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.