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Family Life MAY 23-JUNE 5, 2014

Breastfeeding in church? WHY, naturally! HEIDI SCHLUMPF

While vacationing in Michigan, Mary Kate Dempsey and her family visited the local Catholic parish for Mass. From the number of large families in the pews, she assumed it was family-friendly and took a seat in a section toward the back of church where small children were running around. But when she began nursing her 7-month-old in that back area, an usher asked her to leave, telling her what she was doing was “inappropriate.” Dempsey was incensed, even though she had received negative reactions to breastfeeding in public before, including in — of all places — Las Vegas. “It really threw me that it happened in a Catholic church,” said Dempsey, a mother of seven who lives in Elmwood Park, Ill. Too bad the Dempseys weren’t visiting St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Earlier this year, Pope Francis made headlines for telling a mother with a crying baby to go ahead and breastfeed her child during a general audience. This simple acknowledgement cheered breastfeeding moms and advocates worldwide, while highlighting the reality that churches are not always welcoming and accepting of the practice.


Lisa Popcak was one of those thrilled by the report about Fran-

Gregory and Lisa Popcak

cis. A lactation consultant for two decades, she and her husband, Gregory, have long advocated breastfeeding not only for physical health but for psychological and spiritual benefits as well. “I’m glad Pope Francis brought this up,” she said. “The church needs to support moms and allow them to discreetly nurse children, even in church. Don’t think you’re doing us a great favor by offering a rocking chair in the kitchen. As baptized members of the church, these children have a right to be at Mass.” Lisa Popcak breastfed her biological children (the Popcaks also have an adopted child) and rarely received negative feedback, she says, in part because she nursed her chil-


May 23-June 5, 2014

dren very closely, and became a in a baby sling, and leader of La Leche used a cover. Often, League, an interpeople thought the national organizababy was sleeping, tion that provides not nursing, she support, encoursays. agement and edFrancis is not the ucation about first pro-breastfeedbreastfeeding. La ing pope. Pope Pius Leche was origiXII urged mothers nally founded in to breastfeed if pos1958 by a group of sible, while Pope Catholic mothers, John Paul II devotseveral of whom ed an entire meetwere involved in ing of the Pontifical the Christian FamAcademy of Sciencily Movement. La es to the topic. “So Leche, however, human and natural has no religious af—Jovee Photography is this bond that the filiation. The Chaffee-McClure family, clockwise from left: Zach, Franny, Katie, Psalms use the imChaffee-McRay and Quin age of the infant at Clure, a self-deits mother’s breast scribed liberal as a picture of God’s care for [huYet even mothers who do not Catholic, has noticed that breastmanity],” the pope said in his rebreastfeed can achieve that nurfeeding is an issue many liberal marks at that meeting. turing relationship with their chiland conservative Catholics can The Popcaks also see the selfdren, the Popcaks say. Lisa was able agree on. Active in the breastfeedgiving of breastfeeding as compatto imitate breastfeeding with her ing and natural birth community ible with John Paul II’s theology of adopted daughter, who joined their in her area, she has noticed those the body. “The way God designed family when she was 14 months groups include people from a vaour bodies tells us something about old. “Even if her nourishment was riety of religious and ideological his intention about the kinds of renot coming from me, I always made backgrounds. lationships he wants for us,” Greg sure to feed her in a close, nursing “It seems to come from both direcPopcak explained. “God gives mothposition. She didn’t run around tions,” she said. “Very conservative ers breast milk to indicate the kind with a bottle. I wanted to teach her people and very liberal or progresof intimate connection he wants that eating is not just about food; sive people, for different reasons, for mothers and babies.” it’s about relationship.” are coming to the same thing.” For Lisa, it is while breastfeeding Katie Chaffee-McClure of RoThe Popcaks, who host a daily rain church that the spiritual benefits eland Park, Kan., who chose to dio podcast through the conservaare most vivid because of the connurse her three children as an extive Ave Maria Radio, are supportnection to the Eucharist. “Jesus is tension of her commitment to natuers of Dr. William Sears, the guru feeding me with his body and gracral childbirth, also sees a spiritual of modern “attachment parenting” ing me to able to feed my child with connection. and a favorite of hip, liberal moms. my body,” she said. “It all feels connected in a divine “Whether you are more progresIn fact, the image of the nursway,” she said. “With breastfeeding, sive or more traditional, if you ing Madonna was an early symbol we are given this chance to have have a healthy sense of the incarof God’s nurturing relationship that connection with our children. national nature of our Christian with the world. The Popcaks have It’s what’s best for your child and faith, you realize that faith is not a small statue of Our Lady of La helps you be a better parent. It’s about politics, it’s about intimate Leche (“the milk”) in their home. A all ties together so well. It’s truly a relationships,” said Lisa Popcak. shrine to Our Lady of La Leche is gift.” “And one of the most intimate relain St. Augustine, Fla. In fact, Chaffee-McClure joined tionships you can have is one with


