Food - Bee Wilson on the theological consequences of eating chocolate

There is nothing, so far as I am aware, in any Christian scripture forbidding the consumption of chocolate. Allowing cocoa solids to pass your lips features neither among the Ten Commandments nor the Seven Deadly Sins. You will not go to hell, if you believe in it, for eating Ferrero Rocher. Yet, through a strange perversion of this secular age, we can now barely mention chocolate without calling it sinful or wicked.

The "chocaholic" use of the rhetoric of sin is mainly rather sad. It is a way for needy people, usually women, to pretend to themselves that they are not being greedy when they take a fourth slice of chocolate volcano pudding. In talking lightly about the sinful decadence of what they are doing, they saddle themselves with a spurious sense of guilt. But this guilt is also strangely comforting, because it is experienced as external to the eater. If there is an outside authority telling you that all chocolate is sinful, then a whole bar is no worse than a single square. What's more, you can enjoy an illusory feeling of rebellion against the chocolate-hating deity. Hence that dreadful phrase, coined by Salman Rushdie (who knows a thing or two about Satan), "Naughty but nice". You torture and absolve yourself in one chocolatey bite.

It is a sign of just how widespread this mentality is, that Chocolat by Joanne Harris has enjoyed such success. Now out in paperback, smothered with rave reviews and Christmas recommendations, this is a novel which takes the idea of chocolate-as-sin quite literally. The heroine is a mys-terious chocolatiere called Vianne Rocher, who sets up shop in a French village of small-minded people. The local priest, Father Reynaud, sees her praline- selling activities as evil, and does everything he can to sweep her out of town. Taunted by the presence of "Venus's nipples, truffles, mendiants, candied fruits, hazelnut clusters, chocolate seashells" - and in the middle of Lent! - he organises a "Church, not chocolate" campaign. With a tired inevitability, it all culminates in the priest bingeing on chocolates on Easter morning, "moaning" in ecstasy, like "a pig", unable to resist the amandines and chocolate fondants he has preached so zealously against.

Obviously, Chocolat is a fable about the battle between pleasure and intolerance. It is also a piece of utter tripe. Never mind the cliched quality of the writing: what makes it really bad is the implausible notion that Catholic priests are essentially opposed to the enjoyment of chocolate. This is simple misrepresentation. Chocolate is the last thing that most Catholics, troubled with problems of genuine sin, would worry about. The saintliest Catholic I know is a devotee of tiramisu, all kinds of the stickiest chocolate fudge cake and those Chips Ahoy! cookies you get in America.

The pleasures of the table are among the few pleasures that Catholics can enjoy without pangs of conscience. Think of Jennifer Paterson, G K Chesterton and Saint Thomas Aquinas - all famously devout Catholics, and all splendidly rotund. (If Aquinas never ate chocolate, it was surely only because he was born too soon.) Now compare them with John Stuart Mill, Bertrand Russell and Beatrice Webb - rational atheists all, and each one of them as thin as whey.

Chocolat is objectionable on at least three related counts. It makes an imbecile mockery of the notion of sin, for those who still hold by it. If being a man of faith were only a matter of eating once a day and avoiding sweets, as the cure in Chocolat does, then we might all do it.

Second, the book grotesquely inflates the value of chocolate above all other foods. What about those who simply don't enjoy eating Easter eggs and drinking mochaccino? According to Chocolat, such people must be either very repressed, or else lying. Thus the bigotry of religion is replaced with the bigotry of chocomania. And finally, Joanne Harris actually trivialises the fanaticism she is trying to attack. If we reduce religious intolerance to a refusal to enjoy chocolate, what words remain for the Spanish Inquisition?

Neither religion nor chocolate is seen in its true light when they are set in opposition. When Galileo went into exile, and Cranmer to the stake, we can be sure they did not do so in the name of chocolate.

Chocolat by Joanne Harris is published by Bantam (£6.99)