Health and Holiness

November 21, 2014

“The trouble with always trying to preserve the health of the body is that it is so difficult to do without destroying the health of the mind.” – G.K. Chesterton

It is no secret that this blog celebrates some unhealthy things, like beer and pipe smoking. And inevitably, whenever I write a post on the joys of bacon or post a meme on the Facebook page featuring a smoker, I am scolded for promoting something that is potentially harmful to health. Smoking is risky and bacon is bad for you, I am told, and our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, these things are immoral and no one should enjoy them.

Because this criticism is so common, I thought it would be worth providing my reasons for promoting things that could be deemed unhealthy.

Is being unhealthy immoral?

In modern society, health is sacrosanct, and there is almost no sin greater than potentially harming your body. It is a new form of pharisaism in which things like abortion and promiscuity are praised as moral goods, but cigarette smoking is condemned as a grave evil.

One reason I believe this is the case is that our culture is largely materialistic, rejecting any notions of transcendent spiritual realities or absolute truths. As a society, we have rejected a universal moral law, and yet human beings remain moral creatures in need of moral strictures. Therefore, health has become the new summum bonum, and unhealthiness the new mortal sin.

The vilification of all things unhealthy has largely infiltrated Christianity too, with the argument that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit used to condemn anything and everything that might be deemed harmful to the body.

So where do I stand on this issue? If it isn’t clear by now, I think the whole equation of health and morality is simply wrong. Here’s why.

First, our bodies are temporary and are meant to be used, not worshiped Countless saints were extremely hard on their bodies, disciplining them rigorously with fasting and penance. Even St. Paul said, “I beat my body and subdue it.” St. Francis famously referred to his body as “brother ass,” wearing it out with fasts and mortifications.

These ascetical practices of the saints horrify the modern advocates of health, and in fact, I have seen Catholics go to great lengths to dismiss them as ignorant and misguided. But the fact remains that the saints had little use for their bodies, and in many ways viewed them as disposable. St. John Vianney sums up the attitude of the saints well, “Our body is a vessel of corruption; it is meant for death and for the worms, nothing more!”

How can we reconcile this attitude with the teaching that our bodies are holy? It’s pretty simple. If you read 1 Corinthians 15 (the whole chapter is worth reading), St. Paul teaches that our present physical bodies are essentially worthless, doomed to death and corruption by the curse. In the resurrection of the dead, however, we will receive new and glorified bodies, made after the incorruptible immortality of Christ. What these glorified, spiritual bodies will be like is difficult to tell—but we know they will be holy, beautiful, and eternal.

The saints knew this theology well, and so they didn’t take their earthly bodies that seriously. They used them and even abused them to a degree, knowing that they were entirely temporary and would be replaced with an upgraded model, so to speak. Now, obviously, asceticism and smoking are two different things, and I do not mean to equate them. My point is that, like the saints, we shouldn’t take our present bodies too seriously, pampering them or treating them as somehow of the same value as our souls. Our eternal souls are infinitely more valuable than these temporary bodies. Whether you’re a triathlete or a chain smoker, your present body is going to rot and return to the dust—but your soul will live forever.

Second, being unhealthy is essentially impossible to avoid. The problem with the modern health advocates is that wield the weapon of health selectively, condemning things they don’t like, such as smoking or drinking, while turning a blind eye to other unhealthy aspects of modern life. Those who vehemently condemn cigarettes see no moral problem with eating cheeseburgers, consuming high quantities of refined sugar, eating preservative-laden processed foods, drinking soda, breathing polluted air, using shampoo loaded with harmful chemicals, and the list goes on.

All of those things are dangerous to our health, and almost all of them escape the condemnation of the health advocates. If one were to be perfectly consistent, one would do nothing but live in a paralyzed fear of damaging one’s health. I admit there are certainly those who are consistent (my wife and I used to read the popular blog of a woman who was), but their fixation on healthiness borders on a highly unhealthy Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, in which everything is suspect and dangerous and to be feared.

But what is health anyway? Even if you were to make health your goal, health is a moving target and almost no one knows what it really is. If you ask one person, it’s using all natural and organic products. Another will say it involves eating a diet high in protein rich meat, but without dairy or grains. If you ask another person, it involves eating only plants and grains. One person says raw milk is best, another claims it is a deadly poison loaded with bacteria. The literally hundreds of specialized diets in existence, many of them contradicting each other, are enough to make one insane. Healthiness cannot be intrinsically moral because no one knows what it is.

The Heart of the Matter

Finally, Jesus makes it quite clear that morality comes from the heart. A cigarette smoker who loves God and neighbor and who lives a full sacramental life has a far better chance of heaven than one who eats all organic whole foods but who has rebelled against the law of God, embracing the corrupt values of this world.

