The Lost Art of Catholic Drinking

February 1, 2014

There is Protestant drinking and there is Catholic drinking, and the difference is more than mere quantity. I have no scientific data to back up my claims, nor have I completed any formal studies. But I have done a good bit of, shall we say, informal study, which for a hypothesis like this is probably the best kind.

To begin with, what is Catholic drinking? It’s hard to pin down, but here’s a historical example. St. Arnold (580-640), also known as St. Arnulf of Metz, was a seventh-century bishop of Metz, in what later became France. Much beloved by the people, St. Arnold is said to have preached against drinking water, which in those days could be extremely dangerous owing to unsanitary sewage systems — or no sewage system at all. At the same time, he frequently touted the benefits of beer and is credited with having once said, “From man’s sweat and God’s love, beer came into the world.”

Wise words, and St. Arnold’s flock took them to heart. After his death, the good bishop was buried at a monastery near Remiremont, France, where he had retired. However, his flock missed him and wanted him back, so in 641, having gotten approval to exhume St. Arnold’s remains, they carried him in procession back to Metz for reburial in the Basilica of the Holy Apostles. Along the way, it being a hot day, they got thirsty and stopped at an inn for some beer. Unfortunately, the inn had just enough left for a single mug; the processionals would have to share. As the tale goes, the mug did not run dry until all the people had drunk their fill.

Now, I’m not saying that Catholic drinking involves miracles, or that a miracle should occur every time people get together to imbibe. But good beer — and good wine for that matter — is a small miracle in itself, being a gift from God to His creatures, whom He loves. And as G. K. Chesterton wrote in Orthodoxy, “We should thank God for beer and burgundy by not drinking too much of them.” In other words, we show our gratitude to God for wine and beer by enjoying these things, in good cheer and warm company, but not enjoying them to excess.

Just what constitutes excess is for each person to judge for himself. However, we now approach the main difference between Catholic drinking and Protestant drinking. Protestant drinking tends to occur at one extreme or another: either way too much or none at all, with each being a reaction to the other. Some people, rightly fed up with the smug self-righteousness of teetotalers, drink to excess. And teetotalers, rightly appalled at the habits of habitual drunkards, practice strict abstinence. It seems to occur to neither side that their reaction is just that: a reaction, and not a solution. If they considered it a bit, they might see a third way that involves neither drunkenness nor abstinence, yet is consistent with healthy, honest, humane Christian living.

Here we encounter Catholic drinking. Catholic drinking is that third way, the way to engage in an ancient activity enjoyed by everyone from peasants to emperors to Jesus Himself. And again, it is not just about quantity. In fact, I think the chief element is conviviality. When friends get together for a drink, it may be to celebrate, or it may be to mourn. But it should always be to enjoy one another’s company. (Yes, there is a time and place for a solitary beer, but that is the exception.)

For example: The lectures at the annual Chesterton conference are themselves no more important than the attendees later discussing those same lectures over beer and wine (we tend to adhere to Hilaire Belloc’s rule of thumb, which is to avoid alcoholic beverages developed after the Reformation). These gatherings occur between talks, during talks — indeed, long into the night — and we typically fall into bed pleasantly stewed. I cannot imagine a Chesterton conference without this. And yet I also know how detrimental it would be if we all stumbled back to our rooms roaring drunk.

Avoid each extreme — that’s how you drink like a Catholic. This is the art of Catholic drinking. There are plenty of our brethren who consider drinking somehow immoral, and there are plenty of others who think drinking must end with great intoxication. But the balanced approach — the Catholic approach — means having a good time, a good laugh, sometime a good cry, but always with joy and gratitude for God’s generosity in giving us such wonders as beer and burgundy. Remember that, and the lost art of Catholic drinking may not remain lost.

This article was written by Sean P. Daily of the American Chesterton Society. It originally appeared at Crisis Magazine and is reprinted with permission.

