JUNE 30/OCTOBER 4, 2016
To drink or not to drink?
If you are reading this article, you fall into one of two categories: You are one who enjoys your glass of red with your steak dinner or your glass of white with your grilled salmon, or the occasional glass of beer on a hot summer day or a shot of brandy on a cold winter night. You are hoping this article will exonerate you or perhaps even endorse your moderate drinking lifestyle. Or you are among those who believe in total abstinence from alcohol and hoping this article will justify you and perhaps extol your great virtue and discipline, so you can feel more righteous than those who drink.
I shall neither justify nor condemn drinking of alcohol. It is not my place or prerogative. What I will do instead is endeavor to examine what the Bible says on the topic and what the church teaches. The decision on whether or not to drink, how much to drink, and how often, will be entirely yours in the light of the arguments I present.
Alcohol in the Bible
Let’s begin with the Bible. What does the Bible say about alcohol? A lot in fact. Wine and other alcoholic drinks are mentioned frequently in the Bible, both in the Old and the New Testaments. The Bible will point out if alcohol is harmful or beneficial. The Bible uses the word “wine” or “strong drink” to refer to alcohol. In the context of this article, the word wine is synonymous with alcohol.
The first mention of wine in the Bible is in the book of Genesis. In Genesis 14:18 we read that Melchizedek, king of Salem and a priest of the Most High God, ” brought out bread and wine” as he blessed Abram. I argue, that if wine was evil, it would certainly not be used by a priest of the Most High God as an offering to God. The offering which included wine, pleased God and Abram was blessed through it.
In Genesis 9:20 and following, we see a darker side of alcohol. Noah plants a vineyard and decides to taste some of the wine from his harvest and becomes drunk. In his drunkenness, he commits a sin by exposing his nakedness to his sons. Similarly, in Genesis 19:32 we read that Lot’s daughters get their father drunk on wine and have intercourse with him so they could bear children of their own, for after the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, there were no men left, except for their father Lot. Thus they commit the sin of incest with their father. Rather than wait upon the Lord to give them offspring, they take matters into their own hands. Alcohol enables their sin.
On the positive side, in Deuteronomy 14 we read that God commanded the priestly tribe of Levites to include a portion of wine as a drink offering to the Lord. In Numbers 28:7 the Lord commands thus: “The accompanying drink offering is to be a quarter of a hin of fermented drink with each lamb. Pour out the drink offering to the Lord at the sanctuary.” There are several passages where the Lord commands wine to be used in offerings, proving that the negative consequences of wine are not in its nature but in its use. Alcohol in itself is not harmful, just as a knife by its nature is not harmful. A chef uses it to cut vegetables but a wicked man uses it to commit murder. In the hands of the priest Melchizedek and the Levitical priests, wine became a source of blessing. In the hands of Noah and Lot’s daughters, wine became a source of sin and curse. At the last supper, Jesus says to his disciples “.I will not drink from this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom” (Matthew 26:29). This implies that there will be wine in heaven as well and we will partake of it along with Jesus at the heavenly banquet, of which the Last Supper was a foretaste. And just as Jesus drank wine while on earth without abusing it, we shall do the same in heaven. It makes logical sense that the good things God created for our enjoyment, which includes wine, would continue to exist in heaven in a similar or a more perfected form.
Naturally fermented wine is around 12% alcohol. The Hebrew word for “strong drink” appears many times in the Old Testament (see Judges 13:4, Isaiah 5:11, Micah 2:11). The strong drinks were made by fermenting grapes, dates and other fruit. Those who insist that all the wine mentioned in the Bible is only non-fermented fruit juice are engaging in wild speculation. Granted that the wine in Biblical times was not as potent as some of the fortified drinks of today which are 40-50% alcohol. The latter are designed for intoxication rather than wholesome enjoyment. The Biblical wines were not.
The Psalmist tells us in Psalm 104:15 that God gave wine to “make men glad”. Ecclesiastes 9:7 says, “Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for God has already approved what you do.” St. Paul advised his protégé Timothy in 1 Timothy 5:23 to “take a little wine for [your] stomach’s sake”. Here we see a medicinal application of wine. Wine becomes a medium of healing. Another example of the medicinal use of wine is found in the parable of the Good Samaritan. We read in Luke 10:34 that the Good Samaritan pours wine on the open wounds of the injured man to encourage healing of his wounds. In 2 Samuel 16:2 we see wine is used to refresh the exhausted. All these instances of wine use in the Bible point to the positive effects of wine.
The most popular story in the gospels –which all drinking Catholics often misquote to justify their excessive drinking- is Jesus performing his first miracle of turning water into wine. Every reasonable student of the scripture understands that this divine act has more to do with blessing a marriage and saving a family from embarrassment than it does with endorsing carousing or debauchery. Serving wine was an important part of Jewish wedding festivities as it is of many cultures of today. When the couple ran out of wine, they ran out of joy which the wine and celebration brought. Jesus by turning water into wine, turned their sadness into joy. There is a deeper symbolism here as well. Fermented wine lasts longer than plain water. By blessing wine, Jesus intended that marriages share the long vintages of high quality wines. Abuse of wine or drunkenness on the contrary cuts marriages short. Jesus never would have intended such an outcome from his miracle. Those who interpret the miracle at Cana as a license to abuse alcohol, do it at their own peril. When we misquote scripture to justify wrongdoing, we imitate the Devil as witnessed in the temptation of Christ in Matthew 4:4-7.
The Bible tells us that Jesus also multiplied bread and equated bread with his own body and flesh which He said He gives “for the life of the world” in John 6:51. We would think it foolish to interpret this scripture as an endorsement of gluttonous consumption of bread for instance. Wine was part of a meal in the Biblical times. Abuse of food can lead to sickness and we witness a tragic example of this in the Old Testament when we read that the Israelites in the wilderness had an inordinate and sinful craving for meat. They became fed up of the Manna that God provided. So God granted them what they asked. The Israelites binged on quail meat, got sick and perished in large numbers (Numbers 11)! Thus, food which is ordinarily good, turned into poison for them because of their inordinate appetite for it. God wishes for us to enjoy the good things he has created. St. Paul tells Timothy that God “richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.” (1 Timothy 6:17) Everything God created was very good (Genesis 1:31), and it included wine. But we are to exercise our free will to make wise use of His good creation.
We further read in the book of Numbers 13:23 that the first produce of the promised land that Caleb and Joshua brought after they had spied out the new land was a massive cluster of grapes. It was so heavy, they had to carry it on a pole between their shoulders. This lush cluster of grapes was evidence of the prosperity and abundance of the promise land which the Lord God had foretold them of. In those days, grapes were grown for wine, as olives were grown for oil. Wine in the Bible represents goodness, prosperity and abundance. It is a symbol of blessing and God’s favor. The wine used by the Good Samaritan was a source of healing. The wine at the last supper became the blood of the new covenant and a source of redemption and ongoing refreshment along our spiritual journey. Our Lord also used wine to convey potency and durability as attributes of the new covenant when He said that “no one puts new wine in old wineskins” (Mark 2:22).
Drunkenness is prohibited
Drunkenness is clearly prohibited in both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. Drunkenness is listed among the sins of the flesh by Paul in Galatians 5:21. Most people can distinguish between drinking and drunkenness. In Luke 21:34 Jesus warned his followers not to be drunk. In 1 Corinthians 5:11-13, St. Paul told the church of Corinth that they must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister (a believer in other words), but is a drunkard. St. Paul clearly states in Ephesians 5:18 “Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the [Holy] Spirit.”
If alcohol is a problem for you, then you need to stay clear of it. For some even a single drink can become a slippery slope that leads them into a dark pit. In such cases, abstinence is the answer. Jesus taught in Matthew 5:30-30: “And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.” The interpretation of this teaching is simple: If a substance, a behavior, a neighborhood, a person, or a position is a repeated cause of sin for you, CUT IT OFF! Stay away from it! Consumption of alcohol for some people can be deadly. Drinking and driving for some can lead to murder. For some it can lead to sexual immorality or infidelity. They need to “cut it off” from their lives completely and develop healthy boundaries around it. Healthy boundaries means, they avoid places and occasions where alcohol is served. They refrain from storing alcohol in their homes “just in case an important guest arrives”. Your important guest will understand if you explain. If they don’t, you need to find new people to associate with.
