Catechism, Inquisition – and Chocolate!

The Catechism can evoke strong feelings from many Catholics. Bill Lindsey responded to my recent post on the subject with a reflection of his own, primarily on the folly and error of claiming to know and follow “all” Catholic teaching. He also covers the well known path of discussing the many changes in Catholic teaching – but includes many changes that are not so well-known:


Here are some extracts:

The claim of many self-professed “orthodox” Catholics nowadays that they have the corner on dogmatic truth and the practice of the spiritual life is astonishingly self-righteous.  And like all self-righteousness, it’s woefully oblivious of the manifold ways in which all of us fall short, both in what we know and what we do, in our lives of faith.

It’s absolutely impossible to be informed to the hilt about what the church teaches, and to follow every rubric to perfection.  As Jesus himself teaches over and over in the gospels, the point of the spiritual life is not rubristic perfection at all.  It’s our disposition of openness to God, our willingness to be led where we do not intend to go.

Which depends on our recognition that we do not know the way.  That we do not and cannot see clearly.  That our vision is limited by imperfection and sin.

That we stand in radical need of grace, and of divine guidance.  Always.

The claim of contemporary “orthodox” Catholics that they have all the answers—somewhere, in some answer book, in the catechism—re: what the church teaches is surprising and ill-informed from another standpoint as well.  This claim lacks any strong historical awareness of the complexity and diversity of a rich tradition that spans two millennia and a rainbow of different cultures.

The church teaches, and has taught in the past, many interesting things.  It has taught that women who have borne children need to come to the church for ritual purification after having given birth.  I know of at least one scrupulous American Catholic woman who continued that practice right up to the middle of the 20th century, though it had long since fallen out of use in most parts of the Catholic church by then.

The church has alternately condemned and then permitted usury.  It once accepted slavery, and then changed its mind about that longstanding (and biblically sanctioned) social practice.

The Vatican forbade inoculation against various infections as a violation of natural law when this medical procedure was first discovered.  It long stood against Copernicus and his recognition that the earth revolved around the sun—again, because the scriptures do not assume a heliocentric worldview.

The consumption of chocolate by women was forbidden by the church….

Chocolate, forbidden?

This was new to me, so I asked for more information. This was Bill’s reply>

One (among many) scholarly sources you may want to consult re: the church’s surprisingly protracted concerns about consumption of chocolate is Chocolate: History, Culture, and Heritage, ed. Louis E. Grivetti and Howard Yana-Shapiro (Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, 2009).

Especially illuminating in this book is the chapter entitled “Chocolate and Sinful Behaviors: Inquisition Testimonies,” by Beatriz Cabezon, Patricia Barriga, and Louis Evan Grivetti. This essay studies the Inquisition’s involvement in inquiring into the moral feasibility of chocolate consumption by Christians.

Theological debates about the use of chocolate were heated, believe it or not, through the 17th and into the 18th century. It’s not entirely clear what the concern with chocolate was.

Part of the problem may have been that it was associated in the mind of some church officials with Aztec worship, and so it had a ritual connotation from the beginning, when it was introduced to Europeans. It was also reputed to be an aphrodisiac, and this is clearly one reason attempts were made to limit its consumption by women.

Both the “pagan” connotations and the aphrodisiac connections also spurred beliefs that chocolate was favored and used by witches. When nuns began to produce chocolate confections and chocolate for drinking, there were charges that convents engaged in such activities were particularly louche–that if religious women got their hands on the stuff, all hell broke loose.

Hard to imagine now, isn’t it, that people of faith could become so exercised about a foodstuff we now take for granted as healthy, good, something without moral connotations at all.

But that’s the point, I think, as we look back. Much that we now take for granted was once not taken for granted and/or viewed very differently than we now view these matters.

Which suggests some of our most fiercely held beliefs may eventually be regarded as equally peculiar and eccentric by believers down the road.

Thanks, Bill.


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