Thursday, March 15, 2007

Does Orthodoxy Allow Contraception Or Not?

During the course of a blog discussion, this topic came up. Some of the participants seemed to deny that Orthodoxy permits contraception. My understanding prior to this present undertaking was that it is permitted in many (perhaps the majority of) quarters of Orthodoxy, and that great disagreement exists. The changes in Orthodoxy with regard to this issue are clearly seen in differing statements in editions of Kallistos Ware’s well-known book, The Orthodox Church. I cited one of my papers:

In the first edition, first printing (1963) of The Orthodox Church by Timothy (Kallistos) Ware - a widely-cited and authoritative source on Orthodox teaching -, the author states (page 302):
Artificial methods of birth control are forbidden in the Orthodox Church.
The first edition, revised 1984 version of The Orthodox Church, however (NY: Penguin Books, page 302), states (emphasis added):
The use of contraceptives and other devices for birth control is on the whole strongly discouraged in the Orthodox Church. Some bishops and theologians altogether condemn the employment of such methods. Others, however, have recently begun to adopt a less strict position, and urge that the question is best left to the discretion of each individual couple, in consultation with the spiritual father.
The second edition, revised 1993 version of The Orthodox Church reveals even further alarming departure from Orthodox and previously universal Christian Tradition (page 296; emphasis added):
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 in itself sinful. In their view, the question of how many children a couple should have, and at what intervals, is best decided by the partners themselves, according to the guidance of their own consciences.
In the past, when I brought this up, Orthodox critics simply dismissed Kallistos Ware as any authority on Orthodoxy. Well, yes, I understand he carries no extraordinary ecclesiastical authority, but what would have to be asserted is that he doesn’t know what he is talking about sociologically, in describing the eroding moral teaching on contraception. In other words, it would have to be shown that he is reporting the actual situation "on the ground" incorrectly.

This isn’t the only Orthodox source I found to establish my opinion on this. Fr. Stanley S. Harakas, professor of Orthodox theology at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology (I believe that is affiliated with OCA, but I could very well be wrong about that), in his book: The Orthodox Church: 455 Questions and Answers (Minneapolis, MN: Light & Life Pub. Co., 1987), wrote on pages 40-42:

56. What beliefs does the Orthodox Church have about Birth Control?

Within modern Orthodox Christianity, varying views on the subject exist . . .

Both these views have been held and promulgated through the years within the church, even though they are mutually inconsistent. This inconsistency has been reflected in approaches to the question of contraception.

[on p. 41, he cites Fr. John Meyendorff’s book Marriage: An Orthodox Perspective, as arguing for the moral permissibility of contraception]

As we have indicated, there is evidence in the history of the church to provide support 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 . . .

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.

An Orthodox Christian (Christoper Parks), posted at the same time, an entry on his blog, in response to "common Catholic criticisms of the Orthodox Church." Here is almost all of it:
. . . please click on my screen name for a post that contains links to the following Orthodox sources on the topic of contraception:
+ Basic Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church

+ The Mystery of Marriage, 10th All-American Council, Orthodox Church in America

+ On Marrriage, Encyclical Letter of the Bishops of the Orthodox Church in America

+ The Stephanos Project

+ For the Health of Body and Soul: An Eastern Orthodox Introduction to Bioethics, Fr Stanley Harakas at the Greek Orthodox Archidiocese of America website

+ The Sacramental Life of the Church, Rev. Alciviadis C. Calivas, Th.D. at the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America website (scroll down to The Purpose of Marriage)

I then inquired on the same blog:
Does [name] concede that the Orthodox view on contraception is a mixed bag (per Metr. Ware and Fr. Harakas), or does he deny this? That was the question I was dealing with. The claim that Orthodoxy is against it and the claim that it allows it for legitimate reasons, are two different things. Above, someone seemed to assert the first (or at least said he was unaware of anything different, which is a little less assertive). I’m not sure what position you are taking on it.

It seems to me that the facts of Orthodox compromise and confusion (of some sort and to some degree, at high levels) are clear (unless the two men above know little about their subject, (which would be weird on many grounds). It’s even more clear that no Christian body accepted contraception until the Anglicans in 1930 (and even then it was only for “hard cases” – some things never change).

He responded by simply stating that he was trying to "provide further reading for those interested" and "to provide reference material" which he hoped was "of some use". I asked again, a question to any Orthodox on the board who were willing to answer:
I’m still trying to figure out if Fr. Harakas’ and Metr. Ware’s generalizations about Orthodox varying opinions on contraception are true, or whether they are false (if the latter, why, and what other evidence confutes that)? Or is that impolite and “debate-mongering” to simply ask the question? If so, please accept my apologies beforehand (even though I don’t know why this would be an apology-requiring thing at all).
(No one answered).

The same Orthodox Christian, Christoper Parks, in his blog post on contraception, didn't make any arguments of his own. His general opinion of (and complaint about) the criticism of Orthodoxy on this score, seems to have been expressed in a sister post, where he wrote:

I, myself, have made a number of criticisms of modern Orthodoxy, . . .. So I have no interest in making the Orthodox Church appear as anything other than what it is. But, . . . I would like the criticisms of the Orthodox Church to be just. . . . A lot of what gets tossed around on the internet, especially on topics such as abortion, divorce, caesaropapism, etc, does get tossed around as if it's de fide in Orthodoxy and most certainly used "as the excuse for dismissing" Orthodoxy.
It is true (I'm responding here to some criticisms received by other Orthodox) that at one time I had posted an article about compromises on abortion of certain Orthodox theologians. But it is no more fair to pin the blame for that on Orthodoxy as a whole, than it is to blame the Catholic Church for a dissident group such as "Catholics for Choice." We both have our liberals "within the camp," most assuredly. So I removed that article. But (let's be very clear about this) even when it was on my site, it did not accuse the entire Orthodox Church of "approving" of abortion (or some such sweeping, general charge). It was merely a chronicling of certain liberal theologians who exhibited a dangerously anti-life attitude.

