How does a person know they have committed a sin of gluttony? If a person is satisfied after a first helping of food and eats a second helping because the food tastes good is that gluttony?
— Ellen in Springfield
Eating conveys both the story of salvation and salvation itself. Can we think of the Garden of Eden without the fruit? Or Moses without the Passover meal? Does anything seem more natural to Jesus than sitting down and sharing a meal with his Disciples?
From this very natural action, meant to sustain life and foster communion, springs God’s supernatural plan to save his people: the promise of redemption to Adam and Eve, Israel’s delivery from death to those who eat the sacrificial lamb, the feeding of the five thousand, and the Eucharist.
Eating is meant to sustain our bodies, strengthen bonds of family and friendship, prefigure the heavenly banquet, and ultimately unite us to God by receiving his flesh and blood. Yet something so essential to both our natural and supernatural lives can go wrong, sometimes very wrong. This abuse of the legitimate pleasure of eating and drinking is called gluttony.
We’ve committed gluttony then, when we stop at the pleasure food and drink provide and refuse to go on to where that pleasure intends to lead us. When the pleasure becomes the goal and not health, relationship, and God, then we’ve gone wrong.
And we can go wrong in several ways. Cassian, Pope Gregory the Great, and Aquinas have given us at least five principles of gluttony: eating when there’s no need; seeking expensive or specialty foods; gorging oneself; eating voraciously; and paying too much attention to food.
Gluttony, then, has less to do with the amount of food and more to do with the manner in which we consume it, involving inordinate desire and immoderate pleasures.
If we yield to the pleasure of eating and drinking in an immoderate manner without falling into grave excess, we have sinned venially. If that immodesty progresses to the point that it incapacitates us from fulfilling our duties, we have sinned mortally.
While the Catholic Church has discerned gluttony’s general principles, their application is always personal and should be done with great care and discretion. No two bodies, no two souls, are the same and will require different diagnoses and remedies.
Is a second helping gluttonous? Apply what’s been said above. Is it for pleasure’s sake alone? Are you still hungry? Have you violated one of the five principles? If so, then perhaps you have sinned. If we eat to the destruction of our health, that too would be sinful. At the same time, beware of scrupulosity. To paraphrase T.S. Eliot, let’s not measure out our lives in coffee spoons.
The remedies for gluttony are simple and difficult: purity of intention, moderation, and mortification. Fasting, abstinence, and prayer. Beware of getting stuck on pleasure and continue on to the health, communion, and union God desires for you.
St. Paul says it succinctly: Don’t make your belly your god (Phil. 3:19) and whether you eat or drink, do all to the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31).
Father Seth Brown is a former pastor at St. Mary in New Berlin, Sacred Heart in Franklin, Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Alexander, and St. Sebastian in Waverly.