John Garvey

John Garvey

St. Peter had a vision, recorded in the Acts of the Apostles, that has shaped the way we live as Christians. He saw something like a big sheet lowered from the sky, with every kind of animal on it.

“Get up, Peter,” a voice said, “slaughter and eat.” Three times the voice encouraged him to do this, even though many of the animals were forbidden by Mosaic law. “What God has made clean,” Peter was told, “you are not to call profane.”

This was an important revelation of Christian doctrine and a demonstration that food matters in our faith. The Mass, celebrated daily around the world, is centered around an act of eating. Our bodies, which food and drink replenish, are temples of the Holy Spirit.

Recently, though, I have noticed a fairly non-Christian tendency to attach moral weight to what’s on the menu. People frown more on bad eating (what that is varies from one school to another) than on what my mother would have called worse forms of self-destructive behavior.

If you eat the wrong stuff, or overeat, or run health risks with some of your entrees, you are a bad person. In a famous essay, “Concerning Spiritualism and Materialism,” Ludwig Feuerbach coined the phrase “a man is what he eats.” I think that magazines like Gourmet, Bon Appetit, Self and Shape are Feuerbach’s intellectual heirs.

There’s certainly nothing wrong with going organic or even adopting a trendy or radical diet (vegetarian, vegan, pescaterian, flexitarian, paleo, gluten-free, etc.). Some folks take this stuff really seriously, though. There are treatises against corn syrup and genetically modified foods. Some people bring such passion to the debate over breast milk versus formula that you’d think they invented breast-feeding. It’s an ersatz religion.

To be sure, the modern obsession with diet has some resonance in Christian tradition. The Old Testament and the Fathers of the Church have plenty to say about eating and abstaining from certain foods. The church always has encouraged temperance and fasting (though historically more so than today). Eastern churches, both Catholic and Orthodox, require fasting during Advent and Lent. They demand abstinence not just from meat but also, on certain dates, from milk products.

But there are aspects of the contemporary practice that would puzzle any serious Christian. The church disciplines and purifies the body for the sake of the spirit. Its practices are not about fitting into summer outfits, nor about being in tune with terrestrial harmonies. Today’s foodies treat the body as divine and as an end in itself.

The body matters a lot for Christians, but it matters only so much. It isn’t all we are. Great saints come in all different shapes and body sizes. G.K. Chesterton famously compared St. Francis of Assisi, “a lean and lively little man; thin as a thread,” to St. Thomas Aquinas, “a huge heavy bull of a man, fat and slow.” Chesterton observed that the saints are all different, each one “restoring the world to sanity by exaggerating whatever the … world neglects, which is by no means always the same element in every age.”

Neither the fat Thomas nor the slight Francis (nor, in our time, the rail-thin Blessed Teresa of Kolkata) would have gotten a good rating from the health-food police. But they were all great saints, and they certainly didn’t get there by obsessing over what they ate.

“What God has made clean,” after all, “you are not to call profane.”


Garvey is president of The Catholic University of America in Washington.