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June 4, 2009

"Care for an Entrée With Your Entrée?" Gluttony, the Forgotten Sin

Catering to gluttony is big business these days. Practically every restaurant — including all the popular chains that you and I and every other American dines at, now and then —  goes way overboard in the super-sized portions they dish up and the bad-for-your-health ingredients in the food. For example, check out what one recent scientific study discovered about some dishes served at a very popular Italian food restaurant chain. 

And if you really want the gory details of what you're packing into your gullet when you sit down for lunch or dinner at just about any other chain restaurant (I'm not talking fast food here, by the way. I'm talking those nice sit-down restaurants), feast your eyes on this "Xtreme Eating 2009" report which explains exactly how much fat, sodium, and calories you'll ingest the next time you order.  And if you tend toward items on the menu that fall into what is commonly thought of as the "Mediterranean diet," you may want to pick something else, once you've read about that in the Xtreme Eating report. 

But aside from the physical damage that gluttony does to the body, Many no longer understand that gluttony is a sin and have lost any comprehension of the spiritual damage it causes.  Check out this snippet of what St. Thomas had to say on the subject: 

Gregory says (Moral. xxx, 18) that 'unless we first tame the enemy dwelling within us, namely our gluttonous appetite, we have not even stood up to engage in the spiritual combat.' But man's inward enemy is sin. Therefore gluttony is a sin.

[...] gluttony denotes, not any desire of eating and drinking, but an inordinate desire. 

"As long as the vice of gluttony has a hold on a man, all that he has done valiantly is forfeited by him: and as long as the belly is unrestrained, all virtue comes to naught." But virtue is not done away save by mortal sin. Therefore gluttony is a mortal sin. (Summa Theologiae, II-IIae, Q. 148, a. 1 & 2).

The Catholic Encyclopedia contains this entry:


(From Latin: gluttire, to swallow, to gulp down), the excessive indulgence in food and drink. The moral deformity discernible in this vice lies in its defiance of the order postulated by reason, which prescribes necessity as the measure of indulgence in eating and drinking.

This deordination, according to the teaching of the Angelic Doctor, may happen in five ways which are set forth in the scholastic verse: "Prae-propere, laute, nimis, ardenter, studiose" or, according to the apt rendering of Father Joseph Rickably: too soon, too expensively, too much, too eagerly, too daintily. Clearly one who uses food or drink in such a way as to injure his health or impair the mental equipment needed for the discharge of his duties, is guilty of the sin of gluttony.

It is incontrovertible that to eat or drink for the mere pleasure of the experience, and for that exclusively, is likewise to commit the sin of gluttony. Such a temper of soul is equivalently the direct and positive shutting out of that reference to our last end which must be found, at least implicitly, in all our actions. At the same time it must be noted that there is no obligation to formerly and explicitly have before one's mind a motive which will immediately relate our actions to God. It is enough that such an intention should be implied in the apprehension of the thing as lawful with a consequent virtual submission to Almighty God.

Gluttony is in general a venial sin in so far forth as it is an undue indulgence in a thing which is in itself neither good nor bad. Of course it is obvious that a different estimate would have to be given of one so wedded to the pleasures of the table as to absolutely and without qualification live merely to eat and drink, so minded as to be of the number of those, described by the Apostle St. Paul, "whose god is their belly" (Philippians 3:19). Such a one would be guilty of mortal sin.

Likewise a person who, by excesses in eating and drinking, would have greatly impaired his health, or unfitted himself for duties for the performance of which he has a grave obligation, would be justly chargeable with mortal sin.

St. John of the Cross, in his work "The Dark Night of the Soul" (I, vi), dissects what he calls spiritual gluttony. He explains that it is the disposition of those who, in prayer and other acts of religion, are always in search of sensible sweetness; they are those who "will feel and taste God, as if he were palpable and accessible to them not only in Communion but in all their other acts of devotion." This he declares is a very great imperfection and productive of great evils. (source)



  1. Important reminder for those of us who are calorically challenged!

  2. Part of the problem is that we should rightfully enjoy the fruits of God's creation, so it can be hard to find the line of what constitutes gluttony. To make matters more difficult to discern, precisely because of our culture that you note, one must take into account factors of habit and inculturation when examining one's conscience on this matter.

    It's easy to toss out truisms about gluttony but harder when it comes to your own life. You can easily fall into the trap of scrupulousness.

    On the flip side, I seem to remember reading somewhere that gluttony pertains not only to eating too much but also to eating too delicately, i.e., investing too much time, effort, and/or money in small portions of exquisitely-prepared food. I think this goes in hand with being overly health-conscious (e.g., only shopping at Whole Foods, only eating organic, etc.). How much of the money and effort put into those things could be better spent in spiritual and charitable pursuits?

    In any case, I certainly agree with you that we need to be cognizant of this sin and consider it while working towards our sanctification. So thanks for posting.

  3. Fascinating. Thanks for sharing your research on this.

  4. "It is incontrovertible that to eat or drink for the mere pleasure of the experience, and for that exclusively, is likewise to commit the sin of gluttony."

    That's a pretty serious charge. Does that mean eating dessert is always a venial sin? Or eating hors d'oeuvres idly at a social gathering? I had assumed that was more "imperfect" than venially sinful.

  5. I live in Canada and had the opportunity to visit a nice steakhouse in downtown Toronto, not far from the banking district. When my meal arrived, I was staggered at the portion size. It was enormous.

    I asked the waiter about this, and he said that despite the fact that they're more of a high-end restaurant, they cater to a lot of American businessmen who are used to much larger portion sizes from American restaurants. Like I'm talking double or triple what I get at comparable restaurants.

    I think the restaurant owners have some responsibility to bare in this mess. I suppose you get more bang for your buck, but at what cost? I bet over time, it would be easy to get used to portions like that, but it was a bit of a shock to see.

  6. I understand what you mean, Matt. The "super-size me" mentality toward food here in the U.S. is out of control.

  7. @Saeculustra,

    While I hold the CathEn in very high regard, it's not infallible. That said, I think it qualifies that statement a lot (as followed).

    I guess it isn't foreseen in their text perhaps, but you could argue, to an extent I think, that enjoying food & drink as the fruits of God's creation and human labor is more than enjoying it "for the mere pleasure of the experience, and for that exclusively," especially if you give thanks in prayer to God for those "gifts" that we are receiving from his "bounty" (as the standard Catholic mealtime prayer goes).

    Finally, I would say that there's not much difference between a venial sin and being "imperfect" as you put it. As per the CathEn: "Venial sin is only in an imperfect way contrary to the law, since it is not contrary to the primary end of the law, nor does it avert man from the end intended by the law." (http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/14004b.htm#IV)

    Doubtless those imperfect among us will fall into this from time to time, but don't let this knowledge be a cause for despair but rather an incentive towards perfection.


  8. Intresting, and something important to remember in our culture of bulging waistlines and huge portions. (It's something that I try to keep in mind myself, esp. as I have "weight issues." (It goes up and down like crazy.) Not through over-eating, it's more a genetic thing I think, as I enjoy working out daily...weights...cardio ect., salads, fish, chicken...the occasional chip or candy bar, emphasis on "occasional." Sorry, got side-tracked...) I don't think that it's a bad thing to enjoy food--after all, God gave us the ability to do so--the difference lies in weather we're making pigs of ourselves, and if it becomes and end in itself.