I was in the rescue movement alongside at least one Orthodox participant. On my Life Issues Page I have several links to Orthodox pro-life material. But back to contraception: the Orthodox person mentioned above listed six links. What information can they can give us, in order to resolve the question, "Does Orthodoxy Allow Contraception Or Not?" Note again that this is one Orthodox Christian who obviously wishes to fairly, accurately present the teachings of his own communion, documented its teaching concerning contraception, in response to what he called "common Catholic criticisms of the Orthodox Church."

"Basic Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church"
("official Web Server of the Moscow Patriarchate")

XII. 3. Among the problems which need a religious and moral assessment is that of contraception. 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.

At the same time, spouses are responsible before God for the comprehensive upbringing of their children. One of the ways to be responsible for their birth is to restrain themselves from sexual relations for a time. However, Christian spouses should remember the words of St. Paul addressed to them: 'Defraud ye not one the other, except it be with consent for a time, that ye may give yourselves to fasting and prayer; and come together again, that Satan tempt you not for your incontinency' (1 Cor. 7:5). Clearly, spouses should make such decisions mutually on the counsel of their spiritual father. The latter should take into account, with pastoral prudence, the concrete living conditions of the couple, their age, health, degree of spiritual maturity and many other circumstances. In doing so, he should distinguish those who can hold the high demands of continence from those to whom it is not given (Mt. 19:11), taking care above all of the preservation and consolidation of the family.

The Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church in its Decision of December 28, 1998, instructed the clergy serving as spiritual guides that 'it is inadmissible to coerce or induce the flock to: refuse conjugal relations in marriage'. It also reminded the pastors of the need 'to show special chastity and special pastoral prudence in discussing with the flock the questions involved in particular aspects of their family life'.

Orthodox Church in America
Tenth All-American Council, July, 1992

synodal affirmations
On Marriage, Family, Sexuality,
and the Sanctity of Life

Convinced of these God-revealed truths, we offer the following affirmations and admonitions for the guidance of the faithful:

. . . 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 foetus already conceived.

This obviously allows contraceptive measures, and does not condemn them in the least. I couldn't help noticing the next section, too, and a disturbing statement in it:
Abortion

Abortion is an act of murder for which those involved, voluntarily and involuntarily, will answer to God.

Those finding themselves confronted with tragic circumstances where the lives of mothers and their unborn children are threatened, and where painful decisions of life and death have to be made -- such as those involving rape, incest, and sickness -- are to be counselled to take responsible action before God, who is both merciful and just, to whom they will give account for their actions.

[emphasis added]

This allows abortion in cases of rape, incest, or sickness, which is sanctioning slaughter (by default; by not condemning it as evil) of preborn children based on the morally irrelevant reason of how they were conceived, who their parent is, or how healthy either they or their mother is. This is immoral. Now, I've stated my opinion that the Orthodox Church is "strongly pro-life" above, yet it is very troubling to find this, even in the material that an Orthodox brother offered us, in hopes of demonstrating (presumably) that Orthodoxy is as committed to pro-life principles as the Catholic Church is.

Obviously, that is not true in the case of these exception clauses (which we do not allow at all). This is not a consistent pro-life position. I don't know how much authority such a synod has within the Orthodox Church in America, but there you have it. Contraception is not condemned at all (which is a strong confirmation of my original claims, as received in the information provided by my original two sources, and abortion is allowed in hard cases. This is not traditional Christian reasoning. A child is a child. He or she is a human being, possessed of an eternal soul. It is a heinous sin to take that life because the parent of the child is a scoundrel, or ill, or because the child is seriously ill.
ENCYCLICAL LETTER OF THE HOLY SYNOD OF BISHOPS OF THE ORTHODOX CHURCH IN AMERICA ON MARRIAGE

H. Birth Control

1. 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.

. . . 2. 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.

Another opportunity to condemn all contraception (in accordance with unbroken Christian Tradition) is lost here. Instead, a pious, high-sounding sort of language is utilized, to condone it (again, by default, or in direct effect). This has always been the case in the various statements of ecclesiastical bodies which attempt to modify the received teaching, concerning both contraception and abortion -- starting with the Anglican Lambeth Conference in 1930. I have studied such statements and even compiled them. The dynamics and "moral trajectories" are almost always the same. The abortion statement in this encyclical is very strong, but contradicts the one above (as it includes no loopholes other than the danger to the life of the mother).

