Browse Our Articles & Podcasts

Drunk Catholic History: Spirits and the Holy Spirit


Ever wonder why we call alcohol “spirits”? After all, “spirit” can refer to:

  • the human soul, either in whole or in part;
  • an intelligent creature with no material body (angels and demons, or if you are getting fanciful, sprites, nymphs, and so forth);
  • the Third Person in the Holy Trinity;
  • courage or gumption;
  • a defining quality, such as “the spirit of a place.”

And when spirit is associated with anything physical, it is usually not something wet like alcohol but something dry. Indeed, “spirit” is derived from the Latin spiritus (meaning breath, air, or gentle wind), and in the early Church it was used to translate the Greek pneuma and the Hebrew ruah, both of which also mean wind, breath, or spirit.

How, then, did air become hooch? One theory popular on the Internet is that “alcohol” comes from the Arabic al-kuhl, a “body-eating spirit.” The problem is that al-kuḥl actually means “eye cosmetic,” which was once made in a way that loosely resembled the distillation of alcohol.[i]

In the English language the first instances of “spirit” were derived from passages in the Vulgate translation of the Bible mentioning spiritus and were therefore in conformity with biblical usage. “Spirit,” in other words, had a largely spiritual meaning, something in contradistinction to worldliness, materiality, literalness, etc. Tied to this usage were other qualities of the soul, such as courage, mental vigor, or liveliness.

But there were two exceptions to this rule. Starting in the late fourteenth century, “spirit” in medical terminology came to designate an alleged fluid that permeated the blood and chief organs of the body. There were supposedly three kinds: natural spirits (responsible for growth and nutrition), animal spirits (responsible for sensation and movement), and vital spirits (responsible for life itself). Similarly, medieval alchemists identified four substances as spirits: quicksilver, orpiment (arsenic trisulfide), sal ammoniac, and brimstone.[ii]

It was in this manner that the realm of air passed into oceans of liquid. From there it was only a short jump to identifying spirits with distilled alcoholic beverages, as we see in Ben Jonson’s 1612 Alchemist and John Bunyan’s 1684 Pilgrim’s Progress. In the latter, Mr. Interpreter (the Holy Spirit) offers the protagonist Christiana some honeycomb and “a little Bottle of Spirits.” Interestingly, the first alcoholic meaning of spirits in English religious literature comes to us from a Baptist, and as a gift from the Holy Ghost!

But the question still remains: why did early English authors apply an aerial word to fluids? The answer again may go back to the Bible. There are five main images for the Holy Spirit in the New Testament, the first four of which are fairly well-known: a dove, tongues, fire, and wind. But the fifth image of the Holy Spirit is water, as when our Lord calls the Spirit “rivers of living water” that will flow out of the believer (Jn. 7:38). Later on, St. Paul uses liquid imagery for the Holy Spirit when he writes that “in one Spirit we have all been made to drink” (I Cor. 12:13). Separately, during the first Pentecost bystanders mistook the effects of the Holy Spirit on the disciples as intoxication from too much new wine (Acts 2:13).

The combination of these two Scriptural elements makes it almost irresistible to associate the Holy Spirit with strong drink. St. Paul himself endorses the link, at least by way of contrast, in his admonition: “And be not drunk with wine, wherein is luxury, but be ye filled with the Holy Spirit” (Eph. 5:18). To the untrained eye, being inspired by the Spirit can resemble being inebriated by the Bottle. St. Augustine of Hippo is even more explicit. Drunkenness does three things: it overthrows the mind, gives one a “high” (literally, “snatches the mind upward”), and makes one forgetful. Being “drunk” on the Holy Spirit does not overthrow the mind, but it does have the other two qualities, for it carries the mind heavenward and makes one forgetful of “all earthly things.”[iii]

Another mystery is why the term “spirits” does not designate all alcoholic beverages but only distilled liquors, specifically those with at least 20% alcohol by volume and no added sugar (unlike liqueurs, which are sweet). After all, the juxtaposition in the New Testament is between the Holy Spirit and wine (a product of fermentation), not the Holy Spirit and gin.

I suspect—and this is only a guess—that the answer has to do with the nature of distillation which, in separating the alcohol of a fermented beverage from the wash, isolates its most powerful, “lively” element. The distillate, in other words, is the freed “spirit” of the formerly diluted liquid. Another plausible theory is that the vapors rising from the distillation process reminded folks of spirits floating up. To this day, the part of the whiskey lost to evaporation during aging in oak barrels is known as “the Angels’ share.”

