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.|
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|
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.