The next link referenced is The Stephanos Project, (subtitled: "Contraception, Natural Family Planning, The 'Theology of the Body,' and Population Ethics from an Orthodox Christian Perspective"), a web page produced by an Orthodox priest, Fr. John [I haven't found his last name yet]. I had already had a link to this page on my website (as noted above). Fr. John himself maintains the traditional view on the moral wrongness of contraception, and states in introduction to the page:

My work on this topic grew out research for my M.Div. thesis at St. Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary on the topic of "Orthodox Christianity and Contraception."
This source is a very important one, because of the stance of the webmaster, and his efforts to compare and contrast it with what he finds in his own Church. Thus, he has links such as the following ones, which espouse traditional teaching:
Establishing the Abortifacient Potential of the Birth Control Pill

The Case Against Contraception (Rachel Miola)

Natural Family Planning Information Site

NFP and an Orthodox Vision of Sexuality

In his article, Is there a traditional view of contraception?, Fr. John argues that there was, and that Christians were against it. To briefly summarize his argument, he writes:
Although St. John Chrysostom is the Father most often appealed to in Orthodox sources to support acceptance of contraception, it does him an injustice to read this into his work.

. . . According to Dubarle, Augustine offers “the most detailed, the most doctrinally systematic” condemnation of contraception.

. . . Although the evidence presented contains certain ambiguities, a consistent picture does emerge. Diverse sources from Ireland, Italy, North Africa, Greece, Serbia, Russia, and the Syrian Orient all attest to the fact that contraceptives were condemned by the Church. Until very recently opposition to contraception was commonly recognized as the traditional position.

. . . It should be noted that it was not until 1930 that any mainstream Christian group officially endorsed the use of contraceptives. The Christian world had been universally opposed to the use of contraceptives until that time.

And what do we learn in this article about present-day Orthodox attitudes toward contraception?:
It has become commonplace [my emphasis added] for Orthodox theologians to assert that there is no traditional position on the subject of contraception. Paul Evdokimov writes, for example:
In the age of the Church Fathers, the problem of birth control was never raised. There are no canons that deal with it. The ancient collections of penitential discipline are no longer entirely applicable; moreover they say nothing on the subject…One must therefore start from the patristic spirit [italics his] and not from a precise, inexistent teaching.

[Paul Evdokimov, The Sacrament of Love (Crestwood, NY: SVS Press, 1995), 174.]

. . . Francis Edgecumbe writes: “The traditional attitude has been strictly to forbid all employment of contraceptives, and even to discourage the so-called ‘rhythm method’.”

[“Orthodox Reactions to Humanae Vitae” in the Eastern Churches Review 2:3 (1969): 305]

Father Gregory Naumenko, writing in Orthodox Life, offers a similar perspective:

The true Church of Christ has never in the past given her blessing for such a practice. This is clearly stated in the Book of Needs (Trebnik), where, in the Order of Confession, among the questions addressed to women we find the following: “Did they wear herbs so as not to have a child,… or whether someone poured something into her womb so as not to conceive, or ate some herb…She is to desist and be excluded for six years.” Here the Book of Needs draws support from a ruling of the Sixth Ecumenical Council. Thus, the use of contraceptives goes against not only the spirit and purpose of the Christian marriage and the teachings of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, but also goes against the clear and direct decrees and laws of the Church.

[“Pastoral Practice and Contemporary Moral Questions” Orthodox Life no. 1 (1992), 30]

We fnd more of the information we are looking for in Fr. John's article, Orthodox Responses to Humanae Vitae, where he cites the reaction to Humanae Vitae of the Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras:
I absolutely agree with the pope . . . Pope Paul VI could not have spoken otherwise. Holding the Gospel in his hand, he seeks to protect the morals as well as the interests and the existence of the nations . . . I am at the pope’s side, in all that he is doing and saying.
Other positive Orthodox reactions are also cited:
Metropolitan Chrysostom of Athens stated: “While I am by no means a lover of the papacy, I feel the need to commend the papal encyclical.”[6] Metropolitan Nikodim of Leningrad went on record as saying, “Every form of birth control is undesirable.”[7] Father Virgil Gheorghiu, a Romanian Orthodox priest living in Paris, said: “We Christians know that it is not the mouth of the pope that has spoken in forbidding the use of contraceptives. It is God who has spoken through the mouth of the pope—and through the mouth of the ecumenical patriarch.”[8]
Francis Edgecumbe (see the source above), wrote:
It is interesting, in this connection, to note the change that has taken place in the kind of teaching given to the Archbishop’s own flock. A few years ago the faithful of the Greek archdiocese were severely forbidden to employ contraceptives. The Greek archdiocese Year Book for 1957 contained the following statement (pp. 50-51): “If a husband and wife do not desire to have any children, they ought to abstain from all conjugal relations until they are able to have children, and then to come together again in sexual union, relying entirely and solely on God’s omniscience. The use of contraceptive devices for the prevention of childbirth is forbidden and condemned unreservedly by the Greek Orthodox Church.”
Fr. John sadly concludes:
The first extended theological response came in 1969 from Philip Sherrard. In an article entitled “Humanae Vitae: Notes on the Encyclical Letter of Pope Paul VI”, published in Sobornost, Sherrard critiqued the use of natural law in Humanae Vitae, following closely the arguments of dissenting Roman Catholic theologians.[13]

Another article appeared in 1974 in the Journal of Ecumenical Studies by Chrysostom Zaphiris.[14] He argued, following John Rock, the Roman Catholic inventor of the birth control pill, that that the Pill, by mimicking the natural hormones of a woman’s body, was acting in accord with natural law. [15]

Many of the contemporary Orthodox discussions on contraception are built upon the arguments and views of these theologians. Their work has set the tone for much of the contemporary discussion.