Pros and Cons of total abstinence
But what about the case of Samson in the Old Testament, and John the Baptist in the New? Both refrained from alcohol completely. Understand that Samson took a Nazarite vow (see Number 6 for more on this) which required complete abstinence from alcohol. The prohibition applied only for the duration of the vow and it was not a requirement for everyone. In the case of John the Baptist, he was chosen by God for a unique mission to prepare the way for the messiah. For this extraordinary office, he was set apart by God and commanded to abstain from alcohol. Once again, this was not a universal requirement but a special call. Jesus himself chose a lifestyle that was different from that of his herald John the Baptist. He attended lunches, dinners and weddings where wine was served. This is evidenced when Jesus Himself says in Luke 7:34, “The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.”
But our Lord’s purpose for moving in these questionable circles was clear: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Mark 2:17). He was in search of the “sick” and the “lost”. And what better places to find “the sick and the lost” than at parties, dinners and wedding celebrations! His association with “sinners” was not an endorsement of their lifestyle, but an attempt at showing them a new way of having fun and receiving “life in abundance” which only He could give them. Every sober Christian knows the difference between having fun in the “Holy” Spirit versus having fun in the “alcoholic” spirit. I have partied until the early hours of the morning singing and dancing to lively and wholesome Christian and secular music with not a drop of alcohol involved, and I have partied with pathetic drunkards who cease to be fun after two or three drinks and become obnoxious and unruly. But we must be careful to not paint with a broad brush. Not all who drink behave badly. Most are sensible drinkers.
Now, an admonition for those brothers and sisters who have chosen to abstain from alcohol completely. Nothing prevents any Christian, as a matter of conscience, from voluntarily abstaining. There are good reasons to do this: a history of alcoholism in one’s family, a wish to show respect to others who find drinking objectionable, or a simple dislike for alcohol. Some may abstain to keep their mind sober at all times so they can continuously meditate on the things of God. It can be difficult to think Godly thoughts when you are feeling “tipsy”. The church father Clement of Alexandria stated that “the soul is wisest and best when dry.” I was once asked to pray a blessing before meals at a party. It was 2 a.m. in the morning. Almost everyone except me and a few others had had too much to drink. One of them literally held on to my shoulders to keep from falling as he stood up for the prayers. I think I prayed more for God’s mercy that day than for Him to bless the meal. Whatever your motivation for abstaining, it is never a bad thing, provided your abstinence does not cause you to sin. What do I mean by this? Your abstinence of alcohol should not turn you into a Pharisee in your attitude towards others who choose to have a drink. It should not fill you with spiritual pride and cause you to think you are somehow morally superior to those who take a drink. The Pharisees were proud that they religiously kept the tradition of washing their hands before eating, but Jesus rebuked them saying that though their hands were clean, their hearts were not. God looks at the heart, not at our external observances. If our abstinence leads us to pride, then that becomes a greater sin.
If you have chosen to abstain from alcohol to help your spiritual walk with Christ, good for you! But rather than impose it as a rule upon others, which could amount to adding an unnecessary yoke upon them, it might be wise to let them see your lifestyle and be attracted to imitate it. “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16).
Church Teaching on Temperance
Finally, we Catholics have the Church to guide us in matters of morality. The Church in her catechism teaches us regarding the virtue of temperance thus: “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 love of speed, endanger their own and others’ safety on the road, at sea or in the air.” (CCC 2290-2291) Clement of Alexandria exhorts Christians, to “be not eager to burst by draining [drink] down with gaping throat,” but drink with proper “decorum, by taking the beverage in small portions, in an orderly way.” Yet, Clement advises caution, “for wine has overcome many.”
Another church father, St. Augustine states, “The drunkard is not always drunk, and a man may be drunk one occasion without being a drunkard. However, in the case of a righteous man, we require to account for even one instance of drunkenness.” John Chrysostom told believers “wine is the work of God, but drunkenness is the work of the devil.” He argued, “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.” The great theologian Thomas Aquinas wrote: “A man may have wisdom in two ways. First, in a general way, according as it is sufficient for salvation: and in this way is required, in order to have wisdom, not that man abstain altogether from wine, but that he abstain from its immoderate use. Secondly, a man may have wisdom in some degree of perfection: and in this way, in order to receive wisdom perfectly, it is requisite for certain persons that they abstain altogether from wine, and this depends on circumstances of certain persons and places.” In simple language, Aquinas is saying that there are two kinds of wisdom. One wisdom advises moderation. Another more perfect wisdom advises abstinence, depending on circumstances. It is not for everyone and not for all occasions. Discernment is called for.
Temperance vs Abstinence
Temperance can be harder to practice than total abstinence. We all recognize how it is often easier to skip a meal altogether than to skip the second serving of our favorite dish, or to decline that second glass of wine being graciously served to us. It can truly test our resolve. Jesus had to make these tough choices everyday as He socialized with people who “ate and drank”, but for John the Baptist it was more clear cut. Besides, there is not much wine to be found in the desert! Some of us cannot be faulted for being attracted to the austere lifestyle of John the Baptist because in some ways it simplifies things for us. Temperance is harder to practice. Temperance is not about just saying no, but rather saying “Yes” to the first serving and “No” to the second or third by thinking consequentially. A person who never drives, for instance, never has to worry about over speeding. But those who drive and yet do not speed have to exercise a different level of grace.
Temperance tempts us with immoderation while abstinence tempts us with spiritual pride. There is no escaping the test as long as we live in this concupiscent tent called the body. Those who abstain totally can sometimes draw attention to themselves. It can be an opportunity to be a positive witness or it could be a trap to indulge in spiritual elitism.
As Christians we are called to be the “light of the world” without drawing too much attention to ourselves. Being a “light of the world” without dropping hot wax on the people around us requires grace. Jesus was such a person. He was not intolerant of those around him. Sinners found him approachable. Only hypocrites disliked him because he called their bluff. Someone struggling with a problem of alcoholism should find you approachable, leading him to inquire about your story. And if you gently and lovingly explained how and why you gave up drinking without being judgmental of him, then you would have acted like the “light of the world” and been a positive witness of your faith in action.
Wine by nature is not evil. It has the potential to gladden the heart, heal wounds and refresh us when we are exhausted. Wine was offered as sacrifice in the Old Testament and in the New Testament it was set apart by our Lord to represent his blood and the sign of His new and everlasting covenant with us. If abused, it can lead to a multitude of sins and endless sorrow. There are numerous reasons why some may choose to abstain from alcohol completely. But it is not a requirement for all. The church calls us to be temperate in our drinking but God might call some of us to a greater level of holiness which requires total abstinence. Proper discernment is advised in these matters. Total abstinence though a good thing, needs to be handled with humility and done in a spirit of love and understanding towards others. Without love all our good works amount to nothing (1 Corinthians 13:1-3). The scripture is black and white on drunkenness but not so with drinking. Ultimately, we will not be judged for our drinking habits. We will be judged on how we loved God and neighbor and what we did with the gift of salvation. The bible is absolutely clear that drunkenness is a sin and that drunkards will not inherit the kingdom of heaven. Outside of that we are called to be temperate with our eating and drinking. We would be wise to follow the advice of St. Paul who says “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.”(1 Corinthians 10:31), because “…the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit (Romans 14:17).
What does the Church say about alcoholic beverages?
By Jim Blackburn, Catholic apologist
Q: Our family has always had alcohol during family gatherings. What does the Church say about this? Some people feel no amount of alcohol is acceptable.
A: Alcohol consumption in moderation is not immoral. But we should avoid the abuse of alcohol just as we should avoid the abuse of any food, drug, or other substance. “The virtue of temperance disposes us to avoid every kind of excess: the abuse of food, alcohol, tobacco, or medicine” (CCC 2290).
