Friday, July 6, 2012

6) The Morality of Birth Control - Eastern Christian perspectives

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While in most issues Eastern Orthodox theologians pride themselves on their consistency with the patristic witness, current disregard of patristic teaching against most forms of birth control is at least as widespread among Orthodox as among Catholic theologians. Some, if not most, of the Orthodox do permit most forms of contraception, so long as the motives are not selfish and the marriage as a whole includes the desire for children.

Paul Evdokimov holding a cat.
Eastern Orthodox theologian Paul Evdokimov presents an argument in favor of contraception in his work on marriage, The Sacrament of Love. His support for birth control in general is based on the point that love, and not procreation alone, is the primary reason for sex. Catholic teaching would agree with him, I think, up to this point. He rightly writes, “All reduction of Eros to procreation lowers it to the animal level,” and, “Love includes procreation, but the latter neither defines it nor in any way depletes it” (178). Since there is more to sex than making babies, it is morally licit, at times, for a married couple to have sex without directly intending the conception of children. At times “the intention of limiting birth is right” (178).

In discussing the moral means of controlling birth, however, Evdokimov sees an equivalency between what Catholics call NFP and forms of contraception. Of methods similar to NFP, he writes, “The act that becomes ‘safe’ by means of a computation of days or a by a mastery of the will is in every instance not natural, unless one plays with words” (177). He refers to methods similar to NFP as “mental contraceptives” and states, “The problem is not one of methods, but of the spirit with which one employs the methods” (177-178).

Interestingly, this is in agreement with one aspect of patristic teaching. The fathers oppose having sex without intending conception, regardless of the means used to avoid it. For them, it is not about means, but intentions. If we now say that it is morally permissible to have sex without directly intending conception, why should we introduce a distinction between means that the fathers would not have recognized? Augustine directly opposed what we now call NFP because he consistently opposed sex without the direct intention of procreation. If we now permit the use of NFP, why should we not accept other means of limiting birth while still having sex? These are questions Evdokimov raises, which challenge a Catholic reader. I believe the Catholic teaching given in a previous post has good answers to these questions, but they are coming from a different premise. While the Catholic teaching has maintained a prohibition of contraception and behavioral methods of birth control that the fathers would have approved of, the Orthodox teaching has maintained a patristic understanding of the equivalency of means. The contemporary teachings of neither the Catholic Church nor the Orthodox Church represent the patristic teaching on this issue. I doubt there are many Christians of any kind who believe and live as the fathers taught on this issue. Teaching about birth control has clearly developed in the Church over time.

Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev in his study
Not all of the Eastern Orthodox accept Evdokimov’s view. There are some few Eastern Orthodox opponents of contraception. For example, Bishop (now Metropolitan) Hilarion Alfeyev of the Russian Orthodox Church, in his Statement to the World Council of Churches in Geneva, on 13 February 2008, mentioned contraception among a list of evils such as abortion and euthanasia. Fr. Patrick Henry Reardon, an archpriest of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese, has made unambiguous statements against contraception (see video above). There are others opposed to it as well, but they seem to be in the minority.

More prevalent is the perspective expressed in the Orthodox Church in America (OCA) document, Synodal Affirmations on Marriage, Family, Sexuality, and the Sanctity of Life. It agrees with Catholic teaching, up to a point, when it states,
"The procreation of children is not in itself the sole purpose of marriage, but a marriage without the desire for children, and the prayer to God to bear and nurture them, is contrary to the 'sacrament of love'" (Orthodox Marriage Service; St. John Chrysostom, On Ephesians, Homily 20).

However, the teachings diverge when it comes to the issue of which means are morally appropriate for the responsible regulation of births. The document states, “Only those means of controlling conception within marriage are acceptable which do not harm a fetus already conceived.” On face value, this statement would appear to permit abstinence – periodic or total, behavioral methods, most forms of contraception – including some kinds of abortifacients, and sterilization. It would appear to forbid only direct abortion. However, I do not think that this is its intention. Elsewhere the document states, “Sexual love in marriage is to be chaste and pure, devoid of lewdness, lechery, violence, and self-gratification.” This may well be taken to exclude at least some behavioral methods of birth control and sterilization – which is a kind of violence to the body. However, this is an interpretation, and the document does not clearly prohibit these practices. The document’s use of the term “fetus,” which is usually understood as a person about eight weeks after conception, combined with its failure to identify conception as the beginning of human life brings into question whether or not it intends to forbid abortifacients along with other kinds of abortion. Concerning abortion, the document states,
Orthodox Christians have always viewed the willful abortion of unborn children as a heinous act of evil. The Church’s canonical tradition identifies any action intended to destroy a fetus as the crime of murder (Ancyra, Canon 21; Trullo, Canon 91; St. Basil, Canon 2).
Again, the persons protected by this statement are described as “fetuses.” If the OCA also morally opposes the willful destruction of embryos and zygotes, as I suspect it does, greater clarity on this teaching would be helpful.