In a related past post on Pontifications (5-22-04) Fr. John wrote:
Acceptance of contraception is clearly a recent phenomenon in the Eastern Orthodox Church. As Slesinski (a Byzantine Catholic) points out, I think Chrysostom would be horrified. Our tradition, no less than the Catholics, has rejected it until recent times. I find it highly significant that all the Orthodox arguments in defense of contraception parallel, sometimes word for word, liberal Catholic theologians.
Another posted article is Contraception, Natural Law, and Eastern Orthodoxy. This is a very helpful survey of the reasoning of major Orthodox dissenters from Humanae Vitae. Fr. John writes:
Sometimes it seems that Orthodox writers are trying to define themselves in contrast to the Roman Catholic Church. But ironically, many of their arguments originated with Roman Catholic dissenting theologians. For example, Zaphiris’ appeal to “synergism” hearkens back to John Rock, the Roman Catholic inventor of the birth-control pill. Sherrard’s charges of “biologism” follow much the same line as the dissenting majority of theologians on Paul VI’s special commission.

. . . The authors cited seem to think that some aspect of Orthodox identity is at stake—by accepting Humanae Vitae, they will be submitting to Rome. But Orthodox should not be afraid of these ideas simply because they are associated with Rome. Rather, we should ask what is the theological position which most truthfully represents our own tradition. As we have seen, Humanae Vitae may be more compatible than many have made it seem. Still, it will take a lot of careful work to discern what is the best position for Orthodox to take on the issue, and what, if any, would constitute a unique Orthodox perspective.

Fr. John, to reiterate, summarized the present state of affairs in Orthodoxy regarding contraception as: "It has become commonplace [my emphasis added] for Orthodox theologians to assert that there is no traditional position on the subject of contraception." This abundantly confirms our suspicion, based on Fr. Harakas' and Metr. Ware's observations. The anonymous Orthodox Christian also cited Fr. Harakas' article, For the Health of Body and Soul: An Eastern Orthodox Introduction to Bioethics, (posted on the Greek Orthodox Archidiocese of America website) as a fifth source. The latter writes:
General agreement exists among Orthodox writers on the following two points:
1. since at least one of the purposes of marriage is the birth of children, a couple acts immorally when it consistently uses contraceptive methods to avoid the birth of any children, if there are not extenuating circumstances;

2. contraception is also immoral when used to encourage the practice of fornication and adultery.

Less agreement exists among Eastern Orthodox authors on the issue of contraception within marriage for the spacing of children or for the limitation of the number of children. Some authors take a negative view and count any use of contraceptive methods within or outside of marriage as immoral (Papacostas, pp. 13-18; Gabriel Dionysiatou).

. . . Other Orthodox writers have challenged this view . . .

Lastly, the sixth cited source is the article, The Sacramental Life of the Church, by Rev. Alciviadis C. Calivas, Th.D. (also on the Greek Orthodox Archidiocese of America website). Rev. Calivas writes:
Sexual relations are related to the mutual fulfillment of the spouses and then to child-bearing. The decision, therefore, to suspend fertility through the use of contraceptives is not necessarily in violation of natural law. Regarding this matter, Metropolitan Chrysostomos Zapheris notes the following:
While the Orthodox Church fully acknowledges the role of procreation in the marital sexual act, it does not share the deterministic understanding of the act ... which ignores love as a dimension of great value in sexual intercourse between husband and wife.
Creation of new life requires serious, prayerful, honest and sincere reflection. While some forms of contraception are more admissible than others, it is clear that abortion is not an acceptable form of birth control. The decision to regulate the size of one's family is the personal responsibility of the spouses. A serious commitment to the Gospel, however, precludes decisions that are based solely on hedonistic, selfish and prideful reasons.
And so our survey of these recommended Orthodox sources has revealed nothing any different than what we were told by Metropolitan Kallistos Ware and Fr. Stanley Harakas. Other internal Orthodox indications exist, as to the compromise (or weakening, or change) of Orthodox prohibition of contraception. In a Google search, I ran across an Orthodox blog called St. Stephen's Musings, run by Karl Thienes. He states in a post entitled, "Sex, Marriage and Theosis: Part I" (12-30-04):
I also agree that the gradual acceptance of contraception by many Orthodox clergy and prominent Orthodox scholars . . . over the last several decades should raise an eyebrow or two.
In Part II of this article, Karl adds:
The truth of the matter is that, sans a more complete definition, [neither] this narrow (and very Roman Catholic) understanding of marital sexuality nor the gradual acceptance of contraception are healthy expressions of the Church's teaching about marriage and sex.

. . . The fact is we will not have healthy marriages without a vibrant monastic movement in America that actually informs our praxis, including our sexuality. This is one lesson the more "liberal" Orthodox (especially new converts) need to accept. As I noted in Part I, I sympathize with the traditionalist fears concerning certain ramifications of American Orthodoxy taking its cues from post-Enlightenment culture and western Christendom rather than the historic teachings of the Orthodox Church.

In the article, Eastern Orthodoxy and Contraception: Contemporary Versus Traditional Views, the writer, Taras Baytsar (seemingly Orthodox; it's not totally clear), notes:
The voices of the various Orthodox churches have been muted in addressing the issue of contraception and "family planning." Even when church leaders have spoken, their communication is often inconsistent with early Church traditions and teachings, or contradictory from one period to the next or among Orthodox theologians. While the desire to avoid controversy is understandable, controversy can not be avoided at the cost of error or indifference.

