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The Beginnings of Prohibition

July 21st, 2017posted by Sarah L. Ater

The word “prohibition” calls to mind Al Capone, gangster car chases, and smoky speakeasies. While this underworld has been well documented and even glamorized, there are other aspects of prohibition that would directly involve the Catholic Church. The temperance movement in the United States was active for many decades prior to 1920 and was supported by the Catholic Church and Christian denominations. Seeing the sometimes devastating effects of alcohol, thousands of people actively campaigned and advocated for the passage of a law which would prohibit the sale and intake of alcohol. This finally came when the Eighteenth Amendment was ratified on 16 January 1919 and went into effect one year later. For decades the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, particularly in the pages of The Catholic Telegraph, advocated for and supported the temperance movement. While not fully embracing the prospect of outlawing alcohol altogether, its writers certainly praised the virtues of temperance and self-control and decried drunkenness, wasted money, and the negative effects of alcohol on families.

Archbishop Henry Moeller (left) with his brother Rev. Bernard Moeller.

The passage of Prohibition brought about an immediate concern for the Catholic Church. Sacramental wine is integral in the Mass. Following the command of Jesus to “do this in remembrance of me,” through the Holy Spirit bread and wine are consecrated into the Body and Blood of Jesus and must be consumed during Mass. Of course at this time only the priest would consume the Precious Blood. An article in the 23 January 1919 edition of The Catholic Telegraph by Cardinal Gibbons of Baltimore calls the amendment “a blow to religion.” While he has certainly advocated the restriction of alcohol sales, Cardinal Gibbons says that to take it away “strikes at the heart of individual liberty of worship…We permit the restricted sale of poisons, guns, etc., although the bad use of these is frequently fatal. Why not permit the use of wine and liquor under proper regulations?” Moreover, the government will be deprived of a large revenue, besides being put to enormous expense in the employment of agents to enforce the law.” In the same issue, a priest in Washington D.C. questions the importance of this law, since divorce is a worse problem than liquor. “Liquor drunk in moderation is harmless. Divorce cannot be harmless.”

Form 1412. An application for sacramental wine from St. Teresa of Avila Church, Price Hill.

In a form dated 15 May 1920, the Treasury Department Office of Federal Prohibition Commissioner gives instructions for religious institutions on how to obtain sacramental wine.

The head of the ecclesiastical jurisdiction…must approve all applications for sacramental wines made by individual ministers of the gospel, priests, or duly authorized church officials, on Form 1412, or he may designate some minister of the gospel, priest, or other church official to approve such applications…In case the wine is to be delivered by the vendor and no other transportation is involved, three copies of the application should be made.

Further developments happened in late summer 1921 when the Prohibition Commission decreed that sacramental wine had to be obtained from manufacturers or importers, not dealers in sacramental wine, as many dioceses had used for decades, unless the dealers themselves obtained permission from the government to be designated for this role. Many other dealers and manufacturers sent letters offering their services along with statements of support from bishops of other dioceses.

A letter in support of manufacturer Fred Leis from Bishop Samuel Stritch of Toledo.

Archbishop Henry Moeller first selected his brother Rev. Bernard Moeller, Chancellor of the Archdiocese, to be the diocesan official responsible for the approval of applications for sacramental wine. For many years the Archdiocese had been procuring its altar wine from dealer Fred Stetter. In fact, before 1920 each year Mr. Stetter would ask the Archbishop to recommend a poor parish who would benefit from a year’s supply of sacramental wine for free. The A.J. Hammer Company in Cleveland was among many manufacturers and dealers seeking new business in various Catholic dioceses. Some trouble stirred in late 1922 when the A.J. Hammer Company sought the business of parishes in the Archdiocese. The company had to be reminded that all forms had to be approved by the Chancellor and that they were committed to working with Fred Stetter. It would appear that the process of procuring sacramental wine moved smoothly after the first few wrinkles were ironed out.

Prohibition lasted for over 13 years until the passing and ratification of the Twenty-first Amendment on December 5, 1933 repealing prohibition.