return to Body Theology


Do you not realize that your body is
the temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you and whom
you received from God? You are not your own
property, then; you have been bought at a price. So
use your body for the glory of God.

- 1 Corinthians 6:19-20

Freedom and Health

St. Paul, in his well-known statement about the body being the temple quoted above, made his remarks in the context of a discourse on the importance of sexual morality. But he also was extending the concept to all matters pertinent to the proper use of the body. He began this discussion with the comment (1 Corinthians 6:12) about freedom: "For me everything is permissible;" but then continued: "maybe, but not everything does good." This statement captures an issue of great importance today, one which Pope Benedict XVI has brought up recently in speeches, as well as having written about the matter earlier in many books (as Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger).

That we can do something doesn't mean that we should do something; what we should do is what is good, and that ultimately includes what is good for the health of the person taking the action. In his book Truth and Tolerance, Ratzinger presents a chapter on Truth-Tolerance-Freedom, in which he notes the troublesome prevalent conception of freedom as:

...the right, and the practical possibility of doing everything we wish and not having to do anything we do not wish to do. Putting it another way, freedom would mean that our will was the only criterion for our action and that this will would be able to want to do anything and also be able to put into practice anything it wanted.

Is this truly freedom? Ratzinger observes:

…the complete absence also of any kind of moral or metaphysical restraint, the absolute anarchic freedom of man constituted by his self-determination, is revealed, for anyone who tries to live it out, not as the most sublime exaltation of existence, but as a life of nothingness, as absolute emptiness, as the definition of damnation.

In his homily on Pentecost Sunday (May 15, 2005), Pope Benedict XVI pointed out that:

…human freedom is always a shared freedom, a "togetherness" of liberty. Common freedom lasts only in an ordered harmony of freedom that reveals to each person his or her limits. In this way the gift of the Law on Mt. Sinai was not a restriction nor an abolition of freedom, but the foundation of true liberty. And since a correct human ordering finds stability only if it comes from God and if it unites men and women in the perspective of God, the Commandments that God himself gives us cannot be lacking in a correct ordering of human freedom.

Put simply, true freedom comes from following God's guidance (e.g., the Law referred to here, meaning the Ten Commandments given on Mt. Sinai) which then opens the follower to the full grace of God. To do otherwise is to become a slave to one's own willfulness (self-indulgence), which ultimately provides no reward. St. Paul continues this theme in his first letter to the Corinthians (6:12):

True, for me everything is permissible, but I am determined not to be dominated by anything.

What could dominate him? In this letter, he expresses concern about the body and its demands, which distract one from what is ultimately of importance. He notes that:

Foods are for the stomach, and the stomach is for foods, and God will destroy them both.

We become hungry, and we need food (just as we experience other physical demands); but this food is for the body. The ultimate hunger of the soul is not satisfied by ordinary food. He is alerting us to the nature of the earthly concerns that drive us, about the desire for satisfying the temporal (physical) body, which will be destroyed by death but will, like Christ, rise again.

What are we to do with the body, then? Does this teaching mean it is to be ignored? His answer is evident as he concludes this section of the first letter to the Corinthians with (6:19-20):

Do you not realize that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you and whom you received from God? You are not your own property, then; you have been bought at a price. So use your body for the glory of God.

When Paul points out that you are not your own property, he is speaking to those who are believers, who have been baptized to give up their old body and take up the new one, being clothed in Christ. If the new body is the temple that has been bought at the price of the sacrifice at Calvary, then it is to be treated with care, not abused. Such abuse readily occurs if one is focused on gaining earthly pleasures, becoming a slave to them, as if they are the aim of life itself when, in fact, there is a much grander goal.

We are today caught up in a struggle that often manifests in failing health (as well as spiritual separation). On the one hand, the secular concept of freedom-that if one can do something, then it is fine to do it-has led people to do many things without concern for the adverse impact those actions could have on the body. On the other hand, with the growing realization of damage occurring to health and well-being, people struggle to determine what is the best corrective course from the secular angle: which foods to eat or avoid, what exercise to undertake, whose health plan to follow. For most people, the outcome of this attempt to regain health is unsatisfactory. But beyond the suffering that a person experiences from preventable disorders, the ultimate impact of a misplaced view of freedom as it affects health also includes overwhelming society with unnecessary health care costs and reducing the ability of people to serve others.