a child through breastfeeding that’s rooted in theology of the body.” Which is not to say Catholic breastfeeding proponents don’t have any disagreements. Sheila Kippley, who literally wrote the book on Breastfeeding and Catholic Motherhood, has been promoting breastfeeding as part of natural family planning since the 1960s. She and her husband, John, founded the Couple to Couple League in 1971, but now have their own organization, Natural Family Planning International. “When I started breastfeeding, it was unpopular,” Kippley recalled. “I would say we haven’t gotten that far. Everyone weans so early, especially in the African-American community. Our society is focused on bottle feeding and getting the baby to sleep through the night. The baby needs the mother’s presence, just as the baby needs food. They’re a biological unit, just as they were when the baby was inside the womb.” Kippley promotes what she calls “eco-breastfeeding” as a way of naturally spacing children. Often called “exclusive breastfeeding,” it rejects any practice that restricts

May 23-June 5, 2014


NCRonline. org

Catholic Nursing Mother’s League

Breastfeeding and Catholic Motherhood: God’s Plan for You and Your Baby by Sheila Kippley (Sophia Institute, 2005) Natural Family Planning International Couple to Couple League

Parenting With Grace: The Catholic Parents’ Guide to Raising Almost Perfect Kids by Greg and Lisa Popcak (Our Sunday Visitor, 2010) “More2Life” radio show with the Popcaks

nursing or separates mother from baby, including bottles, pacifiers and pumping, for the first six months. For some women, exclusive breastfeeding is impossible or problematic, sometimes because of the stress such intensive attachment parenting can put on the mother, the family and the marriage. It also clearly excludes mothers of young children from working outside the

home and is seen by some as overemphasizing women’s roles as mothers, to the exclusion of other roles. In addition, while Kippley and others tout breastfeeding as part of natural family planning, the effectiveness rates of breastfeeding on fertility can vary, depending on the duration, intensity and frequency of breastfeeding. Yet, despite some disagreement, Catholic breastfeeding advocates agree that breastfeeding is beneficial and should be promoted. Parishes could definitely do more, they say, as part of outreach to parents of young children. Kippley remembers offering a copy of her book to a well-known priest, who refused to take it, saying, “Why should I, a priest, be interested in breastfeeding?” Kippley was so shocked she was speechless. “Today I would reply, ‘Because you as a priest are called to love mothers and babies in the sense of wanting what is best for them, and breastfeeding is best for both of them.’ ” [Heidi Schlumpf teaches communication at Aurora University outside Chicago. She is the author of While We Wait: Spiritual and Practice Advice for Those Trying to Adopt (ACTA).]

This article originally appeared in the National Catholic Reporter. For more independent news, visit To subscribe, visit or call 1-800-333-7373. @NCRonline

Breastfeeding in Church? Why, naturally!  

Explore the Catholic connection to breastfeeding in this article from National Catholic Reporter's 2014 Family Life special section.

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