“Ask a Priest: What If I’ve Had Prior Problems With Alcohol?”

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Q:  In the past I have struggled with being moderate in my drinking, and many times slipped into drunkenness that lead to other sins. However, I have been working on this and don’t struggle as much as I used to. There have been a couple of occasions, though, where when I didn’t eat enough beforehand, or because of feeling anxious, I have accidentally had too much to drink and became fairly intoxicated (in one case it was only one glass of wine but because I had not eaten and wasn’t being careful, it affected me a lot). I know under some circumstances this would not be a mortal sin since it was an accident. But since I have struggled with drinking in the past, and should know to be more careful, I am wondering if that makes it a mortal sin in my case. I am also wondering if, because I do struggle with drinking, a “firm purpose of amendment” in confession would be to give up drinking completely, or just continuing to be as careful as possible. – C.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: It isn’t easy to say when drinking crosses the line into mortal sin. Every person needs to know his limits in the use of alcohol.

Perhaps the inquiry about mortal sin is the wrong question to ask. Let me explain.

If you have had problems with alcohol in the past, and these have led to other sins, then it might be good to squarely face the reality that drinking poses grave risks for you. Ideally your response should be one of caution, not flirting with disaster.

Think of it this way. Imagine you are driving on a twisting mountain road, with no guardrails and with a steep cliff on one side. Do you ask yourself, “How close can I drive to the edge without plunging into the valley below?” One hopes not. Rather, you are more prone to think, “This is a dangerous road. I need to slow down and hug the center line.”

In the case of drinking you might consider slowing down. At the very least, it would be good to give yourself strict parameters. Unless you give up drinking altogether (not a bad option), at least consider a no-alcohol-without-food rule. And perhaps limit yourself to one drink, period. If any of this seems extreme, just remember what is at stake.

In the meantime you want to maintain a solid prayer life and sacramental life, and consider looking for positive social activities that don’t involve alcohol (such as museum visits, Bible studies, volunteer work, etc.).

So, rather than trying to avoid grievous sins with alcohol, it might be better to look for activities that don’t require any alcohol.

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