By Jim Blackburn
Some time ago a young single friend confided in me that she was looking for a godly man to marry. She wanted a husband who shared her Christian values, so she joined an online dating service and completed a profile with the attributes of the man of her dreams.
As I looked over her answers to the profile questions, I thought that she might have some misconceptions about what constituted a “godly” man. So I posed a hypothetical question to her: If Jesus were walking the earth today and he joined the same online dating service, would you want his profile to match yours? Of course, she said. So I went on to point out that the online profile she completed would exclude Jesus as a match. In particular, her answer to the question about how often her perfect match drank wine—”never”—presented an obstacle. She selected this response because she believed a godly man would not ever drink alcohol.
Jesus drank. In fact, he drank wine—the fermented kind, not grape juice, as some will claim—and apparently he drank a fair amount of it. More on that shortly, but first, let me point out that my friend is not alone in her thinking.
For example, Saddleback Church, a Southern Baptist mega-church in Southern California (led by Pastor Rick Warren, author of the popular book The Purpose-Driven Life) would apparently exclude Jesus as a staff member: The church’s “Maturity-Leadership Requirements” ask that each staff member “commit willingly to refrain from . . . consuming alcohol.”
Similarly, it seems that Mormons would not allow Jesus to enter their temples because perpetual abstinence from alcohol is required for entry. For that matter, some Christian denominations might even refuse Jesus membership in their churches.
So it seems that many believe that a godly man should never drink. Is this scriptural?
Did Jesus Drink?
Jesus apparently drank enough wine that he was accused of drinking to excess. In his own words he proclaimed, “The Son of Man has come eating and drinking; and you say, ‘Behold, a glutton and a drunkard'” (Luke 7:34). So Jesus was accused of being a drunk.
The Greek word translated as “drunkard” in the above passage is oinopotes, which means a winebibber, one who drinks much wine. In fact, the first part of the word comes from the Greek word for wine, oinos, which occurs several times in the New Testament.
Some claim that Jesus drank grape juice or must (unfermented wine). But then why accuse him of being a drunkard? Other scriptural passages where oinos is found clearly indicate that, indeed, fermented wine, not grape juice, is being discussed.
For example, consider “Neither is new wine put into old wineskins; if it is, the skins burst, and the wine is spilled, and the skins are destroyed; but new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved” (Matt. 9:17; see also Mark 2:22, Luke 5:37-38). The old skins burst because the wine contains yeast—the catalyst of fermentation—which causes expansion.
Similarly, “no one after drinking old wine desires new; for he says, ‘The old is good'” (Luke 5:39). Even in New Testament times it was known that wine gets better with age; grape juice does not.
Old Testament passages also discuss wine. Unless otherwise noted, these passages translate the word “wine” from the Hebrew word yayin, meaning fermented wine. The following passages show that, indeed, fermented wine is what is intended to be understood by this word:
Behold, my heart is like wine that has no vent; like new wineskins, it is ready to burst (Job 32:19).
Wine and new wine take away the understanding (Hos. 4:11). Could grape juice do such a thing? Note that “new wine” is translated from the Hebrew word tiyrowsh which can also refer to unfermented wine (e.g., Num. 18:12; Deut. 14:23), but clearly it is not intended to be understood that way here.
Awake, you drunkards, and weep; and wail, all you drinkers of wine, because of the sweet wine, for it is cut off from your mouth (Joel 1:5). Would drunkards care if grape juice was cut off from their mouths? “Sweet wine” is translated from the Hebrew word aciyc which can also refer to unfermented wine, but that is not intended here either.
Is Drinking a Sin?
Drinking wine—or other alcoholic beverages for that matter—is not, in itself, sinful. Let’s look at a few scripture passages that support this claim. First, consider what happened at the wedding at Cana when the wine ran out:
Jesus said to [the servants], “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the steward of the feast.” So they took it. When the steward of the feast tasted the water now become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward of the feast called the bridegroom and said to him, “Every man serves the good wine first; and when men have drunk freely, then the poor wine; but you have kept the good wine until now.” (John 2:7-10)
Apparently Jesus was a pretty good vintner! The wine steward’s comments seem to indicate that it was the usual practice to serve good wine until the guests drank enough that they either weren’t picky about the quality of the wine they were drinking, or they simply could no longer tell the difference between good wine and not-so-good wine. Whichever the case, this story clearly indicates that Jesus approved of drinking wine.
So did Paul. We know this from his instructions to Timothy: “No longer drink only water, but use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments” (1 Tim. 5:23). Interestingly, present-day research indicates that drinking wine has health benefits.
But the approval of drinking wine goes back further than New Testament times. Several passages from the Old Testament indicate that drinking has been acceptable for a long time:
Give strong drink to him who is perishing, and wine to those in bitter distress; let them drink and forget their poverty, and remember their misery no more (Prov. 31:6-7).
Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was priest of God Most High (Gen. 14:18).
[Jacob] brought [Isaac] wine, and he drank (Gen. 27:25).
[S]pend the money for whatever you desire, oxen, or sheep, or wine or strong drink . . . (Deut. 14:26).
Thou dost cause the grass to grow for the cattle, and plants for man to cultivate, that he may bring forth food from the earth, and wine to gladden the heart of man . . . (Ps. 104:14-15).
Go, eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart; for God has already approved what you do (Eccles. 9:7).1
On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of fat things, a feast of wine on the lees, of fat things full of marrow, of wine on the lees well refined (Is. 25:6). Note that the Hebrew word translated as “wine on the lees” here is shemer, indicating fermentation.
Israel’s burnt offering requirements—required by God—included the use of wine, the leftover of which could be drunk by Aaron and his sons: “[A]nd with the first lamb a tenth measure of fine flour mingled with a fourth of a hin of beaten oil, and a fourth of a hin of wine for a libation” (Ex. 29:40; see also Lev. 23:13; Num. 15:5, 7, 10; 28:7, 14). Note that Numbers 28:7 uses the Hebrew word shekar, meaning “strong wine” (or other strong alcoholic drink).
What about Intoxication?
Clearly, God has always allowed his followers to drink. With that in mind, we can understand easily why the Catholic Church does not consider drinking, in itself, to be sinful. That said, the Church does caution against excessive drinking. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states:
“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” (CCC 2290, emphasis in original).
This teaching, too, is supported by Scripture. For example, Paul often warned against drunkenness:
Let us conduct ourselves becomingly as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness . . . (Rom. 13:13).
I wrote to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber—not even to eat with such a one (1 Cor. 5:11).
Neither . . . thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor robbers will inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6:9-10).
. . . envy, drunkenness, carousing, and the like. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God (Gal. 5:21).
And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit (Eph. 5:18).
A bishop must be . . . no drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, and no lover of money (1 Tim. 3:2-3).
For a bishop, as God’s steward, must be blameless; he must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard . . . (Titus 1:7).
Peter taught similarly: “Let the time that is past suffice for doing what the Gentiles like to do, living in licentiousness, passions, drunkenness, revels, carousing, and lawless idolatry” (1 Pet. 4:3). The Greek word translated in this passage as drunkenness is oinophlugia, also derived from oinos.
Again, such teaching was not new to Christianity—the Old Testament taught likewise:
Wine is a mocker, strong drink a brawler; and whoever is led astray by it is not wise (Prov. 20:1).
Be not among winebibbers, or among gluttonous eaters of meat (Prov. 23:20). Another Hebrew word, caba, translated as “drunkard” or “winebibber,” is used in this passage.
Woe to those who rise early in the morning, that they may run after strong drink, who tarry late into the evening till wine inflames them! (Is. 5:11). “Strong drink” is translated from the Hebrew word shekar—this applies also to Is. 5:22.
Woe to those who are heroes at drinking wine, and valiant men in mixing strong drink (Is 5:22).
See also the story related in Proverbs 23, verses 29-35.
Should We Abstain?
So far we have seen from Scripture that drinking, in itself, is not sinful but excessive drinking is clearly warned against. But Scripture passages also indicate that there are circumstances in which one should not drink at all.
For example, when it would lead someone else into sin: “Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for anyone to make others fall by what he eats; it is right not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that makes your brother stumble” (Rom. 14:20-21). This seems clear enough—when you’re with an alcoholic it is good to be careful not to tempt him to drink. But this doesn’t mean you should never drink.
