By Michael P. Foley
A dozen years ago, Rev. Jim West published Drinking With Luther and Calvin to show how the Reformers’ view of alcohol was far different from what came to dominate in many American Protestant churches following the Temperance Movement. West’s book was a fitting sequel of sorts to Kenneth Gentry’s 2000 God Gave Wine: What the Bible Says About Alcohol, and it also set the stage for Brad Whittington’s 2013 What Would Jesus Drink?
No list of comparable publications exists within the Catholic world; apparently, there is little doubt about Catholicism’s attitude regarding the Drink. The Catechism of the Catholic Church does not condemn fermented or distilled beverages, only their abuse by way of excess (CCC 2290). Indeed, one of the Church’s seven sacraments necessitates alcohol. The Eucharist is the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Jesus Christ, but it must start out as bread and wine.
But aside from this sacramental requirement and a few aging Irish stereotypes, is there really a strong link between Catholicism and alcohol, and if so, why? And what does that mean for us today? Such are the questions animating this essay. We begin with a survey of the historic impact that Catholicism has had on the production and development of alcohol.
A Wet History
Although the purpose of the Catholic Church is to bring souls to Heaven, she has also made life here on earth more pleasant in a number of ways. Consider the following:
Wine predates Christianity by centuries, but it was monks who largely preserved viniculture during the Middle Ages. Religious orders such as the Benedictines and (later) Jesuits became expert winemakers; many only quit because their lands in Europe were confiscated by the modern State in the name of secularization.
Pressed by the duty to celebrate the Eucharist, Catholic missionaries brought their knowledge of vine-growing with them to the New World. Wine grapes were first introduced to California by Blessed Junipero Serra and his Franciscan brethren, and the rebirth of the California wine industry after Prohibition was thanks in large part to a chemistry teacher and LaSalle Christian Brother named Brother Timothy. There are similar stories about the origins of vineyards in Argentina and Australia. The Jesuits, for instance, founded the oldest winery in South Australia’s Clare Valley when they purchased 100 acres of land in 1851 and planted a vineyard to make sacramental wine. Named Sevenhill Cellars after the seven hills of Rome, the operation is still supervised by a Jesuit with the title of Winemaker and produces “notably sturdy Cabernet Sauvignons of high colour, huge flavor and long life.”
Pious men not only preserved and promulgated oenology; they also advanced it. The méthode champenoise was invented by a Benedictine monk whose name now adorns one of the world’s finest champagnes: Dom Pérignon. According to the story, when he sampled his first batch, Perignon cried out to his fellow monks: “Brothers, come quickly. I am drinking stars!” Monks and priests even found new uses for the grape. The Jesuits, for instance, are credited with improving the process for making grappa in Italy and pisco in South America (both of which are grape brandies).
Similarly, although beer may have been invented by the ancient Egyptians, it was perfected by the medieval monasteries that gave us modern brewing as we know it: one saint (Arnold of Soissons) has even been credited with inventing the filtration process. To this day, the world’s finest beer is made within the cloister—specifically, within the cloister of a Trappist monastery. Other orders, such as Carmelites and the Paulaner monks, have contributed very fine beers as well.
Equally impressive is the Catholic contribution to distilled spirits. Whiskey was invented by Irish monks, who probably shared their knowledge with the Scots during their missions. Chartreuse, the world’s most magical liqueur, was perfected by Carthusian monks and is still made by them. Bénédictine D.O.M. was invented by Dom Bernardo Vincelli to “fortify and restore weary monks.” Frangelico, which today comes in a brown bottle shaped like a monk, was invented by a hermit of that name during his solitude by experimenting with various nuts, herbs and berries he had gathered. Rompope, a kind of Mexican eggnog, was invented by nuns in Mexico when it was still a Spanish colony. Maraska liqueur was invented by Dominican apothecaries in the early sixteenth century.
A Threefold Cause?
Given that there are indeed historic ties between the Catholic Faith and alcohol, the next relevant question is why? Why would a religion dedicated to otherworldly bliss get involved with such an earthly (and potentially immoral) delight?
There are, in my opinion, three reasons. First, the economic and social conditions were right for it. Medieval monastic communities possessed all of the qualities necessary for the production of beverages such as wine and beer. They had vast tracts of land for planting grapes or hops, and they had an economic incentive to produce goods that could earn income for their order. Moreover, a monastery has great institutional stability with a long, inter-generational memory and a respect for tradition; it has a facility for teamwork and for collaboration; and it has a commitment to excellence in all that it does. The last point is especially important: the Benedictine motto Ora et Labora (Work and Pray) encourages the believer to see all of his work as a prayer to God. When you apply this principle to beer, the results are outstanding.