The Pharisees of Jesus’ day strictly obeyed the Mosaic law on food. There was nothing wrong with their observance of this law. But the problem was, the Pharisees began to equate eating a certain diet with internal holiness. Jesus roundly condemned this idea.

“And he called the people to him and said to them, ‘Hear and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person.'”

The Pharisees were angered by this teaching. To them, it was inconceivable that one could both be holy and eat an unclean food like pork. Bacon? Blasphemy! Yet the words of Jesus were clear—what we eat or drink cannot be intrinsically immoral. As St. Paul teaches, “To the pure, all things are pure.”

Virtue is the key

If you’ve read what I have written thus far, you may think I am advocating carelessness and recklessness when it comes to health. I truly am not. I am simply trying to counteract what I believe to be an unhealthy fixation on the health and fitness of our temporal bodies. So what’s the solution? How should we as Catholics treat unhealthy things?

The answer is simple: We should enjoy them virtuously. By virtuous enjoyment, I mean we should exercise both prudence and temperance. We must be prudent with our health in the sense that almost all of us have obligations to others. As a husband and father, it is not prudent for me to chain smoke three packs a day or binge drink every night. Doing so would unquestionably destroy my health, and I would not be able to care for my family as I ought to. A cloistered monk, on the other hand, does not have such obligations, and so he may be able to fast more rigorously and be harder on his body than a layman with a family.

Similarly, we must be temperate. Intemperance is almost always harmful, whether that involves fatty foods like potato chips, tobacco, or even using the internet or watching TV. Moderation in all things should be our rule. We are called to enjoy things without loving them, to use things without growing attached to them. The virtue of temperance helps us keep all things—even unhealthy things—in their proper place. Above all, we should give thanks to God, our loving Father, who “gives us all things richly to enjoy.”

Sam Guzman


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Reader Interactions


    • Eileen Marie says

      I agree, Sasha! I know people that died young from cancer and other diseases. They didn’t smoke, drink, overeat, etc. People seem to think if they don’t do these things, they won’t get cancer and heart disease and I guess they think they won’t die either!

  1. Anonymous says

    Hi- I would like to request prayers for the victims of rape and abuse by members of the Catholic Church. Many of them were children when they were attacked or abused. This is also an ongoing crisis, with new victims each year, worldwide. I will remember them and their stories forever, but for the healing to truly take place, it will take the voices and efforts of many.

    To paraphrase a poem by an Indian schoolgirl, “Too many Catholics, in too many countries, speak the same language– of silence.” Thank you.

  2. GiannaT says

    erm…hmm. Is it just our heavenly post resurrected bodies that we’re supposed to respect? I mean, I know that the soul is the most important part of the human person. Not arguing against that at all. In that light, the mortifications/fasts make sense- they point to a higher purpose. But aren’t we also called to respect our bodies? I mean, the church teaches against mutilation, eating disorders, etc.

    I like bacon. I’ve even smoked a pipe in my day (unladylike as that may be). I like how you talk about virtue at the end, and I agree, that’s how it ought to be approached. We need to look at whether or not a certain behavior is harmful or helpful to our souls first and foremost. I just wanted to say that I think we need to give a certain amount of respect to our bodies here on earth too- something I think you agree with, just clarifying.

    Just out of curiosity- what’s your opinion on Theology of the Body? Have you ever given it a read? This subject seems to pertain to it.

    • rmvz says

      I agree with the above poster, and would like to add the idea that jpii and theology of the body express, and the absolute truth that the catechism of the Catholic church states, that our essence as humans is both body and soul, and that the two are unified. I don’t deny that there are saints who practiced physical mortification and got irritated with the fact that “I do what I do not want to do” or “the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak”, but I do not think that we can say or bodies are meant to be “used,” or that they are worthless, because it is unified with our souls (the protestant notion that we are merely souls carried around in our bodies is not the church’s teaching). Original sin causes disharmony between the two but does not dissolve the unity. Also, our resurrected flesh is not entirely new, but it is or current bodies raised up and glorified, our bodies perfected.

      I do agree with your points about Culture and virtue, (I like meat and sugar and alcohol a lot and do not think they’re immoral (drink to the point of hilarity! -st Augustine)) but I think the philosophy of the body/humanity is not entirely in line with church teaching. Sorry this was so long!

  3. Gladys H. Mariani says

    Excellent points! Additionally, what the supposedly scientific studies claim is unhealthy today, within 5, 10, or 30 years from today is declared healthy and necessary for optimal bodily function.

