A time for choosing

As it happened, Easter fell on 4/20 this year, the day on which addicts throughout America titter at the happenstance of the date resembling an early drug meme. (I don’t know whether drugs are harmful, but the foregoing suggests detrimental consequences to one’s sense of humor.) This coincidence underlines the choice before Catholics between the Church of God, which warns against drugs, and the World, which, increasingly, shrugs.

Elsewhere, it was urged that recreational use of cannabis need not be confessed. That is error. There is no question that cannabis is a drug, and there is no question that the Church teaches that the recreational use of drugs is a mortal sin: “The use of drugs inflicts very grave damage on human health and life. Their use, except on strictly therapeutic grounds, is a grave offense,” i.e. a “mortal-qualified sin,” if you will. 1

It is no answer to gainsay the judgment that cannabis should be treated in a different way from, say, tobacco, or alcohol, and to demand that the Church explain her judgment. Asking “why is pot a no-no yet alcohol is okay” is not essentially different from saying “why are female priests a no-no yet married priests are okay”; the impulse behind that the question is invariably a demand to reweigh the evidence in an effort to evade the teaching rather than a good-faith attempt to understand it. The Church has made a distinction between “drugs” and alcohol; whether that answer makes sense to you or not is  irrelevant.

The pertinent inquiry is not whether cannabis is dangerous, or what else qualifies as a drug: It is what the Catechism means when it refers to “drugs.” Because paragraph 2291 does not specifically define the word “drug,” we resort to background interpretative principles. When a word is neither expressly-defined nor draws a precise definition from the immediate context, its use elsewhere in the document, or an understood technical meaning, we interpret its use in the common, ordinary sense of the time that is suggested by the context. Thus, for example, when John Paul II refers in Evangelium vitae 88 to conditions of hardship imposed by challenges such as “drug addiction” and those of “the mentally ill,” it would be desultory to argue that he had in mind not only those suffering under the weights of, for example, heroin addiction and schizophrenia, but also those whose fondness for coffee is technically an addiction and those whose anxiety about spiders is technically phobic.

Accordingly, the decisive question is whether, when the Catechism was written, the term “drugs” was understood to include cannabis. It did; now as then, cannabis was considered a “drug.” Accordingly, where the Catechism uses the word “drugs,” that reference includes cannabis because the word “drugs” ordinarily includes cannabis.

Seeking to evade that obvious result, my interlocutor argued that “[a] drug, according to the catechism, causes harm to human health and life. Those are the criteria laid out for us … [and] until [the Church] chooses to enlighten us on what, specifically, [is] a ‘drug’ …, we are left to … try to determine … that on our  own.” 2 Sequentially-stated, the theory of that argument is:

  1. The Catechism defines the use of “drugs” as serious subject-matter,
  2. it defines a “drug” as a substance that “causes harm to human health and life,” and
  3. it therefore remands to the individual Catholic to determine whether a particular substance causes harm and is, for that reason, a drug.

That theory is false. Paragraph 2291 of the Catechism, to which her theory refers, is not definitional; it does not say that “a drug is a substance that causes harm to human health and life.” It says that “[t]he use of drugs inflicts very grave damage on human health and life.” Those are very different statements. To say that a drug inflicts grave harm is not to say that that which inflicts grave harm is a drug—that would be nonsense, just as to say that water can drown a child is not to say that that which drowns children is water.

It might help to break down paragraph 2291 into smaller chunks:

¶ 2291: Drugs.
The use of drugs inflicts very grave damage on human health and life.
(b) The use of drugs, except on strictly therapeutic grounds, is a grave offense.
(c) 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.

Whether cannabis causes “very grave damage” would be the pertinent question if ¶ 2291(a) defined a drug as something that “causes grave harm to human health and life,” and ¶ 2291(b) was qualified by that definition, but as we can see, neither of those predicates are true. The Catechism does not define a drug as something that “causes grave harm to human health and life,” it assumes the common and ordinary definition of “drugs,” asserts that they “cause[] grave harm to human health and life,” and makes a freestanding prohibition on their use for non-therapeutic grounds.

In fine: Whether one agrees with the assessment of ¶ 2291(a) in regard to any particular drug has no bearing on the relevant questions which are, again, (1) does the Church teach that recreational use of “drugs” is a grave sin, and (2) do the magisterial documents that express the Church’s teaching on “drugs” understand cannabis to be a “drug”? The answer to both of those questions is, beyond serious cavil, “yes.”


  1. CCC ¶ 2291
  2. Accordingly, she argued, cannabis cannot be considered a drug because it is not dangerous, and its use should not be considered sinful since there are other, more dangerous drugs: “[E]nergy drinks could be said to be more ‘drug-like’  than cannabis, since they are directly responsible for killing more  people and therefore more harmful to human health.  … Tobacco is somehow excluded from this, though it is highly addictive and will horribly kill 25% of those who use it. Alcohol is also excluded, though it is much more addictive and causes much more death and destruction than marijuana.