The Lost Art of Catholic Drinking

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.

editor’s note: This article was originally published by Crisis Magazine and is republished here with kind permission.

image: Beer Drinking Monks (Piwo pijacy mnisi) by Arturo Petrocelli/ Wikimedia Commons


Sean P. Dailey is the editor-in-chief of Gilbert: the magazine of the American Chesterton Society. Prior to that he was a reporter and religion page editor for the NewsTribune in La Salle, Illinois, and a police reporter and education reporter for The State Journal-Register in Springfield, Illinois. A a veteran of the US Marine Corps, Sean lives in Springfield with his family.

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage

  • Lee

    I like this idea, but I have not heard of many who actually decide to live by this spiritual frame of mind.Most, and I believe most drinkers, are usually in a place of,”It’s all or nothing.” I vote nothing, especially on a Saturday night, so that we can make it to one of the Sunday Masses where we do give our thanks and show our gratitude for the opportunity to enjoy our beer and burgundy as we strive to live a good life in His name.A toast to all who enjoy these special spirits, during our Christmas and New Year celebrations, knowing that less is more when in good company with loved ones.

  • JMC

    This whole “teetotaler” attitude is precisely why most families have abandoned the practice of allowing their young children a very small quantity of beer or wine on special occasions. At the age of six I knew I did not like the taste of beer (I still don’t), and could take most wines or leave them, with a definite preference for the sweeter ones, which, like my dislike of beer, is still with me today. In this context, the fact that one of my parents was an alcoholic gave me a very definite picture, not only of how to drink, but also, more importantly, how NOT to drink. In later years, when I learned a) that alcoholism is a hereditary disease and b) that the disease was prominent on BOTH sides of my family, I abandoned drinking altogether, out of sheer fear, not understanding that, if I was going to be an alcoholic, I would have been one already. It took the loving teaching of my best friend, who similarly had been raised being allowed a drink on special occasions, to point that out to me.
    My point here is that not all teetotalers are created equal. Some have the mistaken impression that drinking any alcohol at all is sinful; these people will try to convince you that the “wine” people drank in Jesus’ time was actually grape juice, and not believe you when you tell them that wine was actually much stronger then and had to be watered down to be potable. And some indeed are reacting out of revulsion to the staggering drunkenness of those who drink to excess. But there are also those who are reacting out of fear, as I did. Perhaps they had relatives who were alcoholics and don’t want to take the chance that they may have inherited the disease.
    My second point is that Catholic drinking, also known as responsible drinking, is not something our young can learn simply by being told about it. They have to experience it from an early age. Studies have already shown that those who were occasionally allowed to drink at home as children are less likely to engage in the ritual bender on their twenty-first birthday that is so common in society today, and are less likely to engage in the weekly binge that seems to be almost mandatory among people in their early twenties.
    Prohibition did us no favors, prodding into life the concupiscence that makes a forbidden thing seem so attractive. It gave us moonshiners and Mob wars; its close cousin today, the “war on drugs,” has given us the cartels, who are even worse than the Mob ever was. If you want to teach temperance, forbidding something altogether is the worst possible way to go about it.

  • UltraMontane

    what if your not much of a socialite? you enjoy solitude or your own company and thoughts and interior conversation? is it okay to drink at that time.

  • mcrognale

    If you happen to be in Texas, try Shiner Bock or Blonde. You’ll change your mind about beer, promise. No, I don’t work for them either, lol. I didn’t like the taste of beer either until I tried Shiner. Most of the swill, Budweiser, Miller et al would turn off any discerning taste. Merry Christmas!

  • Shantelle

    I was talking to a Baptist friend and I mentioned to her that it is really only now in modern times that we have clean, disease free water. In the past, the water was from rivers, lakes, wells. People got sick and died from water. Alcohol, on the other hand, kills microbes. Honestly, if you had to choose between wine or dirty water, which would you choose? In Mexico you have tequila, why? Drinking it after a meal, keeps you healthier as it kills all the bugs.

