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The Catholic Church’s Drinking Problem

Kirti Poddar CC

Robert Christian - published on 11/13/14

We seem to be proud of our booziness in spite of the costs to body and soul.

Creighton Prep, a Jesuit High School in Omaha, Nebraska, began testing their students for drug and alcohol use this year. A first positive test results in counseling, a second in disciplinary action, and a third in dismissal. While some libertarians are irritated, many parents are thrilled the school is creating an environment that addresses the problems of drug use and underage drinking, providing students who need help with assistance, and making it easier for students to say "no," thereby diminishing the power of peer pressure.

But Creighton Prep’s new program is a tiny bright spot on the dark landscape of Catholic education in the United States. What makes Creighton Prep’s actions so noteworthy is the Church’s overall poor performance when it comes to addressing these problems and educating its adherents about the dangers of drugs and alcohol and their inverse relationship to living virtuously and joyfully.

From parishes to parochial schools to university classrooms, the Church is failing in its responsibility to talk about the pernicious impact of alcohol (and even drugs) on so many people in our society, along with the detrimental impact it has on achieving the common good. One is more likely to see devout Catholics being flip about drinking — or even romanticizing and glorifying it — than confronting the nihilism, escapism, and despair that are a big part of our nation’s drinking culture and the wreckage that it leaves in its wake. The Church takes a harder line on drugs, but how often is the topic really discussed? How often does the Church address why people turn to drug use and explain its incompatibility with human flourishing? The Church provides some assistance, but most often it comes after people have already had their lives and the lives of their loved ones (and possibly strangers) devastated by the ruinous costs of addiction. The Church can and should do better.

In its religious education to young people, the message on drinking seems to be: wait until you are older. This is neither sufficient nor persuasive. Whether because of affluenza, the middle-class malaise, or hopelessness born of poverty, many teenagers are tempted to drink and use drugs. They seek substance-induced pleasure to distract themselves from feelings of meaninglessness or to flee from reality, the same reasons many adults turn to these substances. Others use these substances to distort their authentic personalities and overcome their insecurities or inability to connect with others socially. It is hypocritical and unrealistic to ask them to wait simply because the physical and emotional impact is worse for teenagers. Whether driven by nihilism or insecurity, at root, it is a spiritual problem, and the failure of the Church to express that and to provide a real answer to those who are fruitlessly trying to fill a spiritual and emotional void with a substance is a profound failure. 

It is strange that those who identify the emptiness of materialism, consumerism, the sexual objectification and exploitation of others, the lust for power, and other false paths to happiness are failing to address the illusory nature of the “happiness” generated by drugs and alcohol. It is downright embarrassing when one compares the Church to the world’s other religions. Buddhism, Taoism, Mormonism, Sikhism, Islam, the Baha’i faith, and various Hindu sects and protestant denominations either teach that alcohol should be avoided entirely or used in moderation (defined in such a way that many Catholics would find fairly extreme). While engaging in interfaith dialogue, the vast majority of thoughtful, virtuous young people I have met from other faiths have been teetotalers (those who abstain from alcohol entirely), while I have witnessed many of my fellow devout Catholics, who are otherwise morally serious, acting foolishly due to their consumption of alcohol. The contrast is cringe-worthy.

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