Catholic morality: theology lessons from chocolate

theology lessons from chocolate

Those who set the Church’s moral behaviours have only ever had partial control over them – and chocolate perhaps helps explain why.

Chocolate’s acceptance in the Catholic diet was clearly less the result of what theologians or canon lawyers did or said than of the decisions of ordinary clergy and laity who drank it regardless, says Australian Catholic University academic Dr Miles Pattenden.

There are lessons in that for other things that the Church would have Catholics abstain from, he says.

Chocolate has a history but, for Catholics, it also has a theology.

Long and learned treatises were written about whether it was licit to consume it – and when, writes Pattenden in a piece on History Today.

The Church was initially uncomfortable with its adherents drinking chocolate because the drink had been used as part of Aztec religious rituals. The Aztecs regarded chocolate as a gift of the gods and associated it with the human heart, and many Maya and Mixtec images of human sacrificial victims show those victims as anthropomorphic cacao pods.

Such ideas and images hardly endeared chocolate to the first friars who crossed the Atlantic to convert indigenous peoples to Christianity.

Some wondered whether it could be appropriate for Christians to drink something so intimately associated with idolatry and ritual murder.

On the other hand, some priests thought the use of chocolate in rituals could be effectively converted along with its users, and in some American indigenous communities chocolate replaced wine.

Another problem created by chocolate was how it should be treated in relation to laws of fasting and luxury, and the question of whether fasting religious ought to be allowed to drink chocolate was a matter of debate.

For more than 100 years the debate continued – was chocolate food or drink? Did it break the spirit of the laws against luxuries even if it was not technically forbidden?

theology lessons from chocolate

An Augustinian theologian came out in favour of chocolate as a fast-busting refreshment, while an Inquisition lawyer disagreed.

The Dominicans were at the forefront of the campaign to limit it and sent a representative to Rome in 1577 to seek Pope Gregory XIII’s opinions on a beverage he had neither seen nor tasted.

But eventually, in 1664, it was the Jesuits who had developed commercial interests in cacao production and distribution, and who secured a 16-page opinion from Cardinal Francesco Maria Brancaccio on the use of chocolate.

With the printing press now around 200 years old, the Jesuits immediately published the opinion, reprinting it at least four times in the next decade.

theology lessons from chocolate

In the end, none of the Church’s attempts to manage or restrict the consumption of chocolate was effective.

Canon lawyers’ squabbles, the theological opinions and moral arguments all proved academic because chocolate consumption became so popular that the Church could do little to shape the behaviour of its faithful in the matter.

Heaven forbid it confused even the holy, with the Carmelites in Madrid seeking dispensation to drink chocolate behind the walls of their convent.

Pope Innocent refused the request and it was not until almost a century later that Pope Pius VI issued a definitive ruling that clerics could drink chocolate; albeit only away from Church premises.

Yet, by then, at least three 18th-century popes, Benedict XIII, Clement XII, and Benedict XIV, had been keen chocolate drinkers.

So while for a time the Church’s attempts to manage or restrict the consumption of chocolate was effective, however, the processes surrounding its theological and canonical acceptance holds lessons for how the Church works in practice.

  • The Church takes time to incorporate new things and ideas into its worldview.
  • Those who set the Church’s rules only have partial control over them.
  • The acceptance of chocolate into the Catholic diet was less a result of theological and canonical opinions than it was of the decisions of ordinary clergy and laity who drank it.
  • Despite all the moral and legal positioning, some popes have a broader view. It is said that when asked for permission to consume chocolate Pope Gregory burst into laughter at the absurdity of the request.

Pattenden suggests there are lessons in this for other things that the Church would have Catholics abstain from.



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