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Should I give up alcohol forever?

A friend has suggested I join the Pioneers, whose members abstain from alcohol for life as reparation for alcoholism

By on Thursday, 1 December 2011

I have been thinking (again) about free will. This was stimulated by listening to the BBC Radio 4 programme, Brain Culture. Presented by Mathew Taylor, it gave a riveting example of how our brains can affect our behaviour. A 40-year-old man called Fred, about to start a community sentence for paedophilia, walked into Kansas City Hospital for an MRI scan. The scan showed he had a large tumour compressing his right frontal lobe. When it was removed he reverted to the quiet, law-abiding decent chap he was. Several months later he again began to look at pornography and make lewd gestures towards his step-daughter. Another scan confirmed that the tumour had begun to grow again.

This led to an animated discussion about how free is free will, the legal category of diminished responsibility and whether psychopaths are “bad” or “brain-damaged” (apparently they often are found to be the latter). The pre-frontal cortex is vital to our behaviour, our capacity for self-control; when damaged, the result is impulsivity and a lack of capacity to reflect. Professor Colin Blakemore and Chris Frith, a neuroscientist at UCL, think that more of our behaviour is hard-wired than we will admit; “blaming people” will become less and less meaningful as we gradually reassess the meaning of “a responsible mind”. It was also pointed out that not all paedophiles are found to have brain tumours and that “Fred” had started to act oddly several months before his tumour became serious enough to require an operation.

The Church has always recognised different degrees of responsibility in sin – and that finally “only God can judge”, as they say. I sensed a slight reductive bias in the programme: the implicit suggestion that we are no more than the sum total of our brains, specifically the frontal lobes – those areas memorably excised in the now discredited lobotomy surgery (and I also heard an equally riveting programme about that appalling and barbaric method of quieting down difficult patients on the World Service not long ago.)

While these thoughts were in my mind, a well-meaning friend emailed me to suggest I join the Pioneers – or, to give it its full name, the Pioneers Total Abstinence Society of the Sacred Heart. It originated in Ireland – where else? – and members of the Pioneers abstain from alcohol for life in order to make reparation for those who seem to have no control over their drinking. Having a near relation who is an alcoholic and having several friends whose near relations are also afflicted, I have often participated in conversations about whether alcoholism is an illness with genetic features – or not. I don’t know the answer.

My friend emails: “There has never been a greater need for people to support those who have problems with alcohol in this uniquely Catholic way… It’s such a positive way to show fellowship with our struggling brothers and sisters.” She herself has been a Pioneer for four years and joined up on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception.

This Feast is next week: on Thursday to be precise, when I shall be in Lourdes to celebrate it. Shall I or shan’t I? I look up the Pioneers’ website. Thank goodness, you don’t have to jump into the deep end all at once; it’s possible to make a “limited-period pledge” for a self-specified length of time. I click the button to pay £10, the membership fee, agree to say the Pioneer prayer daily (well, it is a lovely prayer) and to wear the badge – all of my own free will. Only for a limited period, mind. I’ll see how it goes. It’s not that I drink much; the odd glass of wine here and there – and much less than I eat chocolates; but to say “forever” is a grave business and I don’t want to commit myself forever until I am more confident that I will keep the pledge. I’m Irish, after all.

  • http://ccfather.blogspot.com/ Ben Trovato

    Rather you than me!

  • jkabel

    Don’t be silly. Read some Chesterton, and drink your beer and burgundy in moderation in gratitude to God.

  • karlf

    “A 40-year-old man called Fred, about to start a community sentence for paedophilia, walked into Kansas City Hospital for an MRI scan. The scan showed he had a large tumour compressing his right frontal lobe. When it was removed he reverted to the quiet, law-abiding decent chap he was. Several months later he again began to look at pornography and make lewd gestures towards his step-daughter. Another scan confirmed that the tumour had begun to grow again.”

    Francis – it fascinates me how you can take such an interest in nueroscience and still hold the views that you do.

  • Anonymous

    I find it a useful exercise to give up alcohol for Lent. While it may not have much spiritual value, it is a useful check to see whether I am becoming dependent on alcohol (although I never drink more than the maximum advised 20 units per week.)  I don’t think there’s any need for people who are not dependent on alcohol to give it up, but I can understand giving it up in order to feel solidarity and empathy with others who are struggling with alcohol problems.

  • Anonymous

    Don’t be absurd.

  • Anonymous

    Oh I dont think so. ” Wine to gladden the heart of man”. As long as you are the master of alcohol and not its slave, its all good!

  • Joe

    I have been a Pioneer for nearly 10 years. The worst days of the year for me are St Joseph’s Day (mid-Lent) and Easter Sunday.  Christmas Day, strangely, is not a problem. Francis, you are not allowed to drink alcohol from a bottle or a glass, so sherry trifle is OK as is Crepe Suzette. Generally speaking, provided you really do offer up your abstenance to the Sacred Heart then you will receive many, many blessings, as I have done.

  • http://jacquelineparkes.blogspot.com/ Jackie Parkes

    Have been a Pioneer for 30 years & have never had any alcohol not even in food!
    Sadly I have seen the devastation caused by alcohol & those addicted to it.

  • Bob Hayes

    Thanks for this article Francis. I have decided to join you and the Pioneers – signed-up for one year! Now, where is the Earl Grey?

  • Danny

    I’ve been a Pioneer for over three years now and I can honestly say that taking the pledge is one of the best decisions I’ve made in my life. Very few people understand why anyone would want to ‘restrict’ their freedoms but I see it as an opportunity and the blessings are most bountiful, easily outweighing the cost. I’d highly recommend joining.

  • Anonymous

    Nicely said. Alcohol is a good – it shouldn’t be blamed for the intemperance (or other weaknesses) of those who can’t handle it. It can, and does, debase people terribly – but that is is no fault of alcohol. One might as well ban guns because some people who use them are unbalanced gits. Unless we’re lucky, the Elfin Safety loons will make us all teetotal :( Banning things, when the problem is in those who them, leads to a tyranny of namby-pambies.

  • AidanCoyle

    Don’t forget the prophetic nature of the Pioneer commitment, Francis, especially if you wear the badge and people ask you what it means. Inevitably you’re greeted with some hilarity (well, the ‘Pioneer Total Abstinence Association of the Sacred Heart’ does sound as though it’s come straight from ‘Father Ted’) but I hope that the commitment points to a different mode of being in relation to alcohol and enjoyment. Plus the Association can do with as much support as it can muster right now, given that we’re trying to get out of some financial difficulties which could lead to the closure of the Dublin HQ… 

  • Bob Hayes

    Climbing aboard a different bandwagon there Parasum! This article and thread are about people voluntarily abstaining. With your references to ‘Elfin  Safety loons’ and the ‘tyranny of namby-pambies’ I think you’re looking for the Daily Mail bandwagon.

  • Deb_59

    Are Pioneers allowed to take holy communion wine?

  • Lee

    No not if its alcoholic, best to check (there are nonalcoholic wines) –  but it wasn’t always usual to receive in both kinds anyway, and still isn’t in some areas.  Plenty of Catholics don’t choose to receive the wine, for one reason or other.