America’s Other Favorite Sin

A few weeks ago, on the celebration of the miracle of the fishes and loaves, the deacon-homilist stood up, grabbed his generous gut, and stated: “I like to be well fed.”

He went on to confess that he loved to eat (while providing other flourishes about food), and that he had never met a buffet that he didn’t like. He continued with the buffet theme, stating that if anyone ever said they left a buffet without being well-fed, “It was their fault.” He noted that “many Christians today are not well fed” and that many seek out worldly things (food not mentioned) when they are not well fed.

Sitting in the pews with my impressionable young children, I must admit I felt very uncomfortable. When his homily opened, I had hoped that he was going to take on the very timely sin of gluttony (a very unpopular topic and a sin that’s all but forgotten). To this day I cannot recall a homily that has focused on this vice.

But as the sermon continued, and as I waited for any humble acknowledgement of personal failing from someone who frequently provides wonderful, candid spiritual insights, the admission never came. Due to my own sinfulness and imperfections, a voice I’ve rarely experienced almost leapt past my lips, shouting, “Gluttony is a sin.” I was struck by the irony, as I then looked up at the bare, protruding ribs of Christ in the painting behind the altar. And I thought of how scandalous it would have been if a pastor boasted to the assembly about his lustful experiences or about the wads of cash that he had greedily obtained from investments.I felt enraged and saddened that he and so many others had adopted the American habit of excessive consumption, and that the sin of gluttony had found a home even in our Church.

As a pediatric psychologist, I am daily privy to the tragic consequences that gluttony (and sloth) have had on peoples’ lives in all four primary dimensions of our being—physical, psychological, social, and spiritual. Statistics indicate that almost 70% of all adults in this country are overweight or obese. Obesity has more than quadrupled in adolescents and doubled in children over the last three decades.

Obesity is on the verge of overtaking smoking as the leading cause of death in the United States, and health care costs rise exorbitantly because of obesity. Meanwhile, studies continue to pour in about the negative effects of obesity on mental health in addition to obvious physical consequences, including for our kids. Two headlines in 2013 (published through Medscape) offered the following warnings: Stop the Pop: Soda Linked to Aggression, Inattention in Kids and Early ‘Junk Food’ Exposure Risks Kids’ Mental Health. Although some of the culpability lies with the food industry and others, such as marketers, eating remains a personal decision (albeit one admittedly fraught with many complex factors).

But what saddens me even more than the state of our country is the state of our Catholic Body of Christ, both clergy and laity. Over-indulging in food is especially surprising because Catholics have a particular advantage: our teachings specifically warn against the consequences of overeating. Here’s what the Catechism of the Catholic Church has to say:

Vices can be classified according to the virtues they oppose, or also be linked to the capital sins which Christian experience has distinguished, following St. John Cassian and St. Gregory the Great. They are called “capital” because they engender other sins, other vices. They are pride, avarice, envy, wrath, lust, gluttony, and sloth or acedia. (no. 1866)

And here’s an admonition from Proverbs:

Hear, my son, and be wise,
and guide your heart in the right way.
Do not join with wine bibbers,
nor with those who glut themselves on meat.
For drunkards and gluttons come to poverty,
and lazing about clothes one in rags.

(Proverbs 2:19-21)

But it seems we’ve forgotten these and have not only accepted the secular trend that has made overweight the “new normal,” we are wallowing in it without hesitation or thought.

In our diocese, like many others I suspect, our fundraisers and gatherings feature the sale and consumption of very unhealthy, cheap, highly-processed foods. I support – as I believe the Church teaches – offering an abundance of varieties of food for special celebrations. Such events are wonderful for the community and fellowship they provide. But when unhealthy food is sold or handed out on an almost weekly basis we are promoting poor health. These gatherings don’t qualify as “special celebrations” by any definition.

The largest fundraisers for most parishes in our area come from food/beverages sold at an annual street festival, summer socials, and Lenten fish fries. All support the purchase and consumption of some of the least nutritious foods that exist, and give parishioners in our diocese a sense that every weekend, we can support our churches through the patronage of these events.

At the risk of sounding curmudgeonly, the fish fries, which are supposed to encourage Catholics to follow their Lenten observances, undermine the spirit of Lenten fasting. Sure, we’re all eating fish instead of meat, but how can a 1,500-2,000 calorie meal featuring fried fish and succulent desserts be considered in any way penitential? Fasting, done properly and responsibly, carries significant spiritual and physical benefits. If fasting, almsgiving, and prayer are the three pillars of Lent, it seems that any table from which we seek our daily bread must have three sturdy legs (not just two), to support our pursuit of the resurrected Christ, and not only during Lent.

With each struggle, comes an opportunity, and with an opportunity can come a movement. The movement, however, starts with the person in the mirror. I believe that each of us are being challenged to truly reconsider how in Catholicism spiritual, emotional, mental and physical fitness merge, if we only adhere to the doctrine that has long existed. As a people who have long been reminded (or should have been) of the dangers of gluttony, I believe we are in a good position to lead a countercultural, universal change to a deeper spirituality through better health. In doing so, and increasing our capacity to take on each uniquely divine call, we are closer to becoming, as Matthew Kelly notes, “the best version of ourselves.”

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