Guest Author - Deborah Markus
Though chocolate is sometimes described as "sinfully delicious," we tend to think of overindulging as a health rather than a moral issue. But our favorite dessert had a rocky history with the Catholic Church back before chocolate was even a food.
Actually, deciding whether the delectable drink that the Spanish explorers had brought back from the Americas was actually a beverage or a food in liquid form was a prickly question, so far as the Church and its loyal subjects were concerned. After all, if it was merely a wonderful drink, chocolate, like wine, could be consumed on fast days without guilt. Those who enjoyed it had certainly noticed the fact that imbibing it left one refreshed and stimulated -- and, yes, less hungry.
The question raged for over two hundred years. Several popes weighed in with their opinions that chocolate was not a food, but allowable on fast days, including Lent. This didn't end the arguments among the writers and theorists. Some were opposed to chocolate because they thought that it awakened "lascivious desires," which must have seemed doubly sinful on fast days. Others argued that chocolate must be food because one could add so many food substances to the "drink" in preparing it -- breadcrumbs, ground beans or chickpeas, eggs, and milk.
In reply to this argument, Spanish and Italian theologians agreed to a compromise: provided that the chocolate was ground and mixed only with water, it did not constitute nourishment and therefore didn't count as a meal any more than a glass of wine did. (All of this would perhaps have been greatly simplified by the modern concept of counting calories.)
Quite aside from the question of its fittingness during a fast, chocolate was objected to by a bishop in seventeenth-century Mexico because its consumption by his wealthy white female parishioners -- during Mass. Servants would bring them the drink the ladies swore they couldn't do without even for the length of a single sermon.
This was naturally quite disruptive, and the bishop was understandably incensed by the focus on a delightful drink as opposed to more spiritual matters. When verbal objections on his part did no good, he put a sign on the cathedral door, declaring that eating or drinking in this house of God was strictly forbidden and would result in excommunication.
The ladies insisted that they would rather go without Mass than without chocolate, and went to convents rather than to the cathedral for divine services. In retaliation, the bishop declared that refusing to attend Mass at the cathedral was also grounds for excommunication.
Someone seems to have decided that this was taking ecclesiastical authority too far; apparently, the bishop was poisoned and died. Fittingly, the lethal substance was slipped into a cup of chocolate.
These days, the idea that chocolate could be a matter of serious theological debate is as amusing and unbelievable to us as is the thought of rich, haughty women ostentatiously being served cups of chocolate (or any edible other than communion bread and wine) in church. Times have certainly changed.
In fact, one church at least has decided that chocolate is just what's needed to lure people into the fold. In 2004, a bishop in the Church of England decided to offer parishioners a piece of chocolate in exchange for coming to services. The scheme was wildly successful.