The Russian Orthodox document, Bases of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church, presents a clearer total opposition to abortifacients: “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” (XII. 3). This seems to be a more complete expression of the Orthodox teaching on this matter.

Regarding non-abortifacient types of contraception, this Russian Orthodox document agrees with the OCA document that they are permissible and “cannot be equated with abortion in the least” (XII. 3). However, it uses stronger language in support of the essential relationship between marriage and procreation and it particularly recommends periodic abstinence as a means of birth control.

This document further emphasizes an important aspect of moral behavior in this area of life, perhaps neglected by official Catholic teaching: “Clearly, spouses should make such decisions mutually on the counsel of their spiritual father” (XII. 3). Spiritual direction has an essential role to play in the application of objective moral standards regarding birth control to the myriad subjective situations in which spouses find themselves. It is spiritually and morally unhealthy to “go it alone” on such important moral issues and it is necessary to seek personal spiritual guidance from the pastors of the Church. While the CSDC may be right that only the spouses themselves can ultimately make decisions about the proper use of birth control in their particular situation, the Eastern tradition is also right to point out the essential relationship spouses must maintain with the Church community in every aspect of their lives, even the most intimate. If our communion with the Church is not with us at all times, even in our bedrooms, then we are not truly in communion with the Church.

While there is much information from the Eastern Orthodox and the Roman Catholic perspectives on this subject, there is none, that I have been able to find, from a specifically Eastern Catholic perspective. On an issue like this, where there is such significant disagreement between the Eastern Orthodox and the Roman Catholics, this is a problem. Many times in my experience, the Byzantine Catholic faithful do not know who to listen to on this issue. In my opinion, the pastors of the Byzantine Catholic faithful owe it to those faithful to be conversant in both viewpoints on this issue, while also needing to defend the Catholic teaching faithfully.



bill bannon said...

Very interesting reading. The early Fathers actually ended up teaching the Stoic view which was that sex was only justified by procreation...Clement of Alexandria, Lactantius, Jerome. Oddly Jerome is effusive in his admiration for Seneca on such marriage matters...calling him "our Seneca" in Against Jovinianus...end of Book I. This is odd in that Seneca like many Stoics saw natural law as permitting infanticide. Why then thonk him an expert on real love.
On abortifacients I notice Catholic lower clergy and laity on the blogs going further than Papal speech in
this area. In Theological Studies, a Jesuit periodical which for decades has hosted many of the big names in theology, there was a debate on the problem of identical twinning as it relates to the existence of an individual appearing at the earliest after the ovum is fertilized. To around day 14 thereafter, the cell mass has been dividing and can up to that time divide into being two, three etc. identical siblings. And this is true in every case because in the lab, every cell mass can be teased into this division even though without teasing, identical twins etc. are rare. That is the nature of the cells is that they are totipotential rather than already assigned to being a specific organ. After twinning can no longer happen which is after implantation, then the primitive streak of an individual appears. The Russian you cite, and many Catholics on the web, envision a person prior to implantation. But a person cannot divide into two or five persons later on.
There cannot be ensoulment until the cells restrict themselves to being one being rather than multle beings
and that is after implantation. Check any embryology treatises on identical twinning. This means Catholics must be more temperate as the Popes are in speech around this issue. I have read no Pope equating the prevention of implantation with surgical abortion as to concept. but last week I saw an internet blogger doing
that exact thing. No Pope has condoned preventing implantation but no Pope has implied it is murder. There are millions of non Catholic medical people e.g. in the world. When they see the lower echelons of the Church talking more stridently than the papacy, it can ward off conversions from such demographics.

bill bannon said...

Here is a link to Theological Studies wherein Lisa Cahill is summarizing the twinning debate starting at page 127:

Anonymous said...

thanks for sharing.

Anonymous said...

I think the answer to the difficulty involving identical twins is that God implants two souls at the moment of conception. We know that two souls can share parts of the same body as in the case of Siamese twins. Alternatively, perhaps God implants one soul at conception and then another when the cells (i.e. the body) separate in a sort of second conception. I would like to see the Church explore and clarify this mystery.

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