I want to be as fair as possible in addressing the matter of Eastern Orthodoxy and the tolerance of contraception which seems to be taking place in some of her quarters. This will be done by presenting widely acceptable sources of authentic Orthodox Christianity, so as to avoid reliance on things off-the-fringe. I’d like also to say that this is not a post intended to prop up Catholicism as triumphalistically holding the banner on the subject of contraception. On the contrary, it matters very little that our official doctrine, lengthily compiled in Pope Paul VI’s “Humanae Vitae“, outright condemns any usage of contraception, when one reflects on how poorly this is accepted and embraced by average Catholics. And I would also say that we might be even more concerned at the lack of support for Humanae Vitae from the Clergy and Hierarchy. However, one thing that can be said on this matter is that, so far as Catholicism is concerned, there remains an objective criteria for distinguishing between the definitive teaching which comes from the Vox De Ecclesia versus anything which contradicts. At least, this is how it goes if we respect the internal economy of how Magisterium works. I understand, and can even sympathize (that does not mean agree), with those who would tend to balk at such overly systematized distinctions. As much as they may disturb, it must be admitted that there are times such distinctions can save one’s life, or can make or bread the survival of orthodoxy. For example, even in the 7th and 8th centuries, the Byzantine clergy, when confronted with the “Conciliar” decrees of Iconoclasm which some based off the robber-synod of Hieria (754), thought to frame distinctions for <what is> versus <what is not> an authentic Council (e.g. collegial participation of the 5 Patriarchs). Otherwise, we might not have had the blessing of our teaching on the legitimacy of venerating images. In any case, I am here concerned with the the relativity that seems to be applied by significant voices in Eastern Orthodoxy on what was always considered to be a moral absolute. That seems to be my point of view here. Now, I said what this post was not aimed for. But what is it aimed for? My intention here is to bring to light that the acceptance of contraception (at least, in some cases) is not relegated to the outskirts of the Eastern Orthodox environs, but is a rather publicly tolerated and out-in-the-open, as it were. As much as we can admire the aggressiveness with which the Orient fought for orthodoxy in centuries past, I cannot but help to see a change in modus operandi here. Where the Church during the first 7 centuries was vigilant to sift out the slightest notion of deviation from the Apostolic tradition, even holding Councils to exterminate soul-destroying error, we must see that the modern views held on contraception in the Orthodox Church do not reflect this same reactive treatment. Again, no polarizing here – us Catholics are in absolutely no place to boast or gain one-upmanhip! But, I would urge, that on account of the public nature of Orthodoxy’s contemporary stances on this issue, there is a tad bit more concern; at least, on this subject.
For an extensive Patristic guide on the holy fathers’ view of contraception, I recommend Dr. William Marshner’s wonderful compilation – Church Teaching Against Contraception Prior to 1054. Below I will list my source, and then provide a snippet from the respective publication where from it derives.
Fr. Stanley Harakas, a priest of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, once Professor of Orthodox theology and ethics from 1966 to 1995 at the Holy Cross Greek School of Theology, as well as being visiting professor at St Vladimir’s Theological Seminary and Lecturer at the University of Thessalonica in Greece, writes as follows:
“As we have indicated, there is evidence in the history of the church to provide for both approaches. That is why there is still discussion and controversy. Even our archdiocese has responded differently at different times. In older issues of the Archdiocese ‘yearbook’ a strong negative attitude was expressed. In more recent issues, a position was taken indicating that this was a private matter, involving the couple alone, which was to be discussed with the Father Confessor. The real issue is which of the two views best represents the fullness of the Orthodox Christian faith. The first, negative response, draws primarily on the exclusively biological, physical, and legalistic perspective. The second, affirmative response, emphasizes the close relationship and most importantly, takes a sacramental approach. To state the differences of emphasis is to respond to the question ‘Which is more correct?’. The second fits a well-rounded Orthodox Christian view of the truth. It should be clearly stated that for the Church, sexual relations outside of marriage are sinful and the use of contraceptives, merely compounds the impropriety of that kind of behavior. Nor should anything said above imply that there is an obligation on the part of couples to use contraceptives if they do not wish to. What we are saying is that if a married couple has children, or is spacing the birth of their children, and wishes to continue sexual relations in the subsequent years as an expression of their continuing love for each other, and for the deepening of their personal and marital unity, the orthodoxy of contraception is affirmed“ ( Orthodox Church: 455 Questions and Answers, page 47)
Fr. Harakas is also author to an article entitled “The Stand of the Orthodox Church on Controversial Issues” available at the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America website which says the following concerning the lawful use of contraception in certain conditions:
“The possible exception to the above affirmation of continuity of teaching is the view of the Orthodox Church on the issue of contraception. Because of the lack of a full understanding of the implications of the biology of reproduction, earlier writers tended to identify abortion with contraception. However, of late a new view has taken hold among Orthodox writers and thinkers on this topic, which permits the use of certain contraceptive practices within marriage for the purpose of spacing children, enhancing the expression of marital love, and protecting health.”
