I live in the Bible Belt, and I recently had a Baptist ask me if the Catholic Church is as strict as his church. I told him that all depends on what you mean by “strict.” He elaborated by telling me that at his Baptist church, nobody is allowed to smoke, drink or dance, and women are not allowed to wear makeup or pants, and they have to keep their hair long. I said: “Wow! That’s pretty strict. I guess by Baptists standards the answer is no, the Catholic Church is not strict.” So that being said, what is the Catholic Church strict about, and what is it not strict about? I’ll attempt to answer these questions below.
Yes, Catholics are allowed to drink and remain in good standing with the Catholic Church. This is because the Catholic Church does not teach that drinking is a sin. We can drink wine, beer, coolers, brandy, whiskey, tequila, vodka, sake, etc. You name it, we can drink it, because in the Catholic Church drinking alcohol is not considered a sin. The whole notion of alcohol being the “devil’s drink” is a very Protestant notion, particularly stemming from the Puritan influence on the Baptists and Pentecostals. The Catholic Church was unaffected by this Protestant trend, that was particularly strong in the United States during the 19th century through early 20th century, resulting in the failed American experiment in Prohibition.
Catholics use real wine for Holy Communion, and it’s fairly strong wine at that. When it is transubstantiated into the Blood of Christ, a small portion of this sacrament is offered to everyone (usually), through various different methods, even children. Children are often allowed to taste regular wine (just a sip) before they receive their first communion, to decide if they want to receive the Blood of Christ or not. (Most children choose not to.) Outside of this, Catholic children are not usually given alcohol of any type.
Catholics also have gatherings, potlucks and festivals were beer is often served to adults. This is part of the celebration. Any adult Catholic can drink, and there is no sin. Beer is often drank by the clergy too, and sometimes even nuns and monks. Bishops have been known to share in a beer or two, and there are even photos of Pope Benedict XVI having a beer with friends.
All of this may seem strange to some Christians, particularly Baptists and Pentecostals, but it is very much part of Catholic life. The Catholic Church simply does not teach that drinking alcohol is a sin. It never did and it never will. There is nothing in the Bible, or our Tradition, that prohibits it. So enjoy!
That being said, the Catholic Church does teach that abuse of alcohol is a sin. What is abuse? Lack of moderation, or drinking too much, is abuse, and that is a sin. This manifests itself in the form of drunkenness or alcoholism. In most of these cases, drunkenness and alcoholism are considered venial sins, unless it’s deliberate, which is rare. A venial sin means it’s not a serious sin that breaks one’s relationship with God. In such cases, one can still receive communion and not be in danger of hell. That doesn’t mean that it’s a small matter we should just forget about. All sins must be confessed and repented of eventually, but accidental drunkenness or alcoholism is not something that makes you a “bad Catholic.” Rather, it just means if you’ve got a discipline or medical problem, you probably ought to take care of it before it hurts you in other ways. Intentional drunkenness, on the other hand, is a mortal sin, because one meant to do it, and it does break one’s relationship with God. That must be confessed immediately, before presenting one’s self for communion.
Yes, Catholics are allowed to smoke, and it’s not a sin according to Catholic teaching. It is considered unwholesome and a nasty habit, but as far as sin goes, it’s not the kind of thing that’s going to send anyone to hell. If there is any sin to it at all, it’s probably venial, but there is no Biblical prohibition of it, nor is there anything in our Tradition.
The health problems associated with frequent smoking are well known and copiously documented. This is where the venial sin may come in, because it is destructive to the body and abusive toward God’s creation if it’s habitual. It could potentially be a mortal sin if it’s done to hurt another person. For example, if you know somebody who has asthma or COPD, and you intentionally light-up while nearby, you’re basically assaulting this vulnerable person in a way they can’t handle, and causing great harm. In such cases, if it’s intentional, you’ve probably crossed the line from venial into mortal sin, because you did it to intentionally hurt another person. If it’s accidental, it’s venial, because you didn’t know. The moral to this story is; pay attention to those around you. If they object to you smoking, for whatever reason, be charitable and do it somewhere else.
What about smoking marijuana?
Marijuana is a drug, but then, so is tobacco. People smoke both drugs for similar reasons. Just as the Catholic Church has no specific teaching against the casual (non-abusive) use of alcohol and tobacco, it also has no specific teaching against the casual (non-abusive) use of marijuana. So Catholics can smoke it, or eat it, and it’s not considered a sin. That being said, marijuana can be abused, just like any other drug, and one can do it too much. If that’s the case, the same rules apply above as they do with alcohol. If overuse is non-intentional (an accident) it’s just a venial sin. If it’s intentional, it’s a mortal sin.
There are also legal matters to consider. The Catholic Church does not condone breaking civil laws, and encourages all her members to obey the civil laws of the land whenever possible. So if marijuana is illegal in your state, Catholics can’t smoke it, or eat it, without sinning. If marijuana is legal, then Catholics can smoke it, or eat it, provided they follow the civil laws of the land, and they do so in a way that is responsible and non-abusive of the drug.
Yes, Catholics are allowed to dance, provided the dancing is not dirty, lewd or nasty. Basically, what this means is Catholics can dance any way they want, anywhere they want, anytime they want, provided such dancing does not simulate a sexual act, or include offensive gestures that the public generally finds offensive. There is no sin in dancing, and in fact, the Bible actually praises dancing (Ecclesiastes 3:4, Jeremiah 31:4, Lamentations 5:15, Psalm 30:11-12, Psalm 149:3-4, Jeremiah 31:12-13, Exodus 15:20-21, 2 Samuel 6:14-17, Psalm 150). Many of these Bible passages also include references to singing and playing instruments as well. So none of these things are considered sin in the Catholic Church, and Catholics are free to do them.
