. Augustine of Hippo, who personally did not care much for the taste of wine, made a point of drinking it at least once a year “to prove he was no longer a Manichean,” the body-hating sect of which he had once been a member. St. John Chrysostom went even further. In one of his sermons, he accuses Christians with a Manichean disdain for the fruit of the vine of being blasphemers against God himself, and he admonishes his flock to rebuke such folk, even to the point of beating them:
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 . . . say boldly that the man blasphemed the King of angels! (Homilies on the Statues 1.7).
It’s a good thing the average Irish immigrant to America never read St. John Chrysostom. The paddy wagons would have been even fuller of Paddies.
Perhaps the Catholic attitude toward alcohol is summed up best by the website of the Monastero San Benedetto in Norcia, Italy, a community of traditional Benedictine monks that recently began to produce its own beer:
[We] have sought to share with the world a product which came about in the very heart of the monastic life, one which reminds us of the goodness of creation and the potential that it contains. . . . The project of the monastic brewery was conceived with the hope of sharing with others the joy arising from the labor of our own hands, so that in all things the Lord and Creator of all may be sanctified.
I would tell the members of the World Health Organization to put that in their pipe and smoke it, but that would be inviting a long lecture on the evils of tobacco.