Not So Fast

Breastfeeding in the Bible, and in the Church

The year I got married, Ash Wednesday fell less than a month after the wedding. Too soon for fasting and repenting, I thought, but the first reading, from Joel, says otherwise: “Proclaim a fast, call an assembly.... Let the bridegroom quit his room and the bride her chamber.” No excuses, newlyweds. Now, as chaperone to two small boys, I’m on the prophet’s guest list once again: “Gather the children and the infants at the breast.” Technically, as a nursing mother, I am exempt from the obligation to fast this year (and don’t think I’m not grateful). But I’m still expected to show up. Lent is the opposite of a party, but still, everybody’s invited.

Pope Francis caused a stir—yes, again—in December with a story about an encounter with a young mother at a papal audience. “She was shy and didn’t want to breastfeed in public, while the Pope was passing,” he recalled. “I said to her, ‘Madam, I think the child’s hungry.... Please give it something to eat!’” A few weeks later, at a baptism ceremony in the Sistine Chapel, he tapped his inner La Leche League leader again: If the babies are hungry, he said, “mothers, feed them, without thinking twice. Because they are the most important people here.”

For those of us who regularly show up to church with nurslings in tow, that papal permission slip is a welcome gift. The medical establishment may be firm in its conviction that “breast is best,” but the culture that converted to formula-feeding a few generations ago has been slower to come around to the new standard. There’s a lingering sense that breastfeeding ought to be as private as any other thing involving breasts: Feed your baby that way if you must, but don’t do it where anyone else can see. Given that newborns need to eat around the clock, telling a new mother not to nurse in public is essentially telling her not to be in public. Still, nurse a baby in church and you risk dirty looks. Of course, letting a hungry infant cry is also risking disapproval. It’s enough to make a new mom want to stay home.

Yet, while breastfeeding has only recently made a comeback in Western culture, it’s a recurring theme in Scripture. Homilists rarely dwell on those passages when they come up in the readings (can you blame them?), but they are refreshingly relatable to a distracted, sleep-deprived parent. My younger son was just a month old when a reading from Isaiah caught my attention one Sunday—a vision of paradise in the New Jerusalem: “Oh, that you may suck fully of the milk of her comfort, that you may nurse with delight at her abundant breasts!... As nurslings, you shall be carried in her arms, and fondled in her lap; as a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you.”

That’s an image of God we could stand to hear more of, “abundant breasts” and all. And hearing it at Mass made me feel less like a distraction and more like a visual aid: This is how a mother comforts her child; this is what a nursling in a mother’s lap is like. Not that my own mothering is especially heavenly—see me when the baby’s in a biting phase—but it’s a pleasure to be able to draw so deeply on my own experience in developing my understanding of God. Talk like that is enough to make a new mom want to stick around.

Likewise, what made Francis’s remarks about feeding babies so encouraging was not his attitude toward nursing per se, but his interest in young mothers and his sensitivity to their needs—his concern that they feel welcome and comfortable in places of prayer. Whatever else he may do, or not, to advance the presence of women in the church, he is at least demonstrating by example that women’s experiences are significant, and not just as metaphors.

The reading from Joel we hear every Ash Wednesday is the ultimate “inclusive” text: everybody is invited to join the assembly, no exceptions. It’s a challenge, too, to the self-absorbed among us—and who’s more self-absorbed than a new parent? Maybe newlyweds? You can add your own items to Joel’s list: Let the toddlers come with their goldfish crackers; let the teenagers quit their texting; let the grad students abandon their primary texts. Just don’t leave out the infants at the breast. And remember, when they do show up, they don’t have to fast. Pope Francis said so.

About the Author

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



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As long as the Church teaches that artificial birth control is a sin, then the inevitable consequence of not using BC is babies.  Since babies don't know what church decorum is, the congregation has no grounds to be upset when babies do what comes naturally, which is poop, cry, and get hungry.

Thank you for the article. I don't know if I can agree that breastfeeding is making a comeback. My 35 year old daughter was breast-fed when she was an enfant. And, her mother breast-fed her while we all were at Mass. It was a non-issue because we didn't make it an issue.
Breast-feed away! God bless you and all the little ones.

This should be a total non issue - in church or anywhere for that matter.  The fact that somehow there is any sort of shame or feeling that it is not proper decorum to nurse one's infant as nature intended just shows how perverse and morally bankrupt our "advanced" society is.  Nobody casts dirty looks at someone bottle feeding.  The only "self-absorbed" people here are those that would attempt to stop your baby from being nursed because they find it offensive.  We really need to grow up.

There are numerous images of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, breast feeding her Son to be found in Churches in Europe (and most often in museums in the States).  They are most often by the Flemish Masters, but also by Italians and from other sources too.  If Mary can be shown in Church doing this why should there be any question for modern Mothers doing the same thing? 

When I was in Italy for Christmas many years ago, I delighed in getting Christmas cards of Mary feeding Jesus and sending them to family and friends in the States.

I wonder if those who oppose breatfeeding (natural)  in church and support bottlefeeding instead (unatural) are the same ones who advocate natural family planning  against artificial family planning. If that is so, there seems to be a  contradction of moral judgement. Or am I too much of a sinner to figure out a higher standard of morality?

My youngest is now 29, and when he was a baby, I had no problem breast feeding him in church.  I simply went to the cry-room, put him under my coat or sweater, and nursed him.  I could have done the same in the back of the church.  Whether fed or not, he made noise, so out of respect for other worshipers, I looked for an out-of-the-way place; and I liked the privacy.  People who did notice that I was breast feeding were kind and supportive. 

Why would Pope Francis not encourage a mother to nurse her child; that's exactly what Jesus would do.  But I'm not a fan of nursing mothers who make a public display of it to draw attention to themselves.  A mother's focus is her child, not herself or her cause.  Our Blessed Mother is a perfect example.

Delta Airlines got in big trouble last week when a rogue employee told a passenger she couldn't breastfeed during a flight:

Shows just how far we have to go- and not just in church, either. If it's somewhere that it would be okay for a baby to drink from a bottle, it's okay for that baby to be breastfeeding, too. 

By the way: my firstborn was a colicky, constant crier- and he screamed so much during his own baptism (over a decade ago) that I had to nurse him while waiting for his big moment. I will never forget the priest's triple-take when he realized I was nursing my child- right underneath a statue of Mary and the Blessed Infant, whom, we can assume, ate that way too. 

Wow, that's a stretch. Women who breastfeed and also decline to play Vatican roulette with their birth control are committing the sin of "contradiction of moral judgment"? Should those with a "higher standard of morality" also forego blood transfusions, antibiotics and kidney transplants because they don't occur in nature? Is what's "natural" preferable always, or only when it comes to punishing people for sex? Bringing discussion of every issue back to abortion and contraception is something Pope Francis has addressed, and he has said, "Knock it off."

By the way, I'm not sure who these "nursing mothers who make a public display of it to draw attention to themselves" are. I've certainly never met one. 



"Vatican roulette?"  Many forms of NFP are right in the same range of effectiveness as most artificial forms of birth control.  The "rhythm method" was a long time ago.

That being said, there is no way we can make a claim to being truly pro-life if we do not embrace nursing in Church.  As Catholics, we are pro-life, not just anti-abortion.

When my daughter nursed, (she has a two and a four year Old) when she lived with us, she was hesitant to nurse in front of me. I told her that when I grew up there were people nursing on buses and other public places. Soon after she nursed in my presence  so much so that she even omitted those usual subterfuges where the blanket covers most.  In a world where few things are off limits, our inhibitions are in the wrong places. 

I would think that, with the declining attendance at masses and the ever-increasing visibility of the number of white-haired parishioners in attendance, the presence of any number of breast-feeding mothers should be a cause for shouting and dancing in the aisles!

My parish has started to see an influx of young parents with children (2 with newborns) and we think that we have died and gone to heaven!  We even dropped a significant amount of money and turned unused space in the rear of the church into a children's room ... crying or not.

If you discourage what is natural then don't cry at the lack of presence of young parents and their children.

Oh dear, consternation at receiving dirty looks for nursing mothers at Mass! If this article had been written before the invention of breast pumps and before the Saturday Masses I might see the point. What is a mother to do? Since we have both of those conveniences at our disposal in 2014, I suggest that the mother feed the baby with a bottle of expressed breast milk or give the father some quality time at home with his children while Mom has 45 minutes to reflect on her place in God's plan.

Americans have a deeply rooted Puritanical streak not shared by our Italian or Argentinian cousins. Americans think of the female breast in a sexual way and that can be a huge distaction at Mass, along with figuring out how to pay all of one's bills. So I don't think it is surprising that one gets raised eyebrows. I also dont think that young people are staying away from Mass because they feel uncomfortable breast feeding. The Church is no longer relevant to many people whether new mothers or old mothers.

It might be helpful to remember that in the Hebrew Scriptures, especially Genesis, God is referred to as "El Shaddai" or the "One of the Breast".  My favorite example is Gen. 49:25 "God Almighty (El Shaddai), who blesses you, ... with the blessings of breasts (shadayim) and womb (racham)."  It is also interesting to not that the use of "rachamim" to refer to God's love and compassion reflects the maternal love that is so visible in the nursing of children.

"Americans think of the breast in a sexual way.."

So do a lot of other cultures too.  No excuse.  How about being in the proper place mentally and spiritually and not have sex on the mind while seeing a woman nursing her baby for just 45 minutes at Mass?  Should women go back to covering their hair in church too because it is too distracting to the men?  Like I said, we really need to grow up.

"Americans think of the breast in a sexual way.." Many years ago -- right after WWII, in fact -- a leading British anthropologist, Geoffrey Gorer -- published a book called The Americans, in which he said that Americans were hung up on breasts because they drank so much milk. Whether he was making an ironic joke or being a serious scholar, I don't know. But it was also at a time when Britain was staggering towards recovery, was desperately short of cash, and a number of British intellectuals made the discovery that Americans were not only eager to hear themselves being dissed, but would pay handsomely for the privilege (Evelyn Waugh's The Loved One, taking on the Hollywood funeral industry was another example).

I've never understood the criticisms of breast feeding, public or private, and agree particularly with those above who point out that it is perfectly natural. The only negative consquence I've ever experienced I brought on myself, since when our eldest daughter was born, I used to read to my wife while she was nursing. Unfortunately the book I chose was Dracula, and when our daughter grew up, though quite beautiful, whenever she smiled, she showed two pointed little teeth (which she still has). Pre-natal physical influence I'm quite prepared to believe in, but post-natal? Where is Lysenko when we need him?


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