Monday, June 4, 2007

Consumerism: Sexual vs. Nutritional

Quite often, sceptics and doubters will call into question our beliefs by showing up apparent contradictions or paradoxes within the teachings of the Church. In facing these challenges we are given an opportunity to deepen our understanding of our Faith by reconciling these objections through a clearer statement of belief. Recently, one such opportunity came my way, when I read an article by Garry Wills in the New York Review of Books:

The real mysteries of the faith are easier to believe than the supposedly rational condemnation of contraceptives based on “natural law.” According to the Pope, the sex act must always be ordinated toward procreation, and never to pleasure alone. By that logic, eating and drinking must always be ordinated towards self-preservation, never to pleasure. The toast of fellowship among well-fed people is ruled out, all the symbolic and extraordinary uses of feasting and drink that find their highest expression in the agape feast and the Eucharist. The body does not physically need the eucharistic bread or cup, so they are unnatural.

Here Wills has, cleverly, misstated Catholic teaching on sex before applying it, by analogy, to food. The Church does not require that each act of marital intimacy be intended to result in conception, just that this end not be precluded by artificial means. Thus couples often licitly engage in intimacy for reasons similar to those “symbolic and extraordinary” ones he has stated for feasting. Who would deny the legitimacy of the ravenous desire of a couple for each other after a long separation? Or the sentimental necessity of intimacy on anniversaries? Or simply the joyous marital congress that follows a day of especially close consanguinity? All of these are not merely permitted, but are central to the unitive purpose of married sexuality — so long as these unions are open to conception!

But Mr. Wills does have a point, one which we might thank him for bringing to our attention.

Just as it is illicit to thwart the physical consequences of sexuality for our own indulgence, so too might it be illicit to thwart those of eating. Just as conception is the physical (as opposed to emotional) purpose of sex, so nutrition is the physical purpose of food. The ancient Christians recognized instinctively that the Roman practice of induced vomiting after a large meal was an immoral indulgence, but I fear that in the modern world we have failed to recognize that artificial sweeteners, ersatz fat, and artificial “low-cal” foods are immoral because they thwart the purpose of nutrition. This analogy goes even further when you consider that just as God has given married couples an infertile period of the month in which they can licitly avoid conception, so too has he given us foods that are naturally low in calories. The seriousness of this offence against natural law becomes all the more repellent when we consider that in this very city today there are probably thousands of unfortunates desperate for a meal, picking their subsistence from garbage cans, surviving on the generosity of soup kitchens, while there are perhaps hundreds of thousands indulging their every whim, gorging themselves on tasty foods utterly devoid of nutritional value simply for the pleasure of consuming them.

I put it for your consideration: Are “diet” foods as immoral as contraception?

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