A friend who works for a Catholic apostolate recently shared with me that she was discouraged from breastfeeding her 5-month-old daughter during training sessions. She isn’t the first Catholic woman who has shared this type of story with me, either. I’ve heard many anecdotes from mothers involved with Catholic ministry who were told they had to cover while nursing, or couldn’t nurse at all (i.e., the nursing baby wasn’t welcome to attend a specific function that his/her mother was required to attend).
When the issue was pressed, most of these mothers were told that these policies were due to concerns about modesty — they were worried that the sight of a breastfeeding mother would encourage impure thoughts in others; most notably, in young men. There are many, many problems with type of policy and the reasoning behind it; for the sake of brevity, I’ll point out four specific issues.
Restricting Breastfeeding Is Probably Illegal
Forty-nine states, the District of Columbia and the Virgin Islands have laws that specifically allow women to breastfeed in any public or private location. The one exception is Idaho. A Catholic church, ministry, apostolate, etc. that sets policies restricting breastfeeding mothers from feeding their babies, or requiring them to cover while doing so, may very well be running afoul of the law. (Worldwide, Australia, Canada, Germany, the Philippines, Taiwan, and the United Kingdom — among others — have laws protecting nursing mothers, too.)
It’s true that Catholic citizens “are obliged in conscience not to follow the directives of civil authorities when they are contrary to the demands of the moral order” (CCC 2256). However, “once a law has been passed by the civil government, it should be considered just unless the contrary is clear from the nature of the law or from the declaration of ecclesiastical authority” (CatholicCulture.org).
Laws that protect breastfeeding mothers from discrimination are inherently moral, as they serve to encourage mothers to feed their children in the manner in which God designed their bodies to do so. Therefore, Catholic organizations that assume this particular civil law is unjust despite clear evidence to the contrary is acting against Church teaching.
As for the declaration of ecclesiastical authority — as it so happens, the Church’s highest ecclesiastical authority on earth has encouraged mothers to breastfeed in public not once, not twice, but at least three times.
The Pope Encourages Breastfeeding in Public
In 2013, Pope Francis said in an interview with La Stampa,
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.
He reiterated this support in 2015:
While baptizing 33 babies in the Sistine Chapel on Sunday (January 11), Pope Francis urged mothers to breast-feed their infants if they were hungry. “Mothers, give your children milk—even now,” Francis said. “If they cry because they are hungry, breastfeed them, don’t worry.”
And again in 2017:
As the sounds of crying grew louder, the Pope joked that the concert had begun. The babies are crying, he said, because they are in an unfamiliar place, or because they had to get up early, or sometimes simply because they hear another child crying. Jesus did just the same, Pope Francis said, adding that he liked to think of Our Lord’s first sermon as his crying in the stable. And if your children are crying because they are hungry, the Pope told the mothers present, then go ahead and feed them, just as Mary breastfed Jesus.
A law protecting the right of nursing mothers to breastfeed in public can hardly be considered in opposition to Catholic moral teaching if the Pope himself encourages nursing mothers to breastfeed in public. Nor can breastfeeding be considered unchaste or immodest behavior if the Holy Father encourages women do to so in his presence and/or in the context of Mass.
Breastfeeding Mothers Imitate Mary
A guide to modesty in Catholic circles is usually something along the lines of The Marylike Standards of Modesty in Dress. Michelle Arnold at Catholic Answers points to some issues with this document; however, it does get one thing right: women, especially those active in Catholic ministry, should strive to imitate the Blessed Virgin Mary. What better way than to nurse our babies as Mary nursed Jesus?
In fact, one of Mary’s titles is Maria lactans (translated literally as Mary lactating). There are many beautiful portraits of Mary breastfeeding without a cover and with her breast and nipple fully exposed. See, for example, these 20 Images of Mother Mary Nursing at St. Peter’s List or these 31 Beautiful Paintings of Mary Nursing the Baby Jesus from ChurchPOP or the Nursing Madonna Wikipedia entry. There are even images of Mary shooting breastmilk into the mouth of St. Bernard of Clairvaux! Also, the La Leche League was founded by seven devout Catholic housewives who named their organization after a Florida shrine to Mary, Our Lady of La Leche (Our Lady of Milk).
Should Catholic organizations really institute policies that encourage women not to imitate the Blessed Mother?
Modesty is a Direction, Not a Line
Fr. Matthew Schneider wrote an excellent post for Catholic Stand about six months ago titled “Modesty is a Direction, Not a Line.” In it, he says,
Instead of being a line, modesty is a direction. It has to do with respecting your own body and respecting others both in mind and body. As such it is the part of the virtue of chastity regarding those things not directly related with the marital act. It is most often talked about regarding clothing but also refers to how we act or treat others, and our words. A young man who ogles a young woman dressed overly provocatively sins against modesty just like she does. Or a man who speaks in a way some might dismiss as “locker room talk” sins against modesty with his language.
The direction modesty points is the direction of greater respect for our body and mind and those of others, especially in the sexual arena. Instead of asking “Is this skirt to short?” we should ask “Does this skirt this short respect my dignity and the dignity of those who’ll see it?” Instead of asking “Does this joke pass some arbitrary line for crudeness?” we should ask if the joke shows respect for the human person and for human sexuality.
Using Fr. Matthew’s criteria, breastfeeding is entirely modest and appropriate. It glorifies God’s creation and the way He designed our bodies to function. The sole source of nourishment for an infant is usually his mother’s breasts, and if Catholics strive to ostracize or persecute a mother for feeding her baby in the way that God designed her to do, they are not respecting the dignity of mother and baby. Eating is not an act that is intended be private or hidden from the world; Jesus showed us at the Last Supper, among other accounts, that eating in company of others is normal and natural. So it is with feeding babies.
It is also not fair nor just to place the burden of protecting others from their own lustful impulses on the shoulders of breastfeeding mothers. If a man sees a woman nursing her baby, that is a good thing; it shows him that breasts are not mere sexual playthings, but have a good and useful purpose outside the context of sexual foreplay.
If a man becomes lustful or aroused by the sight of a breastfeeding mother engaging in a perfectly normal, natural, and appropriate act, it is his duty and responsibility to avert his eyes or otherwise remove himself from the situation, rather than shame a mother for the act of using the equipment God gave her to feed her child. In this instance, the sin against modesty belongs to the man, not to the woman, and no woman should be punished or shamed for it.