And perhaps “spirits” is typically used in the plural to signify the different effects that the powerful potation can have, effects that vary according to the amount of liquor consumed as well as the temperament of the drinker. There is an old Talmudic legend that after Noah planted the first vineyard the Devil snuck in and sacrificed four animals: an ape, a pig, a sheep, and a lion. Subsequently, wine and all strong drink can induce four kinds of drunkenness that correspond to the four temperaments or humors of ancient psychology: “ape drunk” refers to the happy sanguine, “swine drunk” to the melancholic crying in his beer, “mutton drunk” to the couch-potato phlegmatic, and “lion drunk” to the brawling choleric. With their high proof, distilled liquors are particularly adept at eliciting the spirits of these animals.

In any event, for the Catholic imbiber the term “spirits” is a sober reminder to exercise caution when releasing these genies from the bottle, lest they cause flood damage to the temple of the Holy Spirit.



[i] See OED, “alcohol, n.”

[ii] My historic claims here and following are based on the OED entry for “spirit, n.”

[iii] On Christian Struggle 9.10.

46 thoughts on “Drunk Catholic History: Spirits and the Holy Spirit”

  1. Any classical pagan could remind you that Dionysus is a god, present in strong drink, whose possession of the devotee is manifested in drunkenness and religious ecstasy.

    • And any classical Christian could remind you that the Son of God chose as His first miracle the transubstantiation of water into wine–and not just any old wine, but really good wine.
      Any classical Christian could also remind you that the Son of God chose wine as the matter to be used for what becomes His Precious Blood. And any medieval doctor, such as St. Thomas Aquinas, could teach that Our Lord made this choice not despite the fact that wine contains alcohol, but BECAUSE of it.
      Lastly, any classical Christian, especially if they happen to be the great St. John Chrysostom, could tell his flock that they should berate and if necessary punch (!) anyone who goes around telling people not to drink wine, for they are rejecting the Sacred Scriptures and the Word of God when they do so.
      Thanks be to God that we Catholics are not classical pagans!

        • That in a healthy Catholic culture, wine is not to be associated with the dark and deadly Dionysos but with the Light of the World and the Savior of mankind. Pagan culture led to Dionysian excess and debauchery because it lacked the sacramental affirmation (and subsequent moral restraint) of the created order that is a hallmark of Catholicism. It is this sacramental affirmation and restraint that enables healthy Catholic culture to avoid the bacchanalia of old and to become a cause for celebration, as we see in Belloc’s “Wherever the Catholic Sun Doth Shine.”
          I guess then, in a nutshell, my point is that the Catholic use and even celebration of wine should never be mistaken with pagan culture. Hope that helps.

          • Tertullian, is that you?

            The article at the top of this page is philological, with reference to incarnational realities of human nature. To observe that humans instinctively perceive a relationship between strong drink and the mystical or spiritual is merely to observe the pervasiveness of this reality in our God-given nature. There’s no need for the finger-wagging reminder that we’re not pagan.

            Pagans liked to build temples in high places also, and to offer sacrifices at their summits. This too seems to be universal among humans. I trust the observation will not alarm you that human nature is what it is, in Athens and Jerusalem alike.

          • Wow, Romulus, I’ve never been mistaken for Tertullian before! That’s the most erudite and crippling put-down I’ve received in some time.

            Mea culpa, my friend: I thought you were making quite a different point with your original brief statement, namely, that wine is a bad thing because of its ties to Dionysos. I took your mention of “religious ecstasy” to be a negative judgment, since these ecstasies were notorious for getting pretty wild and ugly and sure to invite the disapproval of people who think that Catholics have “unbridled enthusiasm” for alcohol. My response was meant to affirm the essential sacramental goodness of alcohol use in the face of its reputation being tarred by an association with a rather spooky deity and his debauched followers. But I agree with everything in your clarification. Again, mea culpa.

            You have, however, inspired me to tweak a line from Tertullian: Bibo quia absurdum. What do you think?

          • What I was doing was linking the author’s discussion of alcoholic “spirits” to the pagan belief that to drink was to invite a form of possession, in this case giving oneself over to the wine god.

            It was never a value judgment against drinking, for pete’s sake.

            Why do I bother?

            I need a drink.

