The Evolution of a Moderate Drinker

From the Nov. 20, 1929, Issue

Prohibition remains the central topic in an unceasing debate. Though The Commonweal is editorially of the opinion that the Eighteenth Amendment has introduced greater social evils than those it was designed to remedy, it is likewise committed to opening its columns to other views of the matter. The following article by Father Ross expresses the point of view of those Catholics, more numerous than is sometimes believed, who hold that total abstinence is the only right attitude toward liquor. We believe that it will be regarded as temperate and intelligent even by those who disagree with it. -The Editors.

Mark Twain says somewhere that his first lie was as a baby when he pretended a pin was sticking him, because he had learned this would lead to cuddling. I may have started that early as a moderate drinker, but my memory is not as precocious as Mark Twain's.

At any rate, one of my earliest recollections – I must have been about three years old – is having a sangaree just before being tucked into bed at night. I grew up in a home where we always had both fermented and distilled beverages, and nobody went to excess. As I grew to manhood in "the gay nineties," I sampled nearly every kind of intoxicating drink that was then popular – and I liked them all. Christmas would not have seemed like Christmas without eggnog, and there was nothing so refreshing as a mint julep on a hot summer day.

My ideal was moderate drinking, and I had no use for either prohibition, or total abstinence. From the vantage point of my nine years' experience, I set my boyish will against the venerable Cardinal Gibbons when I was confirmed, and refused to take the pledge he was accustomed to give. I was twenty-five, and seven years out of college, when I started my studies for the priesthood, and I did not doubt my ability to remain a moderate drinker all my life. The drink habit held no terrors for me, because I was sure of my own strength.

However, the rule of the Paulist novitiate was total abstinence, and of course I fell in line. And then after being stationed in Chicago as a priest, I became a total abstainer and an advocate of total abstinence for others. Our parish was in the old First Ward, represented in the city council by the famous political characters, Hinky Dink and Bathhouse John. I sometimes say they converted me to total abstinence. Hinky Dink, in those pre-Volstead days, kept a saloon and advertised the largest schooner in the city for 5 cents. But he had plenty of competition. There was a saloon on every corner in some blocks, and sometimes one in the middle of the square, too. For the rest, the section was made up principally of poor tenements, very cheap lodging houses and pawn shops.

On Clark and State and Dearborn Streets one could see the wrecks of humanity drifting along with dissipation written clearly in their blotched faces and shambling gait. Sometimes they were literally in the gutter. At our rectory we had a constant stream of men and women seeking material and spiritual help because they had been conquered in their fight against liquor. And we served a hospital that made a specialty of delirium tremens cases. There in a series of padded cells, euphemistically called "the bungalow," we attended men and women who had been made worse than beasts by drink.

From that Chicago experience three conclusions stand out very vividly in my mind.

First of all, I came to believe that the drink evil, in intensity and extent, was the most important social problem we faced as a nation. I suspect that if family is taken in a broad sense, there was hardly a family in the country that had not had at least one member wrecked by drink. And the intensity of the evil was appalling. When under the influence of liquor, men are worse than beasts because they have given up their power of self-determination, and have no instincts to guide them. I recall the case of one man boarding with a widow, who beat her nine-year-old boy into unconsciousness and was discovered applying a lighted cigarette to the boy's wounds. A large percentage of the profanity, blasphemy, quarreling, prostitution, rape, incest, murder afflicting our country was the outcome of drink.

And unfortunately it was not only the guilty drunkards who suffered. Innocent wives, mothers, children were involved. What should have gone for food and clothing and rent and education, went for drink. Whole families ended in the slough of some slum. Catholics sometimes complain of the unjust discrimination against them. But all the unjust discrimination in the country was as a molehill to a mountain compared to the handicap hundreds of thousands of Catholics voluntarily put upon themselves by the abuse of liquor. The man who could entirely eradicate this evil among Catholics would be a veritable Moses leading his people out of a bondage worse than the Egyptian-into a desert dryness!

Secondly, I came to believe that once a man had the drink habit badly he was almost hopeless. I have given hundreds, perhaps thousands, of pledges, but I knew in my heart that most of them were useless. These men meant well, but their wills had been weakened by continual yielding. The so-called cures were usually not permanently effective. These men and women had sold their birthright of human freedom for a momentary gratification of their palate. They would be slaves until they died.

Studying these victims of drink led me to my third conclusion – that no one can be absolutely sure of himself. I had once gloried in my strength, and had imagined that I could continue indefinitely as a moderate drinker. But the sight of these people gave me pause. They had all at one time been moderate drinkers. They had, most of them, been confident of their own strength. Doubtless many of them had been just as strong as I ever was. And I wondered if something of the twisted psychology by which crazy people think they are sane did not apply here. Perhaps the surer a man was of his own strength, the greater was the danger of his going to excess. Pride goeth before a stumble. "Let him who thinketh himself to stand, take heed lest he  fall."

I wanted to prevent the evils of drink. But as it seemed practically impossible to reform in any great numbers those who were already drunkards, the only hope was in keeping down the number of recruits. And the conclusion forced itself on me that the only sure way to prevent drunkenness was total abstinence. The further step was inevitable, that the only absolutely sure way of protecting my own self from danger was to be a total abstainer.

