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Catholic Beverages: Moored by Reason and Time Print E-mail
By Brad Miner   
Monday, 02 January 2012

It’s the day after the day after the day when some may have consumed too much wine and spirits, Champagne and beer, so I offer a reflection on drinking what Dr. Royal has called “Catholic beverages.”

I grew up attending a Methodist church where “communion” was received irregularly on the first Sunday of the month and involved a circular silver tray in the center of which was a glass dish with cut-up pieces of leavened bread. Around the tray’s perimeter were small holes in which were tiny paper cups of grape juice. The tray was passed – rather like the collection plate – aisle-by-aisle, person-to-person: Take a piece of white bread; drink a little Welch’s.

Then I became Catholic and got real wine – not to mention the Real Presence! – although not good wine: not a hardy red but something white and sweet. (I understand about the protection of altar linens, but cheap Sauterne?)

Wine used in religious ceremony is an ancient practice: sacramental and safe. Unless you had a deep well source, for most of human history it could be death to drink water. There were purification systems (heating, filtration) as far back as 2000 B.C., and a reason the Dark Ages really were a bit dark is because much of this knowledge disappeared, only to reappear in the middle of the nineteenth century, thanks to the likes of Pasteur and Lister.

With regard to altar wine, the Codex Iuris Canonici (specifically Canon 924), states that the wine must be “made from grapes of the vine, and not corrupt” – not become vinegary, in other words, and not made from apples or dandelions. CIC also states that the “bread must be wheaten only, and recently made, so that there is no danger of corruption.” 

The General Instruction of the Roman Missal adds that the bread must be unleavened, as it was at the last Passover of our Lord, and that the wine must be “natural, and pure . . . not mixed with any foreign substance,” although this does not include sulfite preservatives, per a 1922 private responsum of the Holy Office.

Clement of Alexandria (d. 215) explains our sacramental use of wine:

Accordingly, as wine is blended with water, so is the Spirit with man. And the one, the mixture of wine and water, nourishes to faith; while the other, the Spirit, conducts to immortality.

No authoritative Church documents deal with gin or Scotch, lager or stout; nor do they tell us much about how (or how much) to drink. There’s not a single cocktail recipe in the entire Catechism of the Catholic Church, although I’ve been in some rectories that, if they wrote it all down, could produce viable rivals to Old Mr. Boston.

For solid advice, we turn to the aforementioned Clement and his essay “On Drinking.” 

 
Our Lord at Cana: making a Catholic beverage
(14th-century fresco of the Wedding at Cana, Monastery of Descani, Serbia)

Clement writes that the young had best avoid “intemperate potations” – that  “boys and girls should keep as much as possible away from this medicine” – but he gives cheer to us older folks, who may partake . . .

. . . of the draught, to warm by the harmless medicine of the vine the chill of age, which the decay of time has produced. For old men’s passions are not, for the most part, stirred to such agitation as to drive them to the shipwreck of drunkenness. For being moored by reason and time, as by anchors, they stand with greater ease the storm of passions that rushes down from intemperance.

Amen to that. Temperance is, after all, a cardinal virtue, as long anyway as it doesn’t become a social movement. Clement quotes Sirach (31:27): “Wine is very life to anyone, if taken in moderation. Does anyone really live who lacks the wine which from the beginning was created for joy?”

G.K. Chesterton notes the curious fact that alcohol, “our general word for the essence of wine and beer,” is an Arabic word – curious given that Islam “has made particular war upon [alcoholic beverages].” For GKC and, I hope, for most of us the lure of wine, beer, spirits, and cider (the word properly used) has little to do with “alcohol,” even less with drunkenness.

The real case against drunkenness is not that it calls up the beast, but that it calls up the Devil. . . . Man is always something worse or something better than an animal; and a mere argument from animal perfection never touches him at all. Thus, in sex no animal is either chivalrous or obscene. And thus no animal ever invented anything so bad as drunkenness – or so good as drink.

The world isn’t lovely seen through the bottom of a cocktail glass. I know, because my dear mother wrecked her beautiful life with booze. There’s no deception like self-deception and nobody so lost in it as an alcoholic. Abuse of alcohol is often little more than a very drawn out form of suicide.

I leave it to moral theologians to comment on whether and in which cases alcoholism may rise to the level of a mortal sin. But harkening back to the generous Mr. Chesterton and the waspish advocates of Prohibition, the effect of alcohol on the late Mrs. Miner was demonic. It possessed her and destroyed her.

And I can’t help wondering: How many incidents of sexual abuse by priests were fueled by drunkenness? Forgotten is the counsel to priests from the Fourth Lateran Council (1215): “They should temper the wine to themselves and themselves to the wine.”

Lest I end on a sour note, I leave you with this encomium from Chesterton’s great friend, Hilaire Belloc: “Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine/There’s always laughter and good red wine./At least I’ve always found it so./Benedicamus Domino!”

 
Brad Miner is senior editor of The Catholic Thing and senior fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute.
 
