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"Give it something to eat": Pope Francis, lactivist

At RNS, David Gibson flags an overlooked tidbit from Francis's interview with La Stampa (noted elsewhere for his rejection of the idea of women cardinals):

There are so many children that cry because they are hungry. At the Wednesday General Audience the other day there was a young mother behind one of the barriers with a baby that was just a few months old. The child was crying its eyes out as I came past. The mother was caressing it. I said to her: madam, I think the child’s hungry. “Yes, it’s probably time…” she replied. “Please give it something to eat!” I said. She was shy and didn’t want to breastfeed in public, while the Pope was passing. I wish to say the same to humanity: give people something to eat! That woman had milk to give to her child; we have enough food in the world to feed everyone. If we work with humanitarian organisations and are able to agree all together not to waste food, sending it instead to those who need it, we could do so much to help solve the problem of hunger in the world. I would like to repeat to humanity what I said to that mother: give food to those who are hungry! May the hope and tenderness of the Christmas of the Lord shake off our indifference.

Breastfeeding is a hot-button issue (ahem), but that shouldn't overshadow the beauty of the image, and the urgency of the message, here. David reminds readers that the image of the Virgin nursing the Christ child is an icon with a very long history, though not one we encounter often today -- see also this dotComm post from last year. He also says that the pope's "backing breastfeeding in public" will please "pro-nursing feminists and maybe raise a few eyebrows among the traditional set."

The first part, definitely -- this could perk up the ears of people who tend to assume that nothing a pope or a priest says could have any relevance for their lives. The second part, maybe, although I would guess any eyebrows raised would belong to older (probably male) traditionalists. Among young parents, in my experience, breastfeeding crosses ideological lines, and I would venture to say that it's even more widespread among conservative Catholics. Without any stats to back me up here, I'm guessing that conservative Catholic moms are probably more likely to stay at home with their babies, and to rely on the fertility-suppressing capacities of exclusive breastfeeding as a component of Natural Family Planning.... Ah, I see I've lost almost everybody. But if words like "breastfeeding" and "fertility" don't make you click "close tab," you're surely delighted to know that the pope has endorsed nursing babies whenever they are hungry, regardless of your stance in the intra-Catholic culture wars. This is something to keep in your back pocket for the next time someone shoots you a dirty look for feeding your baby at church. (That has never happened to me, by the way, or if it has I haven't noticed. I think people who say they oppose breastfeeding in public, or in church, tend to think breastfeeding is a lot more graphic and titillating than it actually is.)

But back to the pope's larger point: we can feed the hungry. And Jesus told us to feed the hungry. ("Give them something to eat yourselves.") Significantly, the pope is saying here that private charity doesn't suffice: there are ways to address the problem on a global scale. It's the will that seems to be lacking. This isn't exactly a new perspective, but perhaps Francis's way of saying it will break through in a new way. It is Christmas, after all.

About the Author

Mollie Wilson O'Reilly is an editor at large and columnist at Commonweal.



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I continue to be astonished by the Pope's poetic imagination.

 Mollie - I've never noticed that there is anything particularly ideological about breastfeeding.  I think it's pretty well-understood by everyone that it's best for a lot of reasons.  That's my oldish, traditionalistish male view, anyway.  At the same time, folks, please don't stigmatize parents who bottle-feed.  in my observation, women are already loaded down by a judgmental society with plenty of reasons (often enough, unjustifiably) to feel guilty about their shortcomings as moms.  If a mom is feeding a baby from a bottle, please charitably assume that she's well aware of the benefits of breastfeeding and there is almost certainly a very good reason for feeding from the bottle.

Jim, hear hear. (And it's a good idea to leave people alone about their parenting choices generally.)

The ideological aspects of breastfeeding have shifted so much and so quickly in the past few decades that it's hard to make any generalizations about it at all without starting an (or yet another) argument. In the middle of the last century, very quickly, at least in the West, the medical and social consensus shifted to formula-feeding. For a generation or two it was traditional, not to say weird and retrograde, to nurse your baby; now nursing has become mainstream again in a lot of society -- but not everywhere. So, older generations who still remember being lectured about formula are confused by the return of this old-fashioned practice, while young parents who've embraced breast-is-best consider it old-fashioned to think otherwise. Which is "traditional" depends on your perspective!

Maybe what's most striking about the pope's anecdote is not really his attitude toward nursing per se, but his warm and personal exchange with a young mother, and his interest in her baby. It defies the image of priests and hierarchs as being unable to relate to, or uninterested in the concerns of, women and children -- and I think we've all known priests who would be much more likely to scowl at a screaming baby than to recognize its need to nurse, and see in it an image of humankind.

