The Duty to Rightly Diet

I was having a brief but spirited conversation with a friend the other day about the health care debates that the recent Supreme Court decision stirred up again.

The Right to Health?

Our conversation was about the nature of the supposed ‘right’ to health care that our U.S. bishops have been emphasizing for the last two decades. Catholic social teaching at the papal level has addressed the question of rights language vis-a-vis health care on many occasions, and the Catechism (2288-2291) offers some general language that situates health-care-rights language in a social-responsibility context: ‘Concern for the health of its citizens requires that society help in the attainment of living-conditions that allow them to grow and reach maturity: food and clothing, housing, health care, basic education, employment, and social assistance.’

But as with all questions of the application of clear ethical principles by means of prudential judgments in complex social contexts, there is much room for debate and disagreement. This is what makes the engagement of faith and real life so very interesting, giving life its hot spice! But it is also precisely the sweet-spot where Christian charity, in the midst of this necessary conversation, must shine brightest and clearest as a public witness to the world that the Church-Disagreeing is singular in its ability to seek the truth in charity. It’s really a marvelous opportunity for the laity to infest the world with Christ and render His Gospel plausible.

Acts 15 serves as our ecclesial model, and Tertullian offers us his wonderful testimony to the early Church’s rad witness:  ‘Look,’ they say, ‘how they love one another’ (for they themselves hate one another); ‘and how they are ready to die for each other’ (for they themselves are readier to kill each other).'”

Unjust Weight

One point of contention my friend and I wrassled with was the problem presented by those who do not access health care responsibly, and wind up in emergency room crisis situations that end up foisting upon everyone an unjust share in the burden of health care expenses.

While a good solution to that particular problem is beyond me, there is an issue that I have always found extremely relevant to these debates, yet largely under-proclaimed in our individual rights-obsessed culture: the grave duty to care for one’s health. In that context, the Catechism invokes the virtue of temperance: ‘The virtue of temperance disposes us to avoid every kind of excess: the abuse of food, alcohol, tobacco, or medicine. Those incur grave guilt who, by drunkenness or a love of speed, endanger their own and others’ safety on the road, at sea, or in the air.’

The Church must proclaim loudly that neglect or abuse of one’s bodily health is not protected by a privacy-of-the-body right but rejected by a socially weighted duty, and that failing to preserve health in a reasonable manner can be gravely sinful. And part of that serious sin is the unjust burden(s) my own culpable neglect places on others when my health fails. That flows from the principle of solidarity, and American Confessionals should be ringing with sins against solidarity.

Christian asceticism, with its ancient counsel to build virtue by means of frugal, disciplined habits of eating and drinking (vs. gluttony), and hard physical labor (vs. sloth) adjures us to link a healthy lifestyle with the path to holiness. In fact, St Basil the Great linked gluttony with stealing from the starving, and early Christian authors linked ascetic physical fitness with effective preparation for the rigors of martyrdom.

No Goodness, No Greatness

Ultimately, trying to address social, economic or political issues that rest on moral foundations without addressing matters of social virtue and vice is an utterly futile venture. But that’s not a new or original idea.

Reminds me of Chesterton’s pithy quip: ‘If men will not be governed by the Ten Commandments, they shall be governed by the ten thousand commandments.’

4 comments on “The Duty to Rightly Diet

  1. Tim Roach says:

    Hey Tom, Thanks, we all need a reminder against excess. I’ve never seen the word “wrassled” in print before. A youthful derivation, I suppose. Hope all is well with the family in New Orleans.

  2. oneview says:

    Yes! And here’s an article that presents how some Catholic organizations and parishes are addressing that caring for one’s health has moral, spiritual dimensions…

    “Caring for one’s health has moral, spiritual dimension, says priest”
    By Daniel Linskey
    Catholic News Service
    June 19, 2012

    WASHINGTON (CNS) — Jesuit Father Peter Clark, a bioethics professor at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, believes Catholics have a moral obligation to care for their health.

    “Catholics have a right to health care, and therefore (we) have a corresponding duty to take care of our health,” he said in a telephone interview with Catholic News Service.

