Dear Church Leaders,
I am writing a note to summarize an issue that has been heavy on my heart for years, and I ultimately feel called to be as honest with you about this in hopes that it might bring about improvements for our parishes and dioceses. I apologize in advance if you are bothered or offended by anything that I say as this is not my intent; I feel that God is calling me to simply speak clearly and openly about an issue, and the rest will fall into place as He desires.
The issue begins with the state of our country. As you are probably aware, the U.S. is in the midst of an obesity crisis that is truly of epidemic proportions. A cursory perusal of the epidemiological statistics finds one startling reality after another. Obesity is quickly becoming the biggest health crisis our country knows, soon to overtake tobacco use as the leading preventable cause of death. In the United States, the prevalence of pediatric obesity has more than tripled during the past 4 decades. One-third of adults today [worldwide] have high blood pressure, when in 1900 only 5 percent had high blood pressure. Two-thirds of all people are overweight or obese, including almost ¾ of all men. The U.S. spends twice as much of its GDP on health care (3.2 trillion in 2015) when compared to countries of similar wealth, and yet is one of the unhealthiest of rich nations in the world. This lack of health is not only from a physical perspective, but also from a psychological and social one, as research clearly links obesity to a myriad of negative psychological and social outcomes that are only increasing.
Meanwhile, by dogma, our Catholic Church is the #1 supporter of using our free will to honor God’s design for our bodies and minds. As noted, “The human body shares in the dignity of the “image of God”: it is a human body precisely because it is animated by a spiritual soul, and it is the whole human person that is intended to become, in the body of Christ, a temple of the Spirit (USCCB 2014, para 363).” St. Paul made this similar point to the early Christians, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore, honor God with your body.” (1 Cor 6:19-20). As St. Iraneous once stated, and St. Pope John Paul II later proclaimed, “The glory of God is man fully alive.” As clearly indicated in the Catechism, our bodies and minds are not idols to be worshipped, but rather gifts to be preserved and enhanced for kingdom purposes. It is why gluttony and sloth remain such grievous sins, as tarnishes and erodes the miraculous gift that has been given.
But, although the Catholic Church, by dogma, embraces the gift of life provided through our minds/bodies, in practice, many of our churches often at best do little to address it, and at worst, are complicit in the epidemic at hand. At our own parish (and that of many other parishes nearby), I must admit that over the past number of years, I have been deeply saddened by the way in which the Friday fish fries seem to subvert the remarkable tenet of fasting that is inherent within Lent. Beyond the obvious spiritual benefits, there are numerous psychological and physical benefits to fasting when done responsibly, and yet when we as a parish serve 1,500+ calorie meals (with dessert) to our congregation (and others), I must admit that it feels that the spirit of fasting has left our building. I was struck by this reality a ways back when my grandparents – amazing, faithful people – were commenting (after looking at a bulletin) on just what a great deal the fish fry was for the amount of food it was offering at a cheap price. In doing so, they were simply, and unknowingly, accepting a cultural norm about food and fasting that is causing great harm in and out of our church.
Yet beyond just Lent, we repeatedly use the sale of cheap, high-calorie, and very unhealthy foods as fundraisers within our schools and parishes. I understand that it is difficult to find reliable ways to raise money, which has long been an issue at our church and others. But the repeated use of these types of fundraisers – whether it is Holy Moly strombolis, repeated rib/pizza sales, or snack/sweet offerings throughout the year – renders a reality in which rarely a week goes by that some dedicated parishioner could not be filling themselves with unhealthy food, all in the name of supporting our church.
I realize that many, and maybe yourself, might regard my opinions on this matter as harsh and/or curmudgeon. I want to be clear that I am in support of using food as a means of periodic celebration, as even Christ himself made it clear that we should do so at times. But as sloth and gluttony are often the silent “sins” in the church, so they are in the public domain, and yet the reality is that if something doesn’t change in the next few decades, predictions are that we will literally bankrupt our country and struggle to provide for the basic needs of all our people. It is difficult to overstate just how much of a crisis we are facing, and just how much the Church could and should be involved given what we believe.
Having said all of this, I realize that overhauling the whole system at our church and churches and dioceses across the country is both impossible and not conducive to real, sustained change and community connectedness. However, I do believe that with increased knowledge, leadership, and innovation in this area, certain churches could become a model for all parishes, and increasingly attract families who desire to live in communion with God and His natural law. Given this, I have a few initial ideas that I think could begin this process for those interested.
