Q: Dear Father John, I would like to learn more about the idea of attachments. What is a disordered attachment and what is the difference, say, between a normal need for food and a disordered attachment for it? How can I tell the difference? Also, this is kind of a related point but is there a point at which indulgence in over-eating moves from a venial sin to a mortal sin?
A: A disordered attachment is an emotional dependence on some person, object, or activity. We say emotional dependence, but we could also say psychological dependence. The point here is that my dependence on the object in question is more than what reason would dictate. Reason, for human beings, gives us access to the proper measure of things – the measure in accordance with God’s design.
“Ordered” Means “Reasonable”
For example, it is reasonable, for adults, to sleep seven hours a night on a regular basis. It’s reasonable because that’s more or less the amount of sleep that most people need in order to function in a healthy, normal way. If someone habitually sleeps twelve hours a night, something is probably wrong – that’s a disordered sleep pattern. There may be a physiological issue, or there may be an emotional issue, and sleeping too much is an escape from reality in some way or another. And if that escape is a symptom of some unresolved violation of conscience that has made life unbearable, or simply a well-developed habit of laziness and indulgence, then it could very well be a disordered attachment: I am overly dependent on sleep, using it as a shield to avoid facing the normal demands of life.
In any case, however, the standard for healthy dependence vs. unhealthy (disordered) dependence has to do with what is reasonable. And what is reasonable is always related to – ordered to – what is the God-given purpose of the object in question. Sleep is meant to help a person recover energy, not to help a person escape from responsibility.
It is reasonable, to take another example, to enjoy movies or sports as a form of recreation. We need relaxation and recreation to keep a healthy psychological and emotional balance. But when my football team’s loss throws my life into disarray for an entire week, or when I can never miss watching a game, no matter what duties it may require me to neglect, I may have a disordered attachment to that form of recreation. If I spend twenty hours a week playing online video games and only three hours a week playing with my kids or enjoying time with my wife, it is safe to say that I am attached in an unreasonable – or disordered – way to video games.
Eating with Reason
To move on to your example of food. The purpose of food is nourishment. We are dependent on food for life, and life is a good thing, because we are created in God’s image. The goodness of life is actually reflected, in God’s plan, in the pleasure that we get from eating good food. The pleasure is not evil or sinful; it is part of the nourishing experience; it is part of God’s plan for life. We give glory to God by enjoying the good things of his creation! And so, it is reasonable to eat amounts and types of food necessary to stay well-nourished, and to enjoy eating them.
Now the actual reasonable amount will vary depending on the needs of individuals. A seven-foot lumberjack who fells trees nine hours a day will probably not have the same diet as a petite copy-editor.
We can know that we are deviating from the reasonable use of food if we habitually eat in such a way as to cause damage to our health. Over-eating, or only indulging in the kinds of foods that give us the most pleasure, will interfere with the healthy functioning of our minds and bodies, instead of contributing to it. And that is unreasonable – or disordered. An unhealthy (disordered) attachment to food shows itself when eating is no longer ordered to enjoyable nourishment.
As in the case of sleep disorders, eating disorders can be symptoms of sinful self-indulgence (a manifestation of the root sin of sensuality), but they can also be symptoms of deeper problems. Habitual sins, for example, can lead to the disintegration of healthy self-respect, and cause vanity or pride to show itself in making food or physical appearance into a kind of idol. On the other hand, emotional or psychological wounds, when unhealed by God’s grace and his unconditional love, can fester in a person’s soul and eventually manifest themselves in these types of disorders.
Can Over-Eating Be a Mortal Sin?
As regards your specific question of whether over-eating can ever become a mortal sin, I think it could if it were habitual and serious to the point where someone is putting their very life in immediate danger. Remember that for a sin to be mortal – in other words, for a sin to sever our friendship with Christ – three conditions are necessary. First, the person has to be fully aware of the gravity of the sin. Second, the person has to choose the sin with completely consent – not under any compulsion. Third, the matter of the sin has to be grave and serious in itself (stealing $5 is not the same as stealing $5 million).
In the area of over-eating, I would hesitate to say that the matter itself is grave, unless the amount is a direct and immediate threat to one’s life. In related areas, however, the abuse of alcohol or drugs, for example, the matter is indeed grave. First of all, because abusing those substances puts your life (and others’) in immediate danger, and secondly, when someone purposely gets drunk or high, they knowingly forfeit or impair the use of their reason – they make themselves less than human, in a sense, defacing the image of God.
In the area of eating disorders, I would hesitate to say that a person’s actions are performed with full consent. Almost always, these are compulsive behaviors. Other factors are subconsciously pushing someone to over eat, or under eat, or induce vomiting after eating. These root factors may be symptoms of sinful behavior that have wreaked havoc in a person’s soul, in which case repentance will be needed to break the cycle. But they may also be the result of having suffered some sort of serious neglect or abuse, in which case the person is not culpable for the eating disorder, and healing will come through discovering the merciful and transforming love of God, which can repair any damage done by the sins of others.
A Note on Fasting
It is worth noting in this context that the Church has always encouraged voluntary fasting as a spiritual discipline. We are only required to fast every Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, but all spiritual writers recommend including this spiritual discipline as a regular part of our lives. Making a small sacrifice at every meal, for example, or avoiding snacks between meals, or abstaining from meat on Fridays throughout the year (not only during Lent) is a healthy way to keep this area of life ordered. Fasting is also a fruitful way of offering up sacrifices in union with Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. For more on that point, you can read this post. This is a good topic to bring up in spiritual direction!