Let Us Not Forget: Grace Builds upon Nature

Last week our subject was the most welcome press release by Theresa Notare regarding breastfeeding. This week I will engage in the easy exercise of speculation about what might have been if that sort of promotion of breastfeeding had occurred 55 years ago. The fact that it didn’t happen is evidence of a serious lapse in putting into practice the traditional theological teaching that grace builds upon nature.
      What if in the summer of 1952 the national family life agency of the American bishops had issued an urgent appeal to all bishops and priests to promote breastfeeding?
What if moral theologians of the day had researched the long and rich tradition of Catholic moral theology that stressed the obligation of mothers to breastfeed their own children? What if they had gone back only to October 1941 when Pope Pius XII took time out from his busy wartime activities to urge all mothers to breastfeed their babies if at all possible?
      What if the Pre-Cana Movement that was growing by leaps and bounds at that time had promoted breastfeeding and especially the pattern of frequent nursing that we now call ecological breastfeeding?
      What if the Church in America had enthusiastically welcomed the founding of La Leche League in 1956-1957? What if Msgr. George A. Kelly, truly a great and family-oriented priest, had promoted both ecological breastfeeding and the calendar-temperature rhythm method in his best selling 1958 book, The Catholic Marriage Manual?

If those things had happened and if the Catholic laity had internalized such teaching, I am confident that things would have been quite different in the turbulent Sixties. I was working as a lay evangelist in a parish in Santa Clara CA in the mid-Sixties, and I surely wish that the Catholic tradition of breastfeeding was alive and well in those days. I can still remember all too well the plight of a 30 year-old mother of seven children. This was probably 1965, and she had most likely married right out of college at age 22. In other words, she married in 1957. Her face was still very pretty, but her legs showed the effect of having so many children in such a short time, for varicose veins were obvious to most casual observer. She wasn’t complaining about the number of her children, but her question truly reached me. “I have another 15 years of fertility ahead of me. At this rate we will have 20 children. What are we supposed to do?” She asked me this because I was known to defend the Church’s teaching against unnatural forms of birth control. She knew I wasn’t going along with the new “scientific miracle” called the Pill, but she needed and wanted some help consistent with Catholic teaching. I tried to say something about calendar rhythm, but I was quite ignorant on that subject at the time. It had not been part of the theological program preparing me for parish evangelical work.

But what if she had been reached in a pre-marriage program that really advocated the Catholic and healthy tradition of exclusive and frequent breastfeeding for the first six to eight months and continued frequent nursing for at least two years. What if she had given birth at two-year intervals instead of annually? What if she and her husband had learned the rudiments of calendar-temperature rhythm, about the only thing that was somewhat well-known at the time? What if she knew from experience that Catholic teaching was eminently livable?
      What if her practice of something approaching ecological breastfeeding and their knowledge of calendar-temperature rhythm was multiplied many thousands of times throughout the more than 10,000 parishes in the States at the time?

In my opinion, Father Charles Curran and his sympathizers would not have any sort of mass following just as they have no following among those practicing chaste NFP today. The difference would be that instead of about 3 percent of Catholic families currently practicing modern NFP, the numbers at that time would have been at least 65 percent. Yes, in 1962 or 1963, a survey indicated that some 62 or 63 percent of Catholic parents still accepted and followed Catholic teaching on birth control, and all they had was calendar rhythm or calendar-temperature rhythm, the latter of which could be highly effective if properly understood and practiced.

It had been a long theological teaching in the Catholic Church that grace builds upon nature. Somewhere along the line, our moral theologians accepted the growing practice of bottle-feeding. If asked, these moral theologians and pastors of yesteryear would have agreed that parents have a general obligation to do what is best for their children within their circumstances. But somewhere along the line Catholic doctors, theologians, and pastors forgot that breastfeeding really is best, that it is God’s plan for nutrition and nurturing and that it spaces babies.

The significance of Theresa Notare’s press release on breastfeeding is that it may sound a clarion call within the Catholic Church to restart the longstanding tradition in favor of breastfeeding as God’s own plan for baby care. We can hope also that a reawakened tradition will include the promotion and teaching of ecological breastfeeding as well, God’s own plan for spacing babies.

John F. Kippley
NFP International
Author: Sex and the Marriage Covenant (Ignatius)
Co-author: Natural Family Planning: The Question-Answer Book
(e-book at this website, 2005)

Comments are closed.