What has been taught about the way to treat the body properly, that is, as the temple? Four main subjects to be addressed are anxiety, diet, work, and avoiding excess and abuse.

Protect us from all Anxiety…

A commentary on health is presented in Ecclesiasticus 30:14-17, as follows:

Better be poor if healthy and fit, than rich if tormented in body.
Health and strength are better than any gold, a robust body than untold wealth.
No riches can outweigh bodily health, no enjoyment surpass a cheerful heart.
Better death than a wretched life, and everlasting rest than chronic illness.

This tells us that it is good to be healthy, and that we should not squander health in reaching for material goods. The advice on wise living continues with a section on happiness (30:21-25):

Do not abandon yourself to sorrow, do not torment yourself with brooding.
Gladness of heart is life to anyone, joy is what gives length of days.
Give your cares the slip, console your heart, chase sorrow far away;
for sorrow has been the ruin of many, and is no use to anybody.
Jealousy and anger shorten your days, and worry brings premature old age.
A genial heart makes a good trencherman, someone who enjoys a good meal.

The lengthening or shortening of lifespan being depicted here is related to one's health, as ill health is often part of the decline that leads to early death. Longevity, enjoyed with reasonably good health, is to be gained, in part, by having one's heart filled with joy, gladness, and geniality, while putting aside sorrow, brooding, jealousy, and anger. A sign of good health is the ability to enjoy a good meal.

The basic message given to us by Jesus about the importance of avoiding worry and anxiety also follows along these lines, and integrates the concern about anxiety with the subject of eating. Here is such a statement as expressed in Matthew's gospel where Jesus is explaining that one must choose between serving God or going after riches (6:25):

That is why I am telling you not to worry, about your life and what you are to eat, nor about your body and what you are to wear. Surely life is more than food, and the body more than clothing!

Explaining that the Father will look after you, he continues (Matthew 6:31-33):

So do not worry; do not say, "What are we to eat? What are we to drink? What are we to wear? It is the gentiles who set their hearts on all these things. Your heavenly Father knows you need them all. Set your hearts on his kingdom first, and on God's saving justice, and all these other things will be given you as well."

This same teaching is relayed in Luke (12:29), with this wording regarding eating and drinking: "But you must not set your hearts on things to eat and things to drink, nor must you worry." In both Luke's and Matthew's gospels, Jesus elaborates on the theme of not worrying, with the famous sayings about the birds in the air and the lilies in the fields (as they have no need to be anxious, why would you, whom the Father cares for?).

The teaching appears to be directed at two concerns: one is whether or not one will actually have something to eat or drink (or wear); the other is making a decision among possible foods, drinks, or clothing, a matter which affects many today as it did two thousand years ago. In either case, the instruction is not to worry.

When Jesus appointed the 72 disciples to go out and teach and to heal, he explained to them (Luke 10:8):

Whenever you go into a town where they make you welcome, eat what is put before you.

He is advising them to enjoy the hospitality of those who welcome them, and not to be picky about what is eaten, not to impose either one's own religious or personal preferences on their kindly hosts.

While the primary message being given is about not worrying, the reason that food (and to a lesser extent, drink) is so important in this context is that there are many conflicting views during this time, as there are now. The initial teachings were especially to the Jews (contrasted, in the quote above from Matthew 6:31-33 with reference to the gentiles who had not yet heard God's message and who are mainly concerned about getting desirable foods). Those who listened to these messages were often trying to follow (or were, at least, aware when they were not following) the food laws that had been established centuries earlier. Even so, the gentiles, many of them influenced by Greek and Roman culture, were also aware of various dietary rules, primarily those that were supposed to be associated with health. The "father of modern medicine," Hippocrates (460-375 B.C.), had taught about this. A primary focus of the Hippocratic School of Medicine was diet and nutrition. There were debates then, as now, as to whether one should follow the discipline of not eating meat, whether for religious purposes or for health purposes. It was also the case that some people worried about whether they would get enough food to subsist on, given the various circumstances of climate affecting crops, war, or social position. That God would watch out for the needs of his faithful was made evident in the story of manna from heaven (Exodus 16:14-15), as was now reaffirmed by Jesus' teaching.

With regard to food choices, the main issue in the gospels and, especially, in the letters of St. Paul, was related to differing religious ideas about eating. As noted above, Paul had commented that for him "anything is permissible." But, he did not want that to be translated improperly. In his letter to the Romans, he cautions (14:15):

And indeed, if through any kind of food you are causing offence to a brother, then you are no longer being guided by love. You are not to let the food that you eat cause the ruin of anyone for whom Christ died.

