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St. Thomas Aquinas’ perfect advice for drinking responsibly

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Theresa Civantos Barber - published on 05/13/22

Most of us enjoy the occasional alcoholic beverage. But have you ever wondered where to draw the line?

Most of us enjoy the occasional cocktail, glass of wine, or pint of beer. But have you ever wondered where to draw the line? What’s the upper limit for enjoying alcohol while drinking responsibly?

At first glance, it seems like there isn’t a straightforward answer for Catholics. The Catechism is very vague on the subject, saying only, 

So we know we should practice temperance and not drink to a point that is unsafe. But there are many degrees between “no alcohol ever” and “dangerous levels of alcohol consumption.” When do we know it’s time to stop?

It turns out that the greatest of all theologians, St. Thomas Aquinas, has some words of wisdom for us here about drinking responsibly. 

He once wrote, Hinc bibere usque ad hilaritatem per se quidem non est illicitum. Loosely translated, this means, “Hence drinking to the point of hilarity in itself is not illicit.”

This is actually a really useful guideline for us. “Hilarity” here means lightheartedness and joyful fun. 

If we drink “to the point of hilarity,” that might mean a slight buzz or feeling a little “tipsy.” This degree of alcohol use can be a fine way to add to the joy and warmth of a gathering.

But to drink past “the point of hilarity” — that is, to become sloppy or out of control, is going too far. At that point, alcohol use has become intemperate.

We can keep St. Thomas Aquinas’ rule in mind as we partake in drinks this summer with friends (and at any time of year, of course!). 

By all means, enjoy a glass of sangria at the neighborhood potluck or a mug of beer with your work buddy. Just keep in mind whether your use of alcohol is adding lighthearted fun, and be mindful to stop at “the point of hilarity.” (It should go without saying that driving under the influence of alcohol — even a little hilarious buzz — is not okay.)

This is also a good guideline to share with your young adult children or college students as they figure out their own limits around alcohol.

Of course, it’s also important to recognize whether you have a problem with alcohol. Some people have a predisposition to alcohol addiction and others can be allergic or sensitive to others. Additionally, it can be difficult to make responsible choices about alcohol if you are depressed, anxious or upset. Sometimes it is best to reach for a non-alcoholic drink – there are plenty of good options.

But if you can handle it responsibly and someone tells you that it’s not seemly to drink it as a Christian, remind them of Hilaire Belloc’s famous and delightful words:

“Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine, 

There’s always laughter and good red wine. 

At least I’ve always found it so. 

Benedicamus Domino!” 

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