However, before suggesting further ideas, it is worth noting that any effective approach must be holistic in perspective, and although I have focused on one main area of concern (i.e., dietary), the reality is that three others reign supreme if we are really to embrace God’s design for our bodies. These are diet/nutrition, activity, sleep, and media/technology use, each of which intimately affect the other and are rendering significant negative consequences within our population. If you or others are interested, I probably have around 40-50 articles or series on my site (www.james-schroeder.com) which have been published in various forums, and pull in the latest research in these areas as it pertains to health & well-being.
That noted, here are a few ways in which I feel that a parish could become a leader in this area and transform our Catholic Body of Christ for decades to come:
- It is important that all people in leadership positions in a parish are appraised of the current health situation as it relates to the state of country/city/parish, and how church dogma supports the pursuit of health habits whereas honest discussion ensues about how parish practices may not align with this. Although there will undoubtedly be disagreements and different perspectives, utilizing basic, highly researched information and clearly agreed upon theological ideas would be a good start to further discussion. The initial focus would not be on pushing or even mandating immediate change, but rather engaging people throughout the parish and school regarding the gravity of this current issue, and doing so from a well-established, scientific/theological perspective.
- Beyond this initial phase of information-sharing, the next step would be to consider ideas and visions that various individuals might have about embracing a healthy ideal while also still respecting time-honored traditions at a particular parish. For example, in regard to the ubiquitous fish fry, it could be piloted in which different types of meals were offered, including a sacrificial option (e.g., a simple meal of rice and steamed vegetables) in which those who would like to participate in the community (but not the culinary excess) could honor their desire for fasting while also enjoying the company of others. Other opportunities could be to look at tasty, yet reasonably healthy ideas for other food-based fundraisers that might have a wide appeal.
- Beyond ideas of compromise would also be ideas of new growth that could be reasonably started and maintained which embrace the various talents of particular parishioners. For example, many parishes have people who either have gardens or farms in which they grow a variety of vegetables, some of which likely goes to waste. It would be wonderful if parishes had a “farmer’s market” of sort on Saturday or Sunday (after Masses) where parishioners would simply give away excess produce, and all proceeds would benefit the parish. Another fundraising idea would be to compose a list of all the talents that parishioners are willing to offer others for a reasonable fee. Once this service was delivered, it could be agreed that 10% (or more, if desired) of the profit would be given back to the parish in the collection (using the honor system). In this situation, parishes would not only be supporting the gifts and talents of the congregation, but also raising money for the church without hardly any extra effort being required (beyond keeping track of the list & posting it for all to see)
- The next stage of truly embracing this idea would be to maximize the outdoor (and indoor) space that many parishes have in a way that encourages natural and healthy activities. It could be ideas such as the growing of hydroponic plants in a cafeteria, and expanding it into an outdoor-shared garden. It may include having a covered outdoor area with picnic tables that could be used by families for gathering while the kids play on the fields or playgrounds. Trees and shrubs (of appropriate size & variety) could be planted at various points throughout the parish space, further enhancing what might already be outdoor resources not fully used. Ultimately, there are many ideas that could remind a congregation on a daily basis about the tremendous gift God has given us with our minds/bodies and in the natural world.
Ultimately, all of this involves a degree of effort, openness, and enthusiasm that would take time and courage. But given that parishes like ours are constantly working to build for the future, it seems like a wonderful time to revisit just of how well each church embodies Christ and the tenets of the Magisterium. I know that sometimes, just as life with ourselves and our families, we are just trying to survive and make ends meet; however, in the process, we might find that there were opportunities missed along the way. Not only do I think that this is movement desperately needed within our parishes and dioceses, but it is obviously one that is needed throughout our communities. And although in small pockets, the push towards living in a way that is consistent with God’s natural law is growing (in and out of the church) and provides great support and solidarity for people to live a truly authentic Catholic life―including embracing some of the toughest, and least honored, of all Catholic beliefs (e.g., as noted in Humanae Vitae).
As always, I greatly appreciate all that you are doing and mean to the church, and the ways in which many of you work to invigorate and engage the church community. I would love to have a further dialogue at some point about this issue, as I believe there are endless possibilities when parishes really start to align with the core teachings of our faith.
Thanks for your consideration.