Holy Smokes: Getting High in Roman Catholicism

Oh it’s the Hood Pope, chain hang low, red rubies and the gold

Oh young Trap Lord, feel your pain, I be down for my people

Oh drinking Jesus juice, jeans hang low, red rubies and the gold

– A$AP Ferg, “Hood Pope”

Marijuana is a part of American culture – beginning to rival or even eclipse tobacco in the cultural zeitgeist. 

And marijuana is not typically  good for the human body.

After all, there are very few, if any, recreational drugs that are good for you.

Drinking, smoking, getting high – these activities are inseparably linked to horrific conditions like cancer, liver disease, depression, and premature death. Even coffee, in massive doses, can seriously harm a person’s body.

So then why do men and women across the globe continue to shovel these poisons of varying toxicities down their throats and into their lungs?

Since the dawn of human consciousness, mankind has needed a release from the sometimes unbearable experience of simply existing.

The passive act of being alive, cognizant, and aware of the totality of existence around oneself can generate a sense of deep unease, sometimes even fear or horror. Too often contemplating one’s miniscule place on the Earth – conscious of one’s everliving soul and eternal life – can be enough to drive a human brain to self-destruction.

So, men and women need to, at times, dull that pain down – make it bearable for another day when they will be more mentally prepared to engage in contemplation. They all need a poison.

Different cultures found that release in different substances.

In Europe, primitive cultures found the delightful side effects of drinking fermented honey and fruits. In Asia, rotten rice water was discovered to be a perfect substance to take the edge off your anxiety. In North America, Indian tribes found existential relief in the mystical properties of ayahuasca and peyote. 

Even in the cold, barren tundra, the eskimos felt the urge to poison their overworked human brains. 

With no vegetation to spare, they made due with what they had – dead seagulls. Eskimos shoved the rotting corpses of water birds into bottles and waited for the body to decompose into something resembling an ingestible liquid.

One can only imagine how desperate an eskimo had to be to come up with their corpse booze.

The list goes on – tobacco, cocaine, mushrooms, marijuana. 

In Ancient Rome, opium distilled down to a narcotic milk from poppy seeds was distributed as medicine for relaxation and pain relief. Civil and military leaders took it before bed to help with insomnia.

Why then, are Catholics so predisposed to lament the legalization and general acceptance of marijuana use in the United States?

One might point to the Catechism, where drugs are rather explicitly condemned.

“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.”

– CCC 2291 

A cursory glance at this passage already raises questions.

What does the magisterium mean by “drugs” in this context? What are “therapeutic grounds” that make their use okay?

Questioning the intention and meaning of this passage is not an attempt at dodging responsibility or hand-waving away objections to indulgence in the magical green weed.

It’s a passage that is likely left vague on purpose – the grey area is intentional.

After all, tobacco and alcohol – two drugs known to be favorites of the Catholic Church – fit squarely under this umbrella ban. 

It’s hard to read this passage of the Catechism without booze in mind – a drug often celebrated and utilized on Catholic holidays to foster comradery and affection. 

Alcohol has been made illegal, widely abused, and most definitely used for evil.

An assiduous reader of the Catechism, however, would not encounter this passage on drugs in a vacuum. The passage just prior gives a much clearer context.

The virtue of temperance disposes us to avoid every kind of excess: the abuse of food, alcohol, tobacco, or medicine. Those incur grave guilt who, by drunkenness or a love of speed, endanger their own and others’ safety on the road, at sea, or in the air.

– CCC 2290

This prior assertion informs our interpretation of the latter. Catholics are called to temperance in all things. Much like boozing or taking a smoke break, the substance itself has no moral alliance. It is neither virtuous nor sinful to drink a beer. Neither is there a moral implication to partaking in two beers. 

Each person has a clear point where their minds become overwhelmed by the drug – no longer enjoying its enhancements on their mood. Instead, they are hampered and handicapped by the excess chemicals clouding their brain.

A Catholic crosses the moral line when they fall into that state of drunkenness. 

Marijuana and other psycho-active substances affect users on a spectrum, the same as any other drug. 

If someone has no experience with smoking, it can be hard to explain – but suffice it to say that just as a single shot or two beers can give someone a lifting “buzz,” psycho-active drugs do not simply render your mind intoxicated. 

The amount a user intakes is equal to the vividness of its effects.

There is no conclusion to this essay that definitively prescribes a lifestyle or relationship with drugs that will allow one to live virtuously. 

The existence of that drunken line, the moral implications of drug use, and the use of marijuana in particular is left blank by the magisterium. Instead, Catholics have two broad moral guidelines to follow in order to live a healthy and virtuous life.

In conclusion, those still skeptical of “drug” use by practicing Catholics would do well to remember the legend of Pope Clemente VIII’s introduction to another controversial fruit of the earth.

According to the popular (probably apocryphal) story, the pontiff’s court was abuzz about the vile Satanic liquid brought back from Africa and the Middle East. It caused the drinker to become buzzed, hyper-alert, and push away fatigue. 

They called it unhealthy, sinful, distasteful and insulting to the body.

Clemente, fascinated by the mysterious black liquid, took a sip. Then another.

Soon, he declared, “This Satan’s drink is so delicious that it would be a pity to let the infidels have exclusive use of it.”

And just like that, coffee was baptized for God.

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