Natural Family Planning International, Inc. (NFPI)
Home NFP Resources Spiritual Resources Blog Contact

Breastfeeding and Catholic Motherhood - Review by Angela Elrod-Sadler

Breastfeeding and Catholic Motherhood
Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Quarterly, Spring 2006
Reviewed by Angela Elrod-Sadler, (Doctoral student in philosophy at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. Instructor at Indiana University Northwest, Department of History and Philosophy)

The choice to breastfeed is one which seems strangely controversial in our society today given the pluralism our postmodern age so covets. Surrounded by a variety of options, breastfeeding can be seen as simply one choice available to parents among others. This choice often sparks controversy, however, regarding public practice, length of practice, and interpersonal dynamics, among other issues. Yet in reading Sheila Kippley's Breastfeeding and Catholic Motherhood, the potential conflicts latent to a woman's choosing to breastfeed are, refreshingly, not the focus. Nor is this work one which focuses on the options facing parents when choosing how to nurture their child. Kippley's book instead clearly advocates for the practice of breastfeeding in a manner far from polemical and seeks, "to show the spiritual dimensions of breastfeeding; how breastfeeding is a natural, healthy part of being a Christian woman, mother, and wife" (p. xii).

Kippley organizes her attempt around three main points partly evidenced in her subtitle: 1) that breastfeeding is a part of God's plan; 2) that Church teaching supports breastfeeding as the best option for nurturing a child; and 3) that breastfeeding shares important aspects of spirituality with the sacrament of marriage. Her attention to these three points, as opposed to the more contentious aspects of breastfeeding, allows Kippley to progress gradually from a discussion of breastfeeding as natural and healthful for the human bodies involved to a discussion of breastfeeding as natural and healthful for the souls involved. Additionally, these points and their examination intersect and reinforce one another in and through the object which is their end, namely, a woman's spiritual growth and relation to God.

In claiming that breastfeeding is a part of God's plan, Kippley establishes her position as one in agreement with traditional understandings of natural law (i.e., normative order of nature as God created it). For in breastfeeding a child a woman conforms to natural law as a creature of God. She thereby submits herself to divine authority, accepts her responsibility as a mother, and acknowledges both her own dignity and her child's as human persons. This is not to say that the woman who cannot or does not breastfeed her child is less of a person. Kippley carefully notes that her work does not explicitly treat either parenting or personal value as its theme. Nonetheless, Kippley clearly states that she believes breastfeeding provides the best ethos for mother and child; ". . . using formula or milk is only the fourth best option . . . the exception, [a woman's inability to produce milk], shouldn't replace the norm" (p.14).

Related to her position that breastfeeding is part of God's plan, Kippley then devotes the first two chapters of her book to its physical and psychological benefits. These consequences are numerous, and the implication is that they result from the good acknowledged by accepting one's place within God's creation. Furthermore, by presenting the reader with scientific support for the benefits of this practice, Kippley simultaneously anticipates and responds to her audience's unfamiliarity with, or resistance to, breastfeeding and its effects. Her explanation of these effects also leads quite naturally for her to an advocacy of extended breastfeeding (i.e., breastfeeding for a period longer than one year) and most especially for the practice she has termed "ecological breastfeeding" (p.60).

Ecological breastfeeding yields not only the physical and psychological benefits of extended breastfeeding, but using more particular standards also aids in a family's ability to space the births of children without using contraceptives. (Kippley's interest in birth-spacing is a longstanding one and extends from its relation to her initial experiences of breastfeeding as well as her work as co-author of The Art of Natural Family Planning with her husband.) Although her discussion of ecological breastfeeding does not appear until the last third of her book, its placement enhances Kippley's first two main points for developing the spirituality of breastfeeding in a three-fold way.

First, Kippley's consideration of birth-spacing enables her to enter cultural and sociological debates because the practice of ecological breastfeeding as such is not confinable to one culture or economic class. For women in underdeveloped or undeveloped nations this form of breastfeeding is common, if not prevalent. Kippley then rightly points out that in developed nations the practice of ecological breastfeeding, and breastfeeding in general, has become non-normative. Her discussion of the practice of breastfeeding, therefore, impacts a variety of issues ranging from population concerns in developing countries to the disintegration of the family in industrialized societies.

Second, by focusing on birth-spacing Kippley again underscores the health benefits of breastfeeding introduced in the first two chapters since a healthier mother and healthier children translate, at least initially, to a healthier population. Taken together, the inclusion within cultural and sociological debates and the benefits of breastfeeding further illuminate concrete means by which Kippley can claim breastfeeding to be a part of God's plan.

Third, it allows her to establish a strong connection between the practice of breastfeeding and what Pope John Paul II has called a "culture of life" by providing women with accepted research supporting alternatives to contraception that also accord with valuing life as the Church teaches. For a child-bearing woman this means being open to the potential for life within the sacrament of marriage and also respecting the vulnerability and dependency of life in its earliest years. Both topics are addressed by Kippley from a laywoman's perspective and align her work with Magisterial teachings.