          • So let me try and understand this. You say that “Pagan culture led to Dionysian excess and debauchery because it lacked the sacramental affirmation (and subsequent moral restraint) of the created order that is a hallmark of Catholicism.”

            Now you seem to be suggesting that Christianity miraculously brings about restraint. I am not sure that view is accurate. When it comes to something highly addictive, how do you suggest is the best way we make sure society successfully develops restraint? Would you disagree that the best way to develop restraint is to first develop a negative attitude toward the addictive type of behavior/substance?

          • Good morning Tony. My position is simply that Catholicism gives to mankind a resource that the Greeks did not have, namely, a sacramental affirmation of creation that, in turn, invites and encourages a salutary restraint. At its best, this produces a healthy Catholic culture, like the kind we see in Italy, where almost everyone, including children, drinks wine daily, yet the alcoholism rate is only .5% (as opposed to 5.5% in the U.S.). If you want to learn more about what I mean by “sacramental affirmation,” see here:
            And yes, it appears that I differ from you on how to approach alcohol. As you can see from the last line in my article, I certainly believe in approaching alcohol with caution, but I don’t think a negative attitude about alcohol or about anything else that is essentially good should be the FIRST note that is struck. Rather, the first note should be an affirmation of alcohol as a temporal good given to us by God out of His lovingkindness (these are the words of the Church in the traditional blessing for beer), which has certain potentially dangerous properties that one needs to be aware of in order to use properly. Or something like that. Start with the positive, follow with the negative.

          • Hi Michael,

            Thanks for clarifying and I think I do better understand where you are coming from now. I hope you will not mind me playing devil’s advocate here.

            So in regards to the statistics, the main issue I see is that given the positive attitude toward alcohol in European countries, it is likely that alcoholism is under reported. We do see some concern starting to grow in regards to alcoholism in areas like Ireland when we look at the alcohol consumption rate (as opposed to alcoholism rates). I wouldn’t be surprised if Italy is also suffering in this regard if we were to look at it in terms of consumption.

            Also, you mentioned that even children engage in alcohol consumption. There are some medical concerns in regards to healthy brain development if this is truly the case. If I remember correctly, alcohol consumption among children are known to have adverse health effects in later life.

            Then there is the question of whether any country in Europe has been enjoying a healthy Catholic culture for sometime now. Europe as a whole prides itself in a great night life and parties of which I am sure both of us know what they consist of. Ever since the Renaissance [if it ever was before that], European culture hasn’t really been a complete reflection of what Catholic demands. Many saints had labored to get the culture to conform but everything from promiscuity to drunkenness were growing. After all, way before Vatican II, the culture of Europe had more or less degraded to something that had introduced many forms of decadence.

            Just to clarify, I am not saying that Europe was completely bad. Just pointing out that European culture as a whole have had issues for sometime now. Alcohol consumption, at least in part, may very well have contributed or aggravated some of these issues.

            I also think that alcohol and other addictive substance needs to be treated with greater caution [compared to something like tomatoes, for an example]. The reason being that we know a person is more likely to abuse in regards to those substances. This is why I think the negative attitude is necessary. Wouldn’t you also say that words of St. Paul to the Ephesians sounds more like he is going toward creating this negative attitude toward alcohol as well?

  2. Well, it may be that what I have observed is due to chance and not the trend. But I have noticed that Catholics in the Western parts of the world tend to have a rather obsessive fascination when it comes to the matter of drinking alcohol. It might be my imagination but sometimes I feel like there is even a sense of pride in identifying oneself as engaged in the act of drinking some form of alcohol. Even priests seem to love the bottle and have no shame or restraint in admitting it as if it is normal.

    Oh and has anyone here heard about Theology on Tap that seems to have the blessing of many Bishops and priests? I always found it to be rather diabolical that some of our clergy consider it legitimate tactic to try and lure people to Scripture/Theology with booze. One would think that theology or philosophy should be done with a sound mind (and ideally in a more sacred or quiet setting if possible)…… Perhaps it explains the quality of the theological/philosophical concoctions we have been presented with in recent times……

    • Jesus’ first miracle was turning water in to wine… The Eucharist is the Bread and Wine….Jesus is the True Vine….I have started to drink wine and find it good for me….

      • Actually, your sort of comment is the exact one I hear all the time from Catholics.

        But the problem is that

        1) It defends against a straw man i.e. assumes the other person is saying that alcohol is intrinsically evil.
        2) It does not demonstrate that we should refrain from cautioning against developing a habit of getting drunk with alcohol of choice.
        3) It forgets that the Eucharist is the flesh and blood of Christ. The bread and wine were the matter used in the sacrament.