Generally speaking, the Catholic Church is more concerned about the sin of vanity than the act of wearing makeup. So wearing makeup, in and of itself, is not a sin according to Catholic teaching. The only time wearing makeup becomes a sin is if it’s centered around vanity, pride, or trying to entice people into sex. In other words, makeup is fine and not a sin. Abusing makeup, like abusing other things, could be. If you’re just wearing it to highlight your natural features, and add a little contrast to your face, it’s not a problem according to Catholic teaching.
WOMEN WEARING PANTS
Yes, Catholic women can wear pants, and no, it’s not a sin according to Catholic teaching. What the Catholic Church primarily concerns itself with are the principles of modesty and gender. Every Catholic, both men and women, must be modest. This means not exposing too much skin (with some exceptions made for work, swimming and sports), and not dressing in a way that is sexually provocative. Both Catholic men and women are to be mindful of how much legs, arms, shoulders and cleavage (upstairs and downstairs) they are unnecessarily exposing, which can become objectified and provoke lust in others. This is not being prudish. It’s charity. It’s about caring for the soul of your fellow human being.
Gender is a static thing according to Catholic teaching, and the Catholic Church specifically rejects the concepts of “gender theory.” This means that if you’re a biological female, with XX chromosomes, then every cell in your body is female, and to be a good Catholic, you must dress and identify as a girl/woman. Failure to do so is rejecting God’s creation, and attempting to deceive others, which is a form of lying. It also means if you’re a biological male, with XY chromosomes, you must dress and identify as a boy/man for the exact same reasons. This means you’re clothing should, in some way, complement your biological gender. That being said, the Church does not, and never did, mandate specific styles and fashions. Gender fashions change over the centuries and that’s okay. Women don’t dress the same way today as they did in the 1800s. That’s okay too. The same is true for men. The Catholic Church doesn’t go through a list and tell people what they can and cannot wear. What it does do is mandate modesty and gender-specific clothing, of whatever type is common for that culture and time period.
LONG HAIR ON WOMEN
Yes, a woman can have short hair, and it’s not a sin for her to do so. Likewise, a man can have long hair, and it’s not a sin for him to do so. The Church has no teaching on the length of hair, period, so Catholics have no sin in this area.
Some people point out that the Bible condemns short hair on women and long hair on men. This comes from the writings of St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16. However, the context of this passage is the wearing of head-coverings (veils and hats) for men and women while in Church, and has nothing to do with hair. St. Paul simply uses the common length of hair as an example from nature, to illustrate his point. He’s not telling women they must have long hair and men must have short hair. But let’s play devil’s advocate and assume that St. Paul is talking about hair. What exactly is “long” by Biblical standards? Jesus had long, shoulder-length hair. Was this a sin? Sampson had extremely long hair, almost girlish in it’s length? Was this a sin? Obviously not. Sampson was commanded by God to have long hair, and Jesus is God in the flesh. So obviously, St. Paul isn’t mandating hairstyles in his letter to the Corinthians. Far be it from St. Paul (a Jewish rabbi by training and Christian apostle by calling) to tell Sampson he was wrong or Jesus to get a haircut!
So Catholics are free to wear their hair any way they want, while reasonably avoiding the sins of pride and vanity.
WHAT IS THE CATHOLIC CHURCH STRICT ABOUT?
The Catholic Church is strict about three basic things: (1) doctrine, (2) morality and (3) public worship…
Doctrine is what we believe, meaning specifically what the Church teaches in the creeds and catechisms. Catholics are expected to believe everything the Church teaches, and we are not permitted to publicly dissent from established Catholic doctrine. We can speak out against corruption in the Church, and call out corrupt leaders, and errors in pastoral methods (verbal or written) but established doctrine is non-negotiable. Those Catholics who publicly and persistently dissent from Catholic doctrine, after being formally corrected, are committing the mortal sin of heresy, and are rightly called “heretics” who are not in good standing with the Catholic Church.
Morality has to do with the way we conduct our lives, both privately and publicly. In this sense, Catholic morality is not based on subjective (or private) interpretation. It must follow the doctrines of the Church as mentioned above. Moral relativism (what’s wrong for you may be right for me) is not a Catholic option. Catholic morality is static and consistent, which means it’s the same for everyone and it doesn’t change.
Public worship is how we worship God together in Church. This is called liturgy, and it comes to us from the Apostles and the ancient Jewish Temple. Liturgy is important because it publicly expresses the corporate (community) relationship the Church has with God. We are all one Body in Christ, and God made the New Covenant with the Church as a whole, not individuals. Liturgy shows our togetherness, as one Body, and prevents worship from being hijacked by individuals seeking attention. It makes Church into a corporate (community) act of worship, rather than an entertainment show, pep rally, or self-help seminar. Liturgy also helps convey doctrine, when it is done well, and becomes a form of catechesis (teaching) for those unstudied in Catholic doctrine.
The Catholic Church does have very specific rules that Catholics are expected to follow, but they’re not the typical rules one usually sees in Protestant America, particularly the Bible Belt. Things like drinking, smoking, dancing, wearing pants and makeup, or length of hair are not really areas of big concern for Catholics. What concerns Catholics more are things like doctrine, morality and public worship. Beyond that, freedom and moderation is pretty much the norm.