This leads the reader to more deeply reflect on the chapters supporting Kippley's second point: that Church teaching affirms breastfeeding to be the best choice for nurturing a child. Kippley examines a number of documents from various Church leaders. Among those whose writings Kippley references are Popes Pius XII and John Paul II. Pope Pius XII provides perhaps the clearest statement of a mother's commitment when breastfeeding since he very directly links the development of children's souls to the influence of their mothers during nursing (p.32). Kippley then implies that the Pope's exhortations of breastfeeding as "more desirable" (Ibid.) have been strengthened to level of obligation by relying on the work of Father William Virtue, whose study of nursing and its theological bases describes breastfeeding as "a real duty that cannot be ignored for trivial reasons" (p.31). This means that when no other factors impinge upon a woman's ability to breastfeed so as to eliminate it as the source of a child's nourishment and nurturing, breastfeeding is the optimal choice for providing the child with these goods.

While Father Virtue's study indeed gives Kippley a strong foundation for her claim, her reliance on Pope John Paul II's work best emphasizes nursing as an obligation, especially as it relates to a contemporary understanding of motherhood and a woman's involvement in society. In his work as Cardinal Wojtyla and as Pope, John Paul II dedicated himself to many projects restoring a valuing of life and family predicated upon a respect for God and the dignity of the human person; Kippley has drawn from this great body of work those examples directly appealing to reflection upon the practice of breastfeeding. One such quote will serve here to illustrate how well she has emphasized the connection between herself and the efforts of the Pope. He says:

"In normal circumstances [the advantages of breastfeeding] include two major benefits to the child: protection against disease and proper nourishment. Moreover, in addition to these [benefits], this natural way of feeding can create a bond of love and security between mother and child, and enable the child to assert its presence as a person through interaction with the mother.

All of this is a matter of immediate concern . . . . From various perspectives, therefore, the them is of interest to the Church, called as she is to concern herself with the sanctity of life and the family. . . ," and "In practical terms what we are saying is that mothers need time, information, and support. . . . So much is expected of women in many societies that time to devote to breastfeeding and early care is not always available . . . [yet] no one can substitute for the mother in this natural activity . . ." (pp.35, 36, from an address to the Pontificiae Academiae Scientarium and the Royal Society, 1995)

In addition, the Pope's "theology of the body" helps to inform Kippley's last point for opening up the spiritual dimensions of breastfeeding: its comparison to the sacrament of marriage. There are eleven points of comparison offered by Kippley. These points are only briefly analyzed, however, as Kippley prefers to leave the greater theological discussions to the theologians (p.47). Despite their brevity, these glimpses of what breastfeeding and the sacrament of marriage share all include those elements which most strongly reflect a connection to God through their economy: voluntariness, sacrifice, and love.

To put it succinctly, in breastfeeding her child a woman enters into communion with another person and with God. Her communion is one which she undertakes freely through her love for her child. This same communion between persons (i.e., the spouses) grounds the sacrament of marriage. For it is through a voluntary gift of self to the other that each spouse mutually celebrates and administers God's grace in their lives together by continually affirming their consent to their married state. Each act, that of breastfeeding and that of marriage, thus also involve sacrifice and love because it is through love that a woman gives herself physically, emotionally and spiritually to both her spouse and her child. Such a giving requires sacrifices - of time, of desires, of material goods, etc.- by its very structure and entails a reordering of those goods sacrificed since the desires and needs of the persons involved effect and impinge upon each other. In its proper state, therefore, the communion of persons taking place in breastfeeding a child should not be merely a relationship of utility; it must be ordered by love. As Kippley explains, " In God's plan [the relationships of breastfeeding and marriage] both have a natural and personal order that depend upon each other; the objects of each order [respectively] . . . are reproduction and love" (p.53). Consequently, Kippley views breastfeeding as an extension of the reproductive cycle for a woman within the family, and also as an integral part of the marriage covenant. With respect to its spiritual dimensions this means that just as a woman develops her relationship to God through the communion deepened in marriage, so also does she enrich her communion with God through breastfeeding. This is no small claim on Kippley's part. In making it she reorients an understanding of the relation between the marital covenant and breastfeeding from a view of the practice of nursing as, at most, an addendum, or as unrelated (the more prevalent contemporary understanding) to the marital relationship to one which views breastfeeding as an integral part of satisfying the requirements invoked through the sacramental nature of marriage, viz., the "procreation and education of [the spouses'] offspring through which [marriage] . . . finds its crowning glory" (Catechism, Ligouri Publications, Ligouri, MO., 1994, p.412).

Additionally, this view benefits both spouses, though Kippley's book speaks primarily to women, because of its inclusiveness. Both spouses are required to make a family, and both spouses are responsible for satisfying the requirements of the marriage, according to Church teaching. So many contemporary understandings of breastfeeding emphasize the man's role as non-existent or minimal. The husband comes to believe himself unable to participate or believe that his participation is unimportant. Kippley's understanding of breastfeeding's relation to the sacrament of marriage turns these conclusions on their heads by emphasizing breastfeeding's proper place within the sacrament and the complementarity of its celebrants. Kippley's view thus provides men with a space (intellectually and spiritually) within the practice of breastfeeding for concrete action.

Indeed, after reading this book both men and women will find that Kippley has done more than simply encourage her readers to think of breastfeeding in a new way. Most especially she has given her readers new avenues for understanding concrete ways to live the vocation of motherhood. In our society, faced as we are with a sometimes overwhelming variety of choices, Kippley has made her s. Perhaps reading this book will help others identify whether or not there is a choice before them, and make theirs as well. I join Kippley in her hope that her work will encourage others to more fully live their vocations.