. . . the Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople. In 1968 the Roman Pope Paul VI wrote the encyclical letter Humanae Vitae in which he reaffirmed the Latin Church's rejection of contraception. After reviewing the encyclical, the Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras wrote to the Pope to assure him of the Orthodox Church's "total agreement" with the encyclical's contents:

We assure you that we remain close to you, above all in these recent days when you have taken the good step of publishing the encyclical Humanae Vitae. We are in total agreement with you, and wish you all God's help to continue your mission in the world.
Similar inconsistencies and ambiguities can be found within the Russian Orthodox Church. Father Alexander Men, one of Russia's best known and widely read theologians, addressed the morality of contraception in this way:
This is not my own opinion. I have consulted with our bishops and they are of the opinion that a person has a right to practice birth control. Otherwise, they may bring more children into the world than they can support, in which case they will become animals rather than human beings.

[A. Men', Kul'tura i dukhovnoe vozrozhdenie, (Moscow 1992), pp. 445-450]

A modified version of this view was also endorsed in August, 2000 at the Jubilee Bishop's Council of the Russian Orthodox Church, to whit:
Among the problems which need a religious and moral assessment is that of contraception. Some contraceptives have an abortive effect, interrupting artificially the life of the embryo on the very first stages of his life. Therefore, the same judgments 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.

["Bases of Social Concept of Russian Orthodox Church," confirmed on Jubilee Bishop's Council of the Russian Orthodox Church (Moscow, August 13 - 16 2000) retrieved from http://www.russian-orthodox-church.org.ru/sd00e.htm. Emphasis in article]

. . . the positions stated above are only a few of the many that have been taken over the years by Orthodox Churches and theologians on the issue of contraception . . .

We have seen the witness from Holy Scriptures, early Councils and holy Fathers of the Church. All of them attest to the immorality of contraceptives. St. Clement of Alexandria, St. Hippolytus of Rome, St. Epiphanius of Salamis, St. John Chrysostom, St. Ambrose of Milan, St. Jerome, St. Augustine, and many teachers and Doctors of the Church; proclaim the constant teaching of the Faith about this issue. They witness to the unchangeable nature of Tradition about artificial birth control.

On the Orthodox web page, Differences Between Latin Catholicism and Holy Orthodoxy, one of the differences is the following:
- Latin Catholicism allow a Birth Control method called Natural Family Planning (NFP), but does not permit any other form of contraception (Note: Latin Catholics do not consider NFP a contraceptive). Historically, the only form of "contraception" that Orthodoxy allowed was total abstinence (ie. not just abstinence during a certain period of the month when the wife is capable of becoming pregnant, but a total and complete cessation of sexual relations).
Conclusion?: Orthodoxy has compromised the ancient Christian teaching (and its own former teaching, very firm as recently as 40 years ago) which prohibits contraception It has called something good which is a sin, and which it used to itself regard as a serious sin. Catholicism has not done this. This is a major reason why I began considering conversion to Catholicism in 1990, and why I am a Catholic today.

Later, I wrote about contraception generally on this other blog:

I don't think the perspective hinges on one word here. If you don't like "essential," drop it and simply use "deepest meaning" or "inherent meaning" or "divine purpose" for sexuality. Any of those will suffice. Everyone agrees, I would think, that the most obvious, "ontological" reason for sex is procreation. Sex is also pleasurable. What the Catholic Church says is that you shouldn't separate the two. They belong together.

If one has sex strictly for procreation and has no pleasure (like some Victorians, who never even saw each other naked), that is wrong, because sex was designed by God to be pleasurable. Likewise, if the purpose is made pleasure only with no regard for the most fundamental purpose of sex, that's wrong, too.

We see the consequences of the contraceptive mentality all around us. It has a very close legal, moral, and psychological link to abortion. Legal abortion (wherever it occurs, which is almost everywhere today) is always preceded by legal contraception. The Griswold case (1965, I believe) which overturned contraception laws was a direct precedent of Roe v. Wade, because it put up barriers between private behavior and state regulation (now the same flawed mentality is being replayed in the homosexual "marriage" and euthanasia debates).

Here is an analogy which was helpful to me: we think people are weird who separate the pleasure of eating from the nutritional value. They exist together, too. We need food, and we like food. Taste buds are biologically unnecessary. They don't help us survive at all, except perhaps to taste unpleasant things (sour milk or rotten eggs, etc.) which may, in turn be harmful. But we find people strange who would eat only for nutrition with no regard for taste at all (say, surviving on moss-covered bark or grasshoppers or some other "odd" food). We also find it unbalanced if someone is a junk food junkie; if all they ever ate was Twinkies or Butterfinger candy bars.

We instinctively know this. We also know that bulimia is mentally and psychologically abnormal. Food is to be retained, not thrown up. That separates the taste aspects of food from the nutritional value. Contraception and abortion are like the ancient Roman vomitoriums of today, where the deepest purpose and function of sexuality (the procreative purpose and the babies resulting from them) are regurgitated.

Why can we see the abnormality and moral shortcomings of these weird food practices, but not the same abnormality in people having sex for pleasure only, and deliberately preventing procreation? In effect they tie the hands of God. It's fine to space children and not have any more if the purpose is sufficiently serious. The Catholic position is not: "let nature take its course and have 25 children if that is what happens."