    At a time when the rate of obesity among Americans is on the rise, he added that “obesity is both a sanctity-of-life issue and a question of justice.”

    A recent Gallup study found that Americans are more likely to be at an unhealthy weight than at a normal weight, and that 26 percent of Americans are considered obese.

    The trend is affecting not only health care costs, but personal well-being. Though there is no simple solution, many, like Father Clark, offer a spiritual approach.

    Tom Hafer, who is a minister with Volunteers for America, a physical therapist and the author of “Faith and Fitness,” uses ecumenical teachings to incorporate spirituality into a wellness lifestyle. To him, prayer is as vital as exercise and proper food when losing weight.

    “Prayer, or a deeper understanding of our connection to our Creator is necessary,” Hafer told CNS. “Because everything we need for sustaining health and wellness has come from our Creator. The act of exercise itself can be the conduit to a deeper prayer life.”

    Exercise can be a meditative experience, according to Hafer. He suggested reading a psalm or praying before going for a run, saying the exercise and prayer will complement each other.

    Because life and well-being are God’s gift, “exercise really is an expression of gratitude and thanksgiving,” he said. Hafer described his job as a lifestyle, not a program, because his work is not necessarily about weight loss, but about “returning to a full life.”

    One popular Catholic program, Light Weigh created by Suzanne Fowler, has seen success by asking participants to monitor their food portions. The method comes from the Catholic tradition of fasting, one that encourages religious discipline and makes weight loss the byproduct. Other traditions, such as abstaining from meat on Fridays, also have a positive impact on diet.

    Some Catholic parishes around the country are using their own programs to improve the well-being of their parishioners.

    St. Brigid Parish in Johnston, R.I., started a Health and Wellness Team Ministry to aid in weight loss. The program created by Father Robert A. Rochon, the pastor, is modeled after the successful parish nursing concept, developed in the 1980s by the Rev. Granger E. Westberg, an Illinois Lutheran minister who founded the program to provide physical, emotional and spiritual care of church members.

    Like Hafer’s ministry and Light Weigh, St. Brigid’s Health and Wellness Team takes a holistic approach with the understanding that obesity is not simply a physical problem.

    The Diocese of Davenport, Iowa, runs its own “Walking With Jesus” program. Considered a fitness challenge, the goal is to reach a certain number of steps over the course of the summer. Activities such as biking, swimming and running also are included. Participants are expected to monitor their diet both by diversifying it with fruits and vegetables and cutting back on portions.

    Its creators say the program is easy to implement even in small parishes. At the end of the summer, prizes are awarded to the participants who logged the most steps.

    In the Detroit area, St. Malachy and St. Anastasia parishes have a successful program.

    Dianne Florka, a St. Malachy parishioner, adapted a weight-loss program her family used for the parish. She told CNS, “This is a 12-week challenge that begins with nutrition and culminates in exercise and meditation. … The goal is not to lose weight at the end of 12 weeks, but to create an entire lifestyle change.”

    “Exercise and meditation always help with the weight loss,” said Florka. “If you have a good relationship in your spiritual life, you are going to want to have a good relationship with the rest of yourself. You cannot say one part of you is healthy and two parts of you are not.”

    Both Florka and Hafer acknowledged a spiritual kinship with Eastern and other religions.

    “When I was in seminary,” Hafer said, “one of the greatest gifts I had was praying with Muslims and Buddhists and Hare Krishnas and seeing how they go about their way of worship, and I discovered very quickly how ingrained the spiritual and physical is for them.”

    “I was in a very rewarding Christian yoga program,” Florka told CNS. “It kept the physical aspects of yoga, but focused the meditations on Christian imagery.”

    Hafer sees prayer as much a part of living a full life as diet and exercise.

    “I hope Insanity and P90X and other exercise programs have great success,” he said, “but my message is not that you lose 10 pounds but that you understand the deeper gift in exercise and in healthy, whole, real foods. Because you must trust the Creator in what he gave us.

    “Exercise is by far the fountain of youth, the magic pill for weight loss, and the antidepressant. We just have to use it.”

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