In the Old Testament, God forbids Aaron and his sons from drinking on occasion:
“Drink no wine nor strong drink, you nor your sons with you, when you go into the tent of meeting, lest you die; it shall be a statute for ever throughout your generations.” (Lev. 10:9)
We also find in the Old Testament a special sort of consecration to God through vows which included not drinking: “When either a man or a woman makes a special vow, the vow of a Nazirite, to separate himself to the Lord, he shall separate himself from wine and strong drink . . .” (Num. 6:2-3; cf. Judg. 13:7). It is possible that John the Baptist took such vows—see Luke 7:33.
We can see, then, that if we take Scripture as our guide, then drinking, in itself, is not a sin, but we should not drink excessively. Cheers!
The Bible does not forbid alcohol
By Trent Horn, July 31, 2014
For the past few weeks I have been consumed writing a book on Bible difficulties. By “Bible difficulties” I mean the tough passages in scripture that critics (usually atheists) use to try and prove that the Bible is not the inspired Word of God. They say these verses show the Bible is instead a mere collection of fables that were penned by “Bronze Age goat-herders.”
The typical objections include arguments that the Bible condones slavery and genocide, that the God of the Old Testament is cruel and wrathful, and that the Bible is full of passages and teachings that contradict one another. One website even boasts that there are 1001 contradictions in the Bible!
Help that’s Not Always Helpful
As far as I know, there is no Catholic book that addresses these issues. The only ones that have been widely published are from conservative Protestants, the two most famous examples being Gleason Archer’s The Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties and Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe’s Big Book of Bible Difficulties (also called When Critics Ask).
While these books do have many helpful answers, I’m always hesitant to recommend them to Catholics because they contradict Catholic doctrine in several places. For example, in Geisler and Howe’s book on the subject they argue against both the idea that Mary was ever virgin and that the Church was built on Peter (346-347) as well as the belief that the Eucharist is really Christ’s body and blood (412-413). But something that caught my eye recently was Geisler and Howe’s treatment of alcohol, or what they call, “strong drink.”
The issue comes up when the duo tries to answer the following objection,
“Does the Bible contradict itself on alcohol? In some passages it says it is okay to drink alcohol but other passages say it is not okay.”
Geisler and Howe’s solution is blunt, “It is clear that the scriptures condemn the use of strong drink,” (122) which they interpret to mean any alcoholic beverage.
Are Geisler and Howe correct that scripture issues a blanket condemnation of alcohol? No, and here’s why.
Examining the Arguments
Geisler and Howe begin by saying,
“Leviticus 10:8 forbids the priest from drinking wine or strong drink when he is supposed to minister in the tent of meeting. Also, Proverbs forbids the use of wine or strong drink by kings or rulers, lest they pervert justice. Further, many passages warn of the deceitfulness of strong drink (Prov. 20:1) and condemn the use of it in general.”
Most people aren’t allowed to drink on the job, be they priests, kings, or modern day accountants and plumbers. But that doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy alcoholic refreshments when we aren’t at work. In addition, Geisler and Howe use passages that only condemn drunkenness in order to support their conclusion that scripture condemns the use of alcohol in general. They write,
The Bible is opposed to both strong drink and drunkenness (1 Cor. 6:9- 10; Eph. 5:18). It pronounces woes on those who drink either strong drink or who drink in excess (Isa. 5: 11; Amos 6:1, 6; Micah 2:11). Christian leaders are urged to be temperate (1 Tim. 3:3, 8). All are warned that too much alcohol is abhorred by God (Amos 6:1-8). And although moderate amounts were recommended for medicinal purposes (1 Tim. 5:23), nowhere does the Bible commend strong drink as a beverage. The only reference to taking “strong drink” is as a painkiller in extreme circumstances: “Give strong drink to him who is perishing” (Prov. 31:6).
This approach to exegesis reminds me of what the evangelical scholar D.A. Carson once said, “A proof text without context is a pretext.” These verses simply don’t support Geisler and Howe’s conclusion and only serve to overwhelm an opponent who isn’t willing to look at what each passage actually says. So what do they say?
The Old Testament
Amos 6 only condemns celebrating without mourning for Israel’s sins and its impending judgment. This same verse also condemns “anointing our faces with oil” which surely Geisler and Howe do not object to. Likewise, Micah 2:11 refers to the people rejecting the prophets and listening instead to people who will tell them whatever they want to hear, provided they are willing to pay these false prophets with alcohol. The passage makes no reference to the general use of alcohol.
Isaiah 5:11 only condemns people who “chase strong drink” and let it “inflame them,” not casual drinking. In the previous eleven verses God even compares Israel to an unfruitful vineyard, which implies that Israel was as bad as a field of grapes incapable of making fruit to be used for wine, the stuff God is supposed to be against!
When it comes to “strong drink” or in Hebrew “shekar,” Geisler and Howe are wrong about it only being used in emergency situations. Deuteronomy 14:26 says in regards to certain tithing allocations, “spend the money for whatever you desire, oxen, or sheep, or wine or strong drink, whatever your appetite craves; and you shall eat there before the Lord your God and rejoice, you and your household.”
Geisler and Howe try to get around this passage by saying that this alcohol would have been diluted and so there would have been no worry about becoming drunk. They write,
It was a common practice to dilute the strong drink (i.e., normally fermented grape juice) with about three parts water to one part wine. In this weaker form, imbibed with meals in moderation, there was no fear of excess. It is only in this sense that “wine” was permitted in the Scriptures and then only in a culture that was not alcoholic. While moderate drinking of this diluted wine may be permissible, in a culture shot through with alcoholism (such as ours), it is not profitable.
But if the culture of the Bible were not an “alcoholic one,” then why are there dozens of passages in the Bible that warn people about drunkenness?
Now, it’s true that wine was mixed with water in order to make it weaker, but the resulting wine was still alcoholic. For example, the Roman author Pliny the Elder described how you could set Falernian wine on fire, which means it contained at least 30% alcohol (Pliny, Natural History, 14.8). Even if you diluted such a drink with three parts water it would still be more alcoholic than most beers.
The Old Testament rightfully teaches that “wine is a mocker, strong drink a brawler” (Proverbs 20:1) when it is consumed in too high of quantities. But God was happy to have his people consume both wine and strong drink in moderate amounts in order to “rejoice before the Lord” (Deuteronomy 14:26).
The New Testament
1 Corinthians 6:9-10 says methysoi, or drunkards, will not inherit the kingdom of God. It does not say that those who merely drink alcohol will not inherit the kingdom of God. This parallels what Paul said in Galatians 5:21 about methai and komoi, or drunkards and “carousers,” not inheriting the kingdom of God.[i]
Likewise Ephesians 5:18 isn’t opposed to “strong drink,” but drunkenness. It says, “do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery. Instead be filled with the spirit.” If Paul had wanted to condemn merely drinking wine, then he would have used the Greek word pino, which means “to drink.” Instead, he uses the word methyskesthe, which is a form of the verb methusko and means, “to get drunk.”
In regards to the pastoral letters, Geisler and Howe transform Paul’s advice to Timothy that he drink wine if he has an upset tummy (1 Timothy 5:23) into the idea that wine should only be used “for medicinal reasons.” They also interpret 1 Timothy 3:3-8’s exhortations for bishops to not be “drunkards” and deacons to “not [be] addicted to much wine” to mean Christian leaders should be “temperate” or abstain from alcohol completely. But this mistaken interpretation abuses the texts so much that I almost want to call protective services.
And of course, Geisler and Howe completely skip over Jesus’ miracle at Cana where he changed water into wine, which would be absurd if drinking wine were a sin. As we’ve seen, it’s fruitless (no pun intended) to argue that this “wine” was just grape juice. The steward at the feast even explicitly comments that the wine Jesus made was the “good wine” which should have been served first (John 2:10). That’s because the guests were now too inebriated from the inferior wine to notice how good Jesus’ wine was.
