What Does the Catholic Church Teach About Drinking?

Jesus drank. In fact, he drank wine—the fermented kind, not grape juice, as some will claim—and apparently he drank a fair amount of it. But the notion that Christians should completely abstain has become quite commonplace among Fundamentalists.

For example, Saddleback Church, a Southern Baptist mega-church in Southern California (led by Pastor Rick Warren, author of the popular book The Purpose-Driven Life) would apparently exclude Jesus as a staff member: The church’s “ Maturity-Leadership Requirements” ask that each staff member “commit willingly to refrain from … consuming alcohol.”

Similarly, it seems that Mormons would not allow Jesus to enter their temples because perpetual abstinence from alcohol is required for entry. For that matter, some Christian denominations might even refuse Jesus membership in their churches.

So it seems that many believe that a godly man should never drink. Is this scriptural?

Did Jesus Drink?

Jesus apparently drank enough wine that he was accused of drinking to excess. In his own words he proclaimed, “The Son of man is come eating and drinking: and you say: Behold a man that is a glutton and a drinker of wine …” (Luke 7:34). So Jesus was accused of being a drunk.

The Greek word translated as “drunkard” or “drinker of wine” in the above passage is οίνοπότης [oinopotes], which means a winebibber, one who drinks much wine. In fact, the first part of the word comes from the Greek word for wine, oinos, which occurs several times in the New Testament.

Some claim that Jesus drank grape juice or must (unfermented wine). But then why accuse him of being a drunkard? Other scriptural passages where oinos is found clearly indicate that, indeed, fermented wine, not grape juice, is being discussed.

For example, consider “ Neither do they put new wine into old bottles. Otherwise the bottles break, and the wine runneth out, and the bottles perish. But new wine they put into new bottles: and both are preserved” (Matt. 9:17; see also Mark 2:22, Luke 5:37-38). The old skins burst because the wine contains yeast—the catalyst of fermentation—which causes expansion.

Similarly, “And no man drinking old, hath presently a mind to new: for he saith, The old is better’” (Luke 5:39). Even in New Testament times it was known that wine gets better with age; grape juice does not.

Old Testament passages also discuss wine. Unless otherwise noted, these passages translate the word “wine” from the Hebrew word yayin, meaning fermented wine. The following passages show that, indeed, fermented wine is what is intended to be understood by this word:

Is Drinking a Sin?

Drinking wine—or other alcoholic beverages for that matter—is not, in itself, sinful. Let’s look at a few scripture passages that support this claim. First, consider what happened at the wedding at Cana when the wine ran out:

Jesus saith to [the servants]: Fill the waterpots with water. And they filled them up to the brim. And Jesus saith to them: Draw out now, and carry to the chief steward of the feast. And they carried it. And when the chief steward had tasted the water made wine, and knew not whence it was, but the waiters knew who had drawn the water; the chief steward calleth the bridegroom, And saith to him: Every man at first setteth forth good wine, and when men have well drunk, then that which is worse. But thou hast kept the good wine until now.” (John 2:7-10)

Apparently Jesus was a pretty good vintner! The wine steward’s comments seem to indicate that it was the usual practice to serve good wine until the guests drank enough that they either weren’t picky about the quality of the wine they were drinking, or they simply could no longer tell the difference between good wine and not-so-good wine. Whichever the case, this story clearly indicates that Jesus approved of drinking wine.

So did Paul. We know this from his instructions to Timothy: “Do not still drink water, but use a little wine for thy stomach’s sake, and thy frequent infirmities” (1 Tim. 5:23). Interestingly, present-day research indicates that drinking wine has health benefits.

But the approval of drinking wine goes back further than New Testament times. Several passages from the Old Testament indicate that drinking has been acceptable for a long time:

Israel’s burnt offering requirements—required by God—included the use of wine, the leftover of which could be drunk by Aaron and his sons: “With one lamb a tenth part of flour tempered with beaten oil, of the fourth part of a hin, and wine for libation of the same measure” (Ex. 29:40; see also Lev. 23:13; Num. 15:5, 7, 10; 28:7, 14). Note that Numbers 28:7 uses the Hebrew word shekar, meaning “strong wine” (or other strong alcoholic drink).

What about Intoxication?

Clearly, God has always allowed his followers to drink. With that in mind, we can understand easily why the Catholic Church does not consider drinking, in itself, to be sinful. That said, the Church does caution against excessive drinking. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states:

“The virtue of temperance disposes us to avoid every kind of excess: the abuse of food, alcohol, tobacco, or medicine. Those incur grave guilt who, by drunkenness or a love of speed, endanger their own and others’ safety on the road, at sea, or in the air” (CCC 2290, emphasis in original).

This teaching, too, is supported by Scripture. For example, Paul often warned against drunkenness:

Peter taught similarly: “For the time past is sufficient to have fulfilled the will of the Gentiles, for them who have walked in riotousness, lusts, excess of wine, revellings, banquetings, and unlawful worshipping of idols” (1 Pet. 4:3). The Greek word translated in this passage as drunkenness is oinophlugia, also derived from oinos.

Again, such teaching was not new to Christianity—the Old Testament taught likewise:

See also the story related in Proverbs 23, verses 29-35.

Should We Abstain?

So far we have seen from Scripture that drinking, in itself, is not sinful but excessive drinking is clearly warned against. But Scripture passages also indicate that there are circumstances in which one should not drink at all.

For example, when it would lead someone else into sin: “All things indeed are clean: but it is evil for that man who eateth with offence. It is good not to eat flesh, and not to drink wine, nor any thing whereby thy brother is offended, or scandalized, or made weak” (Rom. 14:20-21). This seems clear enough—when you’re with an alcoholic it is good to be careful not to tempt him to drink. But this doesn’t mean you should never drink.

In the Old Testament, God forbids Aaron and his sons from drinking on occasion:

“You shall not drink wine nor any thing that may make drunk, thou nor thy sons, when you enter into the tabernacle of the testimony, lest you die: because it is an everlasting precept through your generations” (Lev. 10:9).

We also find in the Old Testament a special sort of consecration to God through vows which included not drinking: “When a man, or woman, shall make a vow to be sanctified, and will consecrate themselves to the Lord …” (Num. 6:2-3; cf. Judg. 13:7). It is possible that John the Baptist took such vows—see Luke 7:33.

We can see, then, that if we take Scripture as our guide, then drinking, in itself, is not a sin, but we should not drink excessively. Cheers!