A familiar season of festivities has returned to America. As of this writing [November 30, 2020], I have a bunch of leftovers from the Thanksgiving meal still within my refrigerator. I know that I am not the only one facing this “difficulty”, seeing as how nearly two hundred million pounds worth of turkey will end up being thrown away. (Source: LaMagna, Maria. “Drowning in leftovers? This is how much food Americans waste at Thanksgiving” MarketWatch, published Nov. 25, 2016) As 2019 USDA statistics show, to the 2.4 million households suffering from food insecurity, seeing all of that wasted food can be akin to watching a man drown while they die of thirst.
It’s become a proverbial punchline regarding how obese America is compared to the rest of the developed world (even though the increase in overweight or obese people is a global phenomenon, America is the proverbial king of the hill in terms of quantity, no pun intended), and the statistical data to support this observation is immense. Anecdotal examples, I’m sure, will abound about this increased prevalence for many readers, seeing as how in these days it’s become a mark of poverty to be overweight, while it’s considered a mark of wealth and affluence to be trim and fit. Whether it be due to the nature of food production, dietary changes relative to past ages, a more sedentary lifestyle in general, or a simple reflection of material abundance, it could be argued that gluttony is America’s favorite sin.
What is gluttony? Per the Catholic Encyclopedia, from the Latin gluttire (to swallow, to gulp down), it is “the excessive indulgence in food and drink.” That seems so simple, does it not, for something that is numbered among the capital vices (otherwise known as the capital sins, of which the classical enumeration gives Pride, Avarice, Lust, Sloth, Envy, Anger, and finally Gluttony)? Yet, how would one classify an excessive indulgence? When there is a true occasion for making merry (for Christ implicitly acknowledged as much to the scribes and Pharisees in response to their criticism that he ate and drank with publicans and sinners: “…Can the children of the marriage fast as long as the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast.” – Mark 2:19), do the standards for what counts as an excessive indulgence change? It is this matter (and more) which we shall investigate.
First, we shall quote a few selections from St. Thomas Aquinas on the matter, citing Question 148 of the Second Part of the Second Part of the Summa Theologiae, which deals exclusively with gluttony (all punctuation and spelling is as cited):
From Article 1, Whether gluttony is a sin?
“I answer that, Gluttony denotes, not any desire of eating and drinking,
but an inordinate desire. Now desire is said to be inordinate through leaving
the order of reason, wherein the good of moral virtue consists: and a thing is
said to be a sin through being contrary to virtue. Wherefore it is evident that
gluttony is a sin.”
Reply to Objection 2: “As stated above,
the vice of gluttony does not regard the substance of food, but in the desire
thereof not being regulated by reason. Wherefore if a man exceed in quantity of
food, not from desire of food, but through deeming it necessary to him, this
pertains, not to gluttony, but to some kind of inexperience. It is a case of
gluttony only when a man knowingly exceeds the measure in eating, from a desire
for the pleasures of the palate.”
From Article 2, Whether gluttony is a mortal
sin? “I answer that, As stated above (Article 2), the vice of
gluttony properly consists in inordinate concupiscence. Now the order of reason
in regulating the concupiscence may be considered from two points of view.
First, with regard to things directed to the end, inasmuch as they may be
incommensurate and consequently improportionate to the end; secondly, with
regard to the end itself, inasmuch as concupiscence turns man away from his due
end. Accordingly, if the inordinate concupiscence in gluttony be found to turn
man away from the last end, gluttony will be a mortal sin. This is the case
when he adheres to the pleasure of gluttony as his end, for the sake of which
he contemns God, being ready to disobey God's commandments, in order to obtain
those pleasures. On the other hand, if the inordinate concupiscence in the vice
of gluttony be found to affect only such things as are directed to the end, for
instance when a man has too great a desire for the pleasures of the palate, yet
would not for their sake do anything contrary to God's law, it is a venial sin.”
Reply to Objection 2: “In so far as it
turns man away from his last end, gluttony is opposed to the love of God, who
is to be loved, as our last end, above all things: and only in this respect is
gluttony a mortal sin.”
