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Respect Your Health, But Reject “The Cult of the Body”

Respect Your Health, But Reject “The Cult of the Body” January 4, 2015

 

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The beginning of the New Year always seems to be the perfect time to start taking better care of our physical health – or to at least resolve that we’ll try.

Whether by consciously choosing more nutritious and lower calorie foods, or by becoming more physically active, or by eliminating toxins such as nicotine, or by becoming more mindful of our body’s need to regularly rest and re-charge, we understand that the road to better health usually entails making minor, and sometimes major, adjustments in our lifestyle.

We’ve grown accustomed to turning to physical fitness and diet gurus, and their latest offerings in the bookstores or on-line, as a way to help us to quickly and dramatically change course, especially if our concern is weight loss.

Certainly, that’s a decent place to start.

About the last place you’d expect to find physical health advice is, perhaps, from the writings of the Church.

But the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) is nothing if not life affirming and comprehensive.

The Church recognizes and encourages good health practices, while simultaneously observing and pointing out some of the hazards to which, because our very nature, we seem inevitably drawn.

Starting with the obvious, the CCC (2288) declares that:

Life and physical health are precious gifts entrusted to us by God. We must take reasonable care of them, taking into account the needs of others and the common good.

Notice that we, as a society – as brothers and sisters commanded to love one another as we love ourselves – are called to assist in and promote the health and welfare of those around us.

CCC 2288 offers this:

Concern for the health of its citizens requires that society help in the attainment of living-conditions that allow them to grow and reach maturity: food and clothing, housing, health care, basic education, employment, and social assistance.*

These are concrete requirements, ones which involve an active commitment to positive actions in order to protect, heal, and preserve the physical body – our own and those of others.

The CCC then turns to those things which negatively impact our health, explicitly listing several major areas of concern that we’d best avoid if we seek to maximize our physical, as well as our moral, well-being.

CCC 2290 observes that the virtue of temperance disposes us to

avoid every kind of excess: the abuse of food, alcohol, tobacco, or medicine. Those incur grave guilt who, by drunkenness or a love of speed, endanger their own and others’ safety on the road, at sea, or in the air (emphasis added).

Further, CCC 2291 provides that

The use of drugs inflicts very grave damage on human health and life. Their use, except on strictly therapeutic grounds, is a grave offense.

So again, avoiding illicit drugs, over-eating, the excessive use of alcohol, and even excessive speed(!), are all things of which we need to be mindful.

So far so good.

Certainly, any reasonably healthy person likely embraces all or most of these already.

But there’s more.

And it’s here where the Church’s teachings on the physical begin to simultaneously draw us into a spiritual realm (CCC 2289):

If morality requires respect for the life of the body, it does not make it an absolute value. It rejects a neo-pagan notion that tends to promote the cult of the body, to sacrifice everything for its sake, to idolize physical perfection and success at sports.

As Elizabeth Scalia more deeply explored in her book Strange Gods: Unmasking the Idols in Everyday Life, just about any everyday activity that we undertake can easily replace God as the center of our lives.

We quickly fall prey to our overwhelming wants, desires, needs, and worries.

These often become our idols. These all too often become our false gods.

It’s easy to see how a never-ending, obsessive pursuit of physical health – or any human endeavor for that matter – numbs us to the true things that we may most desperately need.

Our passionate, yet false, pursuits blind us to the very hole in our hearts.

The 17th century philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal (in his Pensees) put this way:

What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself. God alone is man’s true good.

The primal, obsessive pursuit of perfect health can obstruct our spiritual growth because it commands our full attention ever inward, never upward. We push out the infinite God – the one true good – and exchange Him for a finite, temporal, decaying, physical need.

And, as this Catechism section ultimately concludes, left unchecked, our attention turned solely to the body and perfect health will make us indifferent – or even destructive – to those around us: for any physical activity that inherently prefers “the strong over the weak” will likely lead to a “perversion of human relationships.” (CCC 2289).

A turning away from God, the pursuit of idols, engaging in neo-pagan activities, and encouraging the perversion of human relationships . . . and you thought you were just making a simple New Year’s resolution!

True, yes: our bodies are our temples, as 1 Corinthians 6 urges.

And one way that we honor God, and His creation, is by becoming more knowledgeable and discerning about our physical requirements, abilities, needs, and concerns, thereby taking reasonable care to preserve and protect our bodies for as many years as we are allotted.

Reasonable care. Not obsessive care.

The attainment of perfect health is not an absolute value, in the way that God can and should be.

So reject the cult of the body.

And don’t obsess over your physical well-being.

It’s just not healthy.

Peace

_______

* We will save for another day the topic of how we can or should attain those goals. Suffice it to say that the attainment of those goals is an unambiguous necessity.

Photo Credit: Here (Renjith R Krishnan)

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