Meyendorff (and Orthodoxy) on Contraception

Yesterday’s brief post on Fr. John Meyendorff’s controversial remarks on Roman Catholic marriage prompted me to poke around a bit more in Marriage: An Orthodox Perspective. Here is what Meyendorff has to say on the contraception question.

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.”

Not surprisingly, Meyendorff’s home jurisdiction, the Orthodox Church in America (OCA), adopted the essence of his views in the 1992 Synodal Affirmations on Marriage, Family, Sexuality, and the Sanctity of Life: “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.”  This position is further clarified in the OCA Synod’s encyclical on marriage, which includes an appendix of pastoral guidelines.

Orthodox Christians must not allow themselves to be manipulated by the abstract calculations of statisticians regarding such matters as the population explosion and the need for birth control and family planning. The Church is aware of the complexities which can arise in life due to social, medical and economic problems, but she still affirms that statistics do not reflect God’s loving and providential care and inconceivable manner of bringing about the salvation of the world. Preoccupation with statistics can depersonalize us and our co-creativity with God in the begetting of children. The goal of the Christian life is the accomplishment of God’s will, which may involve the begetting of children.

[ . . . ] 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.

Needless to say, not all Orthodox Christians agree with this position. Following the publication of my article on Orthodoxy and marriage in the July/August issue of The Angelus magazine, a veteran priest of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR) wrote in to contest my assertion that the Orthodox Church had shifted its position on contraception over the course of the 20th Century. Unfortunately, ROCOR — which has traditionally been much more conservative than the OCA on moral issues — has never released an official statement on contraception, though many of its clerics appear to be against it. In a two-part article for the publication Orthodox America, Fr. Alexey Young — a former ROCOR priest — wrote the following:

The practice of artificial birth control—by which is meant “the pill,” condoms, or any other kind of device—is actually condemned by the Orthodox Church. The Church of Greece, for example, in 1937 issued a special encyclical just for this purpose, to condemn birth control.

Likewise, the Romanian and Russian Churches, to name just two others among many—have more than once, in former times, spoken out against this practice. It is only in recent times, only in the generation since World War II, that some local Churches (the Greek Archdiocese in this country [United States], for example) have begun to teach that it “might” be all right to practice birth control in certain circumstances, as long as this is discussed with the priest beforehand and has his agreement.

. . . .

I’ve used the term “artificial” birth control because I want to point out that the Church does permit the use of certain natural methods for avoiding conception, but these methods may not be used without the knowledge and blessing of the priest, and only if the physical and moral well-being of the family demands it. These methods are acceptable to the Church under the right circumstances and can be used by a couple without burdening their consciences, because they are “ascetical” methods; that is, they have to do with self-denial, self-control.

The reality in the U.S. (and perhaps worldwide) is that most Orthodox jurisdictions practice an unofficial “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy when it comes to married couples and contraception. Although there are several high-profile American Orthodox priests who continue to uphold the traditional view of contraception summarized in Young’s article, most stay away from the issue altogether (at least publicly). Moreover, because of the situation of overlapping Orthodox jurisdictions in America, Orthodox couples uninterested in adhering to the traditional teaching can often switch to a parish whose priest takes a more “relaxed” view of the matter. However, contrary to certain polemical claims emanating from conservative Catholic circles, the Orthodox Church, as a whole, has never officially altered her position on contraception. It is still arguable that contraception remains prohibited in Orthodoxy and that the present relaxation of that prohibition constitutes an abuse which, in time, can be corrected.

20 comments

  1. The Byzantine Orthodox jurisdictions published prayer books for service men and women during WWI and WWII. Many of these are readily available in libraries and used bookstores or even on family bookshelves. All that I’ve seen listed contraception as a “serious” sin against God. This isn’t surprising.

    The Greek Orthodox Achdiocese was the first Orthodox jurisdiction to waffle on this issue in the late 1960’s. Meyendorff represents the present opinion, however all Christians (going back to the Didache) held the view that contraception was a serious moral evil until the 1930 Labeth Conference when the CoE was the first to peek the door open on the matter.

    Today, the vast majority of Christians agree with Meyendorff and pharmaceutical manufacturers on the morality of the matter.

    1. Interesting.

      Perhaps I am wrong, but I have long “credited” Kallistos Ware with popularizing the idea that contraception is A-OK with the various editions of his book The Orthodox Church. Meyendorff deserves some “credit,” too, as does Paul Evdokimov in his book The Sacrament of Love.

