Pope Francis seems to make news so often that I’d never get any work done if I clicked on his picture every time he comes up in my Yahoo daily stories. But “The Week”‘s January 14 article, covering Pope Francis’ endorsement of breastfeeding in church, made me heave a sigh of finally.
Not that I’ve been waiting with baited breath to breastfeed in church. But I’ve often been discomfited by the Church’s very loud teachings on abortion and contraception, and the annoyed looks on priests’ faces when babies cry in church or two-year-olds have temper tantrums. Once I was in a service in which the priest said something snide about a crying baby, only to have mother and child both leave out of anger or embarrassment. We’ve probably all seen parents, grandparents, or older siblings take children out of church when they begin to act up. Unlike many Protestant churches, Catholic churches rarely come equipped with nurseries or separate programs for young children, and formal religious education doesn’t start until a child is in school. Until then, it’s absorb whatever you can during a tedious hour every week in which you don’t really understand what’s happening but can’t get any answers because you’ll be shushed every time you raise your voice to ask a question. Instead of nurseries and childcare, we have the last two pews reserved for “families with small children” and “cry rooms.”
I am not criticizing the Church’s lack of programs for young children; on the contrary, I think there’s value in children learning to rise to adult expectations of an hour’s worth of silence and good behavior. In my own family, we weren’t allowed toys or snacks during church service; we may not have understood enough to pay attention, but we were at least expected to act as though we did. How longingly I looked at little boys who drove their cars over the tops of pews or the little girls who colored in Bible-themed coloring books. Still, I don’t begrudge my parents for denying us those things; learning how to behave in different situations is important, and I think it’s because of the sheer quantity of my Catholic education that I was able to find meaning and quality in it when I got older.
Nor am I criticizing “cry rooms” or reserved pews in the back per se, as I understand that many families feel less self-conscious if they can make a quick exit or be shut in a separate room where the rest of the congregation won’t hear their babies’ cries echoing beneath the vaulted ceilings. I loved it when my mom utilized the cry room while my sister was a baby, because being in there meant that I could be noisy, too.
But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve become uncomfortable with the disconnect between a Church that preaches against contraception but then shuts babies and their parents away, out of sight, out of mind; children should be seen and not heard, and all of that.
Because when you forbid abortion and contraception, guess what happens? You get babies. And where there are babies, there is crying. And if parents are to bring their children up Catholic from birth, at some point those realities of crying babies and the solemnity and good behavior of attending church must converge. And when they do, that convergence is noisy, messy, and yes, annoying. We’re all programmed to dislike the sound of a crying baby. But locking children into separate rooms or setting them up for a quick and easy exit doesn’t seem the best way to handle this convergence. Nor does it feel congruent with teachings against contraception and about bringing children to church.
Pope Francis’ invitation to breastfeed at Mass presents, at last, a more congruent picture of the Church’s teachings and what they imply. Rather than shut parents and children out, why not welcome the chaos? Welcome the bottles and the nursing mothers and the sticky fingers and the stinky diapers. Welcome them in every pew, back, center, and front. Get better speaker systems so the homily can still be heard over the din, or coach priests to pause until the worst of it passes. And love the noise and diversity of God’s creation.