Presidential Address: Convocation 2018

Due to some interest, I’m posting my Presidential Address for this year’s convocation. I can only assume the popularity is due to its uncharacteristic brevity.  Enjoy!

Your grace Richard Smith, Your Grace Sylvain Lavoie, graduands, and honored guests all. It is a pleasure to welcome you to this year’s convocation. Today we celebrate the completion of your degrees. Throughout your studies at Newman you have become, in diverse ways theologians. This may have a grandiose ring to it; nevertheless it is true.
The contemplative life is not an oddity for some privileged few in monasteries. No! Rather, it is the summit of the ordinary path to holiness for the Christian. Theology, as you have found, requires rigorous study, painstaking attention to detail, but beyond this a deep love. For theology is not merely an intellectual pursuit that we undertake to satisfy our curiosity or to show how clever we are. To the contrary, theology is a discipline that manages to be speculative and practical and the same time.

As you know well by now, our approach to theology at Newman is integrative. Since all that we teach is rooted in Sacred Scripture and the tradition of the Church, how could it be otherwise? As you leave the classroom and enter, or return to your ministries, the constant criteria of your theology should be: first, is it true?; second, can it be lived?; third, does it deepen prayer? and fourth, does it lead us to love more profoundly? A theology that answers in the negative to these vital questions is not worthy of a Christian.
Accordingly, any attempt to place knowledge and love at odds with one another must be set aside in no uncertain terms. While we must proclaim the truth of Christ fearlessly, we know all too well that if we do so without love we are but a clanging cymbal. Yet, if we profess to love by neglecting what is true, by being afraid to speak the wisdom of Christ in our hearts, then we are bargaining with our own conscience. This is not loving, but sinning against charity. As the great Thomist of the 20th century, Jacques Maritain put it: “Love must proceed from Truth, and Knowledge must bear fruit in love.”
Striking this balance is the task for which your studies have prepared you. Whether you practice your theology in the Parish, in the classroom, in hospitals or prisons, you are being called to share the knowledge you have gained with love. For your acceptance of this task in the midst of no few challenges today, we thank you deeply, and we pray for your every success. May you live what you have received. Thank you very much.


Pot: Legal, but still Immoral

Today marks the moment that the recreational use of marijuana becomes legal in Canada. This move has not been without controversy, even though opposing voices seem to be in the minority. (Note that I do not intend to address the distinct issue of medical marijuana in this post) For its part the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a statement some time ago noting its disapproval of Parliament’s move towards legalization.

The Bishop’s letter, however, largely argues against legalization on pragmatic and prudential grounds. It offers three reasons against this change in the law. First, it explains that many medical associations have stated that marijuana use is linked to a host of mental and physical health problems. Second, it notes that UNICEF has pointed to the widespread use of the drug among Canadian youth and stated that legalization will not reduce youth access. Third, it points to police chiefs and political leaders who have called for additional funding to enforce the new regulations. The Bishops conclude by arguing that we should not legalize crimes simply because the law is difficult to enforce. Instead they argue, that the solution to the problem is not just enforcement, but a wide range of social, family and medical supports as well as increased economic opportunity.


What is noticeably lacking in the Bishop’s letter is any articulation of a moral argument against the use of marijuana. In fact, virtually all of their arguments are supported by appeals to other authorities: UNICEF, medical associations, Police Chiefs, etc.  There remains a need for a robust presentation of the moral problems related to recreational drug use. While it may be helpful for the Church to remind us of the health risks, law enforcement challenges, or social programs related to drug use, presumably other authorities have direct responsibility to present the relevant data on this issue.  The moral standing of question, however, does pertain directly to the Church’s authority, and her theologians and philosophers have a responsibility to address it, which they generally speaking have not done.

What we do need in the midst of this debate is a clear account of the moral character of the problem. Given that the Bishops were intervening in a political matter, it is of course entirely understandable that they would focus on issues of health and social policy, for these can appeal to those who do not share our religious and ethical commitments. Nevertheless, now that legalization is a reality, the Church needs to work at explaining its teaching on the immorality of recreational drug use. On this topic there has been an unfortunate pastoral void.

If one turns to the Catechism of the Catholic Church on this topic it is, uncharacteristically, unhelpful. At CCC 2290 it advises that temperance requires us to avoid every excess with respect to food, alcohol, medicine, etc. It also notes that endangering others through speeding or drunk driving is a grave wrong. In the next paragraph it speaks of drugs directly:

“2291 The use of drugs inflicts very grave damage on human health and life. Their use, except on strictly therapeutic grounds, is a grave offense. Clandestine production of and trafficking in drugs are scandalous practices. They constitute direct co-operation in evil, since they encourage people to practices gravely contrary to the moral law.”