Rather, we say that it is wrong to deliberately prevent a possible conception and to have sex when the woman is fertile by using devises to neutralize that fertility. To follow Catholic teaching, a couple with sufficiently serious reasons (and there are several) to avoid conception, must abstain at those times. That respects natural law, whereas contraception has no respect for that, and simply caters to individual appetites with little regard for the most fundamental purpose of marriage and sex (not to mention the disastrous societal fruit of this mentality).

I also wrote on the same blog, in response to another comment:

As for NFP supposedly being morally equivalent to contraception, that's nonsense. I've written about the distinction in three papers:

Dialogue on Contraception

Dialogue on the Ethical Distinction Between Artificial Contraception and Natural Family Planning (NFP)

Dialogue on Contraception and Natural Family Planning (NFP) (vs. "Grubb")

Secondly, if the argument is, "well Catholics are just playing games on this issue, and they are wrong," that doesn't establish (wholly apart from the question of its truth or falsity) that Orthodoxy is right. In other words, if I say "x committed murder" (and he in fact did), it makes no sense for x to say, "well, sure, I did, but so did y!" No jury in the world would excuse x for murder because y did it, too. Therefore, making comparisons with supposed Catholic compromise (even granting that they are valid) in no way gets Orthodoxy off the hook for its own compromises.

The choice of responses thus far to this issue, then, seem to be:

1) Orthodoxy has not compromised (and then not dealing with clear evidences that it has done so), or:

2) Orthodoxy has compromised, but so has Catholicism [entailing the fallacy noted above], or:

3) Statements and arguments based upon a manifest confusion between Catholic official, magisterial teaching and the renegade opinions on this issue of Catholic dissidents and liberals, or the opinions of lay Catholics, based on surveys. Thus, changes in "official" Orthodox statements concerning contraception are illogically, unfairly compared to Catholic sub-official teaching. The legitimate comparison should be between the official teachings of both communions.

None of these fallacious approaches are sufficient or satisfactory. No one is arguing that Orthodoxy has not in fact compromised, and demonstrated this through hard, authoritative evidence (as Humanae Vitae and other clear-cut, unambiguous papal statements function for the Catholic). That only reinforces my original contention that Orthodoxy has indeed compromised. How Orthodox can face that fact honestly (especially those who remain opposed to contraception as a grave evil, as the Catholic Church does) is something to be grappled with. In any event, the methods above are not the way to go about it, because they are all internally inconsistent and deficient in methodology.

On the original blog where the discussion began, Orthodox Brian Andrews commented:

As an Orthodox who is absolutely convinced of the sinfulness and irrationality of contraception, I can only pray that the arguments of Mr. Armstrong will convince some of the hierarchs in my own church to come back to the Tradition. For myself, I am not nearly qualified (nor am I willing) to interrogate the reasoning behind this line of thought. I will say that certain practices and certain hierarchs have been wrong before in the Church, and that the Spirit took some time to work them out. I do confidently hope that this is the case with contraception.
Brian shows himself a fair-minded man, willing to admit when something has been proven (I admire that a lot); in a post two days earlier , he had written:
I too am surprised to hear of a new consensus (or anything approaching it) in the OC regarding contraception and divorce. Of course, it is sometimes more difficult to ascertain the ‘de fide’ elements of Orthodoxy in the absence of a magisterium, but this is in keeping with the less generalized/juridical and more spiritual father/child approach that is characteristic of the East. For all that though, I don’t know any priests even who condone the use of contraceptives. Life is good as is its Creator.

Uploaded by Dave Armstrong on 29 January 2005. Revised on 22 June 2006.

14 comments:

Julian said...

Maybe instead of making one debate after another, wonderng what the Orthodox Church is doing or has done, or what certain Bishops view contraception issues to be, why don't you go feed the poor or help a neighbor who's sick and needs a hand?
The Roman Catholic Church has plenty of controversial issues of it's own making to deal with. Clean up your own backyard.


My Best Wishes,
Julian

Dave Armstrong said...

why don't you go feed the poor or help a neighbor who's sick and needs a hand?

Why do you assume that because I write apologetics and study theology, that therefore, I don't do the other? Who made you judge, anyway? You don't know the slightest thing about me.

The fact remains that contraception was regarded as grave sin by all Christians till 1930. Now most Protestants think it is wonderful and the Orthodox are rapidly caving, while Catholic teaching remains where it always has been. This is a major reason why I am a Catholic.

You apparently don't have any defense, so you resort to the tired canard of "your dad's uglier than mine." That doesn't resolve the internal difficulty that your communion has in this regard.

I have hardly any debates with Orthodox. I haven't for over ten years. It's not a big concern of mine.

Paul Hoffer said...

Hello Julian, Dave has been just as critical of Catholics who fail to follow this particular teaching of the Church. The real question is why you don't offer an answer to the question posed by the title.

That said, if you can not offer a proper answer, this article does demonstrate the underlying weakness of a magisterial system that apparently is run by popularity rather than keeping to the deposit of faith.

God bless!

Isaac said...

Thanks for this great critique. I'm an Orthodox convert from Protestantism of seven years. I feel like East and West can learn much from each other.

I have heard this issue explained thusly from a learned and pious Orthodox Christian, a co-blogger at Energetic Procession (you really must check it out). His contention is that the patristic witness against all contraception was based upon Aristotelian science, which essentially held to the no-longer-tenable notion that the seed of the man contained already within it the whole of the human person, similar to the seeds of plants. The womb was the soil whereby it grew, and so forth.

