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  • Mary Shivanandan

Communion in the Flesh

Updated: Mar 19, 2018


It is not possible to speak truly of communion in the family without taking into account the bodily dimension of conjugal intercourse, gestation, birth and breastfeeding. For these are what set the family apart from every other relationship. Conjugal union, on the one hand, has been privileged in marriage in our culture theologically since the Middle Ages. At the same time suspicion has surrounded it, as being too closely tied to lust. Indeed, I recall a woman who told me that in marriage preparation in the 1950s she was urged never to refuse her husband. This was regardless of his motive for sexual intercourse. However, as canon lawyer, Cormac Burke, whom I cite in Holy Family Model Not Exception, states:

The term Remedium Concupiscentiae (remedy for concupiscence), presented up to 1983 as a secondary end of marriage, has been seriously misapplied over the centuries. In practice it has been taken to imply that marriage gives a lawful outlet to sexual concupiscence (or lust) and hence married couples can now yield to it, since it has been legitimized.

If the conjugal union is truly modeled on Christ’s union with the Church, especially in the Eucharist, then in all its aspects it needs to be purified to reveal its riches.


There is another fleshly union in marriage, which has been given less attention in the Church, breastfeeding. The Dominicans are an exception. To counter the gnostic rejection of the body by the Albigensians in the 11th and 12th centuries, the Dominicans promoted a spirituality of women, focused on the nurture of breastfeeding. Mary was frequently depicted in art as the Madonna, nursing the infant Jesus. So popular became the theme of the nurturing body that Jesus was sometimes depicted as nurturing souls from the wounds in his side. Feminist author, Margaret Miles believes that the emphasis on breastfeeding elevated women, especially as mothers. In fact she states: ”The loss of the female breast as site and symbol of religious meaning was a significant moment in a gradual shift in Christianity , from the affirmation of bodies--both male and female—as essentially engaged in religious commitment, to the female body as object and spectacle.”



What happened to the practice of breastfeeding is too long and complicated to describe in a short blog. Some in the Church, especially in France, but also in other European countries, began permitting women at court to send their children to wet nurses. Gradually over the centuries breastfeeding among all classes declined, particularly in the cities. Attempts were made by Rousseau in the 18th century to revive it, but given the necessary commitment of the mother’s presence, it did not last. Again modern medicine endorses its benefits but promotes it primarily as a product of good nutrition not a vital nurturing bond. Since what is called “ecological” breastfeeding provides a period of amenorrhea between births so that conjugal union can continue unimpeded by the abstinence of NFP, it can be a vital part of not only spacing births but of enhancing the communion of the family.


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