Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Our Lady's Breasts, Pope Francis' Comment, and the Iceberg of Catholic Culture


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First of all, I'd like to apologize for this post, which is really just a rant.  It's not on a speculative theological matter, so I cannot just rely on the scholastic method to deduce a solution to the problem.  It's a faith-based reflection on a real life problem that I have encountered in my journey as a traditional Catholic.  Most of my conversations with traditional Catholics, or with people who are just beginning their love affair with the traditional Mass, naturally tend to focus on doctrinal and liturgical matters.  Sadly, many 'trads' understand the concept of being a traditional Catholic in doctrinal and liturgical terms, and never see that, in the end, becoming a traditional Catholic is so much more than that, and has to do with culture.  As a philosopher, theologian, and scholar, I am used to deductive, demonstrative reasoning and I therefore often struggle to communicate this non-scholarly, existential idea in a convincing way to people.  

But a recent papal comment and the ensuing discussion in social media became an occasion for me to address this problem among traditional Catholics.  I must say that from time to time Pope Francis says or 'tweets' something that does resonate with me.  If this ever happens, it is usually on some very practical matter, not a doctrinal issue.  One example is his recent remark during a baptism on breastfeeding in church: "[S]ince the ceremony is a bit long, [and] someone cries because they are hungry... if so, you moms go ahead and breast-feed them without fear and as usual, just like Our Lady breast-fed Jesus."  

Granted, this is not a serious moral issue, like that having to do with the reception of Holy Communion by those in adulterous unions.  But to me, it is symptomatic of a much deeper problem.

Moreover, I must also admit that it is a prudential and culturally-contingent issue, so it is not easily settled through the science of ethics or moral theology. Although I stand firmly as a defender of traditional morality, the natural law, and moral objectivity---both in my teaching and in everyday conversation---I do think, with Aristotle and Aquinas, that not all concrete moral situations are settled by the first principles of practical reasoning.  There are some cultural and prudential matters that can only be decided on by letting the various circumstances, even cultural circumstances, seriously inform your choice.

So, this issue will inevitably be seen differently by people in different countries, and in different circles within the same country.  And because in practial matters there may be many correct ways of acting, even opposing views on the issue may be found to be reasonable.  

In this case, in Latin America for example there is a very strong sense among the general Catholic population---even many traditional Catholics---that breastfeeding is completely out of place in Church, that it is disrespectful, even indecent; whereas for example among traditional Catholics in the US, especially large families attending a TLM, no one would bat an eye over a mom nursing her baby, especially if done with a nursing cover.  Non-traditional Catholics in the US and Europe tend to lie somewhere in the middle.

Social media is abuzz over this issue, with lots of people, notably from Latin America, disapproving the practice as well as the Pope's remark.  Why would some Catholics, especially in some cultures, be so strongly opposed to this statement of the Pope, and generally opposed to the practice of nursing a baby in church? I think ultimately it is because they have let an anti-Catholic culture dominate their minds, perhaps without realizing it.  Culturally they have become unaccustomed to life, to the natural family, to the growing family.  

We often do that: we allow a new way of thinking creep into our minds, and unconsciously let it dictate how we think; not necessarily at the level of dogma, or at the level of first moral principles, but we let it influence our unexamined attitudes and sensibilities.  I have noticed this happen in other areas of life.  For example, in the last twenty years it is easily noticeable there has been a profound shift in the way people think about homosexuality.  I'm not talking about people who now are pro-homosexual marriage.  I'm talking about faithful Catholics who are against it, but who have nonetheless allowed the surrounding culture (or lack thereof) transform their attitude towards homosexuals.  They reject homosexual marriage, but their attitude towards homosexuals is now entirely different from the way it was twenty years ago: before, they thought of homosexuals as mentally-ill, perverted, and even dangerous people---nearly everybody did.  But now that homosexuals have fully revealed their social revolutionary agenda, and the media has campaigned in their favor, these people now have passively agreed to think of homosexuals in entirely different, primarily positive terms.  They drank the Kool Aid without realizing it.  