Finally, Geisler and Howe make a last ditch effort to condemn alcohol by citing Romans 14:21. They write,
“In view of all these factors, it is best to conclude with the Apostle Paul, “It is good neither to eat meat nor drink wine nor do anything by which your brother stumbles or is offended or is made weak” (Rom. 14:21).”
But Paul was talking about causing someone to stumble into idolatry, not alcoholism. I agree we shouldn’t pressure someone to drink or put him in a position where he will drink more than he can handle, but this use of scripture to justify mandatory and complete abstinence from alcohol is simply unfounded. Geisler and Howe should take heed of the latter part of the advice Paul gave in Romans 14:3, “Let not him who eats despise him who abstains, and let not him who abstains pass judgment on him who eats; for God has welcomed him.”
A Final Note
I want to make it clear that I don’t endorse drunkenness or excessive love of alcohol. In fact, I don’t particularly like drinking alcohol, and I have no problem with those who choose not to drink. But I can’t condone scripture being used to justify “traditions of men.” This includes the tradition among some Protestants that Christians must abstain from alcohol, a position that even Calvin and Luther would have found to be strange and unbiblical.
In conclusion, a thorough examination of the Bible shows that the following observation by Hilaire Belloc about Catholic culture is one that is not opposed to the scriptural record:
“Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine,
There’s always laughter and good red wine.
[i] Strong’s Concordance defines komoi as those who partake in a, “drunken feast which hosted unbridled sexual immorality.”
After his conversion to the Catholic Faith, Trent Horn earned a master’s degree in theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville and is currently pursuing a graduate degree in philosophy from Holy Apostles College. He serves as a staff apologist for Catholic Answers…
Why do Catholics drink Alcohol since it is forbidden in the Bible?
There is no Bible passage which says that wine or alcohol are evil things in themselves. (Psalm 104:15) speaks of wine as one of God’s gifts “to gladden the hearts of men”. Christ changed water into wine at the marriage feast of Cana, (John 2:1-11) and drank wine himself which led to the Pharisees calling him “a glutton and a drunkard” (Luke 7:34. Paul tells Timothy: “No longer drink water only, but use a little wine for the sake of your stomach” (1 Timothy 5:23).
At the same time the bible warns against the abuse of alcohol and utterly condemns drunkenness. Proverbs 20:1 says: “Wine is a mocker, strong wine riotous, and whoever is led astray by it is a fool.” St. Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 6:10 that “drunkards…will not inherit the Kingdom of God.” I am sure that you yourself will have seen the effects of the abuse of alcohol – serious motor accidents, fighting in the home, broken marriages, poverty, etc.
If you can’t drink in moderation, stop taking alcohol altogether. Sometimes people who do not take alcohol regard themselves as closer to God than those who do. This is unfortunate. Signs of closeness to God are kindness and love of others and not taking or non-taking of alcohol.
What does the Church say about smoking?
Is all smoking sinful?
By Eric Stoutz, January/February 2013
Q: I fully admit that there are health risks in smoking a cigarette, but a Protestant friend insists that all smoking is sinful. A zero-tolerance approach to all tobacco use seems pharisaical, or at least puritanical. Is there an argument that at least opens the door to occasional smoking?
While she warns against intemperate use of tobacco, the Church has not condemned smoking outright. There are, however, strong practical objections to cigarettes that might make the discussion brief. Over a billion people on earth smoke, but an increased awareness of health risks makes the choice seem less reasonable.
For example, from the abstract of a 2007 study:
More than 100 of 599 documented cigarette additives have pharmacological actions that camouflage the odor of environmental tobacco smoke emitted from cigarettes, enhance or maintain nicotine delivery, could increase the addictiveness of cigarettes, and mask symptoms and illnesses associated with smoking behaviors.
Moral theologian Germaine Grisez clearly is of the opinion that regular use of tobacco is grave matter, and that even occasional light use is to be avoided:
If using tobacco ever was rational, surely today there are stronger reasons for not using it: the danger of addiction, the risk of very bad effects on health, the financial cost, and the impact on others—both those who imitate the bad example and those who are harmed by others’ tobacco use or simply find it objectionable. Therefore, in my judgment, using tobacco not only is foolish but morally wrong. How wrong? As you say, regular and typical use of tobacco is deadly. For that reason alone, I believe, such use, as against occasional light use, always is grave matter. Moreover, the gravity of typical tobacco use often is aggravated by other factors, such as bad example to young people. 
It seems that the first task of making the case for smoking is to stipulate that “regular and typical” use is bad and that factory-made cigarettes are poisonous. Any additional objections that arise should be addressed similarly to put them out of mind. The strategy is to withdraw attention from the practical and move to the philosophical. Practical claims, such as “roll-your-own” cigarettes are better than factory-made, will only raise more contention.
One way to approach the issue of smoking is to establish the place of pleasure in our lives. By nature, as God created us, we enjoy the use of many of the earth’s goods for our pleasure. In fact, by nature we look upon organic matter as healthful nourishment more readily when it smells good to us. There is a natural argument that God gave us appetites and the ability to experience pleasure on one hand, and pain on the other, to motivate us to act for our own good.
In addition, we can seek pleasure for its own sake. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, with temperance as the guiding principle, we can make use of God’s creation (including tobacco), giving thanks to Him for all of the blessings He gives us:
Temperance is the moral virtue that moderates the attraction of pleasures and provides balance in the use of created goods. It insures the will’s mastery over instincts and keeps desires within the limits of what is honorable. The temperate person directs the sensitive appetites toward what is good and maintains a healthy discretion. (No. 1809)
Temperance isn’t just another virtue; it’s a cardinal virtue. Our appetite for pleasure moves us toward natural goods ordered to self-preservation (food is such a natural good) or perpetuation of the species (such as sexual intercourse). Temperance regulates the desire for pleasure so that our appetites are ordered toward our happiness instead of controlling us. Furthermore, temperance brings us to the doorstep of abstinence—self-denial that seeks the higher goods of mind and spirit ordered to even greater happiness.
One person might be able to enjoy a number of occasions of smoking and “maintain a healthy discretion” while another person might be in danger of addiction with his first puff. Given a person’s circumstances, a single cigarette could be a pleasure that he should avoid.
The Catechism states:
The virtue of temperance disposes us to avoid every kind of excess: the abuse of food, alcohol, tobacco, or medicine. (no. 2290, emphasis original)
Alcohol is a good parallel. Scripture does not say to avoid drink itself, but “do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery” (Eph. 5:18) and “It is not right to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that makes your brother stumble” (Rom. 14:21). This second exhortation is to love our neighbor, i.e., to not even unwittingly cause our brother to stumble as we seek pleasure. But general use of alcohol, as with all goods we consume, must be regulated by each individual according to his capacities and weaknesses and according to his walk with the Lord:
Let not him who eats despise him who abstains, and let not him who abstains pass judgment on him who eats; for God has welcomed him. Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. (Rom. 14:3-4)
God gives us both the ability to experience pleasure and the ability to maintain mastery over our appetite for pleasure. The person who cannot enjoy a pleasure without maintaining control should avoid the occasion of that pleasure. This does not make the pleasure itself objectively sinful.
If smoking for pleasure is always wrong, then, by its nature, it has for its object non-conformity with the true good. But the object of smoking is pleasure, which is good, not injury or addiction. Can it be reasonably held, in other words, that smoking as a pleasure is a good, and that a single use likely will not bring harm to that person? If so, then the moral question of smoking becomes subjective, and moves into the area of temperance.
1 Michael Rabinoff, DO, PhD, et al., “Pharmacological and Chemical Effects of Cigarette Additives” American Journal of Public Health, November, 2007 97(11): 1981–1991 (accessed at US National Library for Medicine, 11/26/2012, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2040350/).
2 Germain Grisez, The Way of the Lord Jesus: Volume Three, Difficult Moral Questions (Quincy, IL: Franciscan Press, 1997. Accessed at The Way of the Lord Jesus, 11/26/2012, http://www.twotlj.org/G-3-140.html – Note344Return).
Can Catholics Smoke Marijuana?
