We are a society obsessed with food. Overeating and obesity are, in fact, becoming an epidemic in the West. “Fast food” joints and “all you can eat” restaurants with buffets and alcoholic beverages are springing up all over the place. We see junk food dispensers in most of our schools. Everywhere we go we are bombarded with enticing ads encouraging us to eat and drink.
Gluttony is the abuse of that legitimate pleasure God has attached to eating and drinking, which are necessary means of self-preservation. It is the inordinate love of the pleasures of the table. The disorder lies in pursuing this satisfaction for its own sake, in considering it as an end in itself; or in pursuing a said delight to excess, at times even to the detriment of health, by disregarding the rules of sobriety.
Theologians point out four different ways in which we may violate these rules. 1) Eating when there is no need , eating between meals, and for no other reason than that of indulging our greed. 2) Seeking delicacies or daintily prepared meals, the more to enjoy their relish. 3) Going beyond either appetite or need, gorging oneself with food or drink with danger to health. 4) Eating with avidity, with greed, after the manner of certain animals. This fashion of eating is considered ill-mannered throughout the world.
The malice of gluttony comes from the fact that it makes the soul a slave to the body, it brutalizes man, weakens his intellectual and moral life, and insensibly paves the way to voluptuous pleasure.
Gluttony is a serious sin when it goes to such length that for a notable space of time it incapacitates us from fulfilling our duties of state or prevents us from complying with divine or ecclesiastical laws. Such is the case when it injures our health, causes useless expenditures that endanger the interest of our home and family life, or when it makes us violate church laws of fast and abstinence. It is also a grievous fault when it causes other grievous faults. Excess in eating or drinking may, for example, lead to various improprieties and indiscretions, to unchastity, to sins against justice and charity, to back-biting, to calumny, to slander.
Gluttony is a venial sin when one yields to the pleasure of eating and drinking in an immoderate manner, yet without falling into grave excess, and without exposing oneself to violate a grave precept. Such might be the case when one eats or drinks more than is proper to show one’s appreciation for a fine meal or to please a friend.
Gluttony is a serious obstacle to perfection because it fosters a spirit of immortification, which weakens the will while it develops a love for sensual pleasure predisposing the soul to dangerous surrenders. Hence it is important that we combat this vice.
In order to remedy gluttony it is important to keep in mind the basic principle that pleasure is not an end but a means, and that it must, therefore, be subjected to right reason enlightened by faith. This means that the pleasure of eating and drinking must be sanctified by purity of intention, moderation and mortification.
To have a right and supernatural intention we must take our meals, not like the animal who merely seeks its pleasure, but as Christians do for the greater glory of God; in a spirit of gratitude towards God, who in His goodness deigns to give us our daily bread; in a spirit of humility saying, with the saints, that we do not deserve the bread we eat; in a spirit of love, placing our renewed strength at the service of God and of souls.
This purity of intention will lead us to observe the rules of sobriety that might otherwise compromise our health. Sobriety is an essential condition of both physical and moral vigor. Since we eat to live, we must eat sanely in order to live sanely. We must leave the table with a wholesome sensation of sprightliness and vigor, and with our appetite not completely satiated. In this way we avoid the heaviness that comes from an excess of rich fare. Of course the measure of food and drink taken is not the same for all. The sick, for example, may need to either check their diet or adhere to a more abundant diet as the case may be.
The Christian must add to sobriety certain practises of mortification to ensure that he does not overstep the mark and yield too much to sensuality. Hence he must at times forgo certain foods he relishes but which are not necessary. This frees the spirit from slavery to the senses, gives it more leisure for prayer and study and helps one to avoid dangerous temptations. An excellent practise is to accustom oneself to take no meal without some element of mortification. Such privations have the advantage of strengthening the will without injury to health, and are for this reason generally preferable to great mortifications which we perform only rarely. Generous souls add a motive of charity, setting aside a part of their food – some choice morsel – for the poor and therefore for Christ living in them. Another good practise is the habit of eating something we dislike.
Among the most beneficial practises of mortification are those relating to intoxicating beverages. In itself, the moderate use of alcoholic drinks is not sinful. Nonetheless, it is most praiseworthy to abstain from liquor altogether in order to set a good example and deter others from its abuse. In certain cases such abstinence is morally necessary. 1) When through heredity one has a certain inclination toward intoxicants; for in this case the mere use can develop an almost irresistible propensity. 2) When one has had the misfortune of contracting the inveterate habit of drinking to excess; then the only effective remedy will consist in total abstinence. What was said of intoxicating drinks holds also for narcotics. The use of narcotics in small quantities and only occasionally, is a venial sin if done without a sufficient reason. Any proportionate good reason justifies their use, e.g., to calm the nerves, dispel insomnia, etc. Such uses becomes gravely sinful if it creates an habitual craving for “dope” which is more difficult to overcome than dipsomania and more injurious to health.
The desire to eat and to drink and the pleasure of it are natural, good and necessary to sustain life. But it must be ordered properly by temperance. St. Augustine once said of the Eucharist that “we become what we eat.” Let us respond, “Amen,” and keep food and drink in its proper place.