I've mentioned this to Mollie already, but maybe La Leche League will name Pope Francis its person of the year. He's getting a lot of that lately.

Nature is marvelous and absolutely breast feeding should be celebrated. The chemical, Oxytocin, is released in the woman's brain during breastfeeding leading to feelings of connection, love, and elevated mood.

I live with two women so I say, ahem...the more natural ways that oxytocin can be produced for women the better for we men who have to share space!

Mollie - you're right on the button with your recap of the history of bottle feeding.  I'm of a brood of seven, most of us born in the 1960s, and all of us were bottle-fed.  It's just what was done then.  By the time my wife was pregnant with our children, mostly in the 1990s, lactation consultants were visiting her in the maternity ward.  I doubt that service would have been available to my mom in her day.

I'm for La Leche League naming Pope Francis their "Person of the Year." La Leche League people give women help even before the baby is born.

I may be wrong about this but it seems to me that in the U.S. many women do not have the time or encouragement to breastfeed. After my C-section I could not get my baby to as they call it "latch on." What did my pediatrician do? She got a nurse from Scandanavia to help and within 15 minutes things were fine.

Breastfeeding a a godsend if a baby has to have surgery as my son did at four months. Anaesthesiologists caution no bottle feedings 5-6 hours before the surgery.  Breastfeeding is allowed 3-4 hours before the surgery since is so easly digested.

Perhaps I am giving too much information but Scott triggered memories.

Having children has not been part of my life.  I have been far removed from the experience for many years.   In my younger years, however, growing up in a small Midwestern community, I did not find it uncommon to see mothers nursing their children.  Children in a farm community were introduced to many aspects of life as a matter of fact that "city folk" simply couldn't imaging our being exposed to the raw realities of nature that were so hidden from our more cultured cousins.

Nursing babies has always seemed to me to be a very natural part of the birth cycle and I have never understood the squeamishness of some people when it comes to seeing a baby suckling its mother's bare breast, no matter where it happens.  Church seems a place that certainly fits into Catholicism's outsized devotion to the motherhood of Mary.  I doubt that she was shy about the naturalness of it all.

"Church seems a place that certainly fits into Catholicism's outsized devotion to the motherhood of Mary.  I doubt that she was shy about the naturalness of it all."

Neither were Renaissance artists shy about the naturalness of it.  Just Google search images of Mary nursing Jesus.

From what I've read, breastfeeding is good for the mother/baby, but to romanticize it with religious overtones seems a stretcch ... it's just a thing all  mammals do  :)

One of the most profoundly religious experiences of my life was at a midnight mass at a village in India outside of the city of Nagpur.  The village is called Peti Chua.  Supposedly the French fathers who founded it thought of it as the "little cabbage", the darling of their missions and thus the corruption of the location to its present name.  My now deceased friend, the archbishop of that city, went to villages for Sunday mass and other holy days once he had retired.  Women in that part of the world who are nursing do not wear the traditional choli or blouse that goes with the sari,  The pallu that goes over their shoulder covers that and in the winter they would have a shawl over that.  Men and women sit on eather side of the church which has no pews and they are comfortable on the floor.  A mother came in with her baby which could have only been a few days old.  I doubt that the mother was more than fifteen or sixteen.  The baby began to whimper a bit as the sermon was about to begin and the mother carefully moved the shawl and pallu so that the baby could get to her breasts.  I was close enough to hear the sweet gurgling sounds of the nursing and all I could think of was "... at midnight in Peti Chua in the piercing cold...."  

Catherine Berry Stidsen 


Maybe we should not make such a big thing of it.  Babies need to eat, and in most cases nursing is the best way to feed them.  There might be times and places where a little discretion is in order, and mom should use a blanket or suitable light cover to mask the bare breast [the presence of a pack of 5th grade boys might be an example; there are others], but really, can we just get over all the upset?  We shouldn't be either prudes or exhibitionists, but we SHOULD feed our children.  The Pope is spot-on about that.

As a woman who gave birth twice in the 1980s, I was blessed to be able to nurse my daughter for 21 months and her brother for 2 years. I also worked full-time and had a caregiver in the neighborhood of the school where I taught so I could nurse during the school day on my breaks. It was a physical, emotional and spiritual experience for me. While I was always "discreet" when nursing was public, the people who gave me flak were generally people who were uncomfortable with any manifestation of physicality, almost as if feeding my child as God intended me to was dirty or verging on the obscene. Papa Francesco is such a breath of fresh air, clearly "at home" in his humanity and loving his fellow humans, even nursing mothers. 

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