From Article 3, Whether gluttony is the
greatest of sins? “I answer that, The gravity of a sin may be
measured in three ways. First and foremost it depends on the matter in which the
sin is committed: and in this way sins committed in connection with Divine
things are the greatest. From this point of view gluttony is not the greatest
sin, for it is about matters connected with the nourishment of the body.
Secondly, the gravity of a sin depends on the person who sins, and from this
point of view the sin of gluttony is diminished rather than aggravated, both on
account of the necessity of taking food, and on account of the difficulty of
proper discretion and moderation in such matters. Thirdly, from the point of
view of the result that follows, and in this way gluttony has a certain
gravity, inasmuch as certain sins are occasioned thereby.”
· Reply to Objection 3: “The glutton intends, not the harm to his body, but the pleasure of eating: and if injury results to his body, this is accidental. Hence this does not directly affect the gravity of gluttony, the guilt of which is nevertheless aggravated, if a man incur some bodily injury through taking too much food.”
What is Gluttony?
73. ̶ “Resp. Gluttony is a disordered appetite for food and drink, and it is opposed to abstinence and is committed in five ways: 1) if one were to eat before it is time; 2) If it is exceedingly exquisite. 3. If it is more than just. 4) If he eats voraciously. 5) If it is prepared very exquisitely…
Thus it is resolved:
“1. Gluttony by its nature is only a venial sin, because none of these modes is precisely opposed to the love of God or neighbor. (Note here proposition 8 condemned by Innocent XI, "to each [recte eat] and drink even to satiety only on account of desire is not a sin." Nevertheless, one may use delectation to take food or drink for health of the body [ASM’s note: delectation is pleasure or delight; in this context, it is referring to the pleasurable sensation one may feel when eating food which is nonetheless taken for sustenance as its primary end.], as the Salamancans teach…in fine, from St. Augustine).
“2. Hence it is probable what Navarre, Toledo, etc., teach, and what Laymann says is not opposed, that, provided scandal and other things are removed, it is only a venial sin to fill oneself with food and drink even to vomiting; and that also, if anyone would vomit so that he could drink again and again, Sa and many others, on the verb comedere [eating], think it would be a mortal sin. […] (To eat or drink even to vomiting is probably only venial of its nature, unless scandal were present, or notable harm to health, as the authors commonly say…Moreover, one who vomits what he has eaten by his own will so that he could eat or drink again, would hardly be excused froma [recte from a] mortal sin since this seems to involve a great deformity…).
“3. There is hardly any doubt that one may eat or drink or otherwise create vomit if it were judged healthy. [ASM’s note: for example, if vomiting were induced to expel spoiled food or a toxic substance that was unwittingly ingested.]
“4. Meanwhile, intemperance is considered a mortal sin by the circumstance and great disorder in these cases: a) if anyone for the sake of gluttony would violate a fast of the Church; b) If anyone from gluttony became noticeably inept for the functions to which he is held under pain of mortal sin; c) If someone would gravely harm his health, noticing it, otherwise if only lightly, e.g. if fevering he would increase his illness from a draft of water; d) If feastings and drinking parties were continually held so that he would have as a God his belly; e) If someone drank to perfect drunkenness, on which we will speak below; f) If someone would eat human flesh or blood from pure gluttony, both because it is repugnant to the piety due to the dead and because it is against the instinct abhorrent to nature. It will be excused if it were done for the sake of medicine [ASM’s note: For hundreds of years, peaking in the 16th and 17th centuries, Europeans routinely engaged in “medical cannibalism”, using organic material from mummies, corpses removed from graves, or freshly executed criminals for their concoctions, elixirs, and tinctures. (Source: Dolan, Maria. “The Gruesome History of Eating Corpses as Medicine” Smithsonian Magazine, published May 6, 2012.], or for another just cause, e.g. extreme famine from a siege, still therein one is not held to so preserve life…
74. ̶ “5. The daughters of gluttony are also venial of their nature, on the side of the soul. 1. Sluggishness of the mind, or stupidity born from intemperance, e.g. that one could not pray, etc., which becomes a mortal sin when someone from voluntarily eating or drinking in a disordered fashion became inept to understand or furnish those things which are necessary for salvation, or which are due from an office, or other things held under grave sin…
“2. Inept joy, through which not every disorder is understood which follows the sin, but those which move one to obscene songs, foul acts, dances, or dishonest group dancing, etc. and it becomes mortal when it induces another to consent, or mortal delectation, ordered to it. Ibid.