January 4, 2014
This week Colorado became the first state to open legal dispensaries for the recreational use of marijuana. Later this year, Washington state will follow suit. Echoes of parochial drug abuse programs mixes with the sound of advancing research in medicinal cannabis. Oh, what is a Catholic Christian to do? Can Catholics smoke marijuana?
One of the most oft used cited reasons for Catholics to oppose marijuana’s use is found in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians:
“Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body.” (1 Cor. 6:19-20)
The body is a temple of the Holy Spirit. It’s not that I disagree with this assertion, it’s that I believe to single out marijuana as an agent unworthy of the temple seems exclusionary, conveniently ignoring other (legal) substances that we put in our bodies. We all know that too much sugar can lead to diabetes, and that eating a meat-based diet, absent of fruits and vegetables, can lead to cancer. I’ve questioned whether my caffeine consumption is fitting for the temple.
Increasing numbers of studies point to marijuana’s medical benefits, and I hesitate to believe a medical benefit would destroy the integrity of the temple. I struggled to find similar studies expounding the health benefits of high fructose corn syrup, a substance found readily in, well, almost everything. To claim marijuana unfit for consumption within the temple places all of us in a strange space where we decide for others that which is fit for the Temple of the Holy Spirit. I would not support someone forcing milk upon my lactose intolerability any more than I would tell a returning vet that he can’t use marijuana; never mind that it helps his/her anxiety, flashbacks, and nightmares more effectively than any other pharmaceutical remedy.
Another scriptural reference used to keep Christians in recreational smoking check is Paul letter to the Galatians:
Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are: immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these, of which I forewarn you, just as I have forewarned you, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. (Galatians 5:19-21)
In his litany of carnal infractions, Paul’s letter to the Galatians mentions drunkenness, to which cannabis use is an assumed portion of Paul’s unlisted et cetera. Last time I checked, Jesus’ first miracle was turning water into wine, so the Bible most evidently does not prohibit alcohol or partying. To confuse the issue, let’s consider Proverbs 31:6-7, which seems not only to allow but encourage: “Give strong drink to the one who is perishing, and wine to those in bitter distress; let them drink and forget their poverty and remember their misery no more.”
The fact that the Bible has two apparently contradictory statements regarding alcohol seems to leave it up to the consumer and his/her ability to moderate his/her usage. To be sure, I am not advocating reckless drinking. I’ve met enough alcoholics to know that the same drink used to celebrate the sacrifice of the Mass can destroy a family.
So then, are we to have no opinion of legal marijuana? In Romans 14:1-23, we’re given some strong scriptural language advocating for a live and let live mentality when it comes to the purity code:
“Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him.”
Basically, let the meat eaters and vegetarians get along. I think if a certain Pontiff was stuck on a plane with reporters asking about the use of marijuana, he might simply respond, “Who am I to judge?” In Christianity, we’re not in the judgement passing business. We’re just not.
To me, Christianity should concern itself with what Christ actually took time to talk about, say in Matthew 25, namely: feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, and welcoming the stranger. If we spent the time and energy we use to debate the hypothetical potential of our weed-smoking neighbor moving on to crack cocaine next week as we did satiating the hunger of the hungry or comforting the lonely, we might find ourselves comfortable with the complete irrelevance of the question and stop worrying about it. Which is, after all, sort of what Jesus DID say.
“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes?” (Matthew 6:25)
So can Catholics Christians smoke marijuana? Simply concluded, that’s between you and God. Rest assured, God knows the hearts of us all. Can someone smoking marijuana, medicinal or otherwise, still have a heart that is kind, loving, and forgiving? I sure would like to think so.
By John B. Buescher, November 23, 2012
Saints who smoked, popes who puffed, and others who snuffed
In 1873, impoverished Confederate veteran Chiswell Langhorne moved his family from Lynchburg to Danville, Virginia and began looking for work. The owner of a Danville tobacco warehouse had recently developed a new system of selling tobacco by auction: Instead of having farmers’ tobacco hogsheads sampled for interested buyers, the warehouse owner had all the tobacco laid out in long rows for auction. Langhorne, a lively character with a taste for showing off, got the idea that he would make his mark somehow in the newly flourishing Danville tobacco trade.
He was an Episcopalian, but while visiting a Catholic friend in Richmond around this time, he attended Mass with him one Sunday morning and heard the priest’s Gregorian chant. Langhorne “reasoned that maybe he could supply the entertainment needs of warehousemen back home by emulating the priest’s stimulating chant, along with what he later coined, a ‘pitter-patter’ and ‘gobble gook’ that would stimulate the buyers and be pleasing to the gathering public.“
He added his own rhythmic body language and thereby created a fast-paced and entertaining auctioneering chant that allowed buyers moving along the rows of tobacco to track the rapid progress of the sales.
It served Langhorne well, as it has the generations of tobacco auctioneers that came after him, each one adding his own style. After his auctioneering success brought Langhorne some money, he began investing in the railroads that transported the tobacco from Danville, left the auctioneering business, and eventually made a fortune, allowing his family to move to an estate near Charlottesville and work itself back into the Virginia aristocracy. His daughter Irene married illustrator Charles Dana Gibson and became the model for his Gibson girl drawings, and his daughter Nancy married Waldorf Astor in England, was elected to Parliament, converted from the Episcopal Church to Christian Science, and became virulently anti-Catholic, despite the fact that, as we may say, her family’s success wound back, like a twist of tobacco, to her father’s having heard Gregorian chant one Sunday at high Mass.
Ex Fumo Dare Lucem
At the time just after Spanish explorers were introduced to tobacco by way of Columbus’ voyages, smoking or snuffing it—as the New World natives did—carried with it something of an air of deviltry because natives saw in it a connection to invisible spirits.
To some of the most earnest missionary clergy, the wreaths of its smoke and its action upon the spirits of those who imbibed it were a kind of sacramental parody of the Church’s sacraments, established in the New World beforehand by the Devil in order to hinder its evangelization. (Left: Les fumeurs et les priseurs—New York Public Library)
By 1575, provincial synods in the New World already had to address the fact that Indians, converting to Catholicism, had brought the practice of smoking into churches during the liturgy—tobacco smoke, in their traditions, evoked the spirits. They offered its smoke as incense, or mixed into other incense. Mexican ecclesiastical authorities forbade smoking in church in the Americas.
Church authorities in Mexico and Peru set ecclesiastical discipline for New Spain and other parts of America. In 1583, a synod in Lima declared, “It is forbidden under penalty of eternal damnation for priests, about to administer the sacraments, either to take the smoke of sayri, or tobacco, into the mouth, or the powder of tobacco into the nose, even under the guise of medicine, before the service of the mass.” In 1588, the college of cardinals in Rome approved the prohibition as it applied to the Spanish colonies in America. (The practice returned the 1980s, among some American Indian Catholics, with burning tobacco and sweetgrass before Mass as their way of blending Native American beliefs and Catholic liturgy).
But the issue did not confine itself to the Americas. The use of tobacco—smoking, snuffing, and chewing0was very quickly spreading across the Old World too. And spreading among both laity and clergy. The matter was confusing: There was no shortage of people who abhorred the use of tobacco as unhealthy, dirty, addicting, and even sinful; but there were also many people who pointed to its benefits, its calming effects, the large and small pleasures in its use, its capacity to foster sociability (perhaps to a hoped-for peace of nations, an international brotherhood of smoke), and even (in the case of nasal snuff) its medical efficacy as a way to clear the sinuses by inducing a cephalic purge.
Nevertheless, the issue of using tobacco in church quickly arose in Europe, just as it had in New Spain, and it had to do with the question of sacrilege during Mass. One Sunday in Naples, a priest while celebrating Mass took a pinch of nasal snuff just after receiving Holy Communion. It appears he was not an experienced snuffer because he fell into a fit of sneezing, which caused him to vomit the Blessed Sacrament on to the altar in front of his horrified congregation.
As tobacco use spread through the Catholic clergy of Europe, the Church focused on its intrusion into church. What was anathematized was not its use per se but rather its use prior to or during the liturgy. And especially by the clergy, who were expected to maintain the absolute purity and cleanliness of the altar, the liturgical vestments, and of the hands that were consecrating the Host. Tobacco smoke did not equal incense.
