“May I eat in an ethnic restaurant with pagan idols up as long as I’m not eating there because of the idols?” The short answer to this is: If you have kids and/or want to stay on the safe-side, just avoid such restaurants, especially since there are so many options of restaurants and markets without idols out there.
But what about a Catholic missionary living in India who has the choice between buying flour with a ganesh on it or entering a restaurant with a shiva in it or just starving to death? I know the tough-guy trad-answer is “Just starve to death.” However, the Saints, Fathers and Doctors give a little more nuanced answer, so as to not give too much credit to idols (eg demons) in the first place, especially after Christ has totally conquered death for the Christian.
Fr. Lapide relates two different outcomes on polluted foods from the same persecution in the early Church:
The Emperor Julian, in order to compel the Catholics of Constantinople to some outward compliance with idolatry, forced them all to eat of things offered to idols. The story is related by Nectarius, Bishop of Constantinople, in a sermon delivered by him at the beginning of Lent. He says: “He defiled all the foods that were exposed for sale in the public markets, with sacrifices offered to the gods, that so all might either be compelled to eat of these sacrificial foods or perish of hunger. The faithful inquired at the oracle of the martyr Theodore how they were to act at this crisis; and they were bidden from heaven to use, instead of bread, boiled corn for food. This the rich generously distributed to their poorer brethren for a week, when the Emperor Julian, despairing of being able to accomplish his purpose, and vanquished by the continence and constancy of the Christians, ordered pure and undefiled food to be again sold in the markets.”
We should observe here the expression, “vanquished by the continency of the Christians.” Their abstinence was constant and spontaneous. For, though they might have eaten of the foods defiled by Julian’s orders, as though common foods, yet they refused out of abhorrence of Julian and his idols. That they might lawfully have eaten of them appears from the fact that Julian was unable to defile ordinary food by bringing it into contact with things offered to idols, or to make it sacred to devils, in such a way that one who ate of them should be regarded as an idol-worshipper. For though this might have been Julian’s intention, yet he was but a single individual, and unable to alter the common judgment of men, which regarded this not as idolatrous but as indifferent. Hence, too, the citizens of Antioch, when Julian had on like manner polluted their food and drink, ate and drank of them freely and without scruple, as Theodoret tells us (Hist. lib. i. c. 14). St. Augustine, too (Ep.154), says that it is lawful to eat of vegetables grown in an idol’s garden, and to drink from a pitcher or a well in an idol-temple, or into which something offered to idols has fallen, Cf. notes to x. 21.
So notice that Fr. Lapide writes of one group of Christians faced with eating polluted food: “Though they might have eaten of the foods defiled by Julian’s orders, as though common foods, yet they refused out of abhorrence of Julian and his idols.”
But of another group of Christians faced with eating polluted food, Fr. Lapide writes: “The citizens of Antioch, when Julian had on like manner polluted their food and drink, ate and drank of them freely and without scruple, as Theodoret tells us (Hist. lib. i. c. 14). St. Augustine, too (Ep.154), says that it is lawful to eat of vegetables grown in an idol’s garden, and to drink from a pitcher or a well in an idol-temple.”
In fact, the notion of food polluted by idols was even a question in the New Testament:
Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, but should write to them to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood.—Acts 15:19-20
Notice now espeically St. Paul’s answer on eating food offered to idols:
Now concerning food offered to idols: we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” This “knowledge” puffs up, but love builds up. If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. But if anyone loves God, he is known by God. Therefore, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “an idol has no real existence,” and that “there is no God but one.” For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”— yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist. However, not all possess this knowledge. But some, through former association with idols, eat food as really offered to an idol, and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, will he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols? And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.—1 Cor 8:1-13
Fr. Lapide comments on the above 1 Cor 8:
It was not sin simply to eat such things, as St. Thomas [Aquinas] lays down (i. ii. qu. 103, art. 4, ad. 3). Still it was a sin if it was out of unbelief, as, e.g., if any idolater ate of such things in honour of the idol, or if it were done out of weakness of faith, as was frequently the case in St. Paul’s time. For many had been but lately converted, and were only half-taught, and so had not wholly cast off their old ideas about idols and idol-offerings, and therefore still regarded them as having something Divine about them. They regarded the food offered to idols as holy and consecrated, although the Christian faith taught them the opposite.
