Catholic Beverages: Moored by Reason and Time

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 the Senior Editor of The Catholic Thing and a Senior Fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute. He is a former Literary Editor of National Review. His most recent book, Sons of St. Patrick, written with George J. Marlin, is now on sale. His The Compleat Gentleman is now available in a third, revised edition from Regnery Gateway and is also available in an Audible audio edition (read by Bob Souer). Mr. Miner has served as a board member of Aid to the Church In Need USA and also on the Selective Service System draft board in Westchester County, NY.