Sam Guzman


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Reader Interactions


  1. N Hillmer says

    I think the true line in the sand is temperance (the cardinal virtue, not the movement). The temperant drinker, whether Protestant or Catholic, or otherwise- is a glory to God. In my own phenomenological study, I have known many a Catholic that live lives of excess. The dividing line is not so much one of theological difference, the line is deciding to habitually do the good (virtue) or to habitually do the bad (vice). I stand with St. Ambrose who said, “That man is rightly called a king who makes his own body an obedient subject and, by governing himself with suitable rigor, refuses to let his passions breed rebellion in his soul, for he exercises a kind of royal power over himself.” Will we allow our bodies to be obedient subjects to drink, or exercise our will to make drink an obedient subject to our bodies?

    • Frater Bovious says

      @N HILLMER – “That man is rightly called a king who makes his own body an obedient subject…” Great quote from St. Ambrose. I’m going to add it to a post I did. Topic was the Cardinal Virtues, but a special emphasis on Temperance. Thanks! FB

  2. Cesar says

    Amen brother. Just an FYI-down here in TX we have a micro- brewery in Houston by the name St. Arnold’s. They have St. Arnold’s history on every label. Good beer too. God bless. Great blog.

  3. Mr. T.C. says

    My heart is saddened to see things like this. Christians who don’t drink at all are not practicing an extreme; they are obeying God’s Word. And you criticize that?
    Scriptural moderation concerns only acceptable actions. One certainly wouldn’t say that stealing is okay in moderation. One of your comments on your Facebook page asked if it was okay to be moderate with illicit drugs. How about a moderate amount of adultery? Is that okay too? Only be moderate in loving the Lord thy God, or your neighbor as yourself? God admonished the church in Laodacia for being ‘lukewarm’.
    And to say that teetotalers cause people to drink more is ludicrous. If people endeavor to live holy, they inspire others to sin? From what scripture did you extract that philosophy? I’m kind of curious as to what moral standard Catholics believe in. Is there only a regard for church historical research, and none for the Word of God? If that’s the case, I should stop here. However, on the off chance that someone might receive, here are some scriptures:
    2 Timothy 3:16 All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness;17 so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work. (The Old Testament moral laws are still in effect.)
    Leviticus 10:9 Do not drink wine nor strong drink, thou, nor thy sons with thee, when ye go into the tabernacle of the congregation . . . 10 that ye may put difference between holy and unholy, and between unclean and clean;11 And that ye may teach the children of Israel all the statutes which the LORD hath spoken unto them by the hand of Moses.
    Proverbs 20:1 ;Poverbs 23:20; Poverbs 23:31; Habakkuk 2:15 Among others.
    Do you not think that Jesus knew the OT scriptures? He quoted them, did he not? Do you think the moral laws were extinguished when He arose from the grave? Man’s sweat indeed created beer, as it did all sorts of other vile things. God’s love had nothing to do with it, as has been shown scripturally.
    God’s love is shown through His Son, Jesus Christ, not through liquor. If you are truly pursuing holiness, do you believe beer is the way? While I applaud your pro-life stance, this is a subject you might prayerfully reconsider. God bless you.

    • Samuel Ahn says

      Brother TC. We talk of drinking in the spirit of Psalm 104. Namely, we give God thanks for his gifts. In this blog, we want to encourage our brothers to be temperant, but not to be too scrupulous or rigid. Open your heart to the breadth of God’s goodness. Read/pray Psalm 104.

    • Rich says

      T.C. You pick and choose when it comes to Holy Scripture. There are plenty of verses that attest to the benefits of consuming alcohol in moderation. The lines from Leviticus that you quote must be taken in context. Do you obey the 613 Levitical laws? I highly doubt it. This line you are quoting from Leviticus is a law for the Levites, the priestly order. Only they were allowed to enter the Holy of Holies.

    • Titus says

      Well, next time it’s my turn to minister before the Ark pursuant to the mandates of the Levitical priesthood, I’ll be sure to refrain from consuming alcohol beforehand.

      First, those proof texts condemn drunkenness (discounting the quote from Leviticus, which is expressly, not even implicitly, a rule for the ministry of the Levites, a ministry that has passed away). Second, there are plenty of texts that refer to drinking or making wine without condemnation. See, e.g., Deuteronomy 24:21, not to mention the wedding at Cana. Nor have the Jews ever interpreted the Old Testament as including a complete prohibition on the drinking of alcohol—and heaven knows that if it were even tendentiously amenable to that interpretation, it would have been advanced.

      The truth, of course, is that tee-totaling Protestants don’t just read the Scriptures and discover a complete prohibition against drinking that isn’t there: they have that teaching handed down to them by the tradition taught in Protestant seminaries and divinity schools and from Protestant pulpits. It is just as much an extra-Biblical gloss as any aspect of Tradition found in the Magisterium. The Church, at least, admits to maintaining a Tradition beyond what that portion of She wrote down in the Scriptures, while such Protestants inexplicably claim that their array of seminaries, preaching schools, elders, books, and commentaries are essentially devoid of content and that it’s just the plain face of the Scriptures driving all of their innovative beliefs. That’s simply not a rational position.

    • Janet Rocha says

      Your position is a gnostic heresy. It is a DOGMA of the Catholic Faith that God created a good world. Nothing in this material world created by God is intrinsically evil. Evil is is the result of man’s perverted use of the good things God made for us.

  4. domesticphilosophy says

    To Mr. T.C. you forgot to include 1 Timothy 5:23 in your list of scriptures referencing drinking alcohol (“No longer drink only water, but use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments.”) and Christ’s apparent involvement in sin by turning water into wine, especially good wine. The scriptures you listed appear to point primarily to drinking in excess, which is exactly what the author of this blog is writing about: a way of moderation. God’s love is shown through Christ, and also through his creation, material goods. I do not see the author where the author has stated that beer is the way to pursue holiness, but that it need not be dismissed as it can facilitate community and conversation.

  5. stvrnhn says

    This has been a most interesting blog! As a “cradle-Catholic” & recovering alcoholic, I think I have a somewhat different experience & point-of-view. I was the 4th (& last) child born into a (Catholic) family destroyed by our biological father’s alcoholism (he later recovered through AA). Then in toddler-hood, I was adopted & raised as an only child by two severely-alcoholic (Catholic) parents until age 16, at which point I not only met my birth siblings, but my Dad remarried & I was welcomed into a wonderful step-family who interestingly enough, can enjoy alcohol moderately & convivially as described above!
    I, however, cannot. For whatever reason, my brain is “allergic” to the presence of alcohol, I cannot imbibe it moderately, and it has wreaked all manners of havoc in my adult life, so for me, abstinence is the best option, while being tolerant of others who can enjoy alcoholic beverages in moderation.
    I’m not interested in using the Bible to promote or oppose alcohol use. Each person’s body & brain react differently to it’s presence. It’s up to each of us to prayerfully & honestly discern what’s best for us, and only us. I harbor no qualms with those who can enjoy it appropriately.
    Thanks again for a very interesting article!

  6. Ben says

    I know you offered a caveat in the beginning when you said that nothing you said is based on any scientific data. I’ll go a bit further and say (and I’m a Catholic) that, if I was a Protestant, I’d scoff at and possibly even be offended by your assertion. The statement “Protestant drinking tends to occur at one extreme or another: either way too much or none at all, with each being a reaction to the other” is downright slanderous, and even a more robust caveat than the one you provided would not make up for it. The only way it could possibly be true would be if it is based solely on your personal experience alone. I would gladly discuss any thoughts that agree with mine or which hold to their contrary .

  7. Titus says

    There’s another comment, from somewhere in Chesterton’s writings, reiterating the main thesis: that (if I may summarize from memory) one should drink to add to the joy already found in a gathering, not to attempt to create it where it does not otherwise exist.


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