June 28, 2007

When it comes to such complex topics as theology and mixology, misconceptions breed like mayflies. Few laymen could explain how a Church founded by an itinerant carpenter ended up allied with aristocrats, so they assume it’s faintly scandalous. If we don”€™t understand the history and social teachings of our Church, we know even less about the drinks we”€™re mixing. We”€™re confused at once about high theology, high society, and highballs.

Where there’s a vacuum of fact, legends rush in. For instance, Catholics somehow get the idea that the Church believes in absolute, global equality”€”except that it took us almost 2,000 years to realize this. Or we imagine that any drink served in a short glass is a proper highball. Few of us realize the true price exacted by our ignorance, until we”€™re flummoxed in an argument with a Stalinist, or a dinner guest gags on our “€œinnovative”€ cocktail of Galliano and grapefruit juice.

Now, if you”€™ve read my book on the saints (The Bad Catholic’s Guide to Good Living), you”€™ll see that I’ve nothing against the recreational use of legends. While I prefer medieval folktales involving martyrs”€™ tongues that go on preaching long after they”€™re beheaded (St. Livinus, feast day Nov. 12), in a pinch an urban legend will do. In fact, they can make one’s day. What could be more delightful than to learn (by email, of course) that:

“€¢ Public restrooms across the country are infested by venomous “€œtwo-striped telamonia spiders”€ lurking beneath the seats.
“€¢ A teenage girl in California went swimming and got impregnated by octopus eggs.
“€¢ Toilets flush counterclockwise in Australia.
“€¢ Drinking Visine can cause diarrhea.
“€¢ Jesus married Mary Magdalene and fathered a race of French petty kings, but Opus Dei is killing nuns to cover it up.

To all of which I say, “€œWould that it were true . . .”€

I would especially like to believe the theories of David Icke, a former British soccer player who “€œdiscovered”€ the fact that the world has been dominated, for the past 10,000 years, by a race of alien lizard-men who can take on human form. According to Icke, keeping up a human appearance is hard work, and if you stare at George Bush, or Queen Elizabeth, long enough, eventually you can get a glimpse of lizard. Or if you want a shortcut, Icke suggests, there’s a surefire way of seeing the lizard-men: Just drop a little LSD. That’s right, this wonder drug can pierce the veil of reptilian illusion . . . which is precisely why it’s illegal! In case you were wondering. Icke’s theory, of course, casts Church history in a fascinating, innovative light. (For instance, he argues that Jesus had a long, darting tongue.)

Some people seem to spend much of their time disseminating such stories (you probably know a few, and have learned how to block their emails). Others (as puzzlingly) devote themselves to debunking these stories. The entertaining Web site, Snopes.com, is a virtual Wikipedia of misinformation, arranged conveniently by categories. The next time an ex-fiance sends you a warning about the lizard-men, before you invest in reptile repellent I suggest you check with Snopes.

If contemporary Americans are a little too credulous about the rumors they pass along, they”€™re entirely too promiscuous about the drinks they mix and serve. There are entire categories of cocktails whose names alone induce the gag reflex, such as “€œSex on the Beach,”€ “€œDirty Girl Scout,”€ and others I’d rather not name. (One rhymes with “€œteeming gourd spasm.”€) If you live near a university, you probably pass by shops where the once-delightful daiquiri has been jazzed up into a nearly toxic Slushy, and is served to coeds from enormous, whirring machines that dispense drinks with names like the “€œHorizontal Freshman.”€ Call me a prude, but I do not approve.

In fact, a proper highball is made in only one way: with equal parts rye whiskey and ginger ale, in a tall glass full of ice. Acceptable variations include substituting scotch for rye or club soda for ginger ale. This is enough for me, and should suffice for anybody. Sorry, but I feel we have to be strict about this. Good people, don”€™t you realize that our country is at war?

Likewise, I’d like to narrow the range of debate over Church teaching on equality and hierarchy to exclude the most egregious sorts of nonsense. For starters, the theory once popular on the far Right in France, which asserted that the Church existed precisely in order to suppress the destructive, anti-social egalitarianism found . . . in the Gospels. At one point, many leading Catholic intellectuals (including a young Jacques Maritain) subscribed to this notion, which was propounded by the extreme royalist Charles Maurras. The movement he led, the Action Française, was at one point the largest pro-Catholic political force in France”€”which goes to show how desperate the Church’s situation has been in that country since along about 1789. In 1927, the movement and its leader were condemned by Pope Pius XI.

Embracing the opposite error are the partisans of Liberation Theology, a baptized Marxist theory which once dominated Church circles in Latin America and Western Europe. (For some reason, I can”€™t think why, it never caught on in Eastern Europe, and took rather a nose-dive after 1989.) This theory, still popular in watered-down form in certain circles on the Catholic left, asserts that Jesus”€™ saving mission largely consisted in the attempt to transform society and abolish economic and social inequalities”€”establishing a Kingdom of Christ that was, indeed, “€œof this world.”€

We find a more balanced view in the writings of Pope Leo XIII. In paragraph 22 of his most famous encyclical,
Rerum Novarum, Pope Leo teaches that the prosperous are indeed obliged by charity (not justice) to share with the needy.  “€œTrue, no one is commanded to distribute to others that which is required for his own needs and those of his household; nor even to give away what is reasonably required to keep up becomingly his condition in life, “€˜for no one ought to live other than becomingly.”€™ But, when what necessity demands has been supplied, and one’s standing fairly taken thought for, it becomes a duty to give to the indigent out of what remains over.”€ In other words, prosperous people, social classes, or countries are not obliged to abolish inequality. Wealthy Catholics need not give away so much that they become middle- or working-class, and prosperous nations need not transfer their “€œsurplus”€ GNP to the developing world. Indeed, secular economists such as Milton Friedman have demonstrated the perverse effects of careless foreign aid”€”which frequently devastates local business, and retards the economic development of countries.

But this is no argument for complacency in the face of grinding poverty. Pope Leo goes on to write “€œBut the laws and judgments of men must yield place to the laws and judgments of Christ the true God, who in many ways urges on His followers the practice of almsgiving”€””€˜It is more blessed to give than to receive”€™ and who will count a kindness done or refused to the poor as done or refused to Himself”€””€˜As long as you did it to one of My least brethren you did it to Me.”€™”€ This tells us that in the Divine Economy, there are few more prudent investments than money wisely given to help the poor, especially when it helps them attain self-sufficiency and dignity. (One of my favorite charities can be found at Gardenharvest it collects money to buy oxen, cows, goats, sheep, and chickens for needy farmers around the world. Come on, pony up, and give the gift of a goat!) Think of it as stockpiling “€œcups of cold water”€ (Matthew 10:42) in the divine refrigerator.

As the old saying goes, give a man a drink, and he drinks for a day. Teach him to make a drink, and he drinks for the rest of his life.

John Zmirak is author of The Bad Catholic’s Guide to Wine, Whiskey, and Song.


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