De Vino Veritas
Updated: May 28, 2021
In the Middle Ages, English aristocrats made a habit of exchanging their adolescents:
Takest thou my dearest William to thy far-off country estate. I shall keep thy Henry here in London. Thus shall mine affection not impede discipline, and anon we shall render back to one another a better product than that which either now doth possess.
If you have raised children, you have more sympathy with this line of thought than if you are an idealistic single person. If you have ever taught high school, you definitely get it.
My first teaching job – God forgive the good people who entrusted it to me – involved teaching Latin to seniors. Doing my best to seem much older than I was, I assumed an air of all-business and tried never to laugh at their jokes. Mercifully, Facebook hadn't been around to sabotage my career by recording college goofiness.
Then one day, as Pliny the Elder tried to flee doomed Pompeii in our textbooks, disaster struck. A particularly snarky senior suddenly said, “Magistra, did you ever drink underage?”
You will recognize the classic Catch-22. So did a loyalist senior, who quickly quipped, “As your lawyer, I advise you not to answer the question.” He was right. My answer didn't matter. If I give no reply, they will assume it’s a “yes, definitely.” If I deny it, they will still assume it’s a “yes, definitely,” and by honoring the question I will have acknowledged its legitimacy and should expect more of the same in the future.
(Note: I wish I’d created a classroom environment that made that question less likely, but let’s assume it would have happened anyway – 17 year-olds aren’t famed for being appropriate. Moreover, a fellow faculty member had just been fired rather publicly for his public intoxication, so the subject was on their minds.)
With all options bleak, I attempted a withering I-can’t-believe-you look (modeled on my late grandfather's when I played the wrong card in Euchre).
What I Said
“You are out of line and you will see me after class…. On the general topic of breaking the law, I suggest you save your civil disobedience for something worthwhile, like justice, and not throw it away on personal debauchery.”
What I Wish I’d Said
Regarding drinking underage, I'd elaborate: Unless a law is unjust, or you have some incredible emergency that can only be solved by breaking one, you really, really, really need to follow the laws. How fragile and rare is the rule of law! It depends on all of us deciding to be faithful to the law without constantly requiring someone to enforce it on us.
People come from all over the world to the US hoping to find the rule of law as a way of life. If we want it to be there for them and for us, we have to make small sacrifices.
Further, personal integrity and the integrity of our society don’t seem to be at stake when you drink underage, but they are.
If you have discredited yourself by flouting the law for shots of whiskey, what will you do when the laws are truly not just? Will you be heard, or will you sound like an entitled brat who treats drinking shy of 21 as a sacred birthright? What a waste of a voice.
Regarding intoxication: Study after study has shown that most teenagers just don’t respond to risk-assessment-based moral appeals. Even if they did, it isn’t the same thing as responding to sound Catholic moral reasoning. “There is a 45% chance of getting pregnant or crashing your car or dying or getting addicted” is really just consequentialism in panic mode; do we really want to coach this type of ends-justify-the-means philosophy?
We need to dig down into the real reasons, the ones that are still there when you are 60 and not just when you are 16, for not getting drunk, and stick with those when we talk about the issue with our children. Here goes one articulation:
God made me to experience his grace and mediate it to others: this is the fundamental vocation, and it is forbidden to us to deliberately make living it out impossible, even temporarily, without necessity. If you are asleep, God can speak to you in dreams and you a can be awakened to help if help is needed. If you are drunk, you have culpably clouded your mind and canceled your capacity to be a saint: you cannot hear the voice of God, you cannot
help someone who is hurt, you cannot be salt or light or love. You can’t give yourself away for the sake of the Lord if you have given yourself away to intoxication.
Every single gift from God can be abused, so be mindful of yourself and your circumstances as you are with all gifts. Some people are endangered by video games, some people can’t handle Oreos just sitting there in the pantry unattended, and some people - many whom I know and love - shouldn't drink any alcohol at all. Any time your interaction with creation undermines your fundamental vocation, you must take drastic action: and if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. (Mt 5:30)
Who knows what those castle-dwelling, Tudor-tolerating Englishmen were telling their
exchange children about ale or mead, but they probably had the same hopes for their next generation that we have for ours: that whatever we did or didn’t drink when we were their age, our children will make better choices and so become wiser, holier people than are we; that they be not intoxicated by fleeting pleasures, legal or otherwise, but rather caught up by the true love that leads to eternal happiness.
Photo by Christin Hume on Unsplash