“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.