“Smoking a joint is not a sin. The Church teaches that it’s wrong to get drunk but licit to take a relaxing drink. Now, smoking marijuana is just like drinking with moderation. It is relaxing and does not deprive you of use of reason. So, it does not go against Christian moral principles.”
Someone put this argument to me a couple of years ago. He was not a stoner. He was a Catholic priest.
Surprised? I was.
To be fair, Fr X’s was not advocating “soft drugs”. His argument was academic. He sincerely wondered whether the Church has sound grounds for teaching that any kind of drug use is intrinsically sinful.
The Bible is obviously the first place to look for an answer. However, it gives no direct guidance on drugs. Its silence is even surprising. Drugs existed in the world of its divinely inspired authors. There was some degree of opium use in each of civilizations with which the Chosen People rubbed shoulders: the Egyptians, Sumerians, Assyrians, Greeks, and Romans. Even so, the Bible never mentions drugs, let alone condemn them explicitly.
However, it does denounce drunkenness repeatedly (Prov 31:4-5; Eccl 31:28; Romans 13:13). Paul even lists drunkenness as one of the “works of the flesh” that prevent one from entering the kingdom of heaven (Gal 5:19-21). On the strength of such passages, the Church has always taught that drunkenness can be sinful, indeed gravely so.
The Bible’s explicit denunciation of drunkenness may extend to drug abuse. To see why, we need to establish what makes drunkenness wrong.
The traditional teaching is that getting drunk is sinful whenever one chooses to drink excessively—to the point of losing use of reason—out of a disordered desire.
You would not be guilty of drunkenness, therefore, if you end up sozzled after someone secretly spikes your soft drink and you do not catch on. It is not your fault. You did not choose to drink the vodka that was slipped into your glass.
Nor is it sinful to get drunk deliberately for a legitimate reason. You might have to down a bottle of Lagavulin as an ersatz anaesthetic for an emergency operation. You know that you will end up plastered. You might even savor each swig of the Scottish elixir. This is not sinful. You are not drinking an excessive but an appropriate amount of alcoholic beverage, given the end at stake, which is not some disordered desire but your health. You are getting drunk to numb the pain and make yourself less resistant to lifesaving surgery. Sustaining one’s health is the raison-d’être of the ingestion of liquids. Under these exceptional circumstances, there is a legitimate reason to down a bottle of Lagavulin.
These considerations bring to light the more general premise that underlies the Bible’s condemnation of sinful drunkenness: it is wrong to voluntarily abuse—take in excess without a legitimate reason—any psychoactive substance, such as alcohol or drugs, that will foreseeably deprive you of your use of reason. Abusing psychoactive substances is a sin against temperance, the moral virtue that regulates our sensitive desires so that we might always act in accord with reason. Ultimately, it goes against the commandment to love oneself. As St. Thomas explains, loving oneself aright consists in choosing what is truly good for one: what is good from the standpoint of reason, not the senses. In so doing, we act in accord with our condition and dignity as creatures made in God’s image.
Abusing psycho-active substances, on the other hand, is a choice to render oneself temporarily incapable of virtue and prone to wrongdoing.
The Bible’s explicit denunciation of drunkenness does contain, therefore, an implicit condemnation of drug abuse. What Fr. X disputed, though, was that this condemnation extends to drugs that do not deprive one of use of reason.
In a November 23, 1991 address to the Sixth International Conference of the Pontifical Council for Health Care Workers, John Paul II addresses this very point:
There certainly exists a sharp difference between recurring to drugs and recurring to alcohol. The moderate use of alcoholic beverages does not clash with any moral prohibition. Only their abuse is to be condemned. Taking drugs, on the other hand, is always illicit because it involves an unjustified and irrational renunciation to think, will, and act as a free person. Furthermore, even in those well-defined cases where there is a medical indication for using psychotropic substances to alleviate physical or psychological suffering, one must act with great prudence and avoid creating dangerous forms of habituation and dependency.
As John Paul II points out, only the abuse of alcohol is condemned. After all, Scripture describes wine as divine gift (Psa 104:4-5 Eccl 9:7). There is no such thing as a moderate use of drugs, on the other hand. Drinking a glass of wine is not necessarily a choice to get drunk. Taking drugs without an adequate medical indication is necessarily a choice to use a psychoactive substance for its psychoactive properties rather than its medicinal effect. It is necessarily “an unjustified and irrational renunciation to think, will, and act as a free person.”
While John Paul II highlights in this address that it is always illicit, he does not claim that it is always a grave sin. He probably has in mind a distinction that moral theologians have traditionally drawn between drunkenness and tipsiness. Both are illicit. However, the tipsy still retain use of reason. So, whereas drunkenness is a grave sin, tipsiness is a venial sin.
Now Fr. X’s point was that smoking a recreational joint of marijuana does not deprive one of use of reason. True, but it would still be a venial sin. As such, it is still wrong and never justifiable. Moreover, like tipsiness, it could constitute a mortal sin under certain conditions: when it gives scandal or, due to one’s voluntarily induced weakening of self-control, leads one to harm others gravely.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) reiterates the traditional teaching that drug use is wrong because, like excessive drinking, it deprives one of the use of reason. The official Latin text specifies that it consists in abusing not any medication whatsoever but “stupefacient medication” (n. 2291).
On the strength of modern medicine, however, the Catechism stresses that taking drugs is wrong on other grounds too. It constitutes a sin against the fifth commandment: “Thou shalt not kill!”
As an abuse of medicinal substances, it constitutes a sin against temperance. However, it is an intemperate act that goes against the fifth rather than the sixth commandment (CCC, nn. 2288-2291). It does not consist of extra-marital sexual activity. Rather—like the abuse of food, alcoholic beverages, and tobacco—the intemperate abuse of stupefacient medicinal substances harms one’s own health and endangers one’s life directly. Due to their psychoactive effects, it can lead one to harm the health and endanger the life of others too. The Catechism reaches the following conclusion, therefore.
“The use of drugs inflicts very grave damage on human health and life. Their use, except on strictly therapeutic grounds, is a grave offense.” (CCC, n. 2291)
The first sentence appeals to science. The second sentence is a moral assessment: any use of drugs which does not have a strict therapeutic justification is sinful. It is sinful because it wreaks unnecessary harm upon one’s health. It thereby goes against the fifth commandment. It is a grave sin because, going by medical research, it inflicts grave damage on one’s health.
For this reason, the Catechism goes further than John Paul II did in 1991. It teaches that any recreational use of drugs is a grave offense. It does so on the strength of medical research, which appears to show that even the occasional or minimal use of any drug is likely to inflict grave harm on your health.
The Catechism does not accept, therefore, the scientifically unfounded distinction that many people and some countries make between hard and soft drugs. Some drugs are more addictive and harmful than others. This does not mean though they inflict negligible harm, even when only used on the odd occasion.
So, contrary to what Fr. X supposed, the Church does have solid reasons for teaching that all recreational drug use is wrong, indeed gravely so. Moreover, this moral teaching is not based on faith alone but on natural law. It is not just implicit in Revelation but demonstrable on purely rational grounds. Consequently, it should underlie the drugs legislation of any polity.
That is unlikely to happen any time soon. Currently, there is widespread public approval of “soft drugs” and, with it, mounting pressure to legalize them.
Paradoxically, though, the Church’s countercultural condemnation of drugs may become more compelling in the years ahead. Not only does an ever-growing amount of research confirm that “soft drugs” do serious harm to people’s health. More people are experiencing first-hand the havoc they wreak.
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