What a person eats in the presence of another is really for the hospitality of the occasion and for communion with others; it cannot be something that serves as a source of division. Thus, if one believer is distressed that you might, for example, eat pork or drink wine, then you would not do that. It is not because it is forbidden to you, but because of the impact on another. We are not to be concerned about eating other than by such consideration for others. In 1st Corinthians (8:8), Paul notes that:

But of course food can not make us acceptable to God; we lose nothing by not eating it, we gain nothing by eating it. Only be careful that this freedom of yours does not in any way turn into an obstacle to trip those who are vulnerable.

Paul is not speaking about starving oneself when referring to not eating, he is referring to not eating certain foods. Thus, whether we eat a particular food or avoid it is not of any ultimate consequence, so long as we do not by our decision cause another to fall. Paul gives a relevant example (though not about eating one type of food or another), of eating food that has been ceremonially dedicated to a false god. If someone sees that you are doing this, it may lead to misunderstanding and even lead the person astray. He concludes (8:13): "That is why if food can be the cause of a brother's downfall, I will never eat meat any more, rather than cause my brother's downfall." He affirms here the principle that while he has freedom to do anything, it is not necessarily right to do some things.

In 1 Corinthians (10:25-27), Paul elaborates further:

Eat anything that is sold in butchers' shops; there is no need to ask questions for conscience's sake, since to the Lord belong the earth and all it contains." If an unbeliever invites you to a meal, go if you want to, and eat whatever is put before you; you need not ask questions of conscience first….Whatever you eat, then, or drink, and whatever else you do, do it all for the glory of God.

What Paul is dismissing, abstaining from certain foods, was considered a spiritual discipline. Now, Jesus has brought a new message, a very different perspective. St. Paul points to this change in emphasis when he comments on those who are pursuing a vegetarian diet as a spiritual discipline. In Romans (14:1-3) he says:

Give a welcome to anyone whose faith is not strong, but do not get into arguments about doubtful points. One person may have faith enough to eat any kind of food; another, less strong, will eat only vegetables. Those who feel free to eat freely are not to condemn those who are unwilling to eat freely; nor must the person who does not eat freely pass judgment on the one who does-because God has welcomed him.

How does a strong faith allow one to eat anything? Such faith turns one to God and away from earthly concerns; such true faith comes from a pure heart. The person who has weaker faith feels he must pursue physical disciplines in order to build faith, such as abstaining from meat. Such a person fears, but incorrectly, that eating the "wrong" thing will be the sign of failed faith and that the wrong food will, in fact, defile him. But Jesus has taught that it is not what you eat that is defiling, and he made it clear that this teaching is particularly important to grasp. He explained it forcefully (Mark 7:14-20):

He called the people to him again and said, 'Listen to me, all of you, and understand. Nothing that goes into someone from outside can make that person unclean; it is the things that come out of someone that make that person unclean. Anyone who has ears for listening should listen!"

When he had gone into the house, away from the crowd, his disciples questioned him about the parable. He said to them, 'Even you-don't you understand? Can't you see that nothing that goes into someone from outside can make that person unclean, because it goes not into the heart but into the stomach and passes into the sewer?' (Thus, he pronounced all foods clean.) And he went on, 'It is what comes out of someone that makes that person unclean. For it is from within, from the heart, that evil intentions emerge….All these evil things come from within and make a person unclean.'

Here he is clearly explaining that food cannot be the source of man's defilement; it only goes into the stomach; what comes from a person's thoughts, words, and actions is what can be clean or unclean; that is, what comes from the heart is what makes the person. This directly contradicts the phrase commonly repeated today in support of various secular dietary recommendations "You are what you eat." Jesus has made a play with the words, indicating that what comes out is unclean, such as urine and feces that goes into the sewer, but his intent is to refer to spiritually unclean things that come out from a person, such as harmful statements and actions. Those with weak faith have not grasped this, so they are determined only to eat things that are not defiling while too easily ignoring the bitterness of the heart. Those with strong faith come to understand this and do not concern themselves with what they eat. As remarked in Ecclesiastes (9:7): "So, eat your bread with joy, drink your wine with a glad heart, since God has already approved your actions."

