By: Christopher West
There have been various stories in the news lately about breast-feeding mothers being escorted off airplanes or out of shopping malls for “indecent exposure.” In a similar vein, a few months ago a well-known parenting magazine caused a stir because its front cover pictured a baby at the breast. Letters to the magazine varied from “how beautiful,” to “that’s gross,” to “that’s pornographic.” In conversations I’ve had with Catholics about the issue, I’ve received varying responses as well. Most Catholics, having a deep sense of the sacredness of a mother’s love, would not respond by concluding that breast-feeding is “gross” or “pornographic” (thank God!). Still, others get more than a bit uncomfortable with the idea of breast-feeding in public. I’m not advocating that nursing mother’s should indiscretely expose themselves in public places. But I do think it could be a good exercise to ask why something as innocent as breast-feeding can cause such discomfort in us. Why should women be made to feel as if they were doing something shameful — even criminal — when they feed their babies at the breast? This is not the case in other parts of the world.
Why Is It So Unbearable?
I remember attending the Second World Meeting of John Paul II with Families in Brazil in 1997. Nursing mothers were a common sight at this international gathering. What I found intriguing, however, was that women from “first-world” nations tended to drape themselves and sit off in a corner, while women from other nations seemed to have no qualms whatsoever about feeding their babies in full view of others. I remember one woman unabashedly roaming the crowd passing all manner of bishops and cardinals with her breast fully exposed while her child held on to it with both hands happily feeding. The only people flinching seemed to be those from the northern hemisphere.
Isn’t it interesting that the part of the world producing the most pornography and exporting it to the rest of the globe has seemed to lose all sense of the true meaning of the human breast? What a commentary on the sad state of our sexually wounded culture! Breasts have been so “pornified” that we can fall into thinking that even their proper use is shameful. In other words, we have been so conditioned to see a woman’s body through the prism of lust that we find it very difficult to recognize the purity and innocence of breast-feeding.
St. Paul hit the nail on the head when he said, “To the pure all things are pure, but to the impure nothing is pure” (Titus 1:15). It is a tragically impure world that labels the purity of a baby at the breast as “gross.” For those with the purity to see it, a nursing mother is one of the most precious, most beautiful, and most holy of all possible images of woman. It is an image that should inspire — and throughout Christian history has inspired — the most lofty of sentiments. In fact, it is a heavenly image. Isaiah 66 describes heaven as that place where we will all drink from the abundant breast of the new Jerusalem and find comfort in her overflowing milk.
The Revered Image of Motherhood
John Paul II observed in his theology of the body that the “whole exterior constitution of woman’s body, its particular look [is] in strict union with motherhood.” Since the body reveals the person, John Paul believes that this speaks volumes, not only about feminine biology, but about the dignity and nature of woman as a person. This is why he takes special care to note that “the Bible (and the liturgy following it) honors and praises throughout the centuries ‘the womb that bore you and the breasts from which you sucked milk’ (Lk 11:27). These words,” he continues, “are a eulogy of motherhood, of femininity, of the feminine body in its typical expression of creative love” (TOB 21:5).
Sweet Jesus, please free us from the pornographic lies that distort the true meaning of our bodies! And Mary, Mother of God, pray for us that we would see in every nursing mother an image of you feeding the Christ child.