Kallistos Ware , titular Metropolitan Bishop of the Diocese of Diokleia, widely influential in Orthodox-Catholic relations, a clergyman of high theological reputation, and a man of Oxford training and intellectual acumen, writes:
“Concerning contraceptives and other forms of birth control, differing opinions exist within the Orthodox Church. In the past birth control was in general strongly condemned, but today a less strict view is coming to prevail, not only in the West but in traditional Orthodox countries. Many Orthodox theologians and spiritual fathers consider that the responsible use of contraception within marriage is not itself sinful. In their view, the question of how many children a couple should have, and at what intervals, is best described by the partners themselves, according to the guidance of their own consciences”. (The Orthodox Church, page 296)
Fr John Meyendorff, a prominent Theologian Church Historian whose lectureship was widely disseminated, and former Dean of St. Vladimir’s Seminary wrote concerning contraception:
“Recent Roman Catholic teaching also recommends periodic continence, but forbids the ‘artificial’ means, such as the ‘pill.’ But is there a real difference between the means called “artificial” and those considered ‘natural’? Is continence really ‘natural’? Is not any medical control of human functions ‘artificial’? Should it therefore be condemned as sinful? And finally, a serious theological question: is anything ‘natural’ necessarily ‘good’? For even St. Paul saw that continence can lead to ‘burning.’ Is not science able to render childbirth more humane, by controlling it, just as it controls food, habitat and health? Straight condemnation of birth-control fails to give satisfactory answers to all these questions. It has never been endorsed by the Orthodox Church as a whole, even if, at times, local Church authorities may have issued statements on the matter identical to that of the Pope. In any case, it has never been the Church’s practice to give moral guidance by issuing standard formulas claiming universal validity on questions which actually require a personal act of conscience. There are forms of birth control which will be acceptable, and even unavoidable, for certain couples, while others will prefer avoiding them. This is particularly true of the ‘pill.'” (Marriage: An Orthodox Perspective, pg. 69)
Abbot Tryphon, the Head of the All-Merciful Saviour Monastery on Vashon Island, Washington, has published a statement on the matter of birth control, and seemingly implies the allowance of it as long as it is not abortifacient, which would include artificial contraception that impedes the natural reproductive act as long as it doesn’t harm the fetus. He says on Ancient Faith: “The Church allows no form of contraception that is abortifacient, and the Fathers of the Church, such as Ss. Athanasius the Great, John Chrysostom, Epiphanios, Jerome, Ambrose, Augustine of Hippo, Caesarious, Gregory the Great, Augustine of Canterbury and Maximos the Confessor, all explicitely condemned abortion as well as the use of abortifacients.”
The Holy Synod of Constantinople has issued a document entitled “For the Life of the World: Toward a Social Ethos of the Orthodox World” which explicitly allows non-abortifacient contraceptive methods of birth control, and this document has the official ratification of Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople through Patriarch Bartholomew as well as the Archepiscopal acceptance of the Metropolitan of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, . One can purchase an English translation published by Holy Cross Orthodox Press, edited by known universalist Dr. David Bentley Hart and Archdeacon John Chryssavgis to read a hard copy. A video lecture reviewing the document is given by Metropolitan Savas of Pittsburg (appointed by Constantinopolitan Patriarchate). This document states: “The Orthodox Church has no dogmatic objection to the use of safe and non-abortifacient contraceptives within the context of married life, not as an ideal or as a permanent arrangement, but as a provisional concession to necessity.”
The Moscow Patriarchate speaks very much like the Abbot above in seemingly allowing the possibility, in exceptional cases, of allowing non-abortifacient contraception which is not simply abstinence from sexual intercourse. That, of course, would imply some artificial method of impeding the sexual reproductive process. They state: “Some contraceptives have an abortive effect, interrupting artificially the life of the embryo on the very first stages of his life. Therefore, the same judgements are applicable to the use of them as to abortion. But other means, which do not involve interrupting an already conceived life, cannot be equated with abortion in the least. In defining their attitude to the non-abortive contraceptives, Christian spouses should remember that human reproduction is one of the principal purposes of the divinely established marital union (see, X. 4). The deliberate refusal of childbirth on egoistic grounds devalues marriage and is a definite sin.”
On the Orthodox Church of America website, there is an Encyclical letter of the Holy Synod of Bishops on the subject of marriage, and therein it states:
“The greatest miracle and blessing of the divinely sanctified love of marriage is the procreation of children, and to avoid this by the practice of birth control (or, more accurately, the prevention of conception) is against God’s will for marriage…In all the difficult decisions involving the practice of birth control, Orthodox families must live under the guidance of the pastors of the Church and ask daily for the mercy and forgiveness of God. Orthodox husbands and wives must discuss the prevention of conception in the light of the circumstances of their own personal lives, having in mind always the normal relationship between the divinely sanctified love of marriage and the begetting of children. Conception control of any sort motivated by selfishness or lack of trust in God’s providential care certainly cannot be condoned.”
So far so good. However, in the OCA’s link to the Synodal Affirmations on Marriage, Family, Sexuality, and the Sanctity of life (1992), we read the following:
“Married couples may express their love in sexual union without always intending the conception of a child, but only those means of controlling conception within marriage are acceptable which do not harm a fetus already conceived.”
Therefore, if we were to presume coherence, then when the OCA’s Encyclical letter says, “prevention of conception”, it must be understood in light of this previous statement, namely, that contraception which is not lethal to the fetus is permissible, which opens the door to other methods traditionally condemned.