The Capital Sins: “Gluttony”

By Father Reginald Martin, O.P.


In our last reflection we observed that two of the Church’s early theologians, John Cassian and Gregory the Great, taught that the Capital Sins are either spiritual or physical. Among the former are pride, envy, and anger, and avarice, or greed. In this reflection we will begin a consideration of the two sins that demand the cooperation of – and therefore demean – our bodies, Gluttony and Lust.

Our Catechism defines sin as “an offense against reason, truth, and right conscience; it is a failure in genuine love…caused by a perverse attachment to certain goods.” (CCC, No. 1849) The key word in this definition is the adjective “perverse.” To say we must eat and drink states no more than the obvious, which suggests that if Gluttony is a sin, it must demonstrate an immoderate attachment to “certain goods,” namely, food and drink.


The dictionary defines “perverse” as “directed away from what is right or good.” St. Thomas Aquinas does not employ the Catechism’s vocabulary, but he teaches the same lesson when he states

Gluttony denotes, not any desire of eating or drinking, but an inordinate desire. Now desire is said to be inordinate through leaving the order of reason, wherein the good of moral value consists: and a thing is said to be a sin through being contrary to virtue. (ST, II-II, 148.1)


Each of us has probably overeaten on occasion. Similarly, guests at wedding receptions or other special events may carelessly drink more than is wise. Indeed, St. Augustine asks, “Who is it, Lord, that does not eat a little more than necessary?” This occasional overindulgence should not be identified with Gluttony, because what renders indulgence sinful is not the amount of food or drink consumed, but rather our cultivating an unreasonable attitude toward these necessities.

St. Thomas remarks, “… it is a case of Gluttony only when a man knowingly exceeds the measure in eating from a desire for the pleasures of the palate.” (Ibid. reply ad 2) If we are to sin, we must deliberately choose to do something wrong, knowing that what we are doing is wrong. To accept a second – or third – piece of pie at a Thanksgiving dinner may be unwise (St. Thomas attributes this to “inexperience”) but this is not the deliberate, cultivated, and repeated excess that characterizes Gluttony.


To cultivate a desire for more food than we need is sinful because to do so confuses a temporal, physical good with the eternal good – eternal life with God – that ought to underlie all our actions. St. Thomas wrote that Gluttony “is opposed to the precept of hallowing the Sabbath, which commands us to rest in our last end.” (ST, II-II, 148.2, reply ad 2)


We might not immediately associate Gluttony with the Third Commandment, but consider the rich man in the gospel, at whose table Lazarus begged. St. Luke tells us the man “was clothed in purple and fine linen and…feasted sumptuously every day.” (Lk 16:19) The man is condemned because the law says we shall enjoy a Sabbath’s rest on one day of the week, and labor on the others. These days, what we wear to dinner on Sunday may be a matter of personal taste, but many of us still look forward to a better meal on that day than we enjoy the rest of the week. The rich man’s sin is that he has turned every day into a Sabbath, not so he can enjoy – here and now – a sign of the eternal rest we look forward to in heaven, but so he can do nothing.


When he considers the sin of Gluttony, St. Gregory the Great employed the following adjectives and adverbs to characterize the glutton’s attitude toward food: “hastily, sumptuously, too much, greedily, daintily.” St. Thomas reflected on these words and wrote

…Gluttony denotes inordinate concupiscence [desire] in eating. Now two things are to be considered in eating, namely the food we eat, and the eating thereof. Accordingly, the inordinate concupiscence may be considered in two ways. First, with regard to the food consumed: and thus…a man seeks sumptuous – i.e., costly food; as regards its quality, he seeks food prepared too nicely – i.e., daintily; and as regards quantity, he exceeds by eating too much. Secondly, the inordinate concupiscence is considered as to the consumption of food: either because one forestalls the proper time of eating, which is to eat hastily, or one fails to observe the due manner of eating, by eating greedily. (ST, II-II, 148. 4)

Sensual happiness, such as the Rich Man in the parable enjoys, is not wrong because food is inherently bad, but because we want too much of it, or because we will accept only the highest quality. Excellence and abundance – we might also call them quantity and quality – are attributes of heaven, because only God can satisfy our desire for everything good. Because we cannot expect complete abundance or absolute excellence in this life, St. Thomas concludes that sensual happiness is unreasonable.


Two modern writers draw the same conclusions. G.K. Chesterton observed that we can be gluttons by eating very little but at the same time being very picky about what we will eat. In C.S. Lewis’ novel The Screwtape Letters, Screwtape (the Devil) urges his nephew, Wormwood, a novice demon, to consider the mother of the fellow they seek to bring to Hell. Her attitude toward food drives her servants and friends to distraction. She is guilty of Gluttony, the senior devil observes, but not the Gluttony of Excess; hers is the Gluttony of Delicacy. The woman is unaware that one can sin by demanding a very small amount of food, but insisting that it be prepared to perfection. (Letter 17)

The Devil is the Father of Lies, so we should not, perhaps, turn to him as our first resource when seeking the truth about Christian moral teaching. Nonetheless, in another of his letters Screwtape very eloquently summarizes the Church’s teaching about sin. And we may find his words particularly apt if we consider them in relation to what we have discerned about Gluttony. Screwtape tells Wormwood

Never forget that when we are dealing with any pleasure in its healthy and normal and satisfying form, we are, in a sense, on the Enemy’s ground. I know we have won many a soul through pleasure. All the same, it is His invention, not ours. He made the pleasures; all our research so far has not enabled us to produce one. All we can do is to encourage the humans to take the pleasures which our Enemy has produced, at times, or in ways, or in degrees, which he has forbidden. (Letter 9)


Anyone who has over-enjoyed a dinner by eating or drinking too much will testify to what St. Thomas identifies as the “dullness of mind,” that can result in our acting “as though reason were fast asleep at the helm.” This is a very poetic description, but we must not be misled; it describes the sad lack of moderation that can lead to unseemly conversation or the betrayal of confidences. These are among the intellectual consequences of Gluttony. When we consider the effects of Gluttony on the physical side of an individual’s moral life, St. Thomas suggests Gluttony’s immoderation can lead to improper sexual behavior. A glance at the advertisements in the health section of any newspaper will provide ample illustrations of the physical ills that may attend Gluttony.


The history of a “Temperance Movement” in the United States may have conditioned us to think of Temperance as moderating the use of alcohol, or encouraging citizens to forego its use altogether. While moderation regarding drink is certainly a part of the virtue of Temperance, it is far from the only part we must consider if we are to understand this virtue.


Temperance concerns itself with the most basic human needs: the need for food and drink, which guarantee and safeguard our survival. Because food and drink are related to the sense of touch, and because each is pleasant, St. Thomas Aquinas teaches that “… temperance is about the pleasures of touch” (ST, 141.5). And he adds that because taste and smell contribute to our enjoyment of food, Temperance also concerns itself with taste, smell, and sight. Of these, St. Thomas identifies taste as the sense most closely resembling the sense of touch, therefore, he argues, Temperance is most concerned with the sense of taste.

Earlier in this reflection we considered the place of quantity as we make our decisions about food. Our sense of the word Temperance is intimately linked to our notion of “how much” of something we need or plan to use. The Church’s teaching on virtue describes ordering the things of our life to their proper ends, which we understand by reason, so Temperance is the virtue by which we employ the pleasant things of creation only to the extent required by our needs. Our Catechism teaches

Temperance is the moral virtue that moderates the attraction of pleasures and provides balance in the use of created goods. It ensures the will’s mastery over instincts and keeps desires within the limits of what is honorable. The temperate person directs the sensitive appetites toward what is good and maintains a healthy discretion…. (CCC, No. 1809).


At first glance this might seem a recipe for a very dull life, but we must remember that virtues are habits, and the purpose of any virtue is to make us good and to make our actions good. Exercising Temperance in our attitude toward food and drink enables us to embrace the middle course between the extremes of harmful self- denial and the immoderate self-gratification of Gluttony, which can prove equally harmful. Rather than taking the pleasure out of life, Temperance confers a calm control over the things that delight us most, enabling us to enjoy them fully because we enjoy them in their proper measure. To draw our attention to the behaviors that will moderate our eating and drinking, St. Thomas turns to the Book of Ecclesiasticus, where the author states, “I thought in my heart to withdraw my flesh from wine, that I might turn my mind to wisdom.” (Eccles. 2.3)


The Litany of Loreto praises the Blessed Mother for her prudence, chastity, and wisdom. The litany makes no mention of Mary’s Temperance, but we must assume that this was among the virtues which adorned her life. We find one charming illustration of this Temperance in her actions during the Wedding at Cana.

When the host’s supply of wine ran out, Mary was reasonably concerned to provide more. No one would ever suggest that Mary was advocating drunkenness. On the other hand, she realized very clearly that a certain amount of wine was necessary if the festivities were to continue. Her intervention resulted in what was undoubtedly just the proper amount of high-quality wine.

Early Church writers wrote quite fondly of the wedding at Cana. They saw it as a sign of what Jesus accomplished in the Incarnation, taking the watery “stuff” of our humanity and transforming it into something far more precious and delightful. Gluttony is an abuse of this generosity; our temperate enjoyment of the good things God has prepared for our nourishment is a sign of our willingness to follow the example of Jesus and his mother.

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