Moreover, I could hardly preach total abstinence to others while drinking myself. The obvious retort would be, "Physician, heal thyself." A certain percentage of these moderate drinkers, if they kept on drinking, would go to excess. They needed total abstinence, and to practise total abstinence they needed the encouragement of my example. Weighing the pleasure I might get from an occasional julep against the good of saving even one man from drunkenness, there was but one conclusion. I like most kinds of intoxicating drinks but it was only a tiny mortification to give them up. If it had been a big thing, it would merely have been the surer argument that I needed total abstinence for my own sake.

We are to some extent our brother's keepers, and this applies emphatically to drink. Some are immune, but others will certainly fall victims if they are ex­posed. And there is no way of telling ahead of time in which class anyone will be. I could not feel easy in conscience if I were the means of exposing to this dreadful disease a man who would contract it. The tickling of my gullet would have been no justification; the throwing of responsibility on him would not have cleared me completely.

But persuading individuals to total abstinence is a slow process. In 1917 in regard to drugs and liquors I wrote: "If it be found that the privilege of using such articles is invariably abused by such a large number of persons that the good of the whole community or a large part of the whole is endangered; and if the abuse can be stopped by prohibition, then the state has a perfect  right to prohibit."  Personally, I had no doubt about the abuse of drink endangering a sufficiently large part of society to warrant prohibitory legislation, although I did have considerable doubt in regard to the effectiveness of prohibition.

However, I was willing to take a chance and voted for state prohibition in Texas. Naturally, I had nothing to do with the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment. If the coming of national prohibition had depended upon me, I would certainly have deferred it. One of the most unfortunate things for temperance workers is that national prohibition came too soon. But as long as it did come, I observe it. All the talk about personal liberty leaves me cold. As far as I can see, drink interferes a great deal more with personal liberty than does the Volstead Law. The man who drinks to excess gives up his freedom while under the influence of liquor. If he gets the drink habit, he becomes a life-long slave.

There are more ways of depriving a man of his liberty than by passing a law, and the drinkers by their indulgence interfere with the liberty of non-drinkers to a much greater extent than prohibitionists interfere with the liberty of the antis. One of these drinking advocates of personal liberty, while under the influence of liquor ran down the daughter of a friend of mine. She was nearly killed, and had to give up her liberty completely for several months in a hospital. It was no consolation whatever that the cause of the accident was vindicating his freedom.

A goodly number of the drinking advocates of personal liberty seem unwilling to give to others the freedom not to drink. They are trying to build up a group opinion that will force others to indulge. They ridicule the abstainer. They call him a killjoy, a Puritan, a long-faced hypocrite. Being convinced of the advantages of total abstinence, I feel that I am vindicating my freedom by not drinking; and there are thousands in the same situation.  Antis ought to be sports enough to see this.

I was a teetotaller before Volstead, and if the dangers of pre-prohibition liquor led me to total abstinence, I would be foolish to change now. The dangers of pure liquor were bad enough; the dangers of bootleg stuff are worse. Somehow, I am not credulous enough to believe that it just came across the Canadian border, or a friend brought it over in the Leviathan. And while for $5.00 or maybe $1.00 you can get liquor tested, the test applies only to the more easily detected poisons.

Moreover, I cannot see how the purchaser of bootleg liquor escapes cooperation in the graft and corruption and violence connected with bootlegging. To me the case is clear. No purchasers, no bootleggers; no bootleggers, no graft, no shooting of enforcement officers, or of others. If I bought bootleg liquor, I could not open my pocketbook without seeing the mountainous graft and civic corruption that is associated with the system; I could not draw a check without hearing the sobs of women widowed and children orphaned by the activity of bootleggers.

As far as I am concerned, total abstinence is a very small price to pay for avoiding cooperation in what comes out of bootlegging. And if it were a big price, I would gladly pay it. If I were convinced that the Volstead Law was all wrong, I would think it only the part of ordinary prudence to take some other way of showing my disapproval than by exposing myself to the danger of poison liquor; I would think it only moral to refuse cooperation in all the evils of bootlegging – the evils of selling to drunkards, of graft, corruption and violence.

It is possible that there would have been less abuse of liquor today, if national prohibition had not come when it did. I do not know, and I do not know any way of determining the matter absolutely. The question is hypothetical, and reminds me of the boy who was asked if his brother liked cherry pie. "I haven't any brother," he said. "Well, if you had a brother, would he like cherry pie?" We know as much about what would have been without the Eighteenth Amendment as the boy did about the taste of his hypothetical brother for cherry pie.

But the evils of the present day are not hypothetical. They are very real. And what am I to do in the face of these evils? By patronizing bootleggers cooperate with the system that produces bootleggers? Or be a total abstainer? My conscience tells me to be a total abstainer. And I cannot understand the reasoning of those who deplore these evils, yet buy bootleg stuff; or who simply oppose prohibition with no probability whatever of being able to repeal it, while doing nothing about the present abuse of liquor.

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About the Author

Fr. J Eliot Ross is the Catholic member of the faculty in the School of Religion at the University of Iowa.