        Ultimately, alcohol is a problem because it frequently leads to sexual sin, violence, poverty, addiction, and even death due to misjudgment (DUI’s etc). You don’t even need Scripture to tell you that much. So I think the healthy attitude in a Catholic culture should be caution in regards to alcohol use rather than one of unbridled enthusiasm and encouragement.

        So if you like to have a sip of wine for some medical reason or other, by all means continue to do so. But don’t try to make society give you a pat on the back for being a wine drinker. The correct attitude of society should be one of caution against alcohol. Not one of encouragement.

        • Tony, your last statement seems to imply that there should either be caution against alcohol or encouragement. Such a dichotomy is more Manichean than it is Catholic. Having looked into the long and storied history between the Catholic Church and the use of alcohol, I can tell you that the healthy Catholic position has never been an “either/or” but a “both/and.” The use of alcohol can be encouraged (and not just for medical reasons, for God gave man wine to cheer his heart as well [Ps. 103], AND it should be used with caution.
          And I agree with you that no one should expect a pat on the back for drinking wine, but you are being unfair to Joycey if you are accusing her of being such a person.

          • Michael Foley,

            To be Manichean would be to say that alcohol is evil. So your assessment would be more accurate if I had said that alcohol should either be banned or allowed (which is not what I said).

            I am merely pointing out the practical reality surrounding alcohol. As someone who has looked into this issue of alcohol, I am sure you would agree with me that alcohol usually leads to all the problems I have highlighted in my previous comment. So it is logical to conclude from it that one always take a cautious attitude against alcohol in general.

            What you are suggesting is more of the neutral attitude toward alcohol. Practically, I would argue that this attitude merely degrades in to one of acceptance of it. Why? Because in the absence of any negative connotation toward something, it is more likely that a person would adopt an attractive behavior.

            So I do oppose the idea that alcohol consumption can be encouraged (as you suggested in your post).

    • It is very unfortunate to see that the Puritan-like attitude still exists in the Church.. A simple thing as eating can be sinful if we do not practice moderation however does that mean that we should stop eating? No, of course not. That would be insane.

      “Not that which goeth into the mouth, defileth a man: but which cometh out of the mouth, this defileth a man.”

      -St. Matthew 15:11

      • Eating, at least in general, is not really an addictive problem. Alcohol on the other hand IS an addictive substance.

        I would think that one would always err on the side of caution when dealing with such things. Otherwise, why not allow other forms of addictive drugs in moderation (knowing fully well that most will go overboard)?

        • Anything is wrong if you over do it, regardless if it is addictive or not (btw, for many, eating is addictive).

          That attitude is totally Puritanical! The Church has not thought this way (Thank God!) because moderation is key. There is a reason why monasteries crafted and sold beer for not only does it provide them money to survive but also because beer is such a beautiful thing. One such monastery are the Monks at Norcia and no one can doubt their holiness.

          Stop worrying about two lads drinking and start worrying about actual problems. Sins like gossiping, watching porn, lacking charity in the heart…these are the problems to worry about it. Not drinking a little bit of beer or scotch.

          Good grief.

          • First, are you suggesting that our caution toward acts/substances that are addictive should be the same as our level of caution toward something non-addictive? Surely, that does not sound reasonable, no?

            Second, I think it unfair to say that I am being puritanical just because I encourage a cautious attitude against alcohol. To give you another example out of the top of my head. Nudity is beautiful too. That does not mean nudity should be encouraged?

            Third, I have no issue if someone has a little bit of beer or scotch. Neither do I think they have committed a venial sin or anything. However, I would like to point out that the entire attitude that two lads hanging out should be having something with alcohol in it is a problematic mindset.

          • I’m certainly addicted to eating. I do it three times a day usually. Sometimes more and I plan some trips and family events around it. Wow I should go to something anonymous.

  3. Jesus’ first miracle was turning water in to wine… The Eucharist is the Bread and Wine….Jesus is the True Vine….I have started to drink wine and find it good for me.