Second, to promote bodily health. Because we live in an age where we are told to drink eight glasses of water a day and to be careful about the health effects of too much alcohol, it is easy to forget that for most of human history, clean water was something of a rarity. Water sources often carried dangerous pathogens, and so as a remedy, small amounts of alcohol would be mixed with water to kill the germs therein. Roman soldiers were given a daily allowance of wine, not for them to get drunk, but so that they could purify whatever water they found on campaign.
During the Middle Ages, “small beer” was beer low in alcohol that was consumed by women, children, and manual laborers. (Again, it contained just enough alcohol to kill bacteria but not enough to make you tipsy.) The bishop-saints Arnulf of Metz and Arnold of Soissons are both credited with saving their flock from the plague because they admonished them to drink beer instead of water.
Alcohol also served as a medicine. In the New Testament, St. Paul admonishes St. Timothy to drink wine for his stomach problems (1 Tim. 5:23). Centuries later, distilled spirits such as whiskey would be developed by monks because of their medical use. The first written mention of whisky, which is Gaelic for “water of life,” is as a cure for “paralysis of the tongue.” Apparently it works, too, for no Irishman since has been accused of being tongue-tied.
The author, plying his avocational trade
Other spirits, such as chartreuse, were produced as a vegetable elixir to aid one’s health. The original version by the Carthusian order had a high proof of 138 (69% alcohol). When the monks discovered that their product was being used recreationally, they lowered the proof to 110, thereby giving us green chartreuse as we now know it. Chartreuse continues to be used medicinally, starting with the Carthusians themselves, who take a tablespoon of it instead of cough medicine when they catch a cold.
Even beer was used as a vitamin supplement. Beer’s nickname in the Middle Ages was “liquid bread” because of its nutritional value. The beer known as doppelbock, which is rich in carbohydrates, calories and vitamins, was invented specifically for the season of Lent to compensate for the fast by the Paulaner monks in Munich. 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.
Third and most importantly, alcohol is “sacramental” in both senses of the word. As we already noted, wine is the matter for one of the seven canonical sacraments. With his customary mastery, St. Thomas Aquinas offers several compelling reasons why wine, along with bread, was most likely chosen by the Son of God to become the Eucharist. Since this sacrament “avails for the defense of soul and body” (I Cor. 11:20), we may think of Christ’s body in the species of bread offered for the health of the body, and Christ’s blood in the species of wine offered for the health of the soul, since according to Leviticus 17:14, “The life of all flesh is in the blood.”i
Further, like bread, wine is an apt symbol of the Church and of the effect of the Eucharist on the Church as a whole, for just “as bread is composed of many grains, and wine flows from many grapes,” “We being many are [made] one body” (see I Cor. 10:17).
Finally, “wine from the grape is more in keeping with the effect of this sacrament, which is spiritual; because it is written (Ps. 103:15): ‘That wine may cheer the heart of man.’” In other words, the Eucharist cheers the soul of man like wine cheers his heart. Let us reflect on this reason for a moment. Why is wine associated with cheer more than bread? Is it not because it contains alcohol, which in moderation raises man’s spirit, rendering it more cheerful? According to Aquinas, then, wine was in part chosen to be the matter of the sacrament precisely because of its inebriating effect, not despite it.
Second, wine—along with other forms of alcohol—are loosely “sacramental” insofar as they act as “divine signs” (sacramenta) reminding us of the goodness of God’s creation and His providential care over us. As St. Arnulf of Metz put it: “from man’s sweat and God’s love, beer came into the world.” Or consider the following statement made by the monks from the Monastero San Benedetto in Norcia, Italy, a Benedictine community that celebrates the traditional liturgy and 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.
Such a positive attitude is even endorsed by the formal worship of the Church. Note the italicized sections of the following blessings, taken from the Roman Ritual:
Lord, bless this creature beer, which by your kindness and power has been produced from kernels of grain, and let it be a healthful drink for mankind. Grant that whoever drinks it with thanksgiving to your holy name may find it a help in body and in soul. (Blessing of Beer)
Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, who in Cana of Galilee changed water into wine, be pleased to bless and to hallow this creature, wine, which you have given as refreshment for your servants. And grant that whenever it is taken as drink or poured into wounds it will be accompanied by an outpouring of grace from on high. (Blessing of Wine for the Sick).
God, who in creating the world brought forth for mankind bread as food and wine as drink, bread to nourish the body and wine to cheer the heart; who conferred on blessed John, your beloved disciple, such great favor that not only did he himself escape the poisoned potion but could restore life by your power to others who were dead from poison; grant to all who drink this wine spiritual gladness and everlasting life. (Blessing of Wine on the Feast of St. John the Evangelist).
