Underage drinking and Catholic civil obedience

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Deandra Lieberman, Staff Writer

I’m under the impression that, when I was a little girl, Disney movies, moralistic children’s books and my unruly younger brother all together conspired to turn me into an obnoxious, rule-following pedant. Even now, I hesitate to walk on forbidden lawns or to neglect official crosswalks.

My law-abiding tendency is usually no “superiority of conscience” thing. It’s more often cowardice, really, for I fear few things so much as the displeasure of a parent or teacher; or perhaps my preference for universal obedience stems from a guilt complex, a lack of originality, or some kind of part-lazy, part-crazy compulsion.

Unsurprisingly, there’s little joy in being an obsessive rule-follower. What I want is to be Catholic, and Catholic in the best sense – in the sense that sees faith and reason as strongest when together, and that wants man to know the true freedom that comes through a loving obedience to God.

But since I’m a bit lazy, my usual modus operandi is merely to moderate my rule-obsession to match that of the majority of “good people” around me. But when the “good people” disagree, I’m forced into actually thinking for myself.

That’s what’s happened to me on the underage drinking issue. My knee-jerk response, of course, was never to drink in America without the presence of my parents until I turned 21. But I’ve met a number of loving, intelligent, hardworking people in my years at the University of Dallas of whom I can say only good things, despite their complete disregard for the legal drinking age. So I know it isn’t the most important issue out there for the young Catholic; truly I do.

I’m not necessarily a fan of the legal drinking age being fixed at 21. Saving lives is a good thing, but it is not at all clear that this law provides an effective or fair way to do so. The law arguably contributes to college binge drinking and also smacks of the micromanagement of a government with too much power.

But laws are laws, which in the Christian tradition means we ought not dismiss them too casually. When the Pharisees asked him whether or not it was permissible to pay taxes to Caesar, Jesus told them to “Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God” (Mark 12:17). This statement is usually understood to refer to more than mere tax-paying, and St. Peter urges Christians to “Be subject to every human institution for the Lord’s sake” (1 Peter 2:13).

This is the tradition of the church. In the encyclical Diuturnum, Pope Leo XIII writes, “The one only reason which men have for not obeying is when anything is demanded of them which is openly repugnant to the natural or the divine law.”

I do know that where governing bodies and the health or rights of citizens are concerned, matters are seldom black and white. Yet it can be argued that in this law, the government does not transgress the law of God, harm the dignity of the human person, or lead us into sin. I may be wrong. But if I am right, then there is nothing to be lost by upholding the law in our lives and willingly waiting to drink.

Even if you disagree with the drinking age, there are better ways to attack the law than by merely ignoring it. Pope Leo XIII points out that even when pagan emperors harassed the early Christians, these Christians remained so obedient that those who defended them against the emperor could honestly argue that “it was unjust to enact laws against the Christians because they were in the sight of all men exemplary in their bearing according to the laws.”

If the high drinking age is a reaction against observably dangerous irresponsibility in young people, then attack it theoretically and practically: Question the law with your reason and your words, and render the law unnecessary through mature civil obedience.

We’re living for more than this world, and so the laws of this world by themselves are not the final word on how to live well. So let us remember to love God and one another; to make decisions based upon our faith and our reason; to deal temperately with all the gifts of this world; and, as Pope Leo said, to “understand that they who for God’s sake obey their rulers render a reasonable service and a generous obedience.”

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