What does this have to do with health of the body? First, there should be no anxiety about what one eats, only consideration for others: eating what they present to you in hospitality, avoiding food that might cause another distress. This attitude will contribute to health, because the heart will be glad rather than consumed by worry. Second, health is not limited to what nourishes the body, but by how one relates to oneself, to society, and to God (more on this later). These lessons may seem unusual in the context of what is proclaimed by numerous health advocates, with their conflicting views about which foods are healthy and which are to be avoided. But, they are ignoring the other considerations entirely, so these words of Jesus and St. Paul are much needed as a remedy to the confusion.

Two Kinds of Meals

The scriptures portray two basic types of meals, and this is evident in the New Testament stories. One is the meal that provides essential nutrition, the ordinary meal. The other is the feast, which is a social gathering and a chance to truly enjoy a bounty.

Jesus makes it clear that he is concerned that people get food to nourish them. As an example, in Matthew 15:32

Jesus called his disciples to him and said, 'I feel sorry for all these people; they have been with me three days now and have nothing to eat. I do not want to send them off hungry, or they might collapse on the way.'

This example points to food's primary role, which is not merely to alleviate hunger. Rather, food is essential for being able to go about one's work, to be able to do God's work. In this case, to attend a lengthy sermon and be able to get back home without collapsing.

What might Jesus and his disciples expect people to eat? Certainly, those items mentioned in the gospels, such as bread and fish. There is also mention of lamb, wine, milk, honey, figs, and so on (note: the term "corn" appears in many translations; this is the old British term for grain and refers mainly to wheat; the food we today call corn was not present). These are richly nutritious foods; they are natural foods provided through God's creation that He deemed good. There does not appear to be any command to specifically eat these mentioned foods, and certainly no suggestion to reject others, but guidance is provided through these examples of wholesome, good tasting, yet ordinary foods.

The other type of meal is the feast. Not many details are given for feast foods, but the purpose of the feast is made evident. A good example of this purpose is the response to the return of the prodigal son (Luke 15:23): "Bring the calf we have been fattening, and kill it; we will celebrate by having a feast…." Another example is the wedding feast at Cana (John 2:9-10):

…the president [of the feast] tasted the water and it had been turned into wine. Having no idea where it had come from-though the servants who had drawn the water knew-the president of the feast called the bridegroom and said, 'Everyone serves good wine first and the worse wine when the guests are well wined; but you have kept the best wine till now.'

So, despite few details of the feasts in biblical texts, we know of meat and plenty of wine, there is of course bread, and (for the Passover meal) unleavened bread is specified. It is evident that feasts are for special occasions. This style of eating, in which the meal is especially enjoyed and is taken in the company of many others, is not the ordinary daily meal. The Church has maintained a tradition of having ecclesiastic feasts, that is, feasts specified for the whole church (or, on occasion, for more limited groups) in honor of special events or of individuals who have contributed greatly to the spiritual life of the people.

There is reference in much of the Christian literature to "fellowship" meals; these might fit an in-between category: not as extensively planned and as rich in foods as the feast, but where a group of people celebrate together. The Last Supper has been called a fellowship meal, though as a Passover celebration it would fit the description of a feast.

Work and Exercise

While today the maintenance of health is frequently described in terms of "diet and exercise" (to which stress reduction is sometimes added as an afterthought), in ancient times, the idea of adding exercise to one's daily tasks would have seemed a strange recommendation. Most work involved physical labor, and even those who might stand or sit for hours usually had to labor some of the time (e.g., watching over a stand where goods were sold might involve sedentary conditions for hours, but then also having to labor to bring the goods to the site, set them up, put them away, and cart them back to storage).

Exercise to build up the body was known at this time, particularly among the Greeks and Romans. We see statues of that period depicting people who appear to us as "body builders." The Olympic Games had been going on since as early as 776 B.C. These games were part of a tribute to Zeus, and were thus banned by Theodosius after Christianity had become widely adopted at the end of the fourth century (the international games that draw so much attention today started up 1,500 years later).

Most physical activity involved labor and transportation. In the New Testament, we learn of people walking many miles, rowing boats, pulling in nets of fish, doing carpentry, sowing grain, harvesting fields, making tents, and so on.

