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Catholicism & Mother’s Milk

GUEST COLUMN

By Patricia Dixon | April 2000
Patricia Dixon is a freelance writer and mother of five in Moorestown, New Jersey.

Mary of Nazareth is the Blessed Mother, and a mother’s first and most basic task is to feed her baby. The image of Mary suckling the Divine Infant has long been an inspiration to artists and poets. One thinks of the famous wooden altarpiece in Antwerp, now nearly five hundred years old, that shows the Baby nursing at Mary’s breast as the Holy Family flees from Herod into Egypt. One recalls the straightforward verses of the English Catholic priest Robert Southwell (martyred in 1595 and declared a saint in 1970), who wrote, in one of his poems in praise of the Incarnation: “The same you saw in heavenly seat/ Is he that now sucks Mary’s teat.” From much closer to our own day come the beautiful lines by Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, who writes how Mary gave Jesus “Welcome in womb and breast,/ Birth, Milk, and all the rest.”

There is no mystery about why this image so inspires Christians: It signals the completeness of Jesus’ humanity, and it represents the completeness of Mary’s self-giving in answer to her call from God to be a mother. In the same way, every nursing mother is doing what Mary did, giving herself wholly to nurture new life. Nursing a baby at the breast can properly be called profoundly prolife. So we would expect faithful Catholics to support breastfeeding wholeheartedly.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be the case. In recent months at least three orthodox Catholic publications have shown hostility to breastfeeding. One Catholic writer who correctly criticized UNICEF for its pro-abortion activities also objected to that organization’s support of breastfeeding, dismissing nursing’s many benefits to focus on one putative risk. Another Catholic writer, in the context of reflecting on the proper behavior of babies and mothers at Mass, described nursing as a “private and somewhat embarrassing matter,” like changing diapers. Finally, a question-and-answer columnist in a conservative Catholic paper sympathized with a reader who objected to mothers nursing in church, and made such unhelpful suggestions as nursing the baby before leaving home in order to avoid doing so during Mass, or leaving Mass to nurse.

Why this odd attitude on the part of writers who otherwise support the Catholic view — as opposed to the world’s view — of family, motherhood, and the dignity of women?

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