St Thomas Aquinas Makes a Shift in His Judgment about Drunkenness

By Father Joachim Omolo Ouko, AJ

The Summa Theologiae Aquinas apparently makes a shift in his judgment about drunkenness., While in the De Malo he says that getting drunk is of itself a venial sin, in the Summa Theologiae and in the Commentary on Romans (as well as the Commentary on 1 Corinthians), which are widely considered to be of a later date than the De Malo, he says that getting drunk is of itself a mortal sin.

The De Malo represents some of St. Thomas Aquinas' most mature thinking on goodness, badness, and human agency. Together with the second part of the Summa Theologiae, it is one of his most sustained contributions to moral philosophy and theology. Aquinas examines the full range of questions associated with evil: its origin, its nature, its variety, its relation to good, and its compatibility with the existence of an omnipotent, benevolent God. For example, is anything objectively evil? Is anything objectively good? How does what is evil differ from what is good? Can there be evil without good?

Does evil have a cause? Does goodness have a cause? Do people have freedom of choice? Or is what they do always outside their control? If people can act freely, under what conditions can they be rightly thought to be responsible for what they do?  And how is their behavior to be evaluated and explained? Is there such a thing as sin? If so, what is it? And how does it arise? Does it admit of degrees? Does it come from what is not human? Or does its source lie wholly in us?

On the other hand, Augustine says in a sermon on Purgatory that if anger is held onto for a long time, and if drunkenness is a regular (assidua) occurrence, they are then numbered among mortal sins. But such sins are generically venial sins–otherwise they would always be mortal sins. Therefore a venial sin becomes mortal through the circumstance of regularity or duration.  About drunkenness we should say that it has in itself the character of a mortal sin; for when a man without necessity and merely for the sake of the pleasure in wine, make himself unable to use his reason, by which a man is directed to God and avoids committing many sins, such an act is expressly contrary to virtue.

But it can be a venial sin on account of some sort of ignorance or weakness, as when a man is ignorant of the strength of the wine, or of his own incapacity (for drinking), so that he does not expect to get drunk; for in such a case the drunkenness is not imputed to him as a sin, but only the excessive drinking.  As Catholics, eating and drinking in community have been part of the Church from the beginning. The Acts of the Apostles and the Didache both speak about gathering for meals as well as for Mass.

Being Catholic is to be part of a community that wants all of its members to get to Heaven. If you aren't friendly to those around you, it's usually pretty hard to convince them to follow you. Whether you are enjoying a drink with other Catholics or with non-Catholics, be a true friend. Truly listen to and care about what others are saying.