St. Paul supported an implicit doctrine of labor, which was later developed into an explicit one by St. Benedict (in chapter 48 of St. Benedict's rules, which emphasizes the importance of manual labor and arranges time to be devoted to it daily; a separate article will examine the doctrine further). St. Paul had cautioned disciples of Christ not to rely on charitable donations, on preaching, and other aspects of their efforts that led to more sedentary life styles, but to work as part of a disciplined life. In his second letter to the Thessalonians, Paul noted (2 Thessalonians 3:6-13):

In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we urge you, brothers, to keep away from any of the brothers who lives an undisciplined life, not in accordance with the tradition you received from us. You know how you should take us as your model: we were not undisciplined when we were with you, nor did we accept food from anyone without paying for it; no, we worked with unsparing energy, night and day, so as not to be a burden on any of you. This was not because we had no right to be, but in order to make ourselves a model for you to imitate. We urged you when we were with you not to let anyone eat who refused to work. Now we hear that there are some of you who are living lives without any discipline, doing no work for themselves, but interfering with other people's. In the Lord Jesus Christ, we urge and call on people of this kind to go on quietly working and earning the food that they eat.

In saying one should work quietly, he is not suggesting anything about the nature of the work, but rather about not making an issue of the fact that one is undertaking labor (just as Jesus instructed that one pray, perform charitable acts, and fast without drawing attention to oneself). Paul acknowledges that apart from the discipline that he is describing, it is not always a necessity to work to earn a living. He points out that through their good deeds the faithful might be so deserving as to be in a reasonable position to let others do the work, but that doing work themselves is the right thing to do. He is not speaking here about working and toiling for the specific purpose of staying physically fit; he is talking about doing one's share so as to avoid burdening others. Still, in "working with unsparing energy" one does naturally help the body to remain physically fit.

There is a message that may be derived from Paul's letter in terms of our own activity. Today, people must be frequently reminded that, in order to maintain a healthy weight, the energy one consumes through food must be equal to the energy one uses up through activity. This reminder becomes necessary because there is a tendency to try and find a simple, and usually evasive, solution to unnecessarily eating beyond one's needs, while remaining mostly idle. In essence, Paul is saying: if you don't work, don't eat; you get to eat according to your work. His thought is about economics and concern for others (not being a burden upon them), but the teaching is also an indirect description about the way a body is utilized properly.

The Didache (which is often dated to around the same time as the letters of St. Paul) raises a similar issue in chapter 12, about traveling Christians who come seeking shelter at your home. In response to this situation it says: "if he wants to stay with you, and is an artisan, let him work and eat. But if he has no trade, according to your understanding, see to it that, as a Christian, he shall not live with you idle."

At a time when most work involved labor and when walking was the main mode of transportation, there was no need for recommending exercise to keep fit or to build up physical strength. In fact, in the New Testament, strength is always a subject in relation to faith, not physical fitness and muscular prowess. However, Paul mentions the training for physical competition and compares this to training the body in overcoming wasteful pursuit of desires so a to enhance one's capabilities for spreading the gospel and attaining the ultimate goal (1 Corinthians 9:24-27.)

Do you not realize that, though all the runners in the stadium take part in the race, only one of them gets the prize? Run like that-to win. Every athlete concentrates completely on training, and this is to win a wreath that will wither, whereas ours will never wither. So that is how I run, not without a clear goal; and how I box, not wasting blows on air. I punish my body and bring it under control, to avoid any risk that, having acted as herald for others, I myself may be disqualified.

The discipline described here as "punish my body and bring it under control" refers to physical (and mental) culture for overcoming the weaknesses that lead to using the body for things other than the ultimate prize. Not running aimlessly, not shadow boxing, means that the daily actions aren't simply determined by fleeting desires, but are, instead, based on strict training, to get the task accomplished properly. Whether running a race, or boxing, or serving God's will, it is important to train the body and have it under sufficient control to accomplish its tasks. How else can one persevere with the necessary long hours and diligent work? How else can one resist succumbing to the taunts and obstacles and tribulations?

There is a difference between physical training that Paul depicts for himself and the Church and a focus on athletics, as undertaken by the runners in the stadium. The former is undertaken to maintain the body in good health and control, the latter is for surpassing the goal of health and being able to compete to win in a particular physical sport. In Divini Illius Magistri (Encyclical on Christian Education, 1929) Pope Pius the XI pointed to the difference between these goals while discussing the potential problems of the State imposing military training on those being educated with Christian values:

We condemn only what is excessive, as for example violence, which must not be confounded with courage nor with the noble sentiment of military valor in defense of country and public order; or again exaltation of athleticism which even in classic pagan times marked the decline and downfall of genuine physical training.

