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The Ethics of Eating: Why Eating is a Moral Act

By Jim Ennis


 
My interactions with rural pastors and lay leaders around the country often spur me to write about the ethics of eating and to explain why eating is a moral act. Two recent events compel me to do so.
 
During a recent rural ministry course taught in partnership with a diocesan seminary, I faced a question by one of the seminarians who skeptically asked why the Church had “bought into the fad of the food movement.” His assumption was that the Church had little to say about the ethics of food, and the insinuation is that the Church should stick to its primary mission, the salvation of souls (or at least a course on rural ministry should stick to spiritual concerns). There were several students nodding their heads in agreement. 
 
Then there was the time I came across an article in the respected journal National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly entitled, Christians and the New Food Movement. In this article (Fall 2011 issue), the author made a questionable argument about why Christians should be on their guard against the infiltrators of the new food movement who are seeking to co-opt the Christian faith. The author even accused National Catholic Rural Life Conference of abandoning its roots of evangelism and religious education by getting involved in agricultural and environmental concerns as if the two—the spiritual and secular—should not intertwine.
 
What these two examples have in common is a misunderstanding of the role of the faith in the world.  This misunderstanding manifests itself in various ways. For some, faith is a personal matter and not to be mixed with worldly matters. Faith should be reserved for the pews in a house of worship. For others the notion of separation of Church and State means Christians have no business imposing their faith views or values in secular affairs, especially in public policy debates. Still others think the Church solely has expertise in spiritual matters, but not in secular matters. Therefore the Church should not be involved in secular debates. Our lives are so compartmentalized that our spiritual and secular lives are like silos separated to prevent contamination. 
 
But the Church views the Christian’s calling very differently and challenges this false mindset, developing a body of doctrine—social teaching—that seeks to proclaim the Gospel and make it present in today’s society. The Church is engaged in the matters of this world and provides Christians guidance on how to contribute to the common good in society. This body of doctrine is both a tremendous gift and a tremendous responsibility for Christians. We are called to be salt and light in the world and committed to contributing to the common good within society. This responsibility includes concerns surrounding food.
 
We believe food is unique. Food sustains life itself; it is not just another product. Providing food for all is a Gospel imperative, not just another policy choice.  Eating is a moral act because it is a human act, and human acts can be morally evaluated.  But food and agriculture production are abstract concepts for many of us. For most Catholics—and our nation in general—agriculture is a distant reality, little seen and less understood.  For most of us food comes from the grocery store or fast food restaurant. We have become disconnected from how our food is produced. This disconnection results in putting trust in a food system that provides food for us. But this fact does not negate our responsibility as Christians to consider some important ethical questions: How can hunger in the human family be overcome? How can we ensure a safe, affordable, and sustainable food supply? How can we ensure that farmworkers and owners of small farms, in the Unites States and around the world, live and work with dignity? How can land, water, and other elements of God’s creation be preserved, protected, and used well in the service of the common good? How can rural communities in our country and around the world survive and thrive? 
 
Almost ten years ago, the Catholic Bishops of the United States reflected on these ethical questions and wrote a letter to Catholics in the United States to challenge our lack of awareness of food, farming and farmworker related issues through the lens of Catholic social doctrine.  Food and agriculture are inextricably linked and the increasing concentration at every level of agriculture and growing globalization mean that fewer people are making decisions that affect far more people than at any time in history. Because of the corrupting influence of injustice - that is, of sin - the Church cannot remain indifferent to food and agriculture matters. 
 
As Christians we all have a role to play in contributing to the common good in our society. As eaters and citizens we have the power to make our voices heard in our grocery stores and local communities and to our local government representatives.  Food and agriculture issues are not irrelevant to our faith. Our faith becomes irrelevant to a lost and needy world when we ignore the ethical questions of our time.
 
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2012 issue of Catholic Rural Life.
 


Comments


Re: Jack Daniel | Sunday, December 09, 2012

Jack, I'd like to address your two points. 1. You are correct that modern technology has contributed to a dramatic rise in agricultural production in the past century, However, we are beginning to see the disastrous results of the uninhibited use of that technology on our land. Topsoil has eroded at an alarming rate, the earth has been stripped of vital nutrients and has been poisoned with the irresponsible use of chemicals. There are a hundred other reasons why these farming practices are unsustainable and indeed harmful. We are at a point when new technology can no longer keep production high. Also, you are absolutely wrong about water usage. A lot of those desert areas are being irrigated for food production and a lot of states are already feeling these affects. The price of water has skyrocketed in many areas and there is no relief in sight. I'm not sure if you're joking or not about the ice caps. But in case you're not, they are melting into the ocean which means more salt water.

2. I think you're completely misunderstanding Jim's argument. Food is not a moral issue in the sense you're implying. It's a moral issue because it involves people and land usage. To mistreat people and land is indeed sinful. Since most modern food production involves both of those, we do have a responsibility to become informed about our food. Jim is not saying it is sinful to eat fast food because of some misplaced spirituality about food. He's simply saying, as consumers, we ought to be aware of what we are consuming.
RE: Why eating is a moral act Jack | Friday, August 03, 2012

In your article titled "The ethics of Eating: Why eating is a moral act" you subtly assert that because there is a disconnect in the US from the producers and consumers, that we do not use "land, water, and other elements of God's creation" in a manner that can be "preserved, protected and used well in the service of the common good". Furthermore, you go on to state that "The Church is engaged in the matters of this world and provides Christians guidance on how to contribute to the common good in society." to justify buying into the food movement and supporting the notion that somehow fast food or anything that contradicts the current so-called "organic/locally grown", is sinful.
Both notions are absolutely out of line, and by using the Church as a veil to justify a "common good" cause, you are violating a very stern Second Commandment.
The problem with the first assertion that we are not "ensuring a safe, affordable, sustainable food supply" and "protecting and preserving food and the resources within", is abject nonsense! Technology that has developed here in the US, in form of pesticides, genetically modified foods, fertilizers and irrigation systems has permitted this country to be food-independent since the the 1940's. What is non-preservable about the current scenario? I'll remind you that there are still several farms in the US that do not use irrigation for certain crops including corn, wheat, and other grass family crops. Last I checked, global warming hysteria was growing because ice-caps were melting. Gee, don't you think if we really needed water that badly we could tap into such an enormous source of fresh water? Until the California, Nevada, New Mexico and Arizona deserts are cultivated your argument is completely absurd.
The reason your second assertion is completely wrong is because Christ himself said "It's not what goes into your mouth that defiles you; you are defiled by the words that come out of your mouth." Mt 15:11. To involve a governing body, justified by your so-called morality of eating using the Church as a veil to force an individual to eat a certain way and more, to put pressure on the side of invoking law for this purpose is absolutely immoral. If it were not left up to us to decide how we should eat, i don't think the above mentioned verse would have made it into the bible.

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