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People often talk about Catholic guilt, but I’d say gym guilt is at least as prevalent. I meet people all the time who feel like a moral failure if they miss a workout or, in a moment of weakness, cave in and eat carbs after 7:00 p.m. And in almost comical parody of religious devotion, the health god beckons its shamefaced disciples to run back to the gym and confess to the trainer: “That’ll be ten push-ups and ten sit-ups; now make a good act of contrition.”
Don’t get me wrong, physical health is a good thing because the human body is a good thing. The human person is a hylomorphic unity, which is just the philosophical way of saying that it’s composed of both body and soul, matter and form: The soul is the form of the body, Aristotle would say. So the body is not simply a gangly collection of disparate organs but a living human person, with a principle that accounts for its organic unity and growth. The body is not a mistake or ill-conceived tool, either. The soul does not simply make use of the body like an underpaid and underappreciated intern who goes home every night in tears. No, the definition of man includes flesh and bones.
Contrary to what most people think, the Church affirms (and her moral teaching presumes) the dignity and value of the body. Consider the way Catholics care for the dead, for example. Even after the soul’s departure, bodies are displayed, venerated, incensed, and buried with solemnity. Cremation was traditionally not permitted (and is now only with reservation) because it was considered an offense against the dignity of the body and a smack in the face to faith in the resurrection of the body.
One of the most serious threats to the medieval Church was the dualistic Cathar, or Albigensian heresy—body, bad; spirit, good. It is interesting to note that, historically, the moral consequences of dualism tend to be opposites: extreme asceticism and extreme hedonism. Both are logically defensible: If the body is contemptible and unimportant, you either punish it severely for the good of the soul, or wallow in indulgent pleasure because what you do with it doesn’t really matter. So some of the Albigensians spurned any sexual contact, venturing beyond asceticism into masochism, and advocated suicide, often by starvation, to finally free the soul from the trap of the body. The others . . . well, use your imagination (on second thought, don’t). Whatever way you slice it, their obsession with spiritual perfection masked, paradoxically, an obsession with the body.
There aren’t many card-carrying Albigensians running around today, but there is another kind of bodily obsession—a cult of the body—that is just plain unhealthy. The ideal body image shifts with culture, no doubt. The plump, pale figures of Baroque painting were archetypically beautiful and aristocratic. But what is considered ideal now—and gyms surround you with magazines, pictures, and mirrors to aid your meditation—is elusive and unrealistic. Many spend hours of precious time and heaps of precious cash for the gym, but can’t seem to find the time for Sunday worship, or spare more than a couple of bucks for the church.
It’s the combination of values that is puzzling: a quasi-religious zeal to eliminate soda, salt, and saturated fat on the one hand, and the toleration—nay, promotion—of grave offenses against human dignity and health on the other. When premarital sex, homosexuality, contraception, and abortion are encouraged in health class, isn’t Michael Bloomberg’s crusade against sugary drinks a bit odd? As the Church is backed into a corner because of its teaching on sexuality, and its institutions face increasing pressure to compromise and cooperate with abortion, gay marriage, and contraception, and after the city bans religious groups from using public property, lawmakers are getting moralistic about food. It’s a good thing if people eat less fat and sugar, to be sure, but let’s put first things first.
The alternative to bodily obsession is an integrated view of human existence, a concern for body and soul in due proportion, in which appetites are in harmony with right reason, and pleasure is not disdained but enjoyed properly (“insensibility” is also a vice, St. Thomas points out). For millennia, spiritual writers have remarked that corporal mortification, such as fasting, purifies the soul. Ordering one appetite goes a long way in ordering another. But it’s a sign of sickness when food and fitness become a rival religion.
Nothing lasts forever . . . except your soul: Human bodies invariably break down in a process that leads inexorably to death. Even the Olympic athlete eventually succumbs. “Thou know’st ‘tis common; all that lives must die, Passing through nature to eternity,” Gertrude says to the grieving Hamlet. But human reason can demonstrate that the rational soul is immortal, and Christians hold in the certainty of faith that there will be a resurrection and that the soul will be happily reunited with an incorruptible body.
This doesn’t mean that we should all aim for clogged arteries. A properly Christian anthropology values the body and treats it well. But we’re put on earth to prepare for heaven. That there are health problems nationally no one can deny. Doctors are right to exhort patients to eat well and exercise, and the state should take proper measures to promote our health and safety. But even if we end up having to drink soda out of a sippy cup, we may not be a healthier society.
What distinguishes true religion from false is that true religion binds one to Another, whereas false religion binds one to the self, even when there are taboos, fetishes, idols, and (almost literally) forbidden fruit. The healthy polis is one where both soul and body are able to flourish, and the healthy heart is the Christ-like heart, regardless of how well it holds up on a treadmill.
Sebastian White, O.P., is a Dominican friar of the Province of St. Joseph and a summer fellow at First Things. He is studying for the priesthood.
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