The bittersweet Catholic story of chocolate

17 Mar 2022

By The Record

Dr Miles Pattenden, who recently published a short history of The Theology of Chocolate, said that none of the Church’s attempts to manage or restrict consumption of chocolate were effective. Photo: Sourced.

If you’ve given up chocolate for Lent, you are in good company. Not only is this fast shared by many contemporary Catholics, but from the time they discovered it during Spanish exploration of Central America, Catholics have been torn over the seductive power of cacao.

Australian Catholic University’s Dr Miles Pattenden recently published a short history of The Theology of Chocolate.

Dr Pattenden said chocolate’s history was an important part of the story of early modern globalisation and that the Catholic Church’s response to it reveals how the Church adapted to a fast-changing world. 

“Chocolate has a history but, for Catholics, it also has a theology. Long and learned treatises were written about whether it was licit to consume it, and when.”

The Church was initially uncomfortable with its adherents’ drinking chocolate because the drink had been used as part of Aztec religious rituals.

The Aztecs regarded chocolate as gift of the gods and associated it with the human heart.

Many Maya and Mixtec images of human sacrificial victims show those victims as anthropomorphic cacao pods.

Such ideas and images hardly endeared chocolate to the first friars who crossed the Atlantic to convert indigenous peoples to Christianity. Some wondered whether it could be appropriate for Christians to drink something so intimately associated with idolatry and ritual murder?

On the other hand, some priests thought the use of chocolate in ritual could be effectively converted along with the users, and chocolate replaced wine in some American indigenous communities.

Chocolate’s history was an important part of the story of early modern globalisation, says Australian Catholic University’s Dr Miles Pattenden, who recently published a short history of The Theology of Chocolate. Photo: Adobe Stock.

Another problem created by chocolate was how it should be treated in relation to laws of fasting and luxury.  

The question of whether fasting religious ought to be allowed to drink chocolate was a matter of debate for more than 100 years. Was it a food or a drink? Did it break the spirit of the laws against luxuries even if it was not technically forbidden?

The Dominicans sent a representative to Rome in 1577 to seek Pope Gregory XIII’s opinions on a beverage he had neither seen nor tasted.

The Jesuits, who had developed commercial interests in cacao production and distribution, secured a 16-page opinion from Cardinal Francesco Maria Brancaccio on the use of chocolate. 

The Carmelite sisters asked Pope Innocent XII for a dispensation to drink chocolate inside the walls of their convent. 

Dr Pattenden said in the end none of the Church’s attempts to manage or restrict consumption of chocolate were effective. He said the popularity of chocolate, despite Church attempts to limit it, held lessons for how the Church works in practice.

“Chocolate’s acceptance into the Catholic diet was clearly less the result of what theologians or canon lawyers did or said than of the decisions of ordinary clergy and laity who drank it regardless. There are lessons in that for other things that the Church would have Catholics abstain from today such as smart phones and contraception in bed.”

Dr Miles Pattenden is a Senior Research Fellow in Medieval and Early Modern Studies at the Australian Catholic University.