Is altar wine addictive, and if so, how could Christ have used it?

All alcoholic beverages are addictive in certain persons, namely in alcoholics, but not in others. Wine is no exception to this. Yet it is certainly true that grape wine is natural and does have some special qualities, recalled even by Sacred Scripture. It certainly does rejoice the heart of man, as the Psalms say, and it does soothe nerves in those who do not have the predisposition to become alcoholics.

However, with respect to its alcohol content, wine is not any different from other alcoholic beverages and is easily prone to abuse. Wine-drinking persons can certainly become alco­holics, and frequently do. It is probably true that it is not so frequently abused as whiskey and other spirits and stronger drinks that alcoholics indulge in. Nevertheless, it must be counted with those fermented drinks that can ruin a person.

Our Lord is not responsible for the abuse of this good substance that God in His goodness provided for us and that Our Divine Savior elevated to become the species under which He would give us His Precious Blood. Nevertheless, the wine that was drunk in the time of Our Lord was much weaker than modern-day wine—probably only 7-8 %, which is only half the strength of modern-day wine. Also, the Jews, like all peoples of antiquity, mixed water with their wine in large quantities. Consequently, it was less open to abuse and to cause alcoholism.

Present-day sacramental wine is 12-18 %, which higher concentration of alcohol gives the best natural preservation from corruption. The main difference between sacramental wine and table wine is that sacramental wine must be entirely pure from any additives or preservatives and must not contain any alcohol or other product that is not fermented from or fruit of the vine. This is what the Church has to say: “In order that wine may be valid and licit matter for consecration, it must be wine, which has been pressed from fully ripened grapes, which has fermented, which has been purified of sediment or dregs, which has a vinous alcoholic content of around 12 %, which has not been adulterated by the addition of any non-vinous substance, which is neither growing nor grown bad by acescence or putrefaction” (Matters Liturgical, 10th edition, 1959, pp. 327-328). Either red or white wine may be used for altar wine.

Can couples decide for themselves when they are able to use NFP?

Natural family planning is the intentional and exclusive use of the sterile part of a woman’s menstrual cycle for marriage relations, in such a way that a child is not conceived. The Catholic principles for the resolution of this question are to be found in the 1917 Code of Canon Law, which states that “the primary end of marriage is the procreation and education of children,” so that if anybody would deliberately exclude the right to acts in themselves apt to engender children (Canon 1081, § 2), including by the use of NFP, then the marriage would not only be illicit, but also invalid, as Pope Pius XII declared in his discourse to midwives of October 20, 1951.

The Pope goes on to explain that if the limitation of marriage to the sterile periods alone refers not to the right, but only to the use of marriage, then it clearly does not invalidate the marriage. The question of the licitness or morality of such a practice is going to depend upon the intentions of the married couple:

“The moral licitness of spouses acting in such a way is to be affirmed or denied inasmuch as the intention to constantly observe these periods is founded or not on sufficient and certain moral motives. The simple fact that the spouses do not pervert the natural act and that they are ready to accept a child who, despite their precautions would come into the world, does not suffice alone to guarantee the rectitude of the intentions and the absolute morality of the motives themselves.

“The reason for this is that marriage obliges to a state of life which, if it confers certain rights, also imposes the accomplishment of a positive work in relationship with the same state [= children]. In this case, the following general principle can be applied, according to which a positive duty can be omitted if grave reasons, independent of the good will of those who are bound, establish that the fulfillment of this duty is inopportune…and cannot in justice be demanded” (ibid.).

The Pope’s conclusion is very simple. A grave reason is required to exempt a couple from their duty of contributing to the good of society and the Church by having children. A light motive or some personal reason, such as the inconvenience of a pregnancy, or the desire to pursue professional formation, or to space out children, does not suffice. The Popes continues: “To always and deliberately use marriage in such a way as to exempt oneself from its first duty without a GRAVE reason would be to sin against the very meaning of conjugal life” (ibid.).

The Pope goes on to list the “serious reasons” that can exempt a couple from this positive obligation of having children, and can thus be used as the grave reason for the exclusive use of the sterile period or NFP, which he lists as “medical, eugenic, economic, and social” reasons, emphasizing that if these or “similar grave reasons” do not exist “according to a just and reasonable judgment,” then the use of NFP is illicit and sinful.

From these considerations follow two important reasons why the spouses themselves cannot determine with certitude whether or not the method of NFP is licit in their particular case:

1. Nobody is a good judge in his own case, on account of the natural tendency to give undue weight to personal considerations which are of a light nature and consequently not sufficient to justify the use of NFP. When the Pope requires “a just and reasonable judgment,” he is asking for an expert in judging moral questions. This is the role of the priest, and in particular a pastor of souls, whose duty it is to direct his faithful on how to best live their Catholic lives, and how to avoid both mortal and venial sin. It would be, to say the least, presumptuous for an individual or couple to think that they could make such a judgment on their own. As the saying goes, “A person who chooses himself for a spiritual director, chooses a fool.”

2. Matrimony is a sacrament instituted pri­marily for the good of society, and not only for the two spouses themselves. The positive duty, from which a couple can only be exempted for grave reasons, concerns society as a whole. It is not something that concerns just the couple, but being a sacrament is under the jurisdiction of the Church. Given that the exemption from this duty concerns society as a whole, it is not a decision for a couple to think that they can make without reference to anybody else. The advice of medical, psychological, and financial professionals may very well be required as to the existence of a grave reason, and finally of the priest in making the decision of prudence.

The priest’s authority in such a case is not a strictly canonical one, as given to him by the Church’s law. It is a moral authority, as of the confessor or spiritual director, who guides a person in how to save his soul, either in the confessional or outside in spiritual direction.

The attitude of the post-conciliar Church to this question is radically different. A small difference in principles leads to a great difference in conclusions. The difference in principle concerns the ends of marriage, expressed in precisely the opposite order as in the traditional code, and without any hierarchy of primary and secondary: “Marriage….is ordered to the good of the spouses and to the engendering and education of children” (Canon 1055, § 1 of the 1983 Code).

This very attitude was condemned by Pius XII in the same address as the error of personalism, which inverts the two ends of marriage, placing the good of the spouses as the first end, and that of children as a secondary end:

“This manner of judging…is a grave inversion of the order of values and of ends that the Creator Himself established. We are faced with spreading of a collection of ideas and feelings directly opposed to the clarity, profoundness, and seriousness of Catholic thought….”

“It was precisely to cut short all uncertainty and all the deviations that threatened to spread their errors with respect to the hierarchy of the end of marriage and their reciprocal relationships, that we ourselves made a declaration on the order of these ends (March 10, 1944), ...and that the Holy See in a public decree declared that one cannot hold the opinion of certain recent authors, who deny that the primary purpose of marriage is the procreation and education of children, nor that of those who teach that the secondary ends are not essentially subordinate to the primary end, but equivalent and by the very fact independent ends” (April 1, 1944).

Hence, if one chooses NFP for personal or light reasons, or if one denies the need for a prudent judge to help in discerning truly grave reasons that exempt from one’s duty towards society, then one has opted for the post-conciliar Church, and can no longer truly call one’s way of thinking profoundly or even truly Catholic.