 
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Comments (16)Add Comment
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written by Grump, January 02, 2012
Mogen David at Mass; now that would be interesting.
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written by Blake Helgoth, January 02, 2012
I always thought it strange that we should fill the chalice, made of precious metal and adorned with fine jewels, with such unworthy substances as what passes for wine solely because it is predicated with the word altar. Yet, as I write the thought has occurred that this may be symbolic of our unworthiness that is then changed into Him whom we consume.
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written by Austin Ruse, January 02, 2012
Beautiful, Brad. I would like to read more on your insights about your mother...
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written by BRIAN GREAVES, January 02, 2012
Brad, Do I understand correctly when you say your Mass is celebrated with 'sauterne' ... a white wine. I've never come across this practice ever, and unless I'd read your relating the rules in your essay, I'd have regarded it as scandalous, verging on the sacrilegious. Every Mass I've been to has ben celebrated with red wine, and for many years the only allowed altar wine came from the vineyard run by the Jesuits at a town called 'Seven Hills' in the Claire Valley north of Adelaide. And since we've been allowed the chalice during Holy Communion, with the physical properties of the wine unchanged, we're able to enjoy the taste of a very good red. My commiserations in your only having celebrated the Mass in white wine only.
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written by Brad Minerl, January 02, 2012
@ Brian Greaves: You read it right. Many times I've presented the gifts a Mass, and the wine in the clear cruet in our parish is always white — and sweet to the taste. Is it literally a Sauterne (which wine can be great)? Almost certainly not — it's domestic American, hardly an import such as Chateau d"Yquem. And, like it or not, Canon Law makes no specification about color. Nor should it.
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written by Fr. Basil, January 03, 2012
I grew up attending a Methodist church where “communion” was received irregularly on the first Sunday of the month and involved a circular silver tray in the center of which was a glass dish with cut-up pieces of leavened bread. Around the tray’s perimeter were small holes in which were tiny paper cups of grape juice. The tray was passed – rather like the collection plate – aisle-by-aisle, person-to-person: Take a piece of white bread; drink a little Welch’s.

In my limited experience with Methodist Churches, they usually knelt at the altar.

And what's so odd about leavened bread? Eastern Churches use it all the time.
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written by Brad Miner, January 03, 2012
@Fr. Basil: Of course I'm assuming you found something lacking in Methodist worship, which is why you're a priest. (Catholic or Orthodox? Again I assume: the latter.) And it's not that I find leavened bread odd exactly, but that it's canonically inappropriate in Catholic Communion and, therefore, worth mentioning. I'm sad to say I've never attended an Eastern-rite service, but I'm mildly surprised to read that leavened bread is acceptable. Without knowing all the history behind the canons, I'm assuming our Catholic Eucharist is celebrated with unleavened bread, because that's clearly what Christ broke and gave to the Apostles at His last seder.
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written by mike flynn, January 03, 2012
my church switched to some white beverage. (do not know if it is wine or juice) suspiciously as it was required to use linen instead of paper to wipe the precious blood. such a off-putting taste that i have declined to offer the cup as a eucharistic minister. the RCC seems to be foolishly lurching toward a literal interpretation of traditions. except, there is no way jesus offerred this beverage at his last supper. what gives? have we gone methodists?
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written by Tim, January 03, 2012
As an ex-Episcopalian, I've observed how few Roman Catholics even take wine at communion. It's usually just having the wafer popped in the mouth and back to the pews.
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written by Brad Minerl, January 03, 2012
@Tim: It's true almost everywhere — except at daily Mass. On Sundays, there are often too many people and too few priests/extraordinary ministers to manage both bread and wine. Lately there have been health concerns too (thus the hand-sanitizer dispensers that have popped up in churches). But this is surely an issue that needs addressing, although the Church's position is clear: "When both kinds are received, nothing more is received [than bread alone], but a fuller sign of the invisible reality of Christ is on display."
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written by Lisa, January 06, 2012
Pardon me if I am mistaken, but I think that prior to Vatican II, it was not the norm for the communicant to receive both species during Mass. The priest however did receive both the bread and the wine. There is nothing wrong that I've ever heard with not receiving the wine at all.
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written by Dick T, January 06, 2012
One of the prisoners during our "Catholic Sharing Hour" questioned why Jesus provided MORE wine at Cana. Why would Jesus encourage potential drunkeness?? Good question. After much research, there could be a much weaker wine (e.g., lower alocohol content)that was used. If jesus wanted us to eat his body and drink his blood, we have to assume it would be helpful to all, practically and spiritually. In other words, drinking the wine would not be harmful to alcoholics.
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written by Dave F, January 06, 2012
I've always heard where ever 4 Catholics are gathered, you'll find a fifth....
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written by nic, January 07, 2012
prior to being baptised (last september), i had always had an adversion to all those people drinking out of the same "cup". at my baptismal mass (done just FOR me!!) the priest dipped the host into the chalice, thereby giving both species. while my poor health prohibts more regular attendance, all of the sunday masses i've taken communion at were handled the same way. i must also admit that i was very bothered by the "passed plate" method of the tiny cups of juice and little chunks of french bread, which was used because you "get more for the price." the understanding that both species aren't "required" doesn't prevent me from being disappointed when the mass is so crowded that the priests are too overwhelmed to "dip" the host.
for the rtecord, they use a RED wine in our parish.
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written by Jem, January 08, 2012
We get a little offended when people claim we "pray to a cracker". Let's give the Methodists the same respect for their practice that we hope others will give us. Although communion without the Real Presence seems a little pointless, that's what they believe and it shouldn't be derided. Even if they "Take a piece of white bread; drink a little Welch’s."
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written by enness, January 08, 2012
I understand it would be silly to dictate a color, when a choice might not be possible, but for my $.02 worth it just seems more logical to have something that actually resembles blood. Last time I checked, nobody's blood was white.
Jem -- I get what you are saying, but I remember being at a Methodist service as an ignorant young teenager with some odd ideas about alcohol, and there's definitely still a sense of disappointment when they tell you it's not "real," it's just grape juice. It's a bit like finding out your favorite actor isn't the kind of guy you thought he was.

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