Pope Urban VIII, on January 30, 1642 issued a bull Cum Ecclesiae, in which he responded to complaints by the Dean of the Cathedral of Seville, by declaring that anyone taking tobacco by mouth or nose, either in whole pieces, shredded, powdered, or smoked in a pipe, in the churches in the Diocese of Seville, would receive the penalty of excommunication latae sententiae.
The reason for the prohibition, he explained, was to protect the Mass and the churches from defilement. In Seville, the bad habit of using tobacco had increased so much, he said, that men and women, clergy and laity, “either while they were performing their services in the choir and at the altar, or while they were listening to the Mass and the divine offices, [who] were not at the same time, and with great irreverence, taking tobacco; and with fetid excrements sullying the altar, holy place places and pavements of the churches of that diocese.” Some priests, apparently, had gone so far as to place their snuff-boxes on the altar while they were saying Mass.
Then, in Rome, a taunting pasquinade appeared as a comment on the bull: “Contra folium quod vento rapitur ostendis potentiam tuam, et stipulam siccam persequeris.” (“Wilt thou frighten a driven leaf and pursue dry chaff?” Job 13:25).
This ban has generated a vast amount of urban (Urban?) legend over the centuries, compounded by corrupted hearsay and misattribution—some reported this as a worldwide ban on the use of tobacco, some attributed it to the wrong pope or gave the wrong date, and some have even said that the pope banned tobacco use because he bizarrely believed that the sneezing that snuff caused resembled sexual ecstasy, which was inappropriate in church. (Hey, mister pope! Keep your rosaries out of our nose-aries!)
Lately, the hoary legend has become so thread-worn and eroded that poor Pope Urban VIII has even been accused of the unlikely insanity of trying to prohibit sneezing, full stop.
In 1650, eight years after Urban VIII’s bull, Innocent X laid the same penalty for using tobacco in the chapels, in the sacristy, or in the portico of the archbasilica of St. John Lateran or in St. Peter’s in Rome, the reason being that he had spent plenty of time, talent, and money embellishing them, installing precious marbles into the floors and ornamenting the chapels with bas-reliefs, and he did not want them sullied with tobacco juice and smoke. Innocent XI later reiterated the bull.
By 1685, some theologians were debating whether Urban VIII’s and Innocent X’s bulls might be implicitly understood to apply to the Church Universal, and, if so, they wondered how it applied to all of a church’s property (not just the sanctuary and the sacristy; some wondered whether the rectory was included).
Although Benedict XIII (a snuff-taker himself) reinforced the necessity to keep tobacco away from the altar and the tabernacle, in 1725 he revoked the penalty of excommunication for smoking in St. Peter’s, because he recognized that church-goers were frequently slipping out of Mass for a while to catch a smoke or a snuff, and he had decided it better for them to stay inside and not disrupt or disturb the liturgy or miss part of it.
Did using tobacco break the fast before Communion? Alphonsus Liguori (who was himself a snuff-taker), in his instruction manual for confessors, held that “tobacco taken through the nose does not break the fast, even though a portion of it should descend to the stomach.” Nor “does the smoke of a cigarette break it,” nor even tobacco chewed or “ground by the teeth provided the juice is spit out.” Others of the time agreed, clarifying that if a significant amount of chewing tobacco was swallowed, the fast was broken.
The Pope’s Nose
Benedict XIV was also a snuff-taker. He is said to have once offered his snuffbox to the head of some religious order, who declined to take a pinch of snuff, saying, “Your Holiness, I do not have that vice,” to which the pope replied, “It is not a vice. If it were a vice you would have it.”
Pius IX was an inveterate snuff-taker, and was so effusive and constant in it that he often had to change his long white soutane a few times a day—it was white, after all, and the snuff dust would settle on it. He offered snuff, and snuff-boxes to visitors. The Church had established a monopoly on the tobacco trade in the Papal States and, in 1863, during his pontificate, consolidated its tobacco processing operations under the Pontifical Director of Salt and Tobacco in a newly erected building on the Piazza Mastai in the Trastevere district in Rome.
When the representative of Victor Emmanuel came to him to submit conditions that the pontiff believed were unacceptable, the pope “beat on the table with a snuff box, which then broke.” The representative “left so confused he appeared dizzy.” In 1871, the pope also, during the time he was the “prisoner of the Vatican,” offered up his “gold snuff-box, exquisitely carved with two symbolic lambs in the midst of flowers and foliage,” to be offered as the prize in a worldwide lottery to raise money for the Church. (Right: Audience with Pope Pius IX—Library of Congress)
Leo XIII favored snuff. Before he became pope, he had served for a time as papal nuncio in Brussels and enjoyed the conversation and company of the cultured and easy-going aristocrats there. One evening at dinner, a certain Count, who was a Freethinker, thought he would have a little fun at the nuncio’s expense, and he handed him a snuff box to examine, which had on its cover a miniature painting of a beautiful nude Venus. “The men of the party watched the progress of the joke, and as for the Count he was choking with laughter, until the Nuncio deferentially returned the box with the remark: ‘Very pretty, indeed, Count. I presume it is the portrait of the Countess?'” Toward the end of the pope’s life, he suffered when he had to give up tobacco on the advice of his physicians.
How about other modern popes? Pius X took snuff and smoked cigars. Benedict XV did not smoke and did not like others’ smoke. Pius XI smoked an occasional cigar. Pius XII did not smoke. And John XXIII smoked cigarettes.
Paul VI was a non-smoker. So was John Paul I, though Vatican officials appeared to hint—just after his sudden, perplexing death—that his final ill health might be due to heavy smoking.
John Paul II did not smoke, but Pope Benedict XVI reportedly does (or once did), apparently favoring Marlboros.
Venerable Marie Thérèse de Lamourous, having been shown the mantle of St. Teresa of Avila in the Carmelite convent in Paris, was allowed to put it on: “I kissed it; I pressed it upon me,” she wrote, “I remarked everything, even the little stains, which seemed to be of Spanish snuff.”
Tobacco use became an issue during the beatification investigations of Joseph of Cupertino, John Bosco, and Philip Neri. With the first two, the devil’s advocates argued that heroic virtue did not apply because they used tobacco. Joseph’s advocate argued, based on interviews with Joseph during his life, that his smoking was an aid to his holiness, helping him stay up at night for his devotions and extend his fasting. In the case of Philip Neri, the examination of his corpse during the investigation showed that the soft tissues of his nose had gone and so his body was not incorruptible. It was suggested that this was due to his heavy use of snuff. But these were weak arguments against their saintliness.
Bernadette Soubirous had childhood asthma and her physician prescribed snuff for it (her snuff box is on display at Lourdes, right). When she was sixteen, in school, she later remembered, “One Sister was shocked when I started everybody sneezing by passing snuff around while she droned away in French.” After she had entered the convent later in life, “She produced her snuff box at recreation one day, to the great scandal of a Sister. She cried out: ‘Oh, Sister Marie-Bernard, you will never be canonized.’
‘Why not?’ asked the ‘snuffer.’ ‘Because you snuff. That bad habit almost disqualified St. Vincent de Paul.’ ‘And you, Sister Chantal,’ twinkled Sister Marie-Bernard in reply, ‘you are going to be canonized because you don’t indulge.'”
St. John Vianney took snuff, often during his hours-long sessions hearing confessions. Padre Pio kept his snuff in a little pocket of his habit, and passed snuff around to his visitors. A biographer wrote that, “One evening, during a conference with oncologists, in the midst of a report on cancer research, Padre Pio turned to one of the men and asked, ‘Do you smoke?’ When the man replied in the affirmative, Pio, pointing his finger censoriously, chided, ‘That’s very bad,’ then, with almost the same breath, turned to another doctor and asked, ‘Have you got any snuff?'”