This seems reasonable and commensurate with what the Fathers are saying when they equate such a practice to murder, and the canonical penances which also so punish in the nature of a murder-- long period of excommunication and the like.

In the interests of full disclosure, I attend a very tradition Russian Orthodox parish, and I have probably a living saint as my father confessor-- an extremely devout, humble, kind, patient, and ascetic man. He gave his blessing as a dispensation for my wife and I to practice barrier-method contraception. This was not simply because we wanted it, but because of a serious condition that occurs during my wife's pregnancies regarding her liver. It is not a permanent blessing, but a temporary one, giving my wife time to recover more thoroughly from such a condition, so that God-willing it does not happen next time, or if it does it does not kill her.

This approach seems consistent with what I know of the great ecumenical teachers of the Church like St. John Chrysostom, who spoke of the dignity and wonder of conjugal relations between man and wife, and includes within its God-pleasing purposes this quotation:

"The purpose of marriage is the conception of children, BUT MORE IMPORTANTLY, to put out the fires of the body. I have a witness to this. The Apostle Paul says: 'In order to avoid fornication, you should have one wife. Continue to have marital relations not so that you bear children, but so that Satan does not tempt you.' He does not mention that if people want children, they should get married. He says that 'if you can't abstain, you should get married.'" (On Virginity 19) St. John mentions elsewhere that the purpose of marriage is to protect people from "wantonness and lewdness."

I think the consensus (based upon what we know about biology and the patristic teachings on the holiness of marriage and conjugal union, its blessed purpose of putting out the fires of the body, even when there is no conception) is that while it should not simply be used for selfish reasons, there are legitimate, prudent uses for it. A couple desiring to follow Christ must consult a discerning spiritual father and examine themselves-- are we doing this out of selfishness or lack of faith?

Isaac said...

If some of the Orthodox Catholics have erred on the issue of contraception, though, what about all the terrible abuses within Catholicism? What would the Catholics of 50 years ago have said about Mariachi Masses, Clown Masses, official Papal skateboards, "Our Lady of Pizza Hut" architectural trends, monastics that shun their traditional habits, Popes venerating the Koran? I would daresay that most of even your latter saints would have no part or parcel with such grave offenses against the solemnity and holiness of worship, against the compromises with error, and against the terrible aesthetic taste that seems to dominate the modern Roman Church. This of course is to say nothing of the cadres of pedophiles and practicing homosexuals that now fill the ranks of Latin clergy.

Has having an infallible Pope with immediate jurisdiction over every Catholic protected the you from any of that? Don't we find in many of the ancient fathers a condemnation of, for instance, musical instruments in worship? Don't we find overwhelming patristic evidence against using the imagination in prayer-- something which has come to define Catholic spirituality since Ignatius of Loyola?

How about women receiving holy Communion during their monthly menstrual period? Did you know that most Fathers, East and West, forbade women to receive in this state? We find minority dissent but the consensus is clear-- women are to abstain during menses. This is still the majority practice in the Orthodox Church, although it is being re-examined because it is considered a disciplinary issue, and some have voiced disapproval of its continuation. I doubt that modern Latin teaching is even aware of this practice anymore.

I ask these honestly, albeit somewhat rhetorically, too. In summary, I do not think the evidence in this particular issue is all on your side. Many saints have held this, but may have done so on the premise of Aristotelian science more than anything else. Certainly if we're playing the "who changed what game" we both live in glass houses. Maintaining the depositum fidei is not the same thing as a static regurgitation of patristic quotations. But you know this already.

Dave Armstrong said...

I would say to your "dirty laundry list" that in the case of Catholicism it is errors (if errors at all) in practice, but the doctrine has not been changed, whereas in Orthodoxy re: contraception and in liberal Protestantism generally the actual beliefs are now being actively challenged in the highest quarters or literally changed, so that evil is now institutionally regarded as good.

That is an essential difference.

Isaac said...

Help me to understand your distinction. When I say that Mariachi- and Clown Masses are being practiced, or that there are now Catholic Charismatics, even acknowledged by the Pope, how does this not reflect a change in doctrine?

Patristic opinions vary on certain things regarding the marriage bed. For some, natural family planning would have been condemned as catering to the flesh-- since they viewed the sole purpose of conjugal union to be for the conception of children. When this is not possible, they opined, it is simply indulgence of the flesh. St. Jerome, I believe, is one of those. From this perspective, both Catholics and Orthodox fall short.

If marriage and/or sex is simply for the purpose of procreation, then the pursuit of that for any other reason is sinful, regardless of whether or not any method is used to prevent conception. If marriage and/or sex is about holiness, about the Kingdom of God, about communion and as a bulwark and defense against falls into unchastity, then it would seem that conception need not be the only goal.

I will take this development over the absurdity found in the RCC.

Dave Armstrong said...

Help me to understand your distinction. When I say that Mariachi- and Clown Masses are being practiced, or that there are now Catholic Charismatics, even acknowledged by the Pope, how does this not reflect a change in doctrine?

An abuse of the Mass is an abuse of liturgy. That is not doctrine; it is practice. The charismatic emphasizes the spiritual gifts, which have always been taught in the Catholic Church. It's not a change of doctrine at all.

If you want change of doctrine, look to the Orthodox, who increasingly allow outright contraception, whereas traditionally it held it to be grave sin. And look at their allowing of divorce, whereas Christ opposed it.

If marriage and/or sex is simply for the purpose of procreation, then the pursuit of that for any other reason is sinful, regardless of whether or not any method is used to prevent conception.