Yet homosexuality is just another issue among many that are symptomatic of a crisis in the Western view of marriage and the family.  It is an important issue, a grave problem to be sure, but it is by no means the only one.


The deeper crisis is that the culture (or lack thereof) that we have been imbibing in the West since at least the mid-20th century is against every natural aspect of the family as God intended it to be, especially as it concerns the nature of womanhood. Feminism has pressured the West to think that women flourish only by emancipating themselves from the chains of motherhood and engaging in professional work.  Feminism has forced us to believe that women are to have at most two children, and thus having a child is an exceptional event in an adult woman's life.  Feminism has made us think that once a woman has given birth, it is her duty to detach her baby from herself as soon as possible, so that she may return to 'normal' life, i.e., professional work.  This often means either weaning the baby as soon as possible or not breastfeeding at all; it means switching to formula and bottle-feeding so that others can care for the baby and she can leave to work.  

And this brings with it other problems.  Because fertility returns soon after the baby is weaned, this creates a false urgency for contraception.  Recall that nursing on demand usually is a natural way of spacing births.  Not all women are like this, but it does work in most cases. It is the way God intended for mothers to be able to focus on their babies and bond with them without having to deal with the discomfort of another pregnancy while their baby is still very young.  In the case of many women, they become infertile for a year or two while the baby is exclusively fed mother's milk, directly from the breast, and strictly on demand.  But this natural order is disturbed when the baby is not nursed on demand, but nursed on a schedule, or bottle-fed, or given formula, etc.  So weaning, formula and bottle-feeding, women in the workplace, contraception: it all goes hand-in-hand. 

Because this way of seeing things is so ingrained in the minds of some Catholics, especially in some cultures like Europe and Latin America, a child being nursed has become a rare event.  In Europe especially, even just seeing children is rare; let alone a child being nursed in public.  Most children are fed formula from a very young age, so people in general have grown completely unaccustomed to seeing children being nursed in public.  Not just in church, but anywhere.  


Because they don't use them, these people have strangely forgotten what breasts are for. And as a result they have by default attached an exclusively sexual meaning to them. Hence the perceived indecency of nursing in public.

If, on the other hand, a woman decides to be so counter-cultural that she chooses to rear her child in a thoroughly natural way, the way God designed things, she has no option but to do things that people around her will consider odd.  She cannot choose when the child will want to eat.  The baby cries and whines when he wants milk, and it is at that moment that she must feed him---both for the baby's sake and her own, and those who are around her.  It is greatly inconvenient for her to leave the church to do this, especially if there is no cry-room (a very American phenomenon, by the way, which is relatively rare in other countries).  In some cases, not being able to nurse at church means she cannot attend Mass.

This sort of cultural clash can be violent.  It is not at the level of dogma, so there is no clear-cut way for the traditionally-minded woman to be vindicated by Church teaching.  And even though the issue touches on Catholic morality, the immediate issue of where a woman may nurse her baby is a prudential matter that is not dictated by Catholic moral principles.  Despite feminist pressures she is heroically embracing her femininity and following her maternal instinct in feeding her baby when he needs it, even if this means subjecting herself to the criticism of others.  It is sad to see these valiant mothers have to suffer through this.

These painful experiences are a sign that a good number of Catholics drank the cultural Kool Aid of the West and see the human body, especially the female body, in a hyper-sexualized way, so that they think of women exclusively as sexual symbols and can no longer admire and respect the beauty of motherhood.  Breasts inevitably mean sex.  They are not for children, because children drink formula.  They are just sexual play things.  As a result, we have lost sight of the beauty of a nursing mother, and have no other way of looking at nursing but as something indecent, disrespectful, or demeaning, which is definitely not a Catholic attitude.

