The Theology of Chocolate

Woman holding cacao (and decorated with cacao beans), Maya, AD 250-450 © Bridgeman Images.
Lady protecting cacao (and decorated with cacao beans), Maya, AD 250-450 © Bridgeman Images.

Many Christians, and even submit-Christians, hand over chocolate for Lent. This self-denying act now now and again looks merely allotment of a calendar of cases for virtuous abstention: as with ‘dry January’, we fabricate it on epic of it’s miles barely for us. But the distinctive theory late the Lenten speedily is that it helps of us who undertake it title with Jesus. Finally, Lent at the delivery commemorates the 40 days Christ spent within the desert sooner than his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. 

If truth be told, the connection between chocolate and the Lenten speedily has been complex and challenging, no longer no longer as a lot as within Christianity’s Catholic custom. Chocolate’s history is a essential allotment of the story of early original globalisation and the Catholic Church’s response to it, on account of this truth, finds grand about how it tailored to a handy e book a rough-altering world. 

Chocolate has a history but, for Catholics, it also has a theology. Long and realized treatises had been written about whether it modified into as soon as licit to delight in it – and when. Phase of the topic modified into as soon as that the distinctive Spaniards who travelled to the Americas swiftly associated the drinking of chocolate with Aztec non secular rituals. The Aztecs suggested those Spaniards that they valued the chocolate mixture they brewed no longer handiest as a source of weight reduction contrivance but additionally as a sacred, even mystical, elixir, which altered physique and spirit. The cacao pod modified into as soon as a reward from the gods, they declared, to be associated with the human heart and depicted as bleeding. Many Maya and Mixtec pictures of human sacrificial victims repeat those victims as anthropomorphic cacao pods. 

Such suggestions and pictures no longer regularly endeared chocolate to the precious friars who crossed the Atlantic to convert indigenous peoples to Christianity. Some puzzled whether it goes to be acceptable for Christians to drink something so intimately associated with idolatry and ritual assassinate? Others, on completely different hand, saw chocolate’s likely as a substitute in indigenous communities for one other sacred but extra scarce liquid: wine. The Franciscan friar Toribio de Benavente (d.1569) wrote approvingly of a native personalized within the Mexican town of Tlaxcala the attach ‘on the feast of All Souls in nearly your entire Indian cities, many offerings are made for the slow. Some offer corn, others blankets, others meals, bread, chickens and pretty than wine they offer chocolate.’ 

Sixteenth-century clerics also struggled to incorporate chocolate into the suggestions their forebears had devised for residing a Christian life. The requirement to speedily – that is, to slit the amount and amount of one’s consumption of meals – modified into as soon as regarded as one of those suggestions. But how did rules about fasting observe to the sleek merchandise or forms of construct ‘chanced on’ within the Americas? Chocolate, for occasion, must had been exempted from the speedily, in step with the stipulations devised by medieval canonists. It modified into as soon as consumed as a liquid, which meant it did no longer violate a prohibition towards drinking handiest one fleshy and two tiny meals a day, and modified into as soon as vegetal no longer animal in nature, so it did no longer violate one other towards drinking meat. 

But chocolate modified into as soon as in most cases intriguing with eggs or milk, that had been animal merchandise and on account of this truth made obvious preparations of it dubiously acceptable at most challenging. It modified into as soon as, moreover, clearly a luxury product and drinking luxuries, if no longer towards the letter of the speedily’s suggestions, modified into as soon as self-evidently towards its spirit. 

Debate simmered within the Catholic Church for 100 years. The Dominicans, in particular, had been on the forefront of a advertising and marketing and marketing campaign to limit its consumption, even sending a representative to Rome in 1577 to leer Pope Gregory XIII’s opinions about it. On completely different hand, the Augustinian theologian Agostín Antolínez came out in favour of chocolate as a orderly speedily-busting refreshment in 1611. In 1636 an Inquisition attorney, Antonio de León Pinela, rebutted Antolínez in a lengthy tract entitled Questión Appropriate: ¿si el chocolate quebranta el ayuno eclesiástico? (The right quiz: does chocolate fracture the speedily or no longer?). But in 1645 Tomás Hurtado, who hailed from the somewhat imprecise sleek issue of Clerics Licensed Minor, wrote a additional defence: Chocolate y tabaco; ayuno eclesiástico y pure (Chocolate and tobacco; the ecclesiastical and pure speedily). 

Sooner or later the Jesuits, who by this time had commercial interests in cacao production and distribution, took the case succor to Rome. They secured a passable ruling from no much less an eminence than the theologian Cardinal Francesco Maria Brancaccio, who put his title to a 16-web page thought De Chocolatis potu (On the exercise of chocolate, 1664), which reaffirmed Hurtado’s arguments. The Jesuits printed this at the moment, reprinting it no longer no longer as a lot as four cases within the subsequent decade.

In the occasion, these arguments all proved tutorial on epic of chocolate consumption modified into so long-established that the Church could well fabricate tiny to form the behaviour of its devoted within the topic. In 1692 Pope Innocent XII even obtained a ask from Carmelites in Madrid for a dispensation to drink chocolate within the partitions of their convent. 

Pope Innocent refused the Carmelites’ ask and it modified into as soon as no longer, if truth be told, except almost a century later that Pope Pius VI issued a definitive ruling that clerics could well drink chocolate (albeit handiest faraway from Church premises). But, by then, no longer no longer as a lot as three 18th-century popes, Benedict XIII, Clement XII, and Benedict XIV, had been alive to chocolate drinkers. 

What conclusions fabricate we map from all this? First, that it took time for the Church to incorporate sleek things (as grand as sleek suggestions) into its world notion. Pope Gregory’s response to the Dominican’s quiz is no longer recorded intimately but one epic suggests that he burst out laughing on the absurdity of the ask. He had neither viewed nor tasted chocolate so, so some distance as he modified into as soon as enthusiastic, he modified into as soon as being requested to rule on something entirely imaginary and theoretical. 

Second, of us who regarded as if it could well well well dwelling the Church’s suggestions have handiest ever had partial adjust over them. Certainly, chocolate’s acceptance within the Catholic weight reduction contrivance modified into as soon as clearly much less the outcomes of what theologians or canon legal professionals did or stated than of the selections of current clergy and laity who drank it regardless. There are lessons in that for pretty loads of things that the Church would have Catholics abstain from on the sleek time, from smartphones in mass to contraception in mattress. And I live fascinated by a tiny ode to the cacao tree, peaceful by a Spanish Jesuit to celebrate Cardinal Brancaccio’s ruling: ‘Grown in lands afar, o tree/ of Mexico the glory/ Fruitful along with your juice you sate/ The gods with – purest chocolate’, it begins. Which gods are these – the classical pantheon, to which grand Jesuit account poetry of the generation alludes, or the Mesoamerican deities whom the Aztecs identified as chocolate’s usual benefactors? 

Miles Pattenden is Senior Study Fellow in Medieval and Early Neatly-liked Study on the Australian Catholic University.

Read More



β€œSimplicity, patience, compassion.
These three are your greatest treasures.
Simple in actions and thoughts, you return to the source of being.
Patient with both friends and enemies,
you accord with the way things are.
Compassionate toward yourself,
you reconcile all beings in the world.”
― Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching