Prohibition Is un-Catholic
By: Guest Authors
By: Jeffrey Tucker
Many Catholics have developed a bad habit of mind. They believe that if they are against something, it should be against the law — or, alternatively, if they are for something, it should be mandated by government. Many may read this and think: That sounds right. What’s not to like? In fact, this is a dangerous habit of mind, because it can result in a state-dominated society with all its attendant side-effects: backfiring laws, the loss of freedom, the rise of corruption, rule by agenda-driven politicians, and generally less opportunity for the flourishing of genuine virtue.
To demonstrate how un-Catholic this tendency is, let’s revisit the writing of the great American priest Rev. James M. Gillis (1876-1957). It’s a tragedy that he is not better known today, for Catholics of several generations knew him as the hardworking editor of the Catholic World during the interwar years. He was the founder of the Paulists and an influential and brilliant thinker and writer, at once erudite, orthodox, and liberal (in the old sense of that term, meaning that he favored freedom in the way most of us do). He was a great American and a great priest.
In 1926, in the pages of the Catholic World, he weighed in on the subject of Prohibition, which lasted from 1920 to 1933. People today often shake their heads in disbelief that, in this land of the free, there was ever an attempt to ban the production and distribution (and thereby the consumption) of all wine, beer, and spirits for 13 grim years. It is also striking that today we mostly think of the “Roaring Twenties” as times of high living, hard drinking, and excess. These actually go together, for Prohibition was a case study in how the legislative dreams of fanatics can turn to a nightmare of unintended consequences, promoting the exact opposite of the original intent.
Catholics opposed Prohibition nearly universally. As William Henry Cardinal O’Connell (1859-1944), archbishop of Boston, said: “Compulsory prohibition, in general is flatly opposed to Holy Scripture and Catholic Tradition.” Perhaps that should have been obvious, given the demographics: Most Catholics were of German, Irish, and Italian heritage. Popular wisdom at the time rightly attributed the passage of the Constitutional amendment banning liquor to a certain breed of secularized Protestant who imagined that the state could usher in a heaven on earth. Catholics would have none of it. As people who had long ago fully acculturated themselves to alcohol as part of life — as food, as beverage, even as sacrament — the notion that it should be banned struck many as an attack on the foundation of civilization.
Father Gillis provided a deeper rationale that gets to the heart of the problem. He was opposed to drink, but it was for precisely this reason that he opposed a law against it. He writes:
It is my own conviction that the prohibition law was the greatest blow ever given to the temperance movement. Before prohibition, the people at large were becoming more and more sober. Total abstinence had become the practice, not of a few, but of millions. There was an enormous increase in temperance in America, in the period of fifty years preceding the passing of the Eighteenth Amendment to the National Constitution. Then the attitude of multitudes changed. Under the Volstead Law, drinking became a popular sport. The passage of the law was a psychological blunder, and a moral calamity. It is for this reason, first of all, that I regret the prohibition law.
He further praised not just temperance, which he calls a virtue, but all-out abstinence, which he indeed did practice: Looking at his amazing workload and output, as well as the fantastic accomplishments of his life, one hardly sees how he would have taken time for luxurious evenings sipping wine, much less revelry. It just wasn’t his way. He was an abstainer who was also a dedicated opponent of prohibiting or even restricting liquor production, distribution, or consumption.
The “drys,” he notes, “seem constitutionally incapable of moderation.” This makes them blind to the reality that the dealers in liquor ignore all laws — and even regard any restriction on their freedom to traffic in liquor as a challenge to be overcome. It has always been this way, he writes. He judged the industry to be largely happy to thrive on criminality. Making more laws, then, only amounts to feeding the beast. As he puts it, “You cannot curb crime with absurdity.”
What, then, is the alternative?
We must come back to the original and only true plan for improving the world — education, exhortation, moral suasion. “Slow methods!” say the impetuous “drys.” Yes, but every moral agency must work slowly. It does, perhaps, seem ridiculous to attempt the moral and spiritual regeneration of mankind by the infinitely tedious method of addressing the individual, converting him, and keep him right. But that was the method of Christ. “Preach to every creature,” was His commission to the Apostles. Only when the individual is convinced, can you be sure of his conversion.
He goes on to articulate a general principle that forced conversions do not last, pointing out that a long history confirms this (“when Constantine and Clovis and Charlemagne brought into the Church hundreds of thousands of followers, the result was not altogether good”). The Church works through individuals, teaching and training them one by one.
The process of conversion is long and slow. Anyone who attempts labor-saving devices in dealing with the volatile spirit of man, will fail. There are no “short cuts” in the moral world. Impatient and impetuous persons cannot, not will not, see that self-evident fact. Consequently such persons have always produced disaster in place of reform. The only way to make the country sober is to persuade individual citizens , one by one, to be sober. . . . Prohibitionists do not even see the enormous and unescapable fact that prohibition is a failure. “None are so blind as those who will not see.”
What Father Gillis says here has both a narrow and broad application. It certainly applies in the case of liquor. One of the first presidential actions of Franklin D. Roosevelt was to repeal Prohibition. This action endeared him to a generation and bought him a tremendous amount of political capital to impose the New Deal. But, since that time, there has been the slow attempt to curb, tax, or otherwise restrict alcohol in all levels of society, re-imposing Prohibition piecemeal.
Consider the absurdity of a 21-year-old drinking age. The idea that college freshmen and sophomores are going to be curbed in their impulse to drink by this law is preposterous. Instead, they break the law; they get fake IDs, friend people who stockpile, join drinking societies known as fraternities and sororities, and otherwise end up doing dangerous things like binge drink. At the very least, it has the effect that Father Gillis cautioned about Prohibition: It infuses what should be a normal part of life with a party-time derring-do ethos.
It is also true of other forms of substance abuse. In 1926, there was no drug war to speak of, and there was no pervasive drug problem. Today we have a drug war, which has created in the United States of America the world’s largest prison population, to the point that one in every 100 people is in prison. Most of these people did nothing like stealing and murdering; they are accused of ingesting drugs or contributing somehow to their trafficking.
Meanwhile, drug lords live like Saudi princes, invincible in their political and economic power, and the drug problem keeps getting worse. Government bureaucrats attacked opium, and the markets came up with cocaine. They attacked cocaine, and the market came up with crack. They attacked crack, and the market boosted meth. They attacked meth, and still the market provides even more dangerous drugs concocted wholly in labs. This is getting crazy.
We need to think about the drug war the way that Father Gillis thought about Prohibition. It is not the right path forward. It is making the situation worse rather than better, and that has long been true. The war on drugs is as much a failure as the war on alcohol.
This remains true for all forms of prohibitionism. We live in an imperfect world, “a valley of tears.” We can only improve it one person at a time — not through law but through the conversion of hearts. If we choose the law over voluntary means, we are unleashing an unknown hell that grows the state, attacks individual liberty, and circumvents the gospel mandate to go forth and teach.