A Jesuit was asked whether it was licit to smoke a cigar while praying, and his answer was an unequivocal “no.” However, the subtle Jesuit quickly added that, while it was not licit to smoke a cigar while praying, it was perfectly licit to pray while smoking a cigar. —St. Holger’s Cigar Club
In the 16th and 17th centuries the Jesuits developed large tobacco plantations in Central and South America and held financial interests in retaining revenues from them. Dominicans, Franciscans, and Augustinians had similar arrangements in Central America.
During this time, the Jesuits, fond of their snuff, were accused by their Protestant and secular opponents, without any evidence that I have found, of carrying poisoned snuff about their persons and offering it to those they attempted to assassinate. “Jesuit snuff,” this imaginary stuff came to be called. The fear surrounding it appears to have been most intense after tens of thousands of barrels holding fifty tons of Spanish snuff were captured from Spanish ships in Vigo Bay in 1702 by English admiral Thomas Hopsonn and found their way into the British market.
At the same time, Jesuit missionaries introduced the snuff they loved to China’s capitol during the Manchu dynasty, about 1715. For some time, Chinese converts to Catholicism were called “snuff-takers” by their countrymen and handled the manufacture and selling of snuff in Beijing. Many Tibetan Buddhist monks are still quite fond of snuff.
The Jesuits were not alone among the mendicant orders in their love of snuff. Laurence Sterne, author of Tristram Shandy, also wrote A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy in 1768, in which he described an incident—edifying and humbling to him—of exchanging snuff boxes with a poor friar. But during the 19th century, the fashion of using nasal snuff faded away, and cigar, pipe, and then cigarette smoking replaced it. Literary sources show that taking snuff was more and more left to the old and the poor, and to certain conservative clergy who persisted with their snuff rather than switch to smoking.
In an 1846 letter, Fr. William Faber, Priest of the Oratory of St. Philip Neri, wrote, “At Florence, the Superior of the Camaldolese expressed a great desire to see me; he was ill in bed, and his bed full of snuff; he seized my head, buried it in the snuffy-clothes, and kissed me most unmercifully.”
“Ten Years in Rome,” an unsigned article published in 1870 in The Galaxy magazine, tells us, regarding Capuchin friars, “You see the specimen going about Rome in his dark-brown habit (from which keep clear), his black horn snuff-box, and his filthy blue cotton handkerchief stuffed in his sleeve, and his wallet hanging on his arm.”
And Maud Howe, in an article published in The Outlook, entitled “Roman Codgers and Solitaries,” commented, in 1898, upon a begging friar offering her a pinch of snuff from a shabby horn snuff-box. “Snuff is still taken in Italy by the old and the old-fashioned,” she wrote, “and it has the sanction of the clergy. In Rome it is thought hardly seemly for a priest to smoke; they nearly all use snuff; indeed, I have seen a priest take a sly pinch while officiating at the altar.”
An editorial writer in the Dublin Review of 1847 lamented that those making initial inquiries into the Faith often discovered “that the Catholic priests are generally only a poor, ill-instructed, snuff-taking, common sort of persons.” Ironically, the author wished for a different sort of priest, a “wise and winning” one—and gave as an example St. Philip Neri.
Into the 20th century, the dusting of clerical snuff signified being old-fashioned and out of touch, for James Joyce added the detail to his description of the decrepit priest, Fr. Flynn, in Dubliners.
In September 1957, Pius XII addressed the General Congregation of the Society of Jesus in Rome. He used the occasion to urge the Jesuits—as well as other religious orders—to tighten their discipline, and embrace austerity, partly by eliminating “superficial articles” from their lives, including “not a few comforts that laymen may legitimately demand.” “Among these,” he said, “must be included the use of tobacco, today so widespread and indulged in.” In the same spirit of abstinence, they “should not indulge in vacations outside their order houses without extraordinary reason nor undertake in the name of rest, long and costly pleasure trips.”
By 1964, the Jesuit magazine America was commending the U.S. Surgeon General’s report on smoking soon after it was released.
And in 2002, John Paul II signed a law making it “forbidden to smoke in closed public places, places frequented by the public, and workplaces, situated in the territories of The Vatican, the areas beyond the borders of this State [that is, Vatican offices in other countries], and in public transportation means.” A fine of 30 Euros was set for violators.
A private pleasure, indulgence, and comfort, a means of social intercourse, a civic violation, a health hazard, an addiction, a nuisance, and a “vice.” But is using tobacco per se a sin? That question, dear reader, is, as they say, above my pay grade.
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Catholic Wisdom Publications, P. O. Box 4120, Makati City, Philippines
Among the evils which society suffers nowadays, the excessive number of road accidents is without a doubt worth remembering. One of the causes of this evil is driving under the influence of alcohol. If drinking is sometimes dangerous, is drunkenness always morally wrong? Can we not admit that it is possible to drink in a reasonable fashion?
Is drunkenness always morally wrong?
Drunkenness is sinful only if it involves avidity and the immoderate use of alcohol.
The state of intoxication may be divided into three cases:
First case: If one drinks alcohol and is completely unaware that one is doing so to excess or that the drink is intoxicating, the consequential drunkenness is not culpable. That is, the complete inadvertence excludes sin. Such was, for example, the case of Noah after the flood (Gen. IX 20-21).
Second case: If while drinking, one is conscious of an excessive intake of alcohol, but sincerely unaware that drunkenness could follow, there is therefore only a small or venial sin.
Third case: If one is perfectly aware of drinking in an excessive fashion and willingly accepts that drunkenness can follow, there is therefore a grave or mortal sin. In this case the deliberation and consent are complete and entire.
Why such strictness over culpable drunkenness?
First reason: Drunkenness deprives us more or less of the use of reason. Now reason is one of the faculties which distinguish human beings from animals. To deliberately lose the use of reason reduces us to a level lower than that of animals because animals benefit from the instinct of self-preservation which the drunken person has lost.
Second reason: Drunkenness deprives us more or less of the use of reason. Now it is through our reason that we adhere to goodness and avoid evil. To deliberately lose the use of reason thus exposes us to the danger of committing a wide variety of evils, reason no longer being there to control our actions.
Consequence: That is why anyone who dies after deliberately depriving himself of his reason through drunkenness goes directly to hell, as, for example, the apostle St. Paul teaches: “Do not err: neither fornicators nor idolaters (…) nor drunkards nor railers nor extortioners shall possess the kingdom of God” (I Cor VI 9-10).
Frequent drunkenness, besides, as a natural consequence, causes medically-proven detriments to health:
1. Liver failure and cirrhosis,
2. Brain atrophy and dementia,
3. Diarrhea and Peptic Ulcers,
4. Bleeding and Anemia,
5. Delirious tremens from alcohol with withdrawal.
Is there a place for moderate drinking?
If voluntary drunkenness is condemned, it does not follow that the drinking of alcohol is absolutely forbidden. Our Lord Jesus Christ made wine at Cana, and it was “good wine”, as the Evangelist Saint John remarked (II 10). Saint Paul even advised his disciple Timothy to take a little wine for his bodily infirmities (I Tim. V 23). Moreover, the book of Ecclesiasticus informs us (XXXI 36): “Wine drunken with moderation is the joy of the soul and the heart.”
But moderation is necessary in drinking if we want to avoid sin. Such is the object of the virtue of sobriety. The word ‘sobriety’ comes in fact from a Latin word, ‘bria’, which means moderation, and one is called sober who maintains moderation. This is why Sacred Scripture teaches that: “Sober drinking is health to soul and body. Wine drunken with excess raiseth quarrels and wrath and many ruins” (Ecclesiasticus XXXI 37-38).
What persons are particularly advised to practice sobriety in consuming alcohol?
Young people because the ardour of their age could easily lead them into worse excesses.
Women because of their lowered resistance through consuming alcohol. That is why, as Valere Maxime tells us, in ancient Roman time, women did not drink wine.
Older people in order to instruct the young by example.
Political leaders in order to govern their citizens with wisdom.
“We say that we should shun drunkenness, which prevents us from avoiding grievous sins. For the things we avoid when sober, we unknowingly commit when drunk” (St. Ambrose: De Patriarchis; Lib 1; Cap. 7).
DIVINE RETREAT CENTRE ERRORS-08
CONDEMNATION OF DRINKING ALCOHOL AND SMOKING