    • ❖❖❖❖❖❖❖❖❖❖❖❖❖❖❖❖❖❖❖❖❖❖❖❖❖❖❖❖❖❖❖❖❖❖❖❖❖❖❖❖❖❖❖❖❖❖my roomate’s close relative makes 72/hr on the PC….last tuesday I bought another Alfa Romeo since I been bringin in 9211$ this past 5 weeks besides, ten thousand last munth . without a request it is the best-work I’ve had . I truly started nine months/back and rapidly was making more than 69$, consistently . you could check here..….,

      —————►►►► __________________________________________________________________________ ➽➽➽➽➽➽➽➽➽➽➽➽➽➽➽➽➽➽➽➽➽➽➽➽➽➽GOOTO THIS SITE AND CLICK NEXT LINK IN IT FOR WORK

  4. “Heart Like Mine”

    I ain’t the kind you take home to mama
    I ain’t the kind to wear no ring
    Somehow I always get stronger
    When I’m on my second drink

    Even though I hate to admit it
    Sometimes I smoke cigarettes
    The Christian folks say I should quit it
    And I just smile and say “God Bless”

    Cause I heard Jesus He drank wine
    And I bet we’d get along just fine
    He could calm a storm and heal the blind
    And I bet He’d understand a heart like mine

    Daddy cried when he saw my tattoo
    But said he loved me anyway
    My brother got the brains of the family
    So I thought I’d learn to sing

    Cause I heard Jesus He drank wine
    And I bet we’d get along just fine
    He could calm a storm and heal the blind
    And I bet He’d understand a heart like mine

    I’ll fly away from it all one day
    And I’ll fly away
    These are the days that I will remember
    When my names called on a roll
    He’ll meet me with two long-stemmed glasses
    And make a toast to me coming home

    Cause I heard Jesus He drank wine
    And I bet we’d get along just fine
    He could calm a storm and heal the blind
    And I bet He’d understand
    Understand a heart like mine
    Oh yes He would

  5. is all drunkenness a sin?

    say for example a college party, vegas night, etc

    beer pong, popping champagne bottles, etc etc etc

    What does the Church have to say about this

      • thank you. this is what i needed. do you have this found in a document of some kind of the magisterium? I need to show this to my peers because they get drunk on a regular basis, the fun/party drunk

        • I don’t know about any specific encyclical, but you will find this is most catechisms and examinations of conscience. Here’s what the Baltimore catechism has to say on drunkenness:

          “LESSON SIXTH: On Sin and Its Kinds ON SIN AND ITS”
          “….Q. 305. What kind of a sin is drunkenness?
          A. Drunkenness is a sin of gluttony by which a person deprives himself of the use of his reason by the excessive taking of intoxicating drink.
          Q. 306. Is drunkenness always a mortal sin?
          A. Deliberate drunkenness is always a mortal sin if the person be completely deprived of the use of reason by it, but drunkenness that is not intended or desired may be excused from mortal sin.
          Q. 307. What are the chief effects of habitual drunkenness?
          A. Habitual drunkenness injures the body, weakens the mind, leads its victim into many vices and exposes him to the danger of dying in a state of mortal sin.
          Q. 308. What three sins seem to cause most evil in the world?
          A. Drunkenness, dishonesty and impurity seem to cause most evil in the world, and they are therefore to be carefully avoided at all times

          • I believe buzzed drinking would fall under Intoxication that results in a partial loss of reason, a venial sin.

            “Moral Theology”, Fr. Heribert Jone

            a) Intemperance in drinking which has as its immediate effect the loss of the use of reason is a graver sin that immoderation in eating.

            b) Intoxication that results in a partial loss of reason is only a venial sin.

            It may be a mortal sin because of scandal, injury to health, harm to one’s family, etc.

            c) Intoxication that ends in a complete loss of reason is a mortal sin if brought on without a sufficient reason.

            Complete loss of reason is presumed in him who can no longer distinguish good from bad, or if, after the drunkenness has passed, he cannot remember what he said or did while under the influence of drink, or if one does a thing which he never would have done when sober.

            A sufficient reason to deprive oneself temporarily of his use of reason would be to cure a disease or to counteract blood poisoning and the like. Merely to drive away the blues is not adequate reason.

          • I would agree with his assessment. But there’s actually quite a reasonable amount of distance between feeling the effects of alcohol in a pleasant way (being “buzzed”) and having compromised judgment.

            I’m speaking from experience here — both in the enjoyment of fermentables, and in consultation in the confessional.

          • 306A “completely deprived”

            My buddies are gonna give it to me on that one.

            “We are never completely deprived” they’ll say. Sigh

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Popular on OnePeterFive

Share to...