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What does the Church teach about doing “soft” drugs?

Abusing psycho-active substances is a choice to render oneself temporarily incapable of virtue and prone to wrongdoing.

(Image: GRAS GRÜN/Unsplash.com)

“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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About Fr. Dominic Farrell, LC 2 Articles
Dominic Farrell LC is a professor of philosophy at the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum, where he lectures on moral and political philosophy. He is the editor of the forthcoming Traditions of Natural Law in Medieval Philosophy (CUA Press).

21 Comments

  1. I’m disappointed to see the acceptance of drug use even discussed on CWR.

    Our culture’s casual view of drugs is a great evil — regardless of what Fr. X. might say.

    Imagine being a little child with parents who are stoners. How many of those babies who are cooked in overheated cars or are mauled by aggressive dogs have parents who use?

    And that’s the outer extreme of neglect. How many other unfortunate children are effectively left alone because they have parents who are lethargic, non-responsive, tired?

    Spouses, co-workers, clients, fellow motorists — all may suffer due to an individual’s drug use.

    And that’s not even considering, the well established link between marijuana use and psychosis.

    Recreational drug use is wrong. Period.

    • That’s what the author said, though, that recreational drug use is sinful. If it’s an issue being discussed in the culture and that at least one priest is saying is no big deal, why would discussing it be wrong? We should always be using timeless values as a yardstick to measure the times we’re in. This time period has a lot of drug use, so burying our heads in the sand is worse than addressing the issue.

    • My question, is why we would use a term like “drug” when talking about these issues, due to “drug” being such a broad term. After all, caffeine is considered a “drug”. I hope one day we can see distinctions made in this field of moral science.

    • I did.

      You guys misunderstood me. I wasn’t criticizing CWR per se. I was decrying the fact that acceptance of recreational drug use is so prevalent in our culture that it’s a suitable topic for CWR to cover.

      I’m sorry I didn’t make that more clear.

  2. As far as smoking marijuana, it prematurely ages the brain; medical people on here can elaborate or challenge that – I remember a Wall S article on that about 15 years ago. It smells bad too! For pain relief, you can’t fault a person using it or derivative prudently. I come from a family of recovering hippies and can see the effects on memories and such as they got older — some very sharp people in their youth.

    I guess we figure there will be a pill to cure all, so just do whatever.

    There recently was a study in Europe?, of 75k people — concluded no amount of alcohol is safe.

    If you can smoke or chew tobacco then everything s/b legal — my basis is that tobacco is a proven killer………..

  3. To put it simply, we are called/ordered to love God with all our heart, mind, and strength 24/7/365, and that is impossible while under the influence of drugs, to include marijuana and alcohol. Sorry, social drinkers, you too are not exempt from this commandment, anymore than a pot smoker. We all are SUPPOSED to have much more important things to do than gettin buzzed.
    It is that simple.
    And making excuses is why the world and the Church are in such a sorry state.

    • You may want to clarify that you not suggesting that moderate alcohol consumption is forbidden and on par with smoking weed. That would be a rather un-Catholic position to take.

    • Wrong. The Church has always accepted social drinking. Jesus himself drank wine at Passover, and turned water into wine at Cana. The Church cites these, among other theological principles in doing so.

      • What is “accepted” and what is right are often two different things. You please show me how you can love God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength while getting buzzed on ANYthing, and I might entertain the thought of arguing.

        Jesus turned water into wine at a sacramental marriage and drank wine at sacramental feast, which is not social drinking on his part at all. He prayed all night and for 40days at a stretch. Do any social drinkers do THAT, as well, as for “doing like Jesus did”?

        • At least we can continue to drink liquor at weddings. Thanks, Bob! Your strange and exacting interpretation of our Lord’s injunction would seem forbid sleep, among other things. Am I also in violation when I cut the grass, shoot pool or laugh at Joe Biden? It’s the end of the long work week, I think I’ll make myself a Manhattan.

        • Methinks your definition of “social drinking” is not what 99% of people consider the definition to be. Nor have you defined “buzz.” The Catholic Church is not a church of teetotallers.

  4. Reefer is a mind expanding drug.This is not so , it contracts you into your own ego there’s a reason why people say dig yourself. it is food for a narcissistic Soul .and how many narcissistic souls are in heaven

  5. The acceptance of drugs is merely another sign of the growing hedonism and libertisism of our society. Furthermore, as Aldous Huxley noted in Brave New World, drugs can be a powerful form of social control, as a stoned populace is more than willing to accept more state control over their lives. Hence why leftist regimes in Canada, several Australian states and Mexico favor drug legalization.

  6. People like Father X are part of the problem with Today’s church. It is much easier to understand and accept a blanket prohibition than expect people to constantly consider nuances, which they may get wrong.”Do your own thing” is NOT a good answer when establishing moral standards. I dont think there is any question that illicit drug use is sinful. It damages health and often in fact DOES move people on to harder drug use. I will move the bar a little higher and take a guess that smoking, as it is very damaging to health, is sinful too. In so doing you are damaging the body which God gave you. You are part of the Body, you belong to God as it says someplace in the bible. This would also apply to excessive drinking. Responding to others above, Jesus drank alcohol as did even children in that era, as clean potable water was not always available. Its a sure bet He was never drunk.That this would even have to be explained to todays church members is a sign the church has failed to explain its positions on MANY Moral issues to it’s members. Spoke to an acquaintance who is in church ministry who revealed she never goes to confession because she feels like she has “nothing to say” and is a “pretty good person”. Most of us get that we make small mistakes almost daily, if we are honest with ourselves. Not always earthshaking mistakes, but ones which need to be acknowledged, corrected, and not repeated, if our lives are to improve and to reflect Jesus. We dont want members who feel constantly guilty. We DO want members who understand what the observable limits of many types of behavior should be —and WHY.

  7. In Michigan the de-criminalizing of pot for recreational use along with medicinal use.
    Ushered in our socialist/communist Governor,SOS,AG and several other democrats to the misery and deadly behaviors. We have seen our once fair state saddled with since 2018.
    Our old state motto of:”If you seek a pleasant peninsula. Look around you” Is now:”Don’t bogart that joint my friend” As the Buffalo Springfield once sang back in 1966.”Paranoia runs deep. Into your life it will creep”

  8. I’ve finally realised there is no difference between soft drugs and hard drugs. Both are a portal to demons. As is pornography.

  9. And thou shalt buy with the same money whatsoever pleaseth thee, either of the herds or of sheep, wine also and strong drink, and all that thy soul desireth: and thou shalt eat before the Lord thy God, and shalt feast, thou and thy house. Deuteronomy 14:26

  10. Actually, it appears that our understanding of drugs and alcohol has been mistaken. When it comes to the ability to reason, scientist have shown that alcohol doesn’t ever do this. But the same can’t be said about a probably proxy for charity – empathy. As such, injustice should be more likely among the drunk.

    Drugs don’t seem to be in the same class as alcohol. I am not aware that they have the same effect. I clearly remember learning in a health class that drugs aren’t associated with the negative social effects of alcohol.

    And I doubt that the health effects of all of them are as bad as has been held by the mainstream. At least the natural drugs are probably benign as far as health is concerned.

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