The phrase ut laetificet cor, “that the heart might be made glad” (Psalm 103) is the motto of the brewery (birra nursia) of the Benedictine monks of Norcia, who established a community in 2000 in the city of Saint Benedict’s birth. That phrase might be said to encapsulate an entire theory and practice of the Catholic understanding of the consumption of alcohol.
Although wine rather than beer is the beverage of choice in Italy, the brewery motto nicely sums up the Italian practice of consuming alcohol — in social settings, over long meals at gatherings of friends and family, and as a complement to the art of conversation.
The brewing of beer and the production of wine are nearly coextensive with civilization. There is strong archeological evidence that alcohol was used to mark the defining events of communal life: birth, marriage and death. The language enters into the very heart of the Catholic liturgy: “fruit of the vine and work of human hands.” The miracle of turning water into wine is the first great sign of the divinity of Christ in John’s Gospel. George Herbert captures the sacramental significance in the brilliant and searing poem, The Agony, which concludes thus: “Love is that liquor sweet and most divine, / Which my God feels as blood; but I, as wine.”
How far from this sacramental or even a social understanding of alcohol are the contemporary drinking habits of many college students. Binge drinking, which involves the consumption of large amounts of alcohol in a short period of time, is more common among college students than among any other group, even than among non-college youth.
Binge drinking, as National Institute of Health (NIH) studies indicate, is damaging and dangerous, and it distorts rather than celebrates our traditions and heritage. Studies show a correlation between binge drinking and injuries, physical violence, sexual assault and date rape. Intoxication affects judgment and may render someone incapable of consenting to sex. Victims, intoxicated or not, are never to be blamed. Drinking to excess is never good but it does not excuse an assailant from responsibility.
Education in the nature of consent and encouragement of bystander intervention are part of the national “It’s on Us” campaign. At the University of Dallas, that is certainly “on us,” but it’s also on us to engage in activities that foster friendship and human flourishing. The motto of the university binds us to the love of truth and justice: Veritatem, Justitiam Diligite. This is not primarily about a culture of prohibitions. Grave evils are always to be avoided; and there is much wisdom in the Catholic counsel to avoid the “near occasion of sin.” But virtue is about much more than simply avoiding serious evil. Virtue itself is misunderstood if it is construed merely at curbing the desire for pleasure. Virtue is about rightly ordered pleasure. Thomas Aquinas argues that the virtuous experience more pleasure than the vicious. The ancient pagans understood this much. In scripture, it is clear that God’s aim is to sanctify basic human passions; appetites for food, drink and sex are to be ordered to what is good and holy — to individual flourishing and the ends of just and joyful communal living. Ut laetificet cor.