Did you see this conversation over at Gluten Dude’s blog? I am totally oblivious to pop culture, but from what I can tell, this Dean McDermott guy is a public figure who a) has celiac disease and b) regularly eats gluten anyway.
Good former Catholic that I am, this whole McDermott thing got me thinking about sin. That is, how is gluten like sin? How permanently do we blemish our immortal intestines when we gluten ourselves wittingly or unwittingly? And ought the community to strive, shepherdlike, to bring lost celiac lambs back to the flock?
There’s a perception that Catholics can sin as much as they want, because they can always confess later and be forgiven. Even if this idea wasn’t plucked directly from the limb of the tree of knowledge, it isn’t totally unfounded: confession does offer an opportunity to cleanse oneself of unrighteousness. According to doctrine, your sins—intentional and unintentional, venial and mortal—can be forgiven. But, you aren’t supposed to be finishing up your Hail Marys already planning your next coveting session. You’re meant to learn from your mistakes and fully intend to do better.
Similarly, I think that some people with celiac disease “cheat” on the basis that they can always go on the diet and be healed. They, too, aren’t entirely off: on a strict gluten-free diet, symptoms of celiac disease almost always resolve. As long as you’re good for long enough, your intestines can be good as new, too! I can see how it’d be easy for someone who is asymptomatic or who experiences only mild symptoms to indulge in a cookie here, a slice of pizza there—as a person might tell a lie here, steal a few dollars there—with the intention to get clean later.
Is this such a bad attitude? If so, why? For one thing, there’s refractory celiac disease to consider. Continuing to eat gluten may increase the likelihood that you’ll destroy your intestines for good. You could also wind up with an associated disease, like cancer, that you won’t be able to cure by avoiding gluten. As with eternal damnation, at either of these points there’s no coming back.
Habit-building is another piece of this. Every time you “cheat,” you’re hurting your ability to ever be able to adhere to the diet properly. Willpower is like a muscle, in that training it over the long term improves self-control. The repetition of even venial sins and BelVita bars engenders vice. A gluten-free diet for treating celiac disease requires strict compliance: as in penance, you must whole-heartedly orient your life and heart toward redemption. You must turn away from and repugn your past weaknesses. You must exercise rigid control from then on. If you’ve spent years harming your self-control along with your villi, true compliance may be tough.
Finally, Gluten Dude’s post and a lot of the responses point out that Dean’s gluten habit may be hurting his family and the general community. This brings me back to sin, which the Catholic catechism defines as “an offense against reason, truth, and right conscience; it is failure in genuine love for God and neighbor caused by a perverse attachment to certain goods. It wounds the nature of man and injures human solidarity.” Eating gluten while diagnosed with celiac disease is like that: It offends against medical reason and scientific truth, as well as right conscience, if perverse attachment to certain gluten-containing goods does in fact harm your neighbors. All this means it is, if not sinful, at least pretty sucky.
Of course, we’re all responsible for our own health. Sinners gonna sin, smokers gonna smoke, McDermott’s gonna eat. Maybe he doesn’t operate up to his highest possible capabilities on a daily basis, and maybe he’s doing insidious damage to himself that will take a long time to heal if he ever decides he wants to. But we make choices about what to define as best health, and we make choices about how seriously to take our own definition. Every day, we decide to hit the gym or not, to eat a balanced breakfast or not, to smoke or drink or stress ourselves out or not. If Dean doesn’t suffer many symptoms himself, then maybe the benefits of eating gluten outweigh the risks for him. From what I can tell, the medical community recommends staying gluten-free even if asymptomatic in order to protect against future complications—but of course, doctors caution against smoking and drinking to excess, too, often while carrying on their own substance habits to deal with the pressure of their jobs. Perhaps if Dean’s health begins to go downhill, he’ll change his ways.
In the meantime, his public callousness does make the rest of us look awfully picky. Is it off-base to be upset by this? People in the public eye always face greater approbation for their failings, whether it be Sanford for his affair or Lohan for her carousing, because it reflects badly on the conduct of governors and child stars in general and sets a bad example for the rest of us. Celebs like Dean must be at least some part of the reason that we get asked, “Can’t you have just a little?” or “Aren’t you taking this a bit far?” Then again, I do wonder to what extent people outside of the celiac community actually internalize McWhatsis’s behavior as a reflection on celiac sufferers in general. And, as Amanda has reminded me, celebrities have been known to do far worse things than any of the above.
Still, I do think that Gluten Dude made a lot of valid points. I think it’s fair to be annoyed at Dean and others like him, and I think it’s fair to try to educate them. I also appreciate that Dean’s folly served as an ideal jumping-off point for this half-baked homily, perhaps proclaimed to the chirping of internet crickets in the pews. I’m ready to step down from my wobbly pulpit and will leave the rest to you: How do you respond to situations like this? Do you hate the gluten, not the gluten-eater?