Preface: I recognize that there are situations, such as adoption, where lactation and natural infant feeding may be difficult if not impossible. For those circumstances, I am very grateful that there is a technology to help these infanst to survive. This polemic is not addressed as those cases.
Many people have been astonished and overwhelmed by the level of emotion that the breastfeeding in public issues arouses. I think that the topic is so controverisal because it is emblematic of so much that is horribly wrong with our culture and our society. For the last hundred years or so, there has been a concerted effort to sever women from femininity in the name of feminism. The major social and technological factors that have made this even remotely possible have been contraception, abortion, and bottle feeding. The wide spread acceptance of bottle feeding was what originally made it possible for women to become a part of the industrial work force.
But, intriguing as the connection is between artificial baby feeding and the exploitation of women as wage slaves, that is not the main point I want to make here. Those interested in that historical point would do well to read such books as "Lying-In - A history of Childbirth in America" (Werts and Wertz) and "The Tender Gift" (Dana Raphael)- as well as "The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding" and the GK CHesterton collection "Brave New Family". Instead, I want to explore just WHY it is that emotions are so aroused by breastfeeding - public, private, flaunting, discreet, etc.
It can't be the simple matter of feeding the baby - very few are offended by a baby who is being spoon-fed, cup fed, bottle-fed, or who is just shoving food in his mouth via fingers. Some may be offended by the mess and trail left of self-feeding babes and toddlers, but the focus isn't on the eating. So I think that we can agree that in general, it is not the concept of feeding infants in public that is offensive to some.
Nor is it the concept of comfort and nurturing the baby. We all recognize that moms, dads, and other caregivers cuddle, rock, walk with and otherwise pacify (or attempt to!) fussy or needy babies. So it isn't the comfort and cuddle aspect of nursing a baby at breast that is offensive to some.
The observant reader will notice that I just used two different phrases to describe the activity that is under discussion - the activity, that carried out in public, arouses such a maelstrom of conflicting attitudes among bystanders. One phrase used is 'breastfeeding' - the other is 'nursing a baby at breast'. Take a few moments, if you will, and think about the difference in meaning and mindset that these two phrases connote, and you will get just an inkling of why and how emotions are so easily aroused. Breastfeeding is about a whole heck of a lot more than simply a better kind of milk - it is a system of feeding and nurturing the young of humanity that was designed by God with a multiplicity of interacting factors between mother and child each meeting the other's needs. Think of the biblical images of nursing mothers, how Hannah did not bring Samuel to the temple until after he was weaned (probably around the age of three) and so on.
I think I have established that the sticking point here is not feeding or comforting the baby(infant, child) - it is that the mother's breast is the medium used to feed and/or comfort the baby. So there are actually two major points here that come into play - one is 'mother', the other is 'breast'.
Our dominant culture has expended a lot of energy and effort in a mostly successful attempt to denigrate the unique position that mothers have in the lives of their children. "Experts" have been telling us for over 100 years that science trumps everything on the care and rearing of children. Scheduled feeding, separate bedrooms, 'scientific feeding' (infant formula or rigidly scheduled feeding at the breast', behaviorism, letting the baby 'cry it out' - or on the contrary, abandonment to absolute permissivism, the tyranny of infants, total lack of structure have both been advocated as a 'better way'.
Parents have a grave responsibility before God to rear their children so that these children will love God. It is very difficult (not impossible, nothing is impossible with God) for children who have not been well-loved and nurtured to "GET" that God is loving and firm, just and merciful, demanding and forgiving. Parents have the awesome task of trying to behave towards their children as God behaves towards us. And of course, Satan wants anything but that. So the father of lies creates dissension in any area where his fell aims may be furthered, any area from welfare reform (let's put all the babies into day care) to medical care (it's not a baby, it's a blob of tissue) to parenting (it doesn't really matter who takes care of baby, as long as it is gaining weight and seems normal).
I think that it DOES matter who takes care of baby. Fathers are very important, but I think that in the first years of life their most important role is to protect mothers so that mothers can do what only mothers can - and that includes feeding babies under God's magnificent design. I think that as Catholics we can agree that men and women are different in role and equal in dignity - that true 'feminism' (a phrase that has been horribly co-opted) lies in respecting the uniqueness of both men and women and granting them both the dignity of their God-given roles in life.
We, sadly, live in a fallen world. One symptom of that is that we often are no longer polite to each other in public or in private. We stare, make rude comments, chatter incessantly about minutiae, express ourselves without invitation, etc. We have a warped view of what is normal and what is abnormal, we call virtue sin and sin virtue.
William Luse says it well in his post but even more so in the comments boxes. Because we are fallen, we have come to see breasts as primarily sex toys for slavering men, rather than seeing that their sexuality derives from their nurturing function. When we separated the meanings of sexuality from each other, when soi-disant 'feminism' advocated the masculinizing of women, we created the situation where the very thought of a child suckling on the breast gets the 'ick' response, but the thought of feeding a child chemical soup from a plastic container through an artificial nipple does not.
We need to heal the culture. I think that most of us in St. Blogs recognize that. We pray, we fast, we try to practice our Christianity in ways large and small. There are many ways to help heal the culture, and I think that discreet public breastfeeding is one of them. The key is discreet. I also think that no mother should be forced to breastfeed in the toilet or to disrupt her baby's nurturance by being forced to use a bottle (even one with mother's own milk in it).
So let us encourage mothers to mother, and fathers to father.