Chocoholic Catholics: A Match Made in Heaven or a Sinful Union?

As European explorers trekked on journeys beyond the confines of their continent and encountered diverse climates, people, and cultures, they were exposed to a variety of goods and foods for the first time. Integrating aspects of the so-called “New World” cultures and practices into European norms proved challenging for both explorers and the European institutions that were exposed to the new goods upon the explorers’ returns. One institution, the Catholic Church, attempted to incorporate rules about chocolate, one of the most popular food additions from the new colonies, into its canon. However, tensions arose during the church’s attempts to control its followers’ relationships to the food. The consumption of chocolate by devout Catholics remains as controversial, and at times contradictory, today as it was to Catholics in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries when they first encountered the treat.

White Catholics living in both Europe and Mesoamerica in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries readily embraced the native Mesoamerican’s love of chocolate consumption, and chocolate came to be a significant part of their lives in a relatively short period of time. In South America, Jesuit missionaries and laypeople eagerly adopted the native population’s chocolate drink. Upper-class women of European descent living in South America in the seventeenth century “claimed to suffer from such weak stomachs that they were unable to get through a prayer mass… without taking a jícara of very hot chocolate… to fortify themselves” (Coe 181). Despite not having been familiar with the drink a century earlier, these white settlers in Mesoamerica became so attached to chocolate that they were accused of murdering a bishop who tried to ban chocolate during mass (Dreiss 150). Chocolate became an integral part of white Catholic life in Mesoamerica and experienced a similar rise in popularity in European Catholic circles. Rabbi Deborah R. Prinz writes that for many clergy members in Europe, “Chocolate became an instrument of adulation, an offering for the greater glory of God.”

Despite the widespread rise in popularity of chocolate among members of the Catholic Church during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, some Catholic leaders and philosophers of the time were adamantly against the consumption of chocolate, especially during Lenten and fasting periods (Forrest). In 1591 a Catholic philosopher posited that consuming chocolate is equivalent to breaking a fast, reasoning that it quenched thirst, provided nourishment, and served as an aphrodisiac (Coe 149 – 150). That criticism of chocolate did not directly attribute negative qualities to chocolate; instead, it stigmatized chocolate consumption during various hours of the day, going so far as to deem those who consumed it at certain times “sinners.” The oft-posed question of whether or not chocolate could be consumed during a fast underscored the importance that some Catholics placed on classifying chocolate as either good or bad. Chocolate emerged as a polarizing item, and debate around the righteousness of its consumption placed it in a class separate from all other foods and drinks.

In addition to deeming it ineligible for consumption during fasts, many Catholics feared a literal death by chocolate. The thick liquid was notorious for its ability to conceal the taste of poison, and for centuries claims circulated that Pope Clement XIV, who is shown in the picture below, was poisoned by a bowl of chocolate (Coe 211). Though the claims were unfounded, the story of Pope Clement XIV’s chocolate-caused death was widely spread. Tales of chocolate poison inspired fear in the masses of drinking their beloved beverage, and the dark side of chocolate created a large source of tension when considered with its widespread popularity.

Stories abounded that Pope Clement XIV (pictured) died by drinking poisoned chocolate

Today, chocolate enjoys near-ubiquitous consumption in Catholic countries and is
considered by many to be a necessary part of Catholic holiday celebrations. Chocolate lindt_bunniescompanies like Lindt and Hershey’s create special marketing campaigns around
Catholic holidays to sell chocolate, like these pictures below of advertisements featuring rabbit-shaped chocolates at Easter (left image) and red, white, and green Hershey’s 10627887824_a124435fd6_bkisses shaped into a wreath around Christmas (right image). While some may argue that for-profit companies will use any
holiday as an excuse to sell their product, individual consumers also consistently include chocolate in their homemade desserts during the holiday season. Pictured below is a Buche Nöel, a cake traditionally made with many types of chocolate that is one of the most popular desserts in France during the Christmas season (“13 Desserts”). Commercial enterprises’ focus on using Catholic holidays to sell chocolate and Catholic consumers seeking out chocolate treats to celebrate Catholic holidays show the enthusiasm with which chocolate has not only been embraced by Catholics broadly, and how it has specifically been embraced to further celebrate their religious beliefs.

Buche Nöel

Notwithstanding chocolate’s modern-day popularity, many members of the Catholic Church consider chocolate consumption a luxurious vice that should be avoided. This is made incredibly apparent when examining modern-day Catholics perception of chocolate during Lent, the forty-day period in observed by Catholics between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday during which Catholics give up something important to them in order to repent and diminish sinful tendencies. According to an analysis of Lent-related tweets, chocolate ranked as the number one most commonly forgone item (Mortimer). Pop culture references to the difficulty of going without chocolate during Lent abound, including, for example, an article on the website Buzzfeed entitled “The 21 Stages of Giving Up Chocolate for Lent.” But just what does giving up something for Lent say about that object? An article on Catholic Online explains that Lent “always involves giving up sin in some form. The goal is not just to abstain from sin for the duration of Lent but to root sin out of our lives forever” (“FAQs about Lent”). Applying this definition of Lent to the popularity of giving up chocolate, one can confidently infer that consuming chocolate is considered sinful by the non-negligible number of Catholics who choose to abstain from chocolate during Lent. Through considering Lent and holiday practices, the contradiction between celebrating and vilifying chocolate becomes striking. Many of the same people who use chocolate to observe joyful occasions arguably consider that very same chocolate to be one of their worst vices.

Despite the fact that modern-day Catholic laypeople consume a large amount of chocolate and that the Catholic Church has not issued formal criticism of chocolate in centuries, the tension and conflicting opinions that were present in the early days of Catholic chocolate consumption remains. While time-specific contradictions have changed, Catholics’ consistent attempts to classify chocolate as predominantly good or bad have remained both constant and ultimately unsuccessful. Chocolate remains a sinful, beloved luxury.

Works Cited

“13 Desserts: A French Christmas Tradition.” Analida’s Ethnic Spoon. N.p., 08 Dec. 2016. Web. 09 Mar. 2017.

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2013. Print.

Dreiss, Meredith L., and Sharon Greenhill. Chocolate: Pathway to the Gods. Tucson: U of Arizona, 2008. Print.

Forrest, Beth Marie, and April L. Najjaj. “Is Sipping Sin Breaking Fast? The Catholic Chocolate Controversy and the Changing World of Early Modern Spain.” Food and Foodways 15.1-2 (2007): 31-52. Web.

Mortimer, Caroline. “Lent 2016: 10 Things Most People Will (try) to Give up.” The Independent. Independent Digital News and Media, 10 Feb. 2016. Web. 9 Mar. 2017.

“FAQs About Lent – Easter / Lent.” Catholic Online. N.p., n.d. Web. 9 Mar. 2017.

Prinz, Rabbi Deborah R. “Fathering Chocolate.” The Huffington Post., 17 June 2013. Web. 09 Mar. 2017.

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