Dear Straight Dope: What did the Catholic Church use for alter wine during Prohibition? Since all alcohol was banned and wine is a central part of the Catholic liturgy did priests have to violate the prohibition of alcohol? Or did the church get a waiver? Brian Saunders
SDStaff Songbird replies:
Just because it’s transubstantiated doesn’t make it “alter” wine, Brian.
During Prohibition, the wine on Catholic as well as other church altars was real wine. The Eighteenth Amendment, forbidding the manufacture, sale, import or export of intoxicating liquors, was ratified by three quarters of the states January 16, 1919. The Volstead Act also passed in 1919 (over the veto of President Wilson), giving federal agents the power to investigate and prosecute violations of the amendment. But alcoholic beverages for medicinal and sacramental use were exempt under the Volstead Act, which allowed many people to avoid the spirit of the law.
There were, of course, legitimate, medicinal purposes for whiskey. But doctors reportedly earned an estimated $40 million in 1928 by writing prescriptions for whiskey during Prohibition.
The salvation of the California grape industry was section 29 of the Volstead Act, which authorized the home production of fermented fruit juices. This would supposedly save the vinegar industry and the hard cider of America’s farmers. However, home winemakers appreciated this exception. The grape growers even produced a type of grape jelly suggestively called “Vine-go” which, with the addition of water, could make a strong wine within two months.
Many wineries survived Prohibition by selling sacramental wine to churches. But again, the exemption invited abuse.
In 1925, the Department of Research and Education of the Federal Council of the Churches of Christ reported that “the withdrawal of wine on permit from bonded warehouses for sacramental purposes amounted in round figures to 2,139,000 gallons in the fiscal year 1922; 2,503,500 gallons in 1923; and 2,944,700 gallons in 1924. There is no way of knowing what the legitimate consumption of fermented sacramental wine is, but it is clear that the legitimate demand does not increase 800,000 gallons in two years.”
It’s amazing what can make a person get religion, isn’t it? Perhaps all we can honestly say is that such Prohibition waivers caused many to waver.
SDStaff Songbird, Straight Dope Science Advisory Board
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