Drunkenness is a mortal sin. Drunkenness is specifically condemned in scripture as a sin that will prevent one from getting to heaven. The apostle Paul went so far as to say “Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither the immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor robbers will inherit the kingdom of God.”(1 Cor 6:9-10). By the “kingdom of God” he means heaven. This is not an admonishment against only a state frequent or perpetual drunkenness. It only takes one act of fornication or adultery to make a mortal sin. In the same way, we can see from this passage that one act of drunkenness counts as a mortal sin as well.
Paul repeatedly warned Christians to avoid the sin of drunkenness. He counsels us “let us conduct ourselves becomingly as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, (Romans 13: 13); “For the grace of God has appeared for the salvation of all men, training us to renounce irreligion and worldly passions, and to live sober, upright, and godly lives in this world.” (Titus2:11-12). St. Peter reminds us to “keep sane and sober” (1Peter 4:7); and again “gird up your minds, be sober” (1Peter 1:13). Our Lord also warned us to avoid drunkenness and stay alert in waiting for the second coming (Luke 21:34). The Old Testament is filled with warnings about the physical and moral dangers of drunkenness. See Proverbs 23:21, 29-35, 31:4-5; Isaiah 5:11-12; Sirach 29:30; Judith 12:20-13:8.
The Church has traditionally placed drunkenness as a sin against the 5th commandment as a violation against health, life and safety. The catechism warns that those who, by drunkenness “endanger their own and others’ safety on the road...” incur grave guilt (CCC2290).
Drunkenness is an offense against the virtue of temperance. Temperance is the “moral virtue that moderates the attraction of pleasures and provides balance in the use of created goods”. Temperance also “ensures the will’s mastery over instincts” and restrains our appetites (CCC1809). Remember that temperance, like all the moral virtues, are under our control. We have to put out the effort to restrain ourselves.
A working definition of “drunk” is “Intoxicated with alcoholic liquor to the point of impairment of physical and mental faculties.” The catechism tells us “God made man a rational being, conferring on him the dignity of a person who can initiate and control his own actions” (CCC1730). Anything that impairs our ability to reason is therefore an offense against the dignity that God gave us. The catechism also says “Conscience is a judgment of reason whereby the human person recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act...” (CCC1778). Anything that diminishes our ability to make rational moral judgments based on reason increases the possibility of making the wrong choice i.e., committing a sin. It is also an offense against God who gave us this quality.
The apostle Paul knew that drunkenness besides being a sin itself will impede one’s ability to make decisions, leading to other sins. He warns us “And do not get drunk on wine, in which lies debauchery...” (Ephesians 5:18). He further advises to “keep awake and be sober” (1Thes 5:5-8). St. Peter warns us “Be sober, be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking some one to devour.” (1 Peter 5:8) They knew full well that drunkenness lowers ones resistance to other sins.
Having meditated on the sin of drunkenness must also realize that it is not a sin for most people to take a drink of alcohol. Our Lord turned water into wine in His first recorded miracle (John 2: 1-11). Jesus himself was denounced as a drunkard just for drinking wine as everyone else did at that time (Luke 1: 34). The apostle Paul, despite his exhortations against drunkenness, advised his friend Timothy to “use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent illnesses” (1Tim 5:23).
It would be inaccurate therefore to insist that anyone who takes any amount of alcohol commits a sin. How much then is too much? That depends on its effects on the individual. The traditional formula is usually expressed as: drunkenness that completely takes away one’s reason is a mortal sin; drunkenness that only causes dizziness or slight loss of reason is a venal sin.
As mentioned above it is not a sin to consume alcohol per se. It should also be noted that it is also not a sin, to not consume alcohol. St. John the Baptist was a Nazarite from birth. That means he never drank alcohol, wine, or even ate grapes (Luke 1:13-15).
Nazarites like St. John took this special vow to “separate themselves for the Lord” (Numbers 6:2). They wanted to be set aside, or consecrated to the Lord. To be consecrated to, or reserved for the Lord is really the meaning of “holy”. Holiness should be the goal of everyone, “All are called to holiness...” (CCC2013). All of us are also called to avoid the sin of drunkenness.
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Published by The Minnesota St. Thomas More Chapter of Catholics United for the Faith, August 2002.