It is noteworthy that the Catechism also emphasizes the health risks of drug use. It explicitly condemns making and trafficking in drugs, yet it is silent about the recreational use of drugs beyond noting that they encourage people to practices against the moral law. This seems to leave open the question of whether this use is immoral in itself or just because it might lead one to do other evil things. With respect to the morality of recreational drugs we are left to extrapolate from a general admonition to avoid excess.

This is highly unsatisfactory. In contemporary discourse it is inadequate to simply lay down prohibitions or general sentiments. People rightful want to know not only whether the Church is opposed to recreational drug use or not, they want to know why. This is vital if the Church’s teaching is to be appropriated and applied in the life the faithful. Regardless of the state of the law in Canada, Canadian Catholics need to know how they should act in light of the new law. Does the legality of marijuana put it on the same level as cigarettes or alcohol, which can be morally used in moderation, or not?

In this respect it is helpful to turn to the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas for guidance. Although he does not address the issue of marijuana, his arguments explaining why drunkenness is a sin are instructive and largely applicable to this topic. He notes that whether or not drunkenness is a sin depends upon the awareness and intention of the agent. If someone ends up drinking too much because the drink is stronger than expected for instance or through deception, as Noah was tricked, there is no sin. But, if it results from a deliberate and inordinate use of alcohol then it is sinful. (ST, II-II, q. 150, a.1, c.)

In discussing whether drunkenness is a mortal sin he goes into further detail. He mentions three cases. The person who gets drunk thinking the amount they are taking is moderate, but not knowing that the drink is intoxicating does not sin at all. The person who drinks something excessively, but is unaware it is intoxicating commits a venial sin. This is a kind of gluttony, drinking too much of something because I like the taste for instance when it unwittingly makes me drunk. Finally, there is the person who is aware that his drinking is immoderate and intoxicating, but would rather be drunk than sober. In this case, the person is a “drunkard” properly speaking and commits a mortal sin. (ST, II-II, q. 150, a.2, c.)

Why does Aquinas think that this kind of drunkenness is such a grave sin? He argues that it is a grave sin because it deprives us of the use of reason. This is wrong because it is through reason that we act virtuously and avoid sin. Consequently, getting drunk makes it likely that we will commit grave sins because we lose control of our reason, and to knowingly and willingly put ourselves in situations where we are likely to to do grave wrongs is itself gravely wrong.

While it is more fully worked out, Aquinas’ argument is similar to that of the Catechism, which noted that drug use encourages grave offences to the moral law. However, it seems to me that we should emphasize Aquinas’ insight that drunkenness undermines the use of reason more than he himself does. This is the fundamental point to be made about the use of alcohol and recreational drugs.

As Aristotle taught the very nature of our humanity is that we are rational animals. Accordingly, I would argue that drunkenness is wrong precisely because it destroys our ability to reason. Why is this wrong? I certainly agree with Aquinas and the Catechism that this loss of reason makes it likely that other irresponsible and gravely immoral actions will follow. But, irrespective of this, the intentional destruction of one’s own ability to reason is wrong even if somehow the person were able to ensure no other irresponsible action would take place.

In this respect, we can see why the recreational use of marijuana is both similar to and different from drinking alcohol. Unlike alcohol, it seems obvious that one cannot use marijuana and other illicit drugs in moderation. One can enjoy a glass of wine with dinner or have a bottle of beer at the hockey game without getting drunk. One doesn’t typically smoke a joint without getting high. Accordingly, unlike alcohol marijuana cannot be used in moderation. This is, presumably, one of the reasons the two were treated differently under law for so long. On the other hand the immoderate use of alcohol is precisely the same as the use of marijuana in that both undermine one’s capacity to reason.

This is, in my view, the moral issue with the use of recreational drugs. To intentionally destroy one’s ability to reason is to attack one’s own humanity. It is to abandon the most noble and divine element of one’s life for the sake of pure escapism. It is to turn oneself, albeit temporarily, into a mere animal in order to avoid reality. If this isn’t gravely disordered action towards oneself, than it is hard to see what would be.

A healthy spirituality is one that promotes the physical, mental, and moral integrity of the human person. Acting reasonably is a necessary condition to attain any of these. Accordingly, the recreational use of marijuana remains gravely immoral for Catholics irrespective of its changed legal status.