“Ask a Priest: How Much Beer Is OK to Drink?”

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Q: Being a new Catholic, I’m still learning many things. I just recently found out that getting drunk is a mortal sin. Every time I have a few drinks now, and even slightly feel the effects if the alcohol, I’m terrified that I just committed a mortal sin. Can you please explain if a few beers making me feel a little different is a mortal sin, a venal sin, or nothing at all? Thank you so much for your tone and God bless! -C.S.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: It is good to hear that you have entered the Church. Ideally a Catholic should always be striving to do the best at every moment.

St. Paul tell us, “So whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31).

As to your specific questions: First, if you are under the legal drinking age, you would do well to respect the law.

Second, each person has a particular tolerance to alcohol, and each person has to learn his limits. Only you can really judge what your limit should be. Feeling the effects of alcohol is not the same as outright drunkenness. Part of the reason people drink alcohol is for the relaxing effects. Even Scripture praises God for having made “wine to gladden their hearts” (Psalm 104:15) — that is, the hearts of men. And let’s not forget the focus of Jesus’ first miracle at Cana (see John 2:1-11).

Regarding intoxication, Wikipedia gives this rather technical passage: Symptoms of alcohol intoxication include euphoria, flushed skin and decreased social inhibition at lower doses, with larger doses producing progressively severe impairments of balance, muscle coordination (ataxia), and decision-making ability (potentially leading to violent or erratic behavior) as well as nausea or vomiting from alcohol’s disruptive effect on the semicircular canals of the inner ear and chemical irritation of the gastric mucosa.

So what might all this mean?

Feeling the effects of alcohol is normal. The sinfulness of those effects might depend on circumstances. A person who is at home and plans to stay at home might be able to have a second or third beer without any problem (read: without sin). That same person might do well to skip the second or third beer if he has to drive a car afterward. Driving in an impaired state could be a mortal sin since it puts others as well as oneself at risk of death or serious harm.

The ideal is that you don’t want to get to the point where you feel overly giddy or lose coordination of your limbs, etc. A positive criterion might be this: When you feel relaxed, that is a good time to stop drinking. After that point there could be “diminishing returns” in a moral sense — meaning that you are putting yourself in danger of serious sin beyond that moment. This is because excessive drinking robs us of our reason and leads us to act in destructive ways that simply are not in harmony with our own human dignity and the dignity of those around us. It is not a sin just because it is on the list of sins. Rather, it is on the list of sins because it is contrary to our dignity and damaging to the constructive use of our freedom that is essential to our friendship with God.

If ever in doubt about whether you crossed the line, then just go to confession and put it behind you and resolve not to cross the line again.

Your example of moderate (or no) drinking can be a very powerful example to those around you. And such a habit will spare you a lot of grief throughout your life.

Moreover, you might want to be careful not to build your social life around drinking. That tends to drag down your circle of acquaintances over time, or puts you in the wrong circles to begin with.

I hope this helps. God bless.

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