“3. Loquaciousness. [ASM’s note: This refers to extreme or excessive chattiness, the character of which is self-centered, immodest, or unseemly.]
“4. Scurrility, which differs from inept joy and loquaciousness, because it is in the appetite, the former is in words, this is in words and deed; and it is always called dishonesty, although per se, so long as scandal is removed, it is a venial sin, e.g. to say scurrilous things, or to sing, or to break wind, etc. from levity to excite laughter; still it will be a mortal sin if it would become the cause of venereal delectation [i.e. sexual impurity]…
“On the side of the body, uncleanliness, vomit, and the effusion of seed [i.e. onanism]. The last, if it were voluntary, will be a mortal sin. […]” – Moral Theology, Volume I, p. 474-477
To summarize, the following general principles can be taken
from St. Thomas and St. Alphonsus on the matter of gluttony:
Of its nature, the inordinate and excessive
desire for food and drink is a venial sin.
However, the effects of gluttony can render it
mortal (it renders you unable to perform the duties applicable to your state in
life, perhaps because you are put into a stupor; you intentionally violate the
precepts of the Church or harm your health; it excites you or others to perform
scandalous or immoral actions, especially of a sexual kind; and so on).
What may be considered excessive intake of
food for some may not be to others, according to their circumstances (someone
has a much faster metabolism, which means they must eat more often as a matter
of biological necessity; your profession may require a higher caloric intake
than average, such as a laborer or athlete; and so on).
4) If utilized for the sake of one’s health and not for the sake of pure gluttony, food and drink or even vomiting are acceptable, save for that which is prepared or taken in an immoral or obscene way (the example utilized by St. Alphonsus was the eating of human flesh or blood, since even if it could be excused, it would still betray a potentially inordinate attachment to one’s own life).
Now, how can such a vice be combatted?
There will not be any diet plans prescribed here. Not only am I not a nutritionist nor a dietician, everyone has different physiological needs, notwithstanding the disorders which one may be suffering from (Celiac disease, diabetes, lactose intolerance, etc.). However, since gluttony is a vice born of our fallen human nature, there are spiritual remedies to pursue, as the Church has revealed.
Prayer: No improvement in the spiritual life
can come without it. The moment a hunger pang arrives when you know you
don’t need to eat, offer a prayer to our Lord. Request the intercession of our
Lady and the many saints who attained to holiness through the ascetic life. “It is in view,
then, of these sins, and others of the same sort, and of others again more
trifling still, which consist of offenses in words and thought (as the Apostle
James confesses, "In many things we offend all"), that we need
to pray every day and often to the Lord, saying, "Forgive
us our debts," and to add in truth and sincerity, "as
we forgive our debtors." ”– St. Augustine, The Enchiridion,
Mortification: Even on
days where fasts and abstinence aren’t prescribed, pursue them anyway.
Temptations are to be resisted as one in battle, and no improvement can be had
if your battles are never fought. Witness the example of the monastic orders,
borne by the Rules of St. Benedict or St. Francis of Assisi. Witness the
example of countless saints who mortified their members and desires so that
they could truly live as though it were only Christ living through them. “Be on
your guard when you begin to mortify your body by abstinence and fasting, lest
you imagine yourself to be perfect and a saint; for perfection does not consist
in this virtue. It is only a help; a disposition; a means though a fitting one,
for the attainment of true perfection.” – St. Jerome, in his letter to
Celantia, as cited in the Catholic Encyclopedia’s entry on “Asceticism”
Even in the midst of the various celebrations occurring at this time of year in America, remember the season of Advent. Recall that, as we prepare for the coming of our Lord at Christmas, the priests wear purple vestments to remind us that the days are still dark; St. John the Baptist is still, as ever, preparing the way of the Lord. Let us have recourse to his intercession and that of our Lady, along with that of all the other saints, that we may obtain the graces from God to conquer our weakened flesh, which – no matter how much it devours or consumes – will never be satisfied by the things of this world.
But in the meantime, it definitely wouldn’t hurt to avoid the buffet line.