At this point we are in a position to ask what all of this means for our own use of alcohol in today’s day and age, when many of the historic reasons for a Catholic endorsement of the bottle may no longer apply. Thanks to modern water treatment plants, safe, clean water in our society is plentiful; and the majority of today’s alcohol manufacturers are secular concerns that are driven by profit rather than prayer, even when they tout a “monastic” product such as Bénédictine D.O.M. or an “abbey ale.” Finally, the modern pharmaceutical industry offers a dazzling array of medicinal solutions to man’s ailments.
Despite these important developments, however, alcohol retains its sacramental value as a divine sign of God’s love for us for which thanksgiving and moderation are the appropriate answer: In Chesterton’s immortal words, “We should give thanks to God for beer and burgundy by not drinking too much of them.” A recognition of the goodness of God’s physical creation in the form of alcohol produces wonder and gratitude, and this cheerful gratitude, especially in fellowship with others, is a hallmark of an authentically Catholic culture.
Think of the Mediterranean countries where food and wine (and an aperitivo and digestivo thrown in for good measure) are not occasions for abuse but for drawing closer to family and friends. To this day, when you see a drunk in the streets of Italy, it is usually an American or north German tourist. The old American Protestant culture, especially in some parts of the South, produced a schizophrenic attitude towards alcohol according to which you were either a teetotaler or a dipsomaniac. Catholic cultures, on the other hand, produced well-balanced gourmands even on the level of the peasantry. Hence the poem penned by Hillaire Belloc:
Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine,
There’s always laughter and good red wine.
At least I’ve always found it so.
There’s always laughter and good red wine.
At least I’ve always found it so.
It is important, then, to distinguish between the moderate use of alcohol and drunkenness, which 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 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!
Understandably then, while the Bible makes generally favorable mention of wine and strong drink, it consistently condemns drunkenness. And the same is true for Church teaching.
Interestingly, many of the saints drank very little alcohol while some drank none. As St. Thomas Aquinas explains, for most people, in order to gain the wisdom that is sufficient for salvation, it is only necessary to abstain from the immoderate use of wine. But for certain persons, he continues, “it is requisite… that they abstain altogether from wine,” depending on the circumstances.
Usually, when a saintly soul abstains from alcohol, it is as a form of penance or mortification. Such self-denial, it should be noted, is an implicit affirmation of the goodness of alcohol. In a delightful essay called “Fish on Friday,” 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.”ii
This logic applies to other ascetical acts as well: clergy and religious, for example, take vows of celibacy not because sexual intimacy and family are evils to be avoided but because they are goods to be missed for the sake of a higher calling. And 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 allegedly gave “a law of health” to Joseph Smith in 1833 forbidding their use. But for the Catholic, 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.
One of the interesting implications of this line of thought is that just as there can be bad forms of drinking, there can also be bad forms of abstinence. St. John Chrysostom had to deal with a heretical group which held that alcohol was evil. The great Greek Father’s response was crystal clear: in denying the goodness of wine, you are calling St. Paul and the Holy Spirit liars, and therefore you should receive a sound thrashing:
In writing to Timothy, [Paul] bid him take refuge in the healing virtue of wine-drinking. Not that to drink wine is shameful. God forbid! For such precepts belong to heretics....
And should you hear any one in the public thoroughfare, or in the midst of the forum, blaspheming God [by saying that wine is evil], go up to him and rebuke him; and should it be necessary to inflict blows, spare not to do so. 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, follow them thither; and when the judge on the bench calls you to account, say boldly that the man blasphemed the King of angels! For if it be necessary to punish those who blaspheme an earthly king, much more so those who insult God.iii
That’s right: sanctify your knuckles on anyone who tells you not to drink wine! Abstinence may be a moral obligation for some (e.g., alcoholics), but for others it can be a sin. If abstinence were to “molest nature grievously,” St. Thomas Aquinas writes, it “would not be free from sin.”iv The same is true if abstinence is a masked form of pride or a Manichean denial of the goodness of carnal existence and its potential to act as a conduit of heavenly grace. Jesus commended John the Baptist’s asceticism because he was doing so in anticipation of the Messiah; one must be careful not to abstain in priggish denial of the Messiah’s gifts to mankind.
i Summa Theologiae III.74.1.
ii “Fish on Friday,” in Fish on Friday and Other Sketches (Sheed & Ward, 1934), p. 6.
iii Homilies on the Statues 1.7.
iv Summa Theologiae II-II.150.1.ad 1.
Michael P. Foley, an associate professor at Baylor University, is the author of the recently published Drinking With the Saints: The Sinner’s Guide to a Holy Happy Hour (Regnery, 2015). The present essay, "The Faith and The Drink," was first published in The Latin Mass: The Journal of Catholic Culture and Tradition, Vol. 24, No. 2 (Summer 2015), pp.38-41, and is reproduced here by kind permission of the publisher; and is permanently archived at Scripture and Catholic Tradition.