SELF-PRESERVATION is nature's first law, and the first and essential
means of preserving one's existence is the taking of food and drink
sufficient to nourish the body, sustain its strength and repair the
forces thereof weakened by labor, fatigue or illness. God, as well as
nature, obliges us to care for our bodily health, in order that the
spirit within may work out on earth the end of its being.
Being purely animal, this necessity is not the noblest and most
elevating characteristic of our nature. Nor is it, in its imperious and
unrelenting requirements, far removed from a species of tyranny. A kind
Providence, however, by lending taste, savor and delectability to our
aliments, makes us find pleasure in what otherwise would be repugnant
and insufferably monotonous.
An appetite is a good and excellent thing. To eat and drink with relish
and satisfaction is a sign of good health, one of the precious boons of
nature. And the tendency to satisfy this appetite, far from being
sinful, is wholly in keeping with the divine plan, and is necessary for
a fulsome benefiting of the nourishment we take.
On the other hand, the digestive organism of the body is such a
delicate and finely adjusted piece of mechanism that any excess is
liable to clog its workings and put it out of order. It is made for
sufficiency alone. Nature never intended man to be a glutton; and she
seldom fails to retaliate and avenge excesses by pain, disease and
This fact coupled with the grossness of the vice of gluttony makes it
happily rare, at least in its most repulsive form; for, be it said, it
is here question of the excessive use of ordinary food and drink, and
not of intoxicants to which latter form of gluttony we shall pay our
The rich are more liable than the poor to sin by gluttony; but gluttony
is fatal to longevity, and they who enjoy best life, desire to live
longest. 'Tis true, physicians claim that a large portion of diseases
are due to over-eating and over-drinking; but it must be admitted that
this is through ignorance rather than malice. So that this passion can
hardly be said to be commonly yielded to, at least to the extent of
Naturally, the degree of excess in eating and drinking is to be
measured according to age, temperament, condition of life, etc. The
term gluttony is relative. What would be a sin for one person might be
permitted as lawful to another. One man might starve on what would
constitute a sufficiency for more than one. Then again, not only the
quantity, but the quality, time and manner, enter for something in
determining just where excess begins. It is difficult therefore, and it
is impossible, to lay down a general rule that will fit all cases.
It is evident, however, that he is mortally guilty who is so far buried
in the flesh as to make eating and drinking the sole end of life, who
makes a god of his stomach. Nor is it necessary to mention certain
unmentionable excesses such as were practiced by the degenerate Romans
towards the fall of the Empire. It would likewise be a grievous sin of
gluttony to put the satisfaction of one's appetite before the law of
the Church and violate wantonly the precepts of fasting and abstinence.
And are there no sins of gluttony besides these? Yes, and three rules
may be laid down, the application of which to each particular case will
reveal the malice of the individual. Overwrought attachment to
satisfactions of the palate, betrayed by constant thinking of viands
and pleasures of the table, and by avidity in taking nourishment,
betokens a dangerous, if not a positively sinful, degree of sensuality.
Then, to continue eating or drinking after the appetite is appeased, is
in itself an excess, and mortal sin may be committed even without going
to the last extreme. Lastly, it is easy to yield inordinately to this
passion by attaching undue importance to the quality of our victuals,
seeking after delicacies that do not become our rank, and catering to
an over-refined palate. The evil of all this consists in that we seem
to eat and drink, if we do not in fact eat and drink, to satisfy our
sensuality first, and to nourish our bodies afterwards; and this is
contrary to the law of nature.
We seemed to insist from the beginning that this is not a very
dangerous or common practice. Yet there must be a hidden and especial
malice in it. Else why is fasting and abstinence--two correctives of
gluttony--so much in honor and so universally recommended and commanded
in the Church? Counting three weeks in Advent, seven in Lent and three
Ember days four times a year, we have, without mentioning fifty-two
Fridays, thirteen weeks or one-fourth of the year by order devoted to a
practical warfare on gluttony. No other vice receives the honor of such
systematic and uncompromising resistance. The enemy must be worthy.
As a matter of fact, there lies under all this a great moral principle
of Christian philosophy. This philosophy sought out and found the cause
and seat of all evil to be in the flesh. The forces of sin reside in
the flesh while the powers of righteousness--faith, reason and will--
are in the spirit. The real issue of life is between these forces
contending for supremacy. The spirit should rule; that is the order of
our being. But the flesh revolts, and by ensnaring the will endeavors
to dominate over the spirit.
Now it stands to reason that the only way for the superior part to
succeed is to weaken the inferior part. Just as prayer and the grace of
the sacraments fortify the soul, so do food and drink nourish the
animal; and if the latter is cared for to the detriment of the soul, it
waxes strong and formidable and becomes a menace.
The only resource for the soul is then to cut off the supply that
benefits the flesh, and strengthen herself thereby. She acts like a
wise engineer who keeps the explosive and dangerous force of his
locomotive within the limit by reducing the quantity of food he throws
into its stomach. Thus the passions being weakened become docile, and
are easily held under sway by the power that is destined to govern, and
sin is thus rendered morally impossible.
It is gluttony that furnishes the passion of the flesh with fuel by
feeding the animal too well; and herein lies the great danger and
malice of this vice. The evil of a slight excess may not be great
in itself; but that evil is great in its consequences. Little
over-indulgences imperceptibly, but none the less surely, strengthen
the flesh against the spirit, and when the temptation comes the spirit
will be overcome. The ruse of the saints was to starve the enemy.