  • Lou

    Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine there’s always laughter and good red wine- at least I’ve always found it so – Benedicamus Domino! (Belloc). My favorite and it sort of sums this up quite nicely.

  • James H, London

    I tried to introduce my daughter to wine for her 10th birthday. I watered it down, perhaps a little too carefully. Now she says she hates the stuff! Oh well. Better luck next time…

  • Margaret Mary Myers

    Just please don’t make us teetotalers feel like outsiders. You never know why we are. We might be a recovery alcoholic; we might be allergic (I am); we might have an alcoholic parent (I do) & this might be our decision for ourselves as a result; or it might be a combination of a couple of those. We don’t have to drink to be Catholic! And personally, I don’t think “what constitutes excess is for each person to judge for himself”; not that there should be drinking police (except for drinking & driving), but that we can listen to reason & the advice of friends and family if they think we may be having one too many or a little too often. Alcoholism is not limited to non-Catholics, nor is drunk driving, which often results in death. Jesus changed water to wine at Cana and good alcohol is one of his many gifts, but just one, not the one essential one that we have to partake of to be part of ‘the club’. Anyway, sorry if I’m taking a lifetime of stuff & sending it your way. It was a well-thought-out article and you do have some very good points. 🙂

  • Esther

    It is absurd that you make this a protestant vs catholic issue. Many Protestants have a balanced approach towards alcohol and as you have pointed out, many Catholics fall within the extremes. The Protestant and Catholic tags seek to create divisions where there is none and I don’t know why we need to do this…we already have enough problems as is.
    It is also very unfair that you categorize teetotalers as self-righteous. People have various reasons for abstinence which may have nothing to do with morality.

  • lanceromance

    I fully agree– Shiner Bock is the absolute best.

  • Virginia

    This is a ridiculous article. The author states, “Just what constitutes excess is for each person to judge fir himself”. Ah, no. As a practicing physician of 25 years, the author is ill informed. Read a bit first about what are the criteria for alcohol abuse, dependency, and being an outright alcoholic before spewing off cute thoughts about an extremely addictive drug. The many alcoholics I treat can not judge for themselves because they are IMPAIRED. I am one box the lucky who can enjoy a good Jamiesons and stop. Not do for many big our dear friends. By the way women are hit particularly hard with alcohol abuse. This article isn’t cute or clever, it’s foolish. Alcohol abuse doesn’t care whether your Catholic or Protestant. Alcohol will for many become the master, and when it calls, its slaves come. Grow up and write something edifying.

  • Mateo de la Reina

    I know for a fact that Catholics enjoy sex and alcohol …I think that when you belong to a “club” with such a rich, long history dating back over 2,000 years, it’s in your DNA. Yes, this is a general statement …but then, isn’t EVERYTHING in life dealt with in general terms?

  • EJ

    This is the most idiotic article I think I’ve ever been unfortunate enough to stumble across. I love the comparison to catholic drinking to Protestant drinking, that part was by far my favorite. That had to rank top ten to the most ignorant things I’ve ever read. I was raised catholic, went to catholic school, and most of my family and friends are catholic, and the “art” of catholic drinking has not been lost, nor is it a science. Seems like just about every occasion calls for drinking, picnics, birthdays, ball games, baptisms call for calls for drinking in the catholic faith. From what I’ve encountered, Catholics handle drinking much the same way the world does, have it like you want… I have more to say but I’m bored. So instead I’ll end with this, and it may be a new concept for you as most other Catholics, but instead of looking at church history, the pope or the catechism, turn to the END AUTHORITY for all believers, the bible for thoughts on drinking.

    Proverbs 20:1
    Chapter 20
    Wine is a mocker, strong drink is raging:
    and whosoever is deceived thereby is not wise.

  • jovan66102

    Mr Dailey, whilst I basically agree with GKC’s dictum, I would point out that His Grace, James IV King of Scots (obit +1513) was a great lover of uisgebeatha, so to refer to it as an ‘alcoholic beverage() developed after the Reformation’, is to cast aspersions on the great Catholics who distilled the first Water of Life!