  4. Appian says

    “A healthy mind in a healthy body.”
    – Roman Poet, Juvenal

    Brothers, if I can, I would persuade you. This article has many truths in it, but it errs in many places, and makes many wrong conclusions. My observation is that people like to make excuses for themselves and then dress those excuses up. Vice in drag; that’s all it is. I smoke and drink intermittently. The drinking isn’t so much a problem. But the addiction to tobacco is; it’s detrimental to my health, and is an abrogation of my will. I’m not going to attempt to convince anyone that it’s okay, or that it is not what it patently is: self-harm. Sts. Anthony of Padua and Francis of Assisi, at the end of their young lives, they lamented their neglect. Francis said something to the effect of,” I should have been better to brother ass (his body).” That’s the hindsight of a saint.

    You see all these corpulent theologians, priests, seminarians, religious, running around. Everyone loves the fat priest. Gluttony is STILL a MORTAL SIN. It’s still grievous matter. And Chesterton can say all he likes about degrading the mind, which does not follow at all, but he will probably never become a saint because of his gourmandizing ways. To put the stewardship of the body at odds with the stewardship of the soul is foolishness.

    Smoking is not included as a sin in the catechism of the Catholic Church. But it also isn’t listed as a virtue. The reductio of virtually every point made in this article is complete absurd. “It’s virtually impossible to NOT be unhealthy… so go ahead and destroy the gift of health with pleasure. Take more risks.” That’s classic. Great Catholic logic there…. NOT!!! ” If you take care of yourself, and encourage others to take their health seriously… you’re a modernist idolater.” Oh and,” Our bodies are to be used, so lets just use abuse the shit out of them, and take unnecessary healthy risks, because they’re going to break anyway and we’re getting new ones in the resurrection.” Then he says,” Morality comes from the heart.” Meaning of course,” As long as I destroy and neglect my health, and fail to steward the gift of life… with a spirit of thanksgiving… then it’s okay.”

    Let me be clear: There is nothing manly or “gentlemanly” about this. This is little else than making excuses for the things which constitute an antiquated, infantile mental image of what a man is: pipe in mouth, tweed jack, bacon in the skillet, and a tumbler of scotch in hand… which was all done in ignorance. They did not know. THE BODY IS YOUR SOUL’S POST! It is your post, Christian! You may not do it unnecessary harm, and the only times that you may are when it is for the better health of the body, i.e. surgery… or for some greater benefit to the soul, i.e. pious flagellation. This is the same principle that makes euthanasia and suicide illicit.

    The person who wrote this is no doubt very devout and very good, and very intelligent. But this does not pass. It seems they have never changed their father’s diaper because he’s so doped up on pain meds that he can’t function. He’s never watched lung cancer that his father fought for four years spread to his bones and kill him in a single month. He’s never watched his father desperately subject himself to palliative care for four years, hoping that he could beat a battle he’d already lost. He’s never watched his little children watch their grandfather die an undignified, messy death. I have.

    This person has never watched their spouse neglect their health, and then develop heart problems, and then develop diabetes, and then develop one malady after another, until their lives are consumed with maladies… and their lives are a living hell, and they become a drain of their families and society. I’ve seen it happen hundreds of times, as a fire medic.

    This person has clearly never experienced the thrill of fulfilling a physical goal… knowing it is but dust…, and experienced the virtuous effects of self-discipline, fortitude, and temperance… and the getting of grit. They don’t know the refining effect of saying “no” when they have the liberty to say “yes” and indulge, because they want to gain every advantage, and govern themselves so that they may be governed by God.

    Catholic men should not be smarmy, noodle armed, effeminate, soft-bodied, gourmands who like playing ‘1890s’ with their dandy friends. We should stand out as specimens of what God intended us to be as men, in the fullness of what He has made us. This includes the body. St. Thomas Aquinas… St. Louis the King had to cut out a piece of the royal table just so he could interlocute with the others who dined at the king’s table. Everybody likes Chesterton, until they see his stomach hanging over his private. Everyone loves the Pope, until they see his horribly stained teeth and learn he has only one lung. It jolts us, it halts us… and makes us consider. Why? Because such self-harm is against nature.

    “He who reigns within himself and rules passions, desires, and fears is more than a king.” -John Milton, Paradise Regained

    • Ryan says

      Might I remind you that both prudence and temperance were emphasized in the above article. Self destruction is not being supported by Mr. Guzman.

  5. Marie B says

    Moderation in All things. My Mother in law (God rest her good soul) use to say it every day to remind us to be moderate in all things we do every day. She also said not to kill our own body which is under the commandment. Thou shalt not kill. Not to kill someone else body is popular one we hear the difination of that commandment! Take care of our own body in moderation in all things we do to it.

  6. Emily says

    I’m sorry, but I will never see smoking in any form as a good thing, ever. As the recipient of a lung transplant, I know all to well what it feels like to not be able to breathe, and when I see people PURPOSEFULLY ruining their lungs….I want to scream. Also, secondhand smoke, unlike eating what you want, affects other people directly around you. If I eat a Big Mac, it just affects me. So not only is smoking incredibly detrimental to your own health, but it also affects other people around you.


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