  2. The Orthodox argue this point in terms of askesis; the Catholics in terms of natural law. The former, lacking one voice, must fall back upon Tradition, which is sometimes hard to articulate; the latter upon the words of one man, whose authority in the matter is sometimes questioned. I wonder which Church has the highest number of faithful adherents to its own respective teaching/approach. I get the feeling that many Orthodox understand, respect, and agree with the Catholic Church’s official condemnation of artificial contraception, but are leery of fully embracing it because the Roman position vis-a-vis Humanae vitae is a natural law argument.

    1. And this of course opens up the sticky question of what status natural law has in the Orthodox intellectual tradition. There are certainly some Orthodox today who defend its longstanding presence, though others seem more skeptical on the matter. It’s a question I have wrestled around with for a decade now, mainly because I was never convinced by the easygoing line that Orthodoxy “definitively” accepts natural-law teaching in the way Catholics do. On the other hand, there are enough references to natural law in Orthodox literature that it seems silly to dismiss its role on some level.

      I would disagree that Catholics look “to the authority of one man” on the issue of contraception. Contrary to popular misunderstanding, Humane Vitae did not define a new doctrine on contraception; it simply restated the ordinary and universal magisterium of the Catholic Church. I suspect this is why Patriarch Athenagoras, after the encyclical was released, state that Paul VI could not have spoken any other way.

      1. I am a Catholic, by the way. What I mean about “the authority of one man” is to say that there aren’t really other teachings on contraception beyond what >Casti connubii and Humanae vitae and John Paul II said. Sure, there are some Fathers to whom we may turn (cf. Fr Josiah Trenham’s work), but really Catholics look to the authority of one man, i.e. the pope. And of course we find it in the Catechism (which came after Paul VI), but there are no conciliar statements beyond Gaudium et spes, which actually references Casti connubii and goes on later to say something strange: “Those too who are skilled in other sciences, notably the medical, biological, social and psychological, can considerably advance the welfare of marriage and the family along with peace of conscience if by pooling their efforts they labor to explain more thoroughly the various conditions favoring a proper regulation of births” (GS 52). Of course Paul VI didn’t define something new on contraception; the problem lies in defining what exactly the ordinary and universal magisterium is. The Roman Church needs a meta-dogma!

          1. When I said “previous tradition” I didn’t mean 19th century opinions. I’m referring to the ancient traditions about sex, which generally held it to be for procreation only (St. John Chrysostom being a rare exception). These traditions are repeatedly proof-texted in contemporary Catholic denunciations of birth control, but they apply equally to “NFP”.

    2. This seems to me a perfect illustration of where the Church needs to “breathe with both lungs.” That usually seems to be an admonishment to Catholics to value the East and its acceptance of mystery, but a strength the West is clarity of thinking and teaching, and the East could use some help with that. Fr. Meyendorff seems to think Catholic teaching uses the word “natural” the same way a Tom’s of Maine toothpaste box does, naively privileging things not made by man over things made by man. Is he truly unaware of the precise meaning “nature” has in natural law philosophy?

      1. Yes, I found that rather perplexing as well, though given Meyendorff’s intellectual milieu, he may have had little-to-no sophistication with the Western natural-law tradition. Still, it seems like such an elementary mistake…

        1. Gabriel, considering that all of his early education was by the Jesuits, I think that he must have had some grounding in the tradition of Natural Law. But like so many of his contemporaries of the Russian immigration of the time, many of whom were ardent Slavophiles, he did tend to fall under an anti-western bias.

          As I mentioned in your other excellent article on this issue, perhaps too much of his position on both marriage etc. are formulated as a negation of the Latin tradition, personally I do not find this approach as either helpful or always honest.

  3. “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”; this sounds eerily familiar to what the present Ecumenical Patriarch has said about abortion: “”We are not allowed to enter the bedrooms of the Christian couples,” he said, ”We cannot generalize. There are many reasons for a couple to go toward abortion.”

  4. I cannot imagine why this matter is even considered controversial. For almost all of two thousand years, all Christians recognized only abstinence as an acceptable way of preventing conception. This is ALL Christians.

    What did we suddenly learn in the 20th century that justifies a challenge to that universal teaching”

    1. I would say nothing, but alas this is the cross-confessional doctrinal mess we have on our hands.

    2. Well, we learned more about what actually happens in reproduction, e.g., semen isn’t analogous to what we now think of as a zygote, the vast majority of such zygotes are ‘wasted’, etc.