Here he refers to the athleticism of the time before Christ (the pagan times), when physical training of the body for strength and health gave way in Roman culture to a focus on the body's physical form and pushing the limits of physical capabilities that had nothing to do with pursuing the kingdom of God. There does not appear to be a Christian objection to developing natural physical talents in those who possess them, but it is the "exaltation" of athleticism that is of concern.

Regarding the role of modern Christian education, the encyclical specifies the value of physical culture:

Therefore with full right the Church promotes letters, science, art in so far as necessary or helpful to Christian education, in addition to her work for the salvation of souls: founding and maintaining schools and institutions adapted to every branch of learning and degree of culture. Nor may even physical culture, as it is called, be considered outside the range of her maternal supervision, for the reason that it also is a means which may help or harm Christian education.

The harm that physical culture might bring is only the undue focus on the body and its capabilities as might be promoted by secular organizations; the help that physical culture brings is the maintenance of good health. The encyclical quotes Canon law (1113):

Parents are under a grave obligation to see to the religious and moral education of their children, as well as to their physical and civic training, as far as they can, and moreover to provide for their temporal well-being.

That is, physical training and temporal well-being (such as health of the body and ability to work in the world) are not to be ignored even though the focus of Christian education and parental guidance is aimed at religious and moral matters. In concluding comments, the encyclical notes:

The proper and immediate end of Christian education is to cooperate with divine grace in forming the true and perfect Christian….For precisely this reason, Christian education takes in the whole aggregate of human life, physical and spiritual, intellectual and moral, individual, domestic and social, not with a view of reducing it in any way, but in order to elevate, regulate and perfect it, in accordance with the example and teaching of Christ.

We thus come to the understanding that maintaining physical health is one of the many components of becoming a "perfect Christian."

Avoiding Excess

There are a number of activities that can impair one's health and ability to function. An obvious example is getting drunk, in which excess consumption transforms the healthful and communal action of drinking wine (or other beverages with alcohol) into an activity focused on one's self, without regard to the importance of being alert and healthy. St. Paul cautions about this, for example, in his letter to the Ephesians 5:18: "Do not get drunk with wine, this is simply dissipation; be filled with the Spirit." He expounded up the subject further in his first letter to the Thessalonians 5:6-10.

So we should not go on sleeping, as everyone else does, but stay wide awake and sober. Night is the time for sleepers to sleep and night the time for drunkards to be drunk, but we belong to the day and we should be sober; let us put on faith and love for a breastplate, and the hope of salvation for a helmet.

In referring to those who are "sleepers" he is talking of those who are not giving attention to the salvation that has been offered but are merely going about their lives satisfying desires as they arise, thus they are neither alert nor self-controlled. The sleeping and drinking at night refer to the darkness of the world of sin, which he contrasts to those who "belong to the day." Self-control offers protection, like a breast plate and helmet. Though he is speaking of protecting souls, the message also applies to protecting our bodies so that they can serve as the temple of the Holy Spirit.

Paul gives a discourse on self-control in his letter to the Galatians (6:13-17), which parallels the teaching about freedom that was conveyed by Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI):

After all, brothers, you were called to be free; do not use your freedom as an opening for self-indulgence, but be servants to one another in love, since the whole of the Law is summarized in the one commandment: you must love your neighbor as yourself….be guided by the Spirit, and you will no longer yield to self-indulgence. The desires of self-indulgence are always in opposition to the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are in opposition to self-indulgence: they are opposites, one against the other; that is how you are prevented from doing the things that you want to.

In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul twice refers to the body as the temple (the second instance is quoted at the beginning of this article); in the first instance, he warns people about being destructive (1 Corinthians 3:16-17):

Do you not realize that you are a temple of God with the Spirit of God living in you? If anybody should destroy the temple of God, God will destroy that person, because God's temple is holy, and you are that temple.

This message should serve as notice against actions which are self-destructive, whether they are dietary indiscretions, risky behaviors, or repeated drunkenness. John Paul II commented on this basic message of Paul's during his Address to the Sick, the Elderly, and the Handicapped (November 23, 1986).

