Stuart Reid: Catholicism’s boozy halo

Pope Francis holds a bottle of wine presented to him at the end of a general audience (AP)

More wine is drunk per head in the Vatican than in any other place on earth, according to the California Wine Institute, which keeps an unforgiving eye on these things. Each of the Vatican’s 850 or so inhabitants drinks on average 74 litres of wine a year. Holy Moses! But do the sums and you see that 74 litres works out at little more than a glass a day, an intake that in Fleet Street in the 1970s would have viewed as a sign of morbid asceticism.

That’s not to say, however, that the Church is a model of sobriety. On the contrary. There have been no in-depth surveys of the drinking habits of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, of course, but the Geographical Review, an American academic journal, has found that more alcohol tends to be consumed in states with high Catholic populations than in states with high Evangelical Protestant populations.

In Britain there are an estimated 1.4 million problem drinkers. No indication is given of the number of Catholics among them, but it is obviously high. When I joined Alcoholics Anonymous in London 1982, one of the first things I noticed was that the largest self-identifying faith group at the meetings was Catholic. (“You don’t have to be Irish or Catholic to be an alcoholic,” we joked, “but it helps.”) Another thing that struck me was that at the posh meetings in Chelsea and Kensington Catholic public schools were better represented than Protestant ones. A meeting I went to not far from Sloane Square was attended by at least three Old Amplefordians, but (so far as I was aware) by only one Old Etonian.

And it’s not just the man in the pew. Even priests like a bevy or two. In fact, according to Fr Alexander Lucie-Smith, alcoholism is regarded in some quarters as “the curse of the clergy”. Whichever way you pour it, the Church has a drink problem.

Is Catholic guilt to blame? Perhaps, but there is plenty of guilt outside the Church, not least in the Jewish community. Jews, however, are not typically heavy drinkers. My hunch is that it is in the nature and nurture of Catholics from northern Europe to knock the stuff back. My parents (though converts) were pretty observant drinkers. So, I believe, were my friends’ parents. I can’t remember anyone from school in the 1950s who did not drink.

We were Catholics, by Jove, and we put it away like … well, like GK Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc. My generation was brought up to revere Chesterton and Belloc (not to mention Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene), and we did so gladly. “Belloc and Chesterton have surrounded Catholicism with a kind of boozy halo,” said HG Wells. Waugh and Greene burnished the halo. We had a superiority complex in those days. We had the best writers, the best drinkers, the best religion – the Latin was especially cool – and we were cleverer than our fellow countrymen, better informed, better looking, and better dressed.

What we did not understand at the time was that Chesterton spoke a lot of tosh about booze. “… drink when you would be happy without it,” he wrote in Orthodoxy, “and you will be like the laughing peasant of Italy. Never drink because you need it, for this is rational drinking, and the way to death and hell. But drink because you do not need it, for this is irrational drinking, and the ancient health of the world.”

What pious sentimentality. “The laughing peasant of Italy”? When Orthodoxy was published in 1908, Italy was abysmally poor, especially in the south. Between 1880 and 1920, more than four million Italians, most of them artisans and peasants, fled to America. Perhaps they wanted to get away from all that laughter.

The truth is that wine is good, and a great wine is a thing of joy and beauty. But the key point about wine is that, as with all alcoholic drinks, it makes you happy and unafraid. That’s why people drink. Chesterton may have persuaded himself that he drank wine for “irrational” reasons, and was thus somehow in league with “the ancient health of the world”, but I bet booze lifted his spirits and gave him the energy to turn out such a rich stream – sometimes profound, often funny – of prose and poetry. RIP.

Drinkers need to recognise, meanwhile, that there is only one way of getting over a drink problem and that is to give up alcohol for good. No alcoholic can drink normally – and anyway, no decent alcoholic would wish to drink normally. There is always help available, from Alcoholics Anonymous and from the Calix, a Catholic self-help group that uses the AA 12-step programme but in the context of Catholic spirituality.

Another ginger beer, Father?