Personally embodied nourishment is not only good for the body; it is good for the soul. It is (as some Christians would put it) proto-sacramental.
Mother’s milk promotes sanctity? From the infant’s point of view, yes. Look at it this way. What are we here for? What is the purpose of human life? It is “to know, love, and serve God in this world, and to be happy with him in the next.” It is to love and to be loved.
And how do young humans learn to love? One would think this would be one of the core concerns of theology: studying, with sustained attention, on our knees, the process by which a child learns to give and receive love.
How does the child learn love? Where are the foundations laid? At his mother’s breast. According to the research brought together in Fr. William Virtue’s philosophically rich and cheering book, Mother and Infant, breastfeeding teaches the tiniest infant some immensely important lessons: (1) that the universe is good; (2) that he has personal power: the power to elicit a response; and (3) that his deepest needs and appetites can be satisfied in a committed relationship with one loving person.
Did I say “the universe”? From the infant’s point of view, yes. The newborn’s sight, generally hazy and undefined, is designed to come to a focus at one specific distance: 8 to 12 inches, not much more and not less. Why 8 to 12 inches? Because that’s the distance from a nursling’s eyes to his mother’s face while he is being cradled at her breast. Increasingly, within weeks of birth, he’s not looking at her breast. He’s looking at her eyes.
She fills his whole range of vision; she satisfies his hunger and thirst, succors him with warmth and comfort; the timbre of her voice (the higher female tone) is precisely the range of frequencies his ears are fine-tuned to hear. She is his universe: To the nursling, she is the Immensity.
Breastfeeding is not just a connection between a mammary gland and an alimentary canal. It is a relationship of a person to a person. It is not just nutritive. It is unitive. If it is wrong deliberately to sunder the unitive and procreative powers via contraception—and I am convinced it is—then I would also argue that there is something wrong about separating the unitive and the nutritive powers via the artificial bottle-feeding of the young infant.
I don’t say that every use of a baby bottle is intrinsically immoral, as a contraceptive is. What I do say is that if a mother knows the physical and spiritual benefit of nourishing her baby at the breast, knows that her child has a right to her milk as a proto-sacramental gift of embodied love, and is able to nurse (even at a considerable personal sacrifice)—but chooses not to—she has greatly wronged her child.
And if a woman does not know about breastfeeding, or is made incapable of doing so by grave familial or social or economic pressure, then, in her education or in her circumstances, she has been greatly wronged.
“It is thou, God, who took me from the womb, And kept me safe upon my mother’s breasts” So says the Psalmist (22:9), speaking prophetically of the divine care and protection to be enjoyed by the Messiah. And what mother, loving her own baby, would want it any other way?