It is good for all of us, even the elderly and sick, to remember that good health is not something to be taken for granted but a blessing from the Lord. Nor is it something we should endanger through the misuse of alcohol or drugs or in any other way. For, as Saint Paul says, "Your body, you know, is the temple of the Holy Spirit....That is why you should use your body for the glory of God." Doing what we can to maintain our own good health makes it possible for us to serve others and fulfill our responsibilities in the world.

Defining Health

In pursuing and maintaining health, we should define this condition that we are to attain. John Paul II had noted that "health is a precious good" in his address to an International Health Care Conference (November 8, 1997). He has elaborated this nature of this good in terms of the true meaning of health. Namely, health comes from the integration of all aspects of being human; in his address to the World Organization of Gastroenterology (March 23, 2002), John Paul II pointed out that:

The concept of health that we find in Christian thought is quite the opposite of the vision that reduces it to a purely psycho-physical balance. Such a vision of health disregards the spiritual dimensions of the human person and would end by harming his true good.

A similar concern about the integral quality of health was expressed in his address to the National Convention of the Italian Bishop's Conference on the Italian Church in the World of Health (May 12, 2001), John Paul II noted:

…the Church is motivated and sustained by a vision of health that is not merely the absence of sickness, but tension towards full harmony and healthy balance at the psychological, spiritual and social level. She offers a model of health inspired by the "healthy salvation" offered by Christ: an offering of "global," "integral" health that heals the sick person in his totality.

In one of his last messages on the subject, offered for the 13th World Day of the Sick (February 11, 2005), John Paul II observed that:

In Christ lies the hope of true, full health; the salvation that He brings is the true response to the ultimate questions about man. There is no contradiction between earthly health and eternal salvation, since the Lord died for the integral salvation of the human person and of all humanity….. In fact, the human being does not only aspire to physical or spiritual well-being, but to a "health" that is expressed in total harmony with God, with self and with humanity. This goal can only be reached through the mystery of the passion, death, and Resurrection of Christ.

And, finally, a few days later, on February 19, 2005, John Paul II presented this message to the president of the Pontifical Academy for Life on the occasion of a study congress on Quality of Life and Ethics of Health:

How many diseases are individuals often responsible for, their own and those of others! Let us think of the spread of alcoholism, drug-addiction, and AIDS. How much life energy and how many young lives could be saved and kept healthy if the moral responsibility of each person were better able to promote prevention and the preservation of that precious good: health!

Health is not, of course, an absolute good. It is not such especially when it is taken to be merely physical well-being, mythologized to the point of coercing or neglecting superior goods….Properly understood, health nevertheless continues to be one of the most important goods for which we all have a precise responsibility, to the point that it can be sacrificed only in order to attain superior goods, as is sometimes demanded in the service of God, one's family, one's neighbor, and the whole of society.

Health should therefore be safeguarded and looked after as the physical-psychological and spiritual balance of the human being. The squandering of health as a result of various disorders is a serious ethical and social responsibility which, moreover, is linked to the person's moral degeneration.


We are called upon by St. Paul to maintain and protect our bodies as temples of the Holy Spirit. Health is a positive and desirable condition as described in Ecclesiasticus and affirmed by John Paul II, who also pointed out that maintaining health allows us to serve others. Our concept of freedom can affect our health, both spiritual and physical. If freedom is taken as the desire to simply do anything, than self-indulgence prevails and harm comes to our health; if freedom is taken as allowing and actively following the guidance of the Holy Spirit to fulfill our sacred calling, then true health, which includes body, mind, and spirit, is ultimately gained.

There are four considerations in maintaining health that were outlined here:

  1. Having faith that God is with you, let go of anxiety and know peace. Being anxious does not add a day to one's life, does not benefit one's health, and does not contribute to one's work.
  2. Do not unnecessarily restrict what you will eat; instead, eat anything, but do so in support of your brothers and sisters in Christ, and for the glory of God. Eat nutritious food to allow you to be alert and able to fulfill your duties; when served by others, eat what is given rather than being picky; and participate in feasts of celebration as appropriate, but do not become self-indulgent and feast all the time. It is not the thing ingested which might be harmful, it is the attitude of the heart that can cause harm.
  3. Undertake work which supports you (if possible) so that you are not a burden on others, and include physical labor as part of this work. To the extent necessary, utilize exercises that "train" the body and mind.
  4. Do not do things to excess, such as eating and drinking too much; the harm is not only to the body and mind, but also to the soul. Stay sober and alert. Something which is good in moderation or on occasion can become harmful when it is done to excess or routinely.