I recently gave a talk entitled “Beer and the Renewal of Catholic Culture.” Based on the Roman Ritual’s traditional blessing for beer, my argument was that beer is both a work of God given to gladden our hearts (along with wine) and an important work of human culture, a shaping of the goods of the earth. Recovering the long Catholic tradition of brewing and practicing them on a small scale can be an important service to the renewal of culture.
What surprised me most in response to the talk was the number of questions and comments related to drugs. I guess I should not have been surprised in the sense that I do live in Colorado where marijuana has been legalized by voters and then accepted by the Obama Administration. The response in relation to drugs consisted in this: can some of them, at least, also be seen as the fruit of God’s creation? What is the difference in the enjoyment derived from them, especially since we see so many people wounded by problems with alcohol? The answers to these questions are now pressing as the acceptance of drugs is growing in our country. In fact, I surprisingly have found friends and students unwilling to take a stand against drugs.
In response to this growing acceptance, I want to argue very clearly that drugs intrinsically undermine culture. They are not simply a fun relief from the stresses of life, but rather an escape that removes one from reality in an escalating fashion. In fact, I have seen, as I’m sure most have, the devastating effect of drugs on family and friends. The question from a Catholic point of view really comes down to whether or not drugs promote the human good. If they do, they can be drawn into the life of virtue; if they do not, they are rather a part of vice and sin.
Let’s dive into this more deeply by looking at the nature of virtue and sin. First, Aquinas says that “virtue implies ‘directly’ a disposition whereby the subject is well disposed according to the mode of its nature” (ST I-II, q. 71, a.1). Virtue enables us to thrive as human beings, particularly according to the mode of our nature, which is reason. Vice, on the other hand, does the opposite: “Now man derives his species from his rational soul: and consequently whatever is contrary to the order of reason is, properly speaking, contrary to the nature of man, as man” (ibid., a. 2). This is why Aquinas can roughly define sin as something contrary to right reason. This does not deny, but includes, the fact that sin ultimately is a denial of God’s will, which is rooted in our very nature as well as revealed to us.
How then does this apply to drugs? First, we can look at how it applies to alcohol. Once again we can turn to Aquinas for guidance on what makes drunkenness a mortal sin:
It may happen that a man is well aware that the drink is immoderate and intoxicating, and yet he would rather be drunk than abstain from drink. Such a man is a drunkard properly speaking, because morals take their species not from things that occur accidentally and beside the intention, but from that which is directly intended. In this way drunkenness is a mortal sin, because then a man willingly and knowingly deprives himself of the use of reason, whereby he performs virtuous deeds and avoids sin, and thus he sins mortally by running the risk of falling into sin. (ST II-II, q. 150, a. 2).
What we see in deliberate drunkenness is the problem of denying one’s rationality, rescinding precisely what makes one human, the source of one’s nobility and goodness. To retreat to this non-rational state is both a degradation of one’s state and also one’s relation to others while in that state. It is important to note, on the other hand, that alcohol can be consumed in a temperate and therefore rational manner that can actually promote the flourishing of human life: nutrition, good cheer, and fellowship, all of which can and should be ordered toward God.
Aquinas’s description of drunkenness is exactly the foundation for understanding why drugs are harmful to human life and culture. Unlike alcohol they cannot be used moderately, but intrinsically involve a surrender of a full possession of reason and self-possession. They are a retreat from a rational and responsible confrontation with reality. Pope Benedict stated it even more strongly by arguing that they also represent an escape from the reality of the spiritual life that God presents to us: “The patient and humble adventure of asceticism, which, in small steps of ascent, comes closer to the descending God, is replaced by magical power, the magical key of drugs—the ethical and religious path is replaced by technology. Drugs are pseudo-mysticism of a world that does not believe yet cannot rid soul’s yearning for paradise” (Turning Point for Europe? 20). Here we see drugs specifically as a distorted attempt to respond to our rational and religious nature, but in a way that ultimately undermines them.
The Catechism does not take up this line of reason in response to drugs, but rather demonstrates more clearly how drugs violate the commands of God, specifically the Fifth Commandment. Nonetheless, the emphasis is still on the harm that drugs inflict on us, this time, emphasizing the basic threat they pose to human life:
The use of drugs inflicts very grave damage on human health and life. Their use, except on strictly therapeutic grounds, is a grave offense. Clandestine production of and trafficking in drugs are scandalous practices. They constitute direct co-operation in evil, since they encourage people to practices gravely contrary to the moral law (§2291).
Ironically, drugs made their first legal inroad in the United States under the rubric of health, which then has quickly expanded to include recreational use. The Catechism does note that drugs can be used for therapeutic reasons, but the need to alleviate pain has to be balanced with the effects that this therapy has on the soul. The right use of reason and one’s spiritual health have to trump simply physical concerns. In this light, it is important to consider whether other options for care are available that respect our rational nature and support it, rather than work against it.
Culture is meant to draw us together in the common pursuit of human goods as we work together to form a genuine way of life. This requires the proper formation of reason (which is meant to occur in education) and then the exercise of that reason in the service of others. Drugs, once again, represent a retreat from reality, this time of a common culture. They rather stand as a “no” to common goods and self-transcendence and offer a retreat into oneself. Pope Benedict once again provides illumination: “The anti-culture of death, which finds expression for example in drug use, is thus countered by an unselfish love which shows itself to be a culture of life by the very willingness to ‘lose itself’ (cf. Lk 17:33 et passim) for others” (Deus Caritas Est, §30). The contrast is between a culture of death in which one selfishly withdraws from others and a culture of life in which one sacrifices oneself for others.
To me, drugs stand at the heart of modern disillusionment with life. This is understandable as our culture continues to reach new lows. At the heart of this crisis is the lack of a central unifying force for our culture. We’ve lost a sense of purpose and something to inspire us to want to live in the reality in which we find ourselves. Ultimately, it is a spiritual question, as Pope Benedict describes:
The new forms of slavery to drugs and the lack of hope into which so many people fall can be explained not only in sociological and psychological terms but also in essentially spiritual terms. The emptiness in which the soul feels abandoned, despite the availability of countless therapies for body and psyche, leads to suffering. There cannot be holistic development and universal common good unless people’s spiritual and moral welfare is taken into account, considered in their totality as body and soul (Caritas in Veritate, §76).
To resign ourselves to a culture that accepts and embraces drugs is to cave into a position of spiritual despair. It is not just a question of physical harm, which certainly does follow from drug use, but more importantly is one of evangelization. As Catholics, we have good news, which can re-inspire and provide hope to the lost.
Accepting drugs is a defeat for culture, a lowering of our standards, and a sign that we will tolerate even what undermines the personal and common good. It is not just a question of reinserting religion into people’s lives, but teaching them to re-embrace the human goods of culture: nature, community, and ultimately reason. Rather than seeking to escape from reason, we need to rediscover the power of reason to face the difficult questions of human life. We need to face up to our problems, embrace them, and work through them with Christ. Christ, the Word, the truth itself and thus the foundation of reason, is the one who helps us to see reality more clearly and to confront it more courageously. Embracing Christ is the only answer to our cultural decline, which will invigorate not just our spiritual life, but also will lead to a recovery of nature and reason. We need to stop the escape and rediscover who we are as rational and spiritual beings.
Editor’s note: The picture above is a scene from Up in Smoke staring Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong and distributed by Paramount Pictures (1978).