The comparative perils of gluttony and lust

I think it’s more likely that I’ll end up going to hell for gluttony than for lust.  I’ve struggled much more with sexual temptations than with temptations to overeat, but that’s the point–I struggled against sexual desires; with food temptations it’s been most often immediate surrender.  Lust is a lot easier to fight against, because just about every sexual sin is mortal.  One act of fornication, contraception, or onanism means you’re cut off from the Eucharist and in danger of hellfire, and the only way to fix things is to go to a priest and tell him what you did. (Cringe!  Shutter!)  In fact, impure thoughts are the only potentially venial sin against chastity I can think of, and those just make your temptation to do one of the mortal sins worse.  On the other hand, I don’t think it’s possible to actually commit a mortal sin by overeating.  This can make it hard to curb one’s appetite for strictly moral reasons.  I do, of course, exercise some self control, but because I don’t want to spend too much money or get too fat, not for the sake of temperance itself.  I fast two days out of the year–Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, and it’s enough of a novelty that I don’t have much time to get hungry even when I decide to eat nothing that day.

You don’t have to commit a mortal sin to go to hell, though.  You just have to have some attachment that makes you unwilling to give yourself entirely to God.  “You can have everything I have, O Lord, but not this; this one thing is mine!”  The things that hold us back are often small and petty, not things worth getting damned over at all, if we really thought about it.

My family had dogs, and sometimes we’d be generous and get our dog a treat–a biscuit or flavored chew-toy or something.  I remember that sometimes I’d happen to be walking by while the dog was munching away on its treat, and it would give me a warning growl when I got close.  I would think to myself “You stupid dog.  You only have that treat at all because I gave it to you.  You only have anything because I give it to you.  If I wanted your damned dog biscuit, I’d have just given it to myself instead of to you.  Where’s your gratitude?  Even if I took all your stuff, it would only be things I’d given you for nothing in return anyway.  What right would you have to complain even then?”  But I am often like the dog with his treat, when I sense God, with His demands, coming near.

I have sometimes wondered if there’s a sort of anti-purgatory for those who die outside of God’s grace for petty reasons.  The soul is in a mixed state in this life, without the holiness it would need to withstand heaven but with traces of decency and genuine love here and there.  The imperfect souls in a state of grace will slowly cast off their imperfections as their love of God waxes in the fires of purgatory, until each one of them is perfect, saintly and heroic.  What about the damned souls, who die with some goodness still in them.  I imagine that slowly, piece by piece, they cast off their noble traits and renounce every healthy love in order to make their rebellion against God perfect.  At first–during this life–they insisted on only rebelling against God on one point–perhaps a seemingly small one (“I’ll be nice to everyone, but I’ll eat what I want, when I want.”), but in the clarity of anti-purgatory they understand that they are rejecting God’s sovereignty.  God is the Enemy.  They come to see all their remaining virtues and healthy attachments as incursions of God into their souls, and because they despise God and idolize their own autonomy, they cast these things off.  Finally, there is nothing left in the soul except “I’ll eat what I want, when I want (and I’d kill my mother if necessary to keep it that way)”, and the soul is ready for hell.  Indeed, it is already there.

5 Responses

  1. The Dutch philosopher Andreas Kinneging published a set of essays last year called “The Geography of Good and Evil.” Kinneging is, so far as I can tell, secular, and until recently was a liberal, but in the course of researching a book that was meant to be critical of traditional virtues he was converted to conservatism. Most of the essays are very good, especially the second and third, titled “The Solid Darkness of the Enlightenment” and “Inclined to all Evil.” “Inclined to all Evil” is, essentially, an appreciation of the concept of Original Sin and the traditional Seven Deadly Sins, and it is absolutely first rate.

    In his discussion of gluttony, Kinneging notes that this at first appears the most ludicrous of the Seven Deadly Sins, but that this is deceptive. First of all, it is not limited to overeating, but takes in drunkenness and drug “addiction.” Aquinas listed the “daughters” of Gluttony as intellectual stupefaction, inappropriate mirth, verbosity, indecent behavior, and poor physical hygiene. Obviously many of these point to alcoholic gluttony, but overeating is not innocent.

    Kinneging points to two evils arising from food-gluttony. The first is a misallocation of time, money, and thought, to food, food preparation, and food consumption. The second is poor health. Kinneging is not a modern health nut, but makes the very important point that a man who has ruined his health by overeating is not capable of performing many of his moral duties, and he may have made himself a burden on others. Making ourselves needlessly ill or disabled is sinful because we become delinquent in performance of our moral duties, and because we take some of the resources that should have gone to those who were disabled by accident.

  2. One act of fornication, contraception, or onanism means you’re cut off from the Eucharist and in danger of hellfire, and the only way to fix things is to go to a priest and tell him what you did. (Cringe! Shutter!)

    My understanding (admittedly from modern priests) is that a perfect act of contrition can (and ought) be made as soon as you are conscious of grave sin, and that that along with the serious intention to confess it as soon as possible, should be sufficient to avoid hell-fire. I.e., if you get hit by a bus on Fri night, after having beat off on Thurs, you won’t necessarily go to hell, just because confession was not available until Sat afternoon.

    Gluttony is an interesting case. I too, have difficulty coming up with an example of a grave gluttonous act. The genius of gluttony (from the Devil’s perspective) might very well be this. It takes you in not by one simple act, but a vague disposition acted upon scores, hundreds, and thousands of times. In no one act (feast or bout of pickiness) did you intentionally cast away grace, but slowly by tiny degrees you manage to make your belly into your truest god.

  3. “You don’t have to commit a mortal sin to go to hell, though.”

    This is absolutely sheer wrong. Once you have entered the state of grace, you do not lose it until you commit a discrete mortal sin. Period. Furthermore, an impure thought, if knowingly consented to, is a *mortal* sin. It is adultery in the heart. You need to re-read your catechism.

  4. Hello Bonifacius,

    You may be right, and I may still be being led astray by my childhood impression that mortal sins are big, dramatic, and rare. If a mortal sin is just one that destroys grace in the soul, than you must be correct by definition. On the other hand, it may still be possible under this definition that a “straw that breaks the camel’s back” effect can happen, so that the particular sin (the officially “mortal” one) that seals one’s damnation is not intrinsically more grave than the ones that preceeded it. I think you’re saying that this is not how it works. To be damned, one must commit a particular sin that is in itself damnable. If that’s so, then it would seem that gluttony is no danger at all (all its manifestations being venial), except insofar as it softens the soul up for genuinely mortal sins. As for adultery of the heart being a mortal sin, is that certain? Just because it’s in the category of adultery doesn’t necessarily mean that it has the same gravity as physical adultery. I suspect you’re right, though, which would mean that there is no venial sin against chastity. The path of righteousness is narrow indeed.

  5. Hi, Bonaldus,

    As regards gluttony, it is a matter of temperance, as with alcohol. While drinking one drink is not grave matter for most people, drinking the one drink that puts you over the line into drunkenness is. If you are seriously overweight, then eating the cupcake your diet doesn’t allow is probably a discrete instance of grave matter. Temperance being a matter of measure, then there is a tipping point when what otherwise would be venial becomes mortal. An obese man who violates a diet and pigs out is probably committing a mortal sin. A diabetic who has no insulin who willingly buys ice cream he knows will send him into shock — that’s mortal. That one sin is probably grave matter, given its ramifications.

    I did not say that adultery in the heart has the same gravity as physical adultery. There are different degrees of gravity even among mortal sins. But the matter is grave either way. Thank you.


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