To two well-known laymen in the Catholic world (whom 95% of you know by name!) I texted the following a few months ago after I went to an Indian restaurant: “What do you think of eating at an Indian restaurant with idols up?” One man answered in a total negative. (I admit this is probably the safest answer if you still have kids at home. In fact, let me advise you to just stop here if you have any past in paganism or if you are still bringing kids into restaurants. All you need to know is that you shouldn’t go into such restaurants.)
However, my other friend… (with all kids grown and who himself is heavily involved in spiritual warfare) texted this surprising answer: “We all eat at restaurants with pagan idols, as long as you live in a state of grace and say grace before meals to bless the the food in case its been cursed. I say a quick binding prayer (mentally) so that I’m protected by our Lord and Lady. Then I have nothing to worry about.”
Notice that these great Catholic men gave two different answers, just like the Christians under Julian the Apostate. One group avoided Julian’s bad food precisely because he told them to eat it. The other group took Julian’s bad food to show they wouldn’t be deterred into starving because of his own superstition. Both were right.
I tend to agree with the second of my friend’s answer, at least as applied to my life as a single celibate. I’ve never been involved in paganism and I’m not eating at such a restaurant because there are idols in that restaurant, so I feel safe doing it. (I’m also not bringing kids in restaurants, obviously.) Of course, I would say “No” entirely (regardless of presence of kids) to this question if I believed it was sin against the First Commandment (regardless of it being a teaching moment!)
I should point out that we’re not just talking about “ethnic restaurants” like I put in the first paragraph of this blog. I suspect most of the food we eat from supermarkets has some connection to the blood-money of abortion (which is a satanic sacrifice.) How many foods were made with slave labor or trafficked children? How many simple bulk-foods like sugar and flour were consecrated to satan by disgruntled blue-collar workers in factories? With the explosion of satanism in the world, we’d be naive to ignore how much of our products have been consecrated to the evil one. Indeed, the spread of satanism into not only ethnic restaurants but even into GastroPubs can’t force us to go live in a hole. We can not avoid all food associated with evil, as much food in supermarkets has been cursed. (I obviously realize I am giving a huge argument for homesteading in this blog post!)
So, my main point is that provided we are not doing something because it is idolatry, we can not let fear of others’ idolatry paralyze us in any alley we walk through or any bus we might ride on through Malibu that might have a crystal-wearing driver. Obviously, if you have the option between an idol-infested restaurant and one without idols, go for the latter. But we also must admit in 2022 that are so surrounded by evil these days that we must start focusing on the power of the resurrection of Christ which makes us nearly invincible against idols and even most curses, provided we are adoring only the Blessed Trinity in our lives.
Our blessings over locations and food should be slow and deliberate so as to avoid presumption on God’s mercy. God doesn’t “owe us a living,” so to speak … so, we should be slow and deliberate in all our blessings over all food we do. This way, we live in a manner begging for God’s protection instead of just expecting it. But even amidst such begging, we remember God is infinitely more powerful than satan and that we remain God’s sons and daughter’s nearly invincible in grace, provided we don’t mortally sin. (And if we do mortally sin, we go to confession.) In short, we must ask for grace against curses (that may have come against us in the food and air.) And we do so with deep devotion, intensity and piety. But then we proceed in great trust that no idol can harm us as long as we keep our eyes on Christ-alone.
Still, I will repeat verbatim my first paragraph just to keep you on the safe side: “May I eat at in am ethnic restaurant with pagan idols up as long as I’m not eating there because of the idols?” The short answer to this is: If you have kids and/or want to stay on the safe-side, just avoid such restaurants, especially since there are so many options of restaurants and markets without idols out there. And maybe use it as an evangelization moment. Tell the owners you like their food, but you’re Christians. Tell them you’ll happy support their business when they take their pagan idols down. I suspect that most won’t remove them, but a few will.
Oh, and invite them to worship the one, true God.