It's not just about that; it is also unitive. If it were only about procreation and never about anything else, then there could be no sex during menstruation or other infertile periods or after menopause, or if the husband became unable to produce a child. But we don't teach that. So at least understand the views you "oppose." You're fighting straw men.

We teach that the marriage act must be OPEN to conception. Deliberately thwarting it is the evil. Having sex during an infertile period doesn't entail that, because that is simply how nature operates; natural law.

If marriage and/or sex is about holiness, about the Kingdom of God, about communion and as a bulwark and defense against falls into unchastity, then it would seem that conception need not be the only goal.

That's true, and we teach that. It is contraception that is evil, not mere non-conception. This is what you have to grasp. I have written several papers about these distinctions.

Isaac said...

David, this is straining at gnats.

1. The Charismatic anti-patristically uses protestant theology and praxis about things like tongues and hyper-emotionalism. The gifts of the Spirit certainly come; the saints demonstrate profound healing, words of knowledge, and the working of miracles. These come with the fruit of the Spirit. These are not the cheap parlor tricks of the Charismatic movement.

2.The argument I'm making is that the contraceptive practice allowed by the RCC-- NFP-- is equally condemned by those Fathers who (erroneously) opined that the sexual act was purely procreative.

3. David, your tone indicates you hardly believe your own argument. Contraception is the employment of means to a goal: non-conception. Besides, a couple that only comes together during periods of infertility is no more "OPEN" to conception than the couple that employs other contraceptive methods. While they're certainly employing the natural law, so is the couple practicing otherwise-- both understand that the consequences of their actions lead to non-conception because actions are taken to ensure that sperm do not find ova. Natural law.

Dave Armstrong said...

I'll have to refer you to my lengthy papers on the topic if you are so inclined. With all due respect, you simply do not grasp my reasoning (nor the Catholic Church's) at this point. Hence you resort to empty polemics like "your tone indicates you hardly believe your own argument." It will do you no good to war against straw men.

Isaac said...

I expected a more open dialogue, my friend. It seemed to me from the style of engagement with its speciousness that you really weren't all that convicted about it. I stand corrected.

Which straw men am I engaging? If a clown mass or a mariachi mass or a charismatic mass does not reflect a change in doctrine then what does? Lex orandi, lex credendi-- our prayer, our worship is intimately related to our beliefs. This does not mean that all changes to worship reflect a change in belief, but such radical departures from historical norms in one should be the smoking gun to show that the other has also radically changed.

Now this is not fatal to Romish claims provided that such does not touch upon the true Life protected by the Christian dogmas. I think it does, in a much much profounder way than a slight change-- or rather clarification-- of sexual disciplines in light of modern science and the telos of marriage.

This is what the Orthodox who agree with the new consensus would say-- this may reflect a change in approach to discipline, but not a change in the saving dogmata. An example of a dogmatic change would be something like changing the ecumenical Creed formulated by the holy fathers at Nicea (325) and Constantinople (381)-- which Rome did.

Let's drop the rhetorical stuff and speak to one another simply instead of trying to score points. I'm no great debater, but I want to share the truth with you as much as you want to share the truth with me.

Dave Armstrong said...

Too massive of a topic to delve in to, and I have too many plates spinning at the moment to get into these complex topics and differences between Catholicism and Orthodoxy. Possibly in the future . . . I have several papers on the contraception issue.

You could easily utilize NFP, which doesn't involve the contralife will of the barrier method. It is equally as effective in terms of avoidance of conception for the proper reasons (grave health concerns being one), and doesn't entail a violation of natural law and universal Christian moral tradition up to 1930.

Unknown said...

Roman Catholic teaching on contraception is based on medieval Natural Law theory (per Aquinas), not biblical or first millennial patristic canon or dogma. Natural Law theory comes from Aquinas, who though controversial in his own day (acc. to Fr. Copleston) became "officiated" only in 1869. Natural law tradition is something that a person of goodwill and intelligence should be able to reach apart from faith, though e.g. no major Protestant philosopher or theologian, for example, is opposed to contraception (most by contrast are opposed to abortion). Almost all major contemporary philosophers -unless they are Roman Catholics whose Church has officially stated the ethical theory is true- reject Natural Law Theory, though the theory itself is supposed to be apparent to reason apart from faith. In the U.S. the Catholic bishops' Secretariat for Family Planning estimates that 97% of Catholic marrieds are using forms of contraception prohibited by their Church. A handpicked group of loyal, learned Catholics, priests, bishops and laymen looked at the arguments from natural law and said they make absolutely no sense. If there is no canon or dogma prohibiting contraception in the first millennium Undivided Church in the first place, and if the theory which leads to the prohibition is rejected by almost every philosophically informed person that isn't a Roman Catholic in the second place, and if the supposition that this theory demands contraception be rejected is also doubted by most Roman Catholics themselves in the third place, focusing on Orthodox Christians who are not so sure the reasoning of the Magisterium is correct on this point is a little like the pot calling the kettle black and is in the final analysis a complaint that Orthodox reject a conclusion of a theory unknown in the Church before the middle ages, that is to say they reject a late innovation which exists only in the Latin West, which -big surprise- is simply what Orthodox Christians are generally wont to do.

Ryan said...

Dave, thank you for this wonderful outline on Orthodoxy and contraception! St. John Chrysostom is surely proud! God bless you and your work, Ryan