A pro-life attitude towards fasting and food

By Fr. Basil Cole, O.P.

Often when Lent comes around during the liturgical year, many Catholics try to use it as a time to lose weight by fasting from a lot of their favorite foods, rather than looking upon this time to grow in prayer and works of mercy. Cutting down on our favorite foods to lose of few pounds often means, quoting St. Thomas Aquinas, “restraining food that weakens strength for prayer and preaching while trying to stifle the incentives to vices is like attacking an enemy we hate but slay the citizen we love (On Evil, q.14, a.2 ad 6). The purpose of fasting as a virtue, not a dietary aid, is threefold for Aquinas: to guard chastity since the pleasures of the mouth are close to sexual pleasure, to aid in the acts of contemplation, and to make acts of penance for past sins because it is penal and not sought for its own sake (ST II-II q. 147, a. 1; ibid. a. 4 ad 1). This virtue should be actualized within reason throughout the year according to one’s particular circumstances.

There are two other forgotten virtues of the pro-life movement that need to be brought to mind, and Lent is a good time to do so. If pro-life means respect for the dignity of the human person from the womb to the tomb, that respect should include growing in the virtues of abstinence, sobriety thereby undermining the vice of gluttony, which blunts a sense of balance regarding the pleasures of the palate. Without hunger and thirst, people normally die of starvation and dehydration. With hunger and thirst unchecked by reason and faith and ignoring the help of God’s assisting grace, people usually die earlier of illnesses such as diabetes, heart attacks or strokes, and cirrhosis of the liver among other unpleasant maladies. This, in turn, harms the common good of a society because the healthcare costs of a nation balloon their budgets out of proportion. One very important aspect of social justice is care for the common good, not only by the leaders of a nation, but for all persons in a society.

cakeWhat precisely is the vice of gluttony? Is it simply eating large quantities of food? These questions are helpful before someone can appreciate these virtues shaping the pleasures of food and drink.

St. Thomas, following Pope St. Gregory the Great, simply defines gluttony as an inordinate desire of the pleasures of the table for its own sake that leads to detriment of health (ibid. q. 148, a. 1 ad 2; On Evil, q. 14, a. 2). Thomas also suggests that gluttony causes (indirectly) other vices against chastity, and creates a lack of self-mastery that weakens the will, mind and emotions. Unlike some of the vices, it has its own species: hastily (hurried eating), sumptiously, (costly) too much (beyond nature), ravenously (too quickly a lack of manners mentioned in ST II-II q.148, a. 4), fastidiously (delicately prepared). But these species are motivated by inordinate desire neither of eating itself nor even the quantity of foodstuffs, nor special celebrations, which vary from person to person and culture to culture. These species presume normal conditions or circumstances unlike having to hurrying to eat a meal on a battlefield, or celebrating a birthday and the like. The consequences or daughters of gluttony are dullness of sense in regard to the mind’s ability to reason, unseemly joy, verbosity (a motor mouth) and scurrility or vulgarity (On Evil q.14, a 4).

A disrespect for food by an excessive desire for it is disrespectful of creation, an idea often neglected among environmentalists. In addition to becoming an addict to porn, there may also be an obsession to the refrigerator more than to a medicine cabinet. However, one can also become enslaved to dieting, harsh asceticism and even more to hedonism. St. Alphonsus Liguori explained that “it is not a fault to feel pleasure in eating: for it is, generally speaking, impossible to eat without experiencing the delight which food naturally produces. But it is a defect to eat, like beasts, through the sole motive of sensual gratification, and without any reasonable object” (The True Spouse of Jesus Christ). St. Thomas is convinced one can become aware of reasonable eating when he asserts that “a person can discern it with the help of God” (On Evil, q. 14, a. 2 ad 2). Part of educating one’s offspring involves teaching children manners at the table by showing them how to curb their appetite by self-restraint. Otherwise, a lack of this virtue lessens strengthens self-will and leads children to act on whims of the moment and can only become worse in the teenage years. In regard to fasting, Thomas realizes children “are growing and therefore require extra nourishment,” so they are led to this virtue in “lesser or greater degree according to their years” (ST II-II q. 147, a. 4 ad 2).

The purposes of food and drink are manifold. When consumed reasonably, they keep us alive which is the first fundamental inclination to keep oneself in existence. Since it is so necessary for life, it is reasonable to understand why it is pleasurable. One does not have to be deeply motivated simply because human instinct creates a hunger want that needs to be satisfied. The problem is to make certain that it is proportionate or according to reason (the virtue of abstinence or self-restraint). Even when a woman is pregnant, proper eating of certain foods also nourishes the child in her womb. Occasionally, consuming certain foods may even facilitate pregnancy.1 It is also clear that common meals with family members enhance family unity not only by sharing. Imbibing in alcoholic drinks stimulates hunger and often is healthy for certain members of the body such as the heart, and also prevents certain problems (sobriety). Some alcoholic beverages possess many nutrients and vitamins necessary for good health (stout). In earlier times, drinking wine prevented many diseases coming from tainted drinking water most often unknown by merely looking at appearances. St. Paul suggested that wine was good of stomach ailments (I Tim 5.23).

Lent then is not simply a special season but a summons to live the joy and mercy of the Gospel according to reason throughout the year, order leading to a real self not pull and tossed by sense pleasures but integrating them into something deeper personal integration of mind and heart.

     1 Fertility, Cycles and Nutrition, 4th Edition, Marilyn M. Shannon, (Cincinnati: Couple to Couple League, 2009).

Father Basil Cole, O.P. is currently a Professor of Moral and Spiritual Theology, Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception, at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C. Father is also author of Music and Morals, The Hidden Enemies of the Priesthood and coauthor of Christian Totality; Theology of Consecrated Life. A native San Franciscan, Father has been a prior in the Western province of the Dominicans, a parish missionary and retreat master, and invited professor of moral and spiritual theology at the Angelicum in Rome.
Articles by Fr. Cole: