"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.

Mollie Wilson O’​Reilly is editor-at-large and columnist at Commonweal.

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