Fat Thursday

Is it possible for an obese person to fast? Well, of course it is, you say. And yet, if this person regularly eats more than the norm, and if fasting is taking less than the norm, then isn’t it necessary for the obese person to go on a diet first, and then work out his fast relative to that?

There is a general class of such questions that arise in an Aristotelian world of “the mean” – which is the correct and sensible ethical world – where we wonder how someone could possibly succeed in deliberately taking less, if as a rule he’s taking more. Doesn’t he have to get back to the mean first?

I want to say there’s something prima facie absurd in an obese person’s wondering, “What food shall I give up in Lent?” What about, to start, all excess food?

It’s like a thief wondering how much he’ll give to charity. Or like a Catholic who neglects to attend Sunday Mass wondering what pious practice he might adopt.

My colleague Jay Richards in his excellent book, Eat, Fast, Feast, points out that many Americans every day enjoy a meal that until relatively recently would have been regarded as a special dish for a feast day. (Likewise, breads, cakes, and desserts.) Most cultures around the world are still highly austere by our standards – rice every day and just maybe a little meat once a week.

The change for us took place within living memory – my mom as a girl, the child of Polish peasants, was tasked with plucking the chicken taken from the backyard coop for Sunday dinner. Early Christians fasted twice a week on top of this kind of austerity. Fishermen who haul nets all night and mend them by day, you can guess, are pretty lean. Newman pointed out that Our Lord evidently regarded a small fish and a piece of bread roasted over charcoals as a fine meal. (John 21:9)

If you want to know how much you ought to weigh for health and fitness, the life insurance actuaries can give you an objective and incontestable answer, as can your doctor.  Yes, there is a range, but this is not something up in the air.  Who can doubt that, if we were machines, we would be “programmed” to take in food to maintain our weight within that range?

Cartesian ghosts in machines, once they knew the number, would rationally and invariably do so as well – which is to say, that our marked divergence stems from something irrational within us, a manifestation perhaps of “a disordered desire for food.”   That is Aquinas’ definition of “gluttony,” which, you will recall, was considered as a deep-rooted tendency within us, not a light thing but one of the seven “capital vices” (the correct term, not “deadly sins”).


Or do you suppose a nation that clearly struggles with lust, anger, and covetousness has no problems with gluttony?  Is excessive drinking a sin because it attacks irrationality, but excessive eating not a sin although it is irrational?

Are you sure you aren’t giving in to “our bodies our selves” if you make light of obesity? Does our notorious individualism reach here as well? The cardinal virtue of moderation, Aquinas says, is an expression of the natural law, and therefore it is a matter of the common good. (See Aquinas’ often neglected discussion, “Whether all acts of virtue are prescribed by the natural law?”) By “common good” here, understand any good that helps our neighbors also.  It obviously contributes to the common good if you can see your children longer, you require fewer medical expenses, and you can work harder and longer.

Imagine, then, maintaining a healthy weight simply as a witness against the deeply mistaken view, growing in adherents, that a common good is what an authority may compel. Did you notice that, despite the strong relationship between obesity and COVID mortality, public health authorities did not adopt the theme that citizens might use the months of the pandemic to lose weight?

Maybe that gift of God to you which is your body is not a gift solely for your enjoyment – or those, too, with whom you enter into contractual exchanges with it. (Call it, “the connection between libertarianism and libertinism.”)   The important truth of Catholic Social Doctrine, that private possession is for common good, surely holds analogously to this quasi-possession, the body.  If it has any relevance for the body at all, surely moderation is part of it.

The “body positive” movement – pride in obesity, surrendering the struggle and turning an objective difficulty into an occasion of self-affirmation – is just what one would expect in our culture. And can we be sure that our own complacency about obesity doesn’t contribute to our culture’s rejection elsewhere of nature as providing a standard for other, even more important matters involving the body?

To be clear, I am not saying that an overweight person (I except genuine medical or psychological conditions) should not “give up something” for Lent, but rather he should at the same time attend to the far deeper problem of his excessive eating and excessive weight. The hypocrisy of the Pharisees, which Our Lord denounced, involved both fraud (seeming one way but being another) and disproportion (straining a gnat but swallowing a camel).  During Lent, let’s avoid both hypocrisies: a point that extends to almsgiving and prayer just as well.

I’ve heard pastors say a hundred times that fasting in Lent is not dieting. True, but do these same pastors take care to preach against gluttony? Surely nothing should be said to discourage the faithful from dieting, if they need to diet. Dieting is charity: in order to have a better appearance, to please my spouse; to care for this amazing gift of the Creator, which is my body; to spend more years with my children; to be less of a burden on others – if those intentions and the necessary asceticism are for the glory of God.


*Image: Portrait of a Stout Man (possibly Robert de Masmines) by Robert Campin, c. 1425 [Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid] 

You may also enjoy:

Pangur Bán’s The Way of Renunciation

Ashley E. McGuire’s March on, Fellow Catholics

Michael Pakaluk, an Aristotle scholar and Ordinarius of the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas, is a professor in the Busch School of Business at the Catholic University of America. He lives in Hyattsville, MD with his wife Catherine, also a professor at the Busch School, and their eight children. His acclaimed book on the Gospel of Mark is The Memoirs of St Peter. His most recent book, Mary's Voice in the Gospel of John: A New Translation with Commentary, is now available. His new book, Be Good Bankers: The Divine Economy in the Gospel of Matthew, is forthcoming from Regnery Gateway in the spring. Prof. Pakaluk was appointed to the Pontifical Academy of St Thomas Aquinas by Pope Benedict XVI. You can follow him on X, @michael_pakaluk