In order to illustrate this last statement in a powerful way, I have included in this post several pictures of the Blessed Mother nursing the divine Child.  If any of the images I have shared here disturb you, then very likely you have been the victim of non-Catholic (or anti-Catholic) cultural sensibilities creeping into the way you see reality.  You may be thinking that because it is the Blessed Mother, it is very different from the case of an ordinary mother nursing her child in church.  But I think that if Our Lady can be so portrayed without damaging her purity, then a fortiori an ordinary mother nursing her child should not shock us.  They did not portray her nursing the Child because of some supernatural privilege that she had over all other women to show her breasts.  On the contrary, she is the supreme model of feminine modesty and purity.  That is, if the Blessed Virgin Mary, whose purity sacred art has taken such great pains to defend, is portrayed in this way, it is only because traditionally Catholic artists in past ages have seen nursing as just a natural, motherly act, and the Blessed Mother doing it will not be seen as anything immodest, indecent, or demeaning.

In fact, not only are Catholic artists traditionally comfortable with pictorially portraying the Blessed Virgin's breasts. Catholics throughout the ages have constantly celebrated the "blessed... paps that gave Thee suck" (Luke 11:27) in liturgical texts and song.  

For example, in the pre-1960 Roman Divine Office, every day, every priest and cleric had to praise the breasts of the Blessed Virgin Mary at the end of every one of the liturgical hours:


VBeata viscera Mariae Virginis, quae portaverunt aeterni Patris Filium. 
REt beata ubera, quæ lactaverunt Christum Dominum. 

Translation: 



V. Blessed is the womb of the Virgin Mary, that bore the son of the everlasting Father.
R. And blessed are the breasts which gave suck to Christ the Lord.

This text and its variants have become part of the corpus of our sacred music. 


You may be wondering by now where I am going with all this.  The moral of the story is this: Being a traditional Catholic is not just about the Latin Mass, or just about upholding traditional dogma.  It is about Catholic culture as well.  It's about not drinking the cultural Kool Aid, and instead finding a way of immersing oneself as much as possible in the Catholic culture that we did not naturally receive through our upbringing.  It is not enough to know the old Mass by heart, to be able to quote Denzinger from memory, and to recite the fifteen mysteries of the Rosary faithfully throughout the week.  Being a traditional Catholic means letting Catholic culture thoroughly influence us.

And culture influences us deeply indeed. It permeates every aspect of our minds, from our religious beliefs, to the way we talk, dress, and interact with others, including our assessment of aesthetic values and our affective responses to the world.  It especially has a way of affecting our unexamined beliefs, attitudes, and sensibilities.  That is to say, our beliefs as Catholics are not just in the Trinity and the Incarnation.  Or in pastoral practices concerning the relationship between marriage and the reception of Holy Communion.  All of that is just the tip of the iceberg.  Our Catholic culture permeates our psyches somewhat like this: 


Our Catholic formation goes much deeper than doctrine and morals, and reaches down to our human formation, to our unquestioned, unexamined attitudes, sensibilities, dispositions, behaviors.  

If you are deeply immersed in a non-Catholic (or anti-Catholic) culture, chances are that even if you persevere and keep the faith, some of your unexamined sensibilities will suffer alterations in ways that run afoul of Catholic tradition.  You may make it to heaven, and you may even become a great saint, but you will not be able to understand or appreciate other, often more Catholic perspectives on certain things.  Even if you have a superior theological, moral, and liturgical formation, you will perhaps not be as Catholic (or Catholic-minded) as people in other traditionally Catholic countries or in other more thoroughly Catholic ages when the social Kingship of Christ was in place.  Concretely, if you live in one of many English-speaking countries, which are historically or demographically Protestant, such as the United States, England, Australia, etc., this will inevitably happen, even if you are unaware of it.  You become aware of it only when you suddenly encounter a Catholic practice, custom, or perspective which---though hallowed by time and by the endorsement of centuries of Catholics, of saints, and popes---is deeply contrary to your unexamined sensibilities. 

You are a traditional Catholic to the extent that you strive to immerse yourself in traditional Catholic culture in all its aspects.

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