You might be familiar with a recent phenomenon called “Dry January.” It’s a campaign by a non-profit organization in Britain; the campaign encourages people to abstain from alcoholic beverages for the first month of the year. The campaign began in 2012 as a response to the perception that alcohol consumption in Britain was rising to worrisome levels. Since then, it has spread throughout the developed world. In the United States, it has been adopted by organizations concerned with promoting healthy lifestyles as well as organizations promoting weight loss.
While there are observable benefits that result from eliminating alcoholic beverages from one’s diet, the benefits of temporary abstinence from alcohol are questionable. A friend of mine is fond of saying that it’s not legitimate to give up for Lent what one should give up permanently. I wouldn’t discourage anyone from observing a dry January, but I would point out that the benefits of the practice will be fleeting.
Dry January was not the first attempt to curtail alcohol consumption in the United States. The Temperance Movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries tried to discourage alcohol consumption in order to prevent social ills such as domestic violence. There were real social benefits that resulted from the Temperance Movement but, like Dry January, the benefits were short-lived.
Perhaps one of the reasons that projects like the Temperance Movement and Dry January have very limited benefits is the very definition of the word “temperance.” Temperance is the habit of exercising self-control, particularly with regard to one’s appetites and passions. Temperance is the life-long practice of moderating the potential for vice inherent in what used to be called concupiscence. Any temporary project or short-lived commitment, then, does not equate to temperance, simply because it is not habitual. Curtailing a single behavior, such as alcohol consumption, isn’t temperance because it doesn’t extend to the entirety of one’s life. When today’s second reading instructs us “to live temperately, justly, and devoutly” (Ti 2:12), these are not recommendations for occasional behaviors, or temporary commitments, or minor changes to one’s life.
The Letter to Titus is an instruction addressed to the leader of the Christian congregation in a state of transition. The letter covers the familiar topics of church leadership, diversity in church communities, and Christian morality. The third topic, Christian morality, it presented as the guiding principle for all activities of a church community. The author of the letter was convinced that a faithful life and a credible Christian witness are impossible in the absence of habitually virtuous behavior. When the author wrote that the baptized are to practice temperance, justice, and devotion, he meant that we are to practice these virtues chronically.
As I said above, the Christian virtue temperance is misunderstood when it is limited to a single behavior such as alcohol consumption or limited to a short span of time. The temperance promoted by the Letter to Titus is the life-long habit of self-control, particularly with regard to one’s actions and speech. The purpose of living a life in which one moderates one’s appetites and desires is to give credible witness that salvation does not result from trusting in passing things but rather from trusting in what endures forever.
While I wouldn’t discourage anyone from participating in Dry January if the reason for participation is a virtuous one, I am very skeptical of projects like that one.
The primary reason that I am skeptical of projects like Dry January is that it is fully possible to refrain from the consumption of alcohol and, at the same time, to be completely lacking in temperance. The absence of alcoholic beverages from one’s home does not necessarily equate to the absence of conflict, disrespect, or violence. The choice not to indulge one’s appetite for alcohol is not necessarily the same as not indulging one’s appetite for gossip, dishonesty, or manipulative behavior.
A secondary reason that I am skeptical of short-term reforms is that they tend to focus more on heroic personal behavior than on personal transformation. Our Christian faith does not call us to behave in ways that are very impressive to other people. We aren’t called to be theatrical performers; we are called to be disciples. The virtues promoted by the Letter to Titus are habits of behaving compassionately, gently, and graciously at all times. These virtuous habits are evidence that our lives have been transformed completely by what the Letter to Titus calls “the blessed hope, the appearance of the glory of our great God and savior Jesus Christ.” (Ti 2:13)
Being a Catholic is not a part-time occupation or an occasional activity; being a Catholic is a distinctive lifestyle that reflects God’s graciousness to creation. The primary means of expressing our faith is to give credible witness to the Light of truth revealed in Jesus. We accomplish this by habitual virtue. The Letter to Titus says that the evidence of real faith is habitual self-control, responsible behavior, and attentive worship; these allow us to live in blessed hope and to proclaim our hope to the world.