Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Ask Tony: What does the Catholic Church teach about drinking?

Wherever the Catholic sun does shine,
There's laughter and music and good red wine.
At least I've always found it so.
Benedicamus Domino!
Hilaire Belloc 

So of course the Web is humming with the news that Bp. Salvatore Cordileone, the archbishop-elect of San Francisco, was arrested on DUI charges Saturday night.  Neither Bp. Cordileone nor the San Diego police have revealed just how far over the 0.08% limit; officer Mark McCullogh, who was at the scene, said that the ordinary of Oakland "was obviously impaired but he was quite cordial and polite throughout ... He was not a belligerent drunk at all ... There were no problems with him throughout the night."

One DUI does not an alcohol problem make.  As Fr. Thomas Reese of Georgetown put it, "If he is an out-of-control alcoholic who can't function, that would be an issue, but obviously he has been the bishop of Oakland all these years and he seems to be able to function.  Nobody knows if he has a drinking problem or was one fraction over the (blood alcohol) limit."

Since Bp. Cordileone is taking over as archbishop of the Gay—er, Bay City, home of the embarassing quisling Rep. Nancy Pelosi, this is hardly the way to impress the natives.  But we're hardly into "hypocrisy" territory.  (People can fall short of their own expectations without our necessarily concluding that they don't really hold such beliefs; true hypocrisy involves deliberate deception, not mere error.)  Nevertheless, it does bring up a good question: What does the Catholic Church teach about alcohol?

CCC 1809: Temperance is the moral virtue that moderates the attraction of pleasures and provides balance in the use of created goods.  It ensures 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: "Do not follow your inclination and strength, walking according to the desires of your heart" (Sir 5:2; cf. 37:27-31).  Temperance is often praised in the Old Testament: "Do not follow your base desires, but restrain your appetites" (Sir 18:30).  In the New Testament it is called "moderation" or "sobriety." We ought "to live sober, upright, and godly lives in this world" (Titus 2:12).
To live well is nothing other than to love God with all one's heart, with all one's soul and with all one's efforts; from this it comes about that love is kept whole and uncorrupted (through temperance). No misfortune can disturb it (and this is fortitude). It obeys only (God) (and this is justice), and is careful in discerning things, so as not to be surprised by deceit or trickery (and this is prudence) (St. Augustine, On the Morals of the Catholic Church 1:25:46).
 I start off with this citation because alcohol, like many things, is neither good nor evil in itself.  If you cherry-pick Scripture, you can come out with as many proof-texts singing the delights of wine as those which warn against drinking.

  • In Deuteronomy 14:22-26, God instructs the Israelites, "You shall tithe all the yield of your seed, which comes forth from the field year by year.  And before the LORD your God, in the place which he will choose, to make his name dwell there, you shall eat the tithe of your grain, of your wine, and of your oil, and the firstlings of your herd and flock; that you may learn to fear the LORD your God always.  And if the way is too long for you, so that you are not able to bring the tithe, when the LORD your God blesses you, because the place is too far from you, which the LORD your God chooses, to set his name there, then you shall turn it into money, and bind up the money in your hand, and go to the place which the LORD your God chooses, and 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."
  • Ecclesiastes 9:7: "Go, eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart; for God has already approved what you do."  BUT:
  •  Proverbs 20:1: "Wine is a mocker, strong drink a brawler; and whoever is led astray by it is not wise."  ON THE OTHER HAND:
  •  Isaiah 25:6: "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."  BUT IN THE SAME BOOK:
  • Isaiah 5:11, 22-23: "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! ... Woe to those who are heroes at drinking wine, and valiant men in mixing strong drink, who acquit the guilty for a bribe, and deprive the innocent of his right!"
It gets no clearer in the New Testament, for St. Paul  tells the Ephesians not to get drunk with wine, "for that is debauchery" (Eph 5:18), but also tells St. Timothy (much like a clucky mother hen), "No longer drink only water, but use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments" (1 Tim 5:23).

Temperance, or moderation, is the key to the riddle.  Christians have known since the beginning that the pleasures of this world, like all else, are only passing.  A pleasure indulged too much eventually loses its ability to satisfy us; such things follow their own law of diminishing returns.  (In fact, my macroeconomics professor used the example of a fully-loaded baked potato to explain that concept to us!)  Even that old materialist Epicurus realized this, and advocated stringing out pleasures so as to keep them at maximal experience; one writer described his philosophy as "approaching asceticism from the left".

Since there's no Church rule or teaching against having a glass or two of wine with your meal — or knocking a brewski back with your league bowling team — that Bp. Cordileone enjoys a jar of the creature should be no big whoop, except to those who for some strange reason think the Catholic Church is against having a good time.  Just check out the reception after a Catholic wedding.

Laughter and music and good red wine.  Or at least a cash bar.