      This is little different than accepting the updated, scientific view of creation after Darwin contra “almost two thousand years” of Christian tradition. (Yes, I am aware there allegorical and typological and ‘spiritual’ readings of Genesis, but never in opposition to the ‘literal’ being true, as well.)

    3. Did the ancients also disapprove of breastfeeding and the amenorrhea it causes? Since ‘primitive’ cultures often used lactational amenorrhea to space out births or to prevent additional conceptions altogether, I’m assuming the Romans knew about it, too. So, that’s at least one other way Christians (presumably) prevented conception, which is the difficulty behind theblack and white, extreme statements so common in discussions of what the Church has always taught. It’s like the oft misused phrase, “the Fathers say…”.

  5. For those that are interested, contraception isn’t new to the Christian milieu.

    The Greek term pharmakeia most often referred to potions and poisons used to induce death, abortion and/or contraception.The early III century Hippolytus makes it clear that pharmakeia refers to potions that induce sterility (atokiois pharmakois, in The Refutation of All Heresies, 9.12.25). The early II century Greek physician Soranos of Ephesus in his book Gynecology refers to both contraceptive and abortive pharmakeia. The I century biographer Plutarch mentions pharmakeia without qualifications as a means by which a woman might deny her husband of a legitimate heir (Romulus, 22.3).

    Many modern translations of pharmakeia make use of the terms sorcery, magic or enchantment. These terms hide both the root of pharmakeia, pharmakeuō which means to administer drugs, and it’s context within the sexual act.

    Pharmakeia occurs twice in the NT (Gal 5:20; Rev 18:23). The word also appears several times in the Septuagint (cf. Ex 7:11.22; 8:3.14; Wis 12:4; 18:13; Is 47:9.12). Pharmakeia also occurs many times in the Apostolic Fathers (cf. Didache 2:2).

  6. The Roman Church’s condemnation of artificial contraception is not so much based on the recent papal magisterium but on the perennial teaching of the Church. If we are to define our faith as “that believed in all places, at all times, and by all” (a definition which I am sure the Orthodox would be happy to support) then we must hold that contraception is wrong. Fr Hans Kung, interestingly, uses this exact case to show why he believes that the Catholic faith is mutable – he points out that of all moral questions, the question of contraception is one of the most uncontroversial in Christian history, everyone condemned it, without exception. This being so, he then concludes that because contraception is self-evidently harmless, the Church must be fallible. Obviously, orthodox Christians could not accept this and therefore we must adopt the opposite conclusion, that the moral prohibition on contraceptives is de fide.

    Incidentally, I was interested to see Fr Meyendorff’s point about NFP being effectively the same as contraception. This point is a valid one and many some Catholic moral theologians in the past accept it. If one does accept it, however, one should draw the same conclusion as they did: that NFP is immoral.

  7. Contraception is certainly not harmless, and we all owe a great debt to Paul VI for re-iterating the time honored teaching of the Church in Humanae Vitae, and this in spite of and over the objections of many highly regarded Cardinals and bishops in the magisterium, along with many well-respected Roman Catholic theologians.

    We are clearly living in a world dominated by a “contraceptive mentality”, which is highly self-indulgent and as far from the ascetical self-denial and control-of-the-passions trajectory of Christianity (both east and west) as, oh, probably every other generation that had a scintilla of means to live above subsistence levels to survive (and you could probably throw a few of those generations into the mix as well).

    So this isn’t new. What is new is that great wealth and health so widely distributed. In the 17th century, only the aristocracy had the means and access to fornicate at will (see: Louis XIV, Augustus the Strong, Peter the Great). Now, everyone can get in on the fun regardless of station or means, and with seemingly little or no consequences – or so we are told and many want to believe.

    What the Church hasn’t communicated clearly, then, is why sex without the potential for life is debilitating on just about every level. You don’t hear it preached ANYWHERE. And, all of the natural and cultural impediments to sleeping around are gone; no threat of killer diseases like syph, the baby can be aborted, it’s the woman’s problem to deal with anyway, and so on go all the rationalizations about bonking with no responsibility.

    Until the Church and high-ranking Churchmen start taking this more seriously – or even half as seriously as they say they take global warming and other courage-free stances – it’ll only get worse.

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