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This article was originally published in Caelum Et Terra, Summer 1996, Volume 6, no 2, and is used here with the authorís permission. To obtain permission to republish this article, contact the author by clicking on the author's name link above.
If you will take a young dog-- a really enthusiastic, twisty-tailed-around, caninaceous, puppiform, doggy kind of dog--- pop it in the freezer until well-stiffened, and then dissect it with a needle and a pair of tweezers, you will get a pretty fair idea of much of the academic philosophy business. The process may produce hundreds of pages analyzing what this puppy was about, except that, when you're finished, the puppy isn't anymore.
Nor can the scholar be accused of an excess of sympathy for his favorite subject.
Such, I am happy to report, is not the case with Mother and Infant. This careful and comprehensive study--- Fr. Virtue's 1995 doctoral dissertation in moral theology, approved summa cum laude at the Angelicum in Rome --- is some of the loveliest and most remarkable academic writing you'll ever want to read. It's lovely because it deals intimately with the earliest movements of human touch, response, and affection; remarkable because, even after he academic work is done, the subject is still warm and alive and ready to lick your hands.
We were made for love. God, Theos, is love. And so probing more deeply into the ways that young human beings learn to love would be the theologian's most important investigation.
Or so one would think.
Unfortunately, this kind of root-level study --- the actual observation of human beings learning to love--- is hardly ever done from a theological perspective, If, for instance, you go down to the nearest Religious Studies Department and ask around about how to convey love to your nearest neighbor--- the child developing in your womb--- you'll be lucky to end up with a tape of New Age acoustic/synthesizer music and a thin sheaf of goddess poetry from Wild and Wicca Books.
At least, that was my experience when I was pregnant with my firstborn. I was experiencing physical changes of great moral and spiritual significance, and yet I could not find one single Catholic who could help me deal with the real inwardness and gravitas of my new, gravid, mother-with-child existence.
Perhaps it was this paucity of Christian reflection which challenged Fr. William Virtue to focus on "the moral theology of embodied self-giving in motherhood in light of the exemplar couplet Mary and Jesus Christ." We Christians have been needing this kind of serious thought about "conceiving, carrying, birthing, nursing, and bonding" as personal actions with moral, spiritual, and even mystical significance.
All of the actions of a mother's nature listed above --- every one of them--- are threatened in our world, threatened in some places to the point of extinction. And, as surely as Grace builds on Nature, the theologian who would defend Grace today must defend Nature first, lest grace collapse, having nothing on which to build.
Fr. Virtue's study knits many kinds of research -- genetic, obstetric, pediatric, psychological, philosophical, ethical, Biblical --- into the fabric of Natural Law: a fabric which wraps around all the moments of motherhood, and gives them moral unity. The author uses the scientific investigations of the last few decades to learn the exact conditions necessary for the flourishing of the child, born and unborn, in heart and mind, body and soul: from this he derives what a mother's duties ordinarily are in relation to her child. (Virtue acknowledges that a father has a vital range of natural duties, too, but his emphasis here is on the maternal.) His formula here could be: a child's need equals a mother's duty.
I was impressed with Fr. Virtue's knowledge of and sensitivity toward the inward experience of these things from the point of view of both the mother and the child. I got the impression that here is a man who has sat with the mothers, asked them probing questions, listened and watched with rare attention; a man who's familiar with the smell of the curds on the baby's burping-cloth, a man who's been drooled on.
That inward experience---the kind of thing you see in Luke's Gospel, another man who apparently spent time listening to women--- also touches on a mother's awareness of the personhood of her newly-conceived child; welcoming the baby while still in the womb; conscious intelligent birthing without drugs and invasive obstetric intervention; breastfeeding as a unitive sacramental experience; the rich protoevangelium of splendid, dedicated mothering. It was delightful to see these intimately and passionately maternal realities acknowledged in a book of the utmost moral seriousness.
The controversy will surely come in because of Fr. Virtue's insistence that these sweet maternal offices are normative to the vocation of motherhood: that they are obligations, not options.
And that is controversial.
On the one hand, no one who knows anything about neonatal pediatrics is likely to deny that a natural childbirth in which the mother is an alert, informed, and responsible participant (and not a passive, prone, drugged obstetric "patient") is the best possible start for a baby. Nor is anyone likely to dispute the notion that extended maternal breastfeeding, and full-time "attachment mothering" for the first three years, is the basis for the optimal physical, emotional, and spiritual development of the child.
But Fr. Virtue goes further: he uses the language, not of option, but of obligation. Quoting saints and popes over the last 20 centuries (with particular emphasis on Aquinas but also relating, for example, the significance of breastfeeding in the early moral development of St. Catherine of Siena and St. Frances of Rome) a develops a very careful argument that the free, conscious, embodied self-giving of the mother in birthing her babies and nursing them at the breast has the force of a moral obligation.
He does not say, of course, that every woman is obliged to have children. Not at all. But he does say that every baby as a right to his own mother's dedicated presence: her welcome at conception, her conscious, intelligently prepared labor at childbirth, her encircling arms, her milk, her heart. Hers. No substitutes.
Our culture increasingly insists that a mother is a socially constructed set of roles, not a person. A baby, though, needs a person. A woman who embodies exactly what he needs. His mother, and no other.
This is how a very young human learns fidelity and trust, learns compassionate response, learns love, and hence, learns God. I am grateful to Fr. William Virtue for saying it so clearly and taking it so seriously.