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When Drunkenness is a Mortal Sin Redux

Aquinas appears to make it pretty hard to get so drunk that inebriation, by itself, is mortal

A reader sent this link to me. Is getting drunk a sin?

The site’s conclusion: Yup, getting drunk is a serious sin.

But the site doesn’t “nail it down” when it comes to mortal sin. It just quotes Aquinas’s Summa Theologica (see below), backs him up with Ambrose, and concludes that drunkenness is a mortal sin.

Well, that doesn’t quite get it, but it appears to be a pretty reputable site, so I’m going to rely on it to conclude that Aquinas’ quote below is the dispositive position on the subject of drinking to the point of committing a mortal sin.

“In this way drunkenness is a mortal sin, because then a man willingly and knowingly deprives himself of the use of reason, whereby he performs virtuous deeds and avoids sin, and thus he sins mortally by running the risk of falling into sin” (II-II, question 150, article 2).

So, with that in mind, let’s unpack the quote. (Aside, the following analysis testifies either to the tightness of Aquinas’ thought or its opacity . . . you decide.)

First, there are two significant definitions baked into the first part of that quote: (1) “Drunkenness” is a mortal sin, which (2) involves a person in the act of willingly and knowingly depriving himself of the use of reason.

That, by itself, would match the definition of drunkenness once provided to me by a spiritual adviser. When, after hearing his explanation, I asked, “I’d have to be completely deprived of reason in order to fall into mortal sin?” he replied, “Yup. It’s pretty hard to do.”

(This spiritual adviser, it should be noted, read Aquinas as a devotional act, eschewing The Imitation of Christ for the Summa. . . . big-time nerd.)

But that’s not what Aquinas said. A person doesn’t have to be deprived of reason, period. In order for a person to be drunk (of the mortal kind), the reasoning faculty that allows him to perform virtuous deeds and avoid sin must be impaired to the point that he no longer has the ability to do so (is “deprived” of it). A man doesn’t need to nullify his entire reasoning faculty. He just has to nullify the reasoning faculty that governs virtue and vice to the extent that he is deprived of that ability.

I would submit that such a standard is far better than, “Hey, I was so messed up, I couldn’t even figure out that I shouldn’t sleep outside naked in sub-zero weather.”

Under the Aquinas formula, a person would have to be sufficiently soused to increase the risk of committing a sin (committing a mortal sin, incidentally; it wouldn’t make sense to say “any” sin because, if the sin itself isn’t mortal, the act of risking it (a lesser offense) can’t be either).

And the increased risk would have to come from the deprivation of reason, not just relaxation of one’s vigilance and enjoying oneself, to the point where he might slip up in a smallish way.

Now, where does “relaxation” shade into “deprivation of reason”? I have no idea, but we are at least onto something here.

The Aquinas formula arguably requires a person to be so drunk that he doesn’t have the reasoning ability to do good things and avoid bad things. I don’t think I’ve ever been that drunk (at least, not in the last few hours). Booze, for instance, has never resulted in an inclination to worship Allah or cheat on my wife (though it has caused me to look in the mirror and inaccurately marvel at my nightclub possibilities).

But I still struggle if the formula is that high: deprived of the reasoning faculty that is responsible for virtue and vice. Deprived, which implies “total” removal.

I wonder if the original Latin verb translates to our meaning “deprived”?

But that’s enough for now.

I’ll continue to mull it over tonight with a few gin and tonics.