Edited to add a head’s up: This is a post discussing adult topics. Par for the course on this blog. Parents preview first, thank you.
When a baby is baptized at St. Suburban’s, the parents and godparents sit front and center during Mass. Because we have an unusually high ratio of transept seating, about 50% of the parish has a perfect view of that front row pew. Thus it heartened me one week during Mass to see that the mother of our newest member of the Church had no qualms about feeding her baby in that fishbowl of a location.
I could tell she was one of those moms who thinks this is normal (it is), but after Mass I felt I ought to thank her anyways. “I know you know it’s perfectly normal to breastfeed your baby at Mass. But all the same, I’m grateful for the example you set for the other moms. Keep it up.”
Are Breasts Immodest?
Since I’m on the record as one of those people who think your breasts — male or female — are not suitable objets d’art in most social contexts, the question arises: What makes breastfeeding different from, say, working as a Hooters girl?
First, to review, the body part itself is not the subject of modesty or immodesty. You don’t sin against chastity nor charity by possessing the anatomy God gave you. The virtue of modesty has to do with our right relationship with others. In how we speak, in how we behave, and yes, even in how we dress. It concerns a number of matters that have nothing to do with sex, not really (it’s immodest to brag or to flaunt your wealth, for example), but modesty does also have to do with upholding the virtue of chastity.
Chastity is the right use of your sexual powers. French kissing your (willing) spouse is chaste; French kissing your date is not so chaste; French kissing a child is sexually abusive. There are a few actions that are always an offense against chastity, and very many actions that are only an offense against chastity when conducted in the wrong context.
So whether or not breastfeeding in public is immodest depends on whether it is the right use of your body. Since breastfeeding her baby is the right use of a mother’s body, and since feeding a baby is not an activity that can or should be restricted to particular times and places, it would be extraordinary for a situation to arise in which it was not modest to do so.
Dual Function Body Parts
Where it gets tricky for some people is that breasts are also erogenous body parts. They aren’t just “sexual” the way your spouse caressing your hand can be an intimate part of foreplay. They are “sexual” in that our cultural regard of breasts as body parts associated with intercourse has physiological underpinnings. There are other body parts that do similar multi-tasking work, and though none of them are exactly like breasts, they can inform us about how modesty works.
Gentlemen, for example, urinate and ejaculate using the same exact body part. And while it is entirely modest for a man to expose himself at the urinal in order to empty his bladder, it would be a gross violation of chastity, modesty, and charity for him to masturbate in the men’s room.
(It’s an offense against chastity for him to masturbate anywhere. But done in public, the additional sins pile on fast.)
Breasts are not penises, though, so it is important that we not say, “Therefore breasts should follow the same rule as penises.” Though both are dual-function body parts, the two are quite different from one another. The lesson, rather, is that even an unequivocally sexual body part might be appropriately used in a public or semi-public setting in a non-sexual way.
Hands and mouths are generally (rightly) regarded as “not sexual organs”, but they do in fact get involved in intercourse with reliable regularity. This does not mean that hands and mouths, therefore, should always be concealed from view. Rather, it means that when they are pulled into service as part of the marital act, then yes, please, take it to another room.
Breasts, male or female, follow the same general guidelines. Please do not expose or display them as a public indication of sexual availability. As a general rule, “Keeping your shirt on” succeeds in most social settings. But feeding babies is one of those situations where the right use of one’s breasts does not require absolute privacy.
Places You Should Not Breastfeed
Does this mean you can breastfeed just anywhere? By no means. There are many places that, for health and safety reasons, you should not breastfeed your baby:
- In a hard hat zone, unless your baby is wearing a hard hat.
- At a site contaminated by hazardous waste.
- On the shop floor of a sausage factory.
- In a public restroom. Filthy.
If the pews of your parish church are similarly noxious, don’t take your baby there. But otherwise, even hungry babies get to go to Mass.
I didn’t exactly plan for this as a symposium topic, but I say it belongs. Fits right in with Calah Alexander’s essay on supporting families that choose to follow Church teaching, and Lisa Hendey’s report on the needs of Catholic moms in general.