“Ask a Priest: How Should I Think of Underage Drinking on Campus?”

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Q: In America, the drinking age is 21, which on university campuses is basically a joke. Alcohol is in abundance wherever I go, but I have continued sobriety because I want to obey the law. The Bible says to follow the laws of the land because they come from Him. I am torn on this issue; the Bible does not admonish against alcohol, but it does against drunkenness. What is the Church’s stance on this? Finally, I have heard from other priests that underage drinking is like jaywalking. Yes, it is against the law to do, but it is not that big of a deal when it comes to God. Is there validity to this? Please help me figure this out. -K.X.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: Your desire to obey the law is admirable. And you won’t go wrong if you continue to do so.

As far as the Church’s stance goes, it encourages good citizenship and respect for legitimate laws. A few numbers in the Catechism are worth citing here.

No. 1898 says, “Every human community needs an authority to govern it. The foundation of such authority lies in human nature. It is necessary for the unity of the state. Its role is to ensure as far as possible the common good of the society.”

No. 1899 adds, “The authority required by the moral order derives from God: ‘Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore he who resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.'”

Regarding drunkenness, the Catechism in No. 2290 says, “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.”

Now, widespread drinking on campuses obviously violates the spirit of good citizenship, even if the vast majority of students will go on to lead more sober lives. Still, there are deeper dangers involved. For one, it can undercut respect for the law in general. It can foster a subculture where students as well as campus officials basically wink at one another and let the issue pass.

That, in turn, can feed other problems. Widespread underage drinking can sow the seeds of alcoholism and lead to toleration of illegal drugs. It can lead to a greater incidence of drunken driving and dangerous pranks. Alcohol on campuses can also pave the way for promiscuity by lowering young people’s defense mechanisms. And that can lead to unplanned pregnancies and abortions.

To say that widespread underage drinking lowers the moral climate of a campus is an understatement. This is unfortunate, because it is a time when students are making big decisions for themselves for the first time. In this sense widespread underage drinking is a lot more pernicious than jaywalking.

Now, does this mean that every campus should crack down and ban alcohol? In the real world that is probably unrealistic — and maybe not even preferable, given the “police state” control that it would require. True, some campuses manage to keep tight controls on alcohol, but those are usually schools that have a relatively religious-minded student body and long-term support among administrators for such a “dry” climate. Secular and once-upon-a-time religiously affiliated schools are another matter.

Does this mean the Church urges laxity in this case? No. But let me explain. The Church in its teachings prohibits all kinds of sinful behavior — lying, cheating, greed, lust, slander, infidelity, neglect of the poor, anger, vanity … the list goes on. Yet the Church is quick to extend God’s mercy to those who fall. It knows too well the weakness of human nature and the propensity of people to sin. That is probably the context within which we could understand the Church’s view on underage drinking.

There are lots of other factors involved too. Some states allow drinking by minors in certain places so long as a parent is present. Some parents will make their own decisions about at-home drinking. Here we could ask whose authority should reign — the parents’ or the state’s? People on both sides of this question will argue passionately.

At a practical level I would suggest that you stick to your principles. Your example can go a long way to encouraging others to be responsible. And you probably have a number of secret admirers for trying to do the right thing. You might also find that you attract a better group of friends.

As far as what everyone else is doing around you, well, that might be too big of a battle to take on. To make the most of your college years, you might decide to ignore the raucousness around you as much as possible.

In the meantime try to keep up a good prayer life and sacramental life. I will include you in one of my Mass intentions. God bless.

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