The early twentieth century saw the rapid growth of technologies intended to help prevent the conception of children. As these became more widely available and more broadly accepted in the culture at large, questions began to arise among Christians as to the morality of these products. The problem of contraception in turn uncovered deeper questions about the nature of love, marriage, and the conjugal act. A substantial and satisfying response to these questions is found in the Tradition of the Church, the pillar and ground of the truth (1 Tim. 3:15). By the indwelling grace of the Spirit she not only preserves the truth, entrusted by the divine Savior to his apostles and maintained throughout the centuries by the holy Fathers, but her timeless mind remains accessible in every exigency. This applies to moral as well as theological questions, for her teaching is comprised of both dogmatic definitions and ethical standards.1 Part of the ascetic struggle of faith of every Christian is to assimilate these divine truths and live them. In this regard the flock of Christ relies on its pastors for guidance and looks to educated teachers and theologians for clarification. And this is precisely what many Orthodox Christians have done in the midst of an eruption of a contraceptive culture. Laity and clergy alike have turned to synodal statements and theological literature looking for the mind of the Church on this serious issue that touches the most intimate element of the married Christian life. Yet, to their detriment, the faithful have been deprived of the gold of Tradition on this issue and have instead been handed counterfeited accommodations to modern life that fall far short of the Church’s patrimony. The Fathers of the Church, and Orthodox theologians and writers as recently as the 1960s, were unanimous in their condemnation of artificial contraception. Yet in the past several decades a growing number of authors and authorities have departed from this inheritance and put forward a novel perspective on the issue, ranging from qualified permissibility to near endorsement. Today a majority of Orthodox Christians has seemingly accepted this newer teaching, so that in less than a century the Church has witnessed the dramatic reversal of a consensus that had lasted nearly two millennia—so strong is this cultural force we call contraception. But modern apologists for contraception do not represent the mind of the Church. When they are aware of the teaching of the Fathers they either misunderstand it or dismiss it, whether in principle or in particulars. Furthermore, their treatment of the issue has generally been superficial and lacking in philosophical and theological rigor. These flaws, combined with the extreme novelty of the new morality, allow for a straightforward analysis and critique of contemporary opinions about contraception.
*This essay is indebted to Dr. Timothy Patitsas, professor of Ethics at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology, as well as to Mother Nectaria McLees and John Taylor Carr. I am also grateful to Fr. Maximos Constas and William Goldin for their helpful comments on earlier drafts of the paper. Since this paper was first written, the author has learned of an earlier study on the issue: Fr. John Schroedel, “Orthodox Christianity and Contraception: Perspectives on the Contemporary Discussion” (M.Div. Thesis, St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, 2002). The present paper obviously covers much of the same ground.
This paper is intended to expose the fallaciousness of the new morality through comparison with the fountains of truth preserved in the Church and handed on to every generation.
Approaching the Issue
Any assessment of the issue of contraception must have its roots in the theology and anthropology of the Church as expressed in her holy Scriptures. But it is not enough to look to the inspired texts; we must read them according to the interpretations of the Holy Fathers. To help us in this we have the decrees, canons, and acts of the Ecumenical and universally accepted Regional Synods, as well as the divine Services, iconography, and hymnography. Furthermore we have the lives of the saints, which incarnate in every generation the life in Christ as models of ethical behavior. Any viewpoint that purports to be Orthodox cannot but be in harmony with these, as a fruit buds organically from its tree. Indeed, even when seemingly new problems surface in the Church, for which no precedent seems helpful, one must not feel that one is thereby excused from relying on Tradition.2
This is in theory acknowledged by even the most adamant defenders of contraception, whatever their actual relationship to the patristic heritage. Echoing the stated approach of authors like Fr. Stanley Harakas, Fr. John Breck, and Dr. H. Tristram Engelhardt, the Encyclopedia of Orthodox Christianity states that, “Orthodox bioethicists must strive to ‘acquire the mind of the church’ so as to relate Orthodoxy’s universal and ancient ethical teaching to the particular and new situations confronted today.”3 This of course removes the ethical debate from the realm of relativism, since every voice on the subject is necessarily and admittedly appealing to the same sources.
Yet in examining and testing these contemporary sources we must be careful to not only measure superficial consistencies or inconsistencies, but to weigh context and contingencies as well. According to William Basil Zion, “It is not enough to repeat the opinion and teachings of the Fathers of the Church. These teachings must be interpreted by the Church in each generation.”4 It remains to see how faithfully our contemporaries have done this.
The New Consensus
In addition to the aforementioned ecclesiastical writers, the defense of contraception has been taken up by several popular authors: Dr. Chrysostom Zaphiris, Philip Sherrard, Christos Yannaras, Fr. John Meyendorff, and Fr. Paul Evdokimov, along with a multitude of other more or less derivative voices. Their writings on the subject have been extremely limited. None of them devotes more than a chapter to the topic in books otherwise dedicated to general ethics, bioethics, marriage, or love. The depth of their commentary also leaves something to be desired. Their arguments are characterized by broad generalizations and a paucity of references to primary sources. Nevertheless, the views expressed by them have come to dominate the status quo for thousands of Orthodox people, both clergy and laity.5
The novelty of the position adopted by these authors is reflected in the popular introduction to Orthodoxy written by Metropolitan Kallistos Ware.6 As recently as 1963, writing as Timothy Ware, the future bishop stated univocally that, “Artificial methods of birth control are forbidden in the Orthodox Church.”7 Only twenty years later, this statement would be adjusted to account for changes that were then in the air. “Some bishops and theologians altogether condemn the employment of [artificial birth control]. Others, however, have recently begun to adopt a less strict position.”8 Less than a decade more, bishop Kallistos will go even further: “In the past birth control was in general strongly condemned, but today a less strict view is coming to prevail.”9 In these revisions to his book, the Metropolitan traces the development of a new consensus. But even today, this consensus is less than fifty years old—a negligible amount of time in the scope of the Church’s two millennia of ethical teaching.10
The “Official” Voice of the Church
It is often repeated that no Ecumenical Synod has ever promulgated a teaching on the subject of contraception. As ambiguous and misleading as such a statement may be, it is nonetheless true that nothing in the nature of the Anglican Lambeth Conferences or the papal encyclicals of the Roman Church has ever set a worldwide agenda for or against contraception in the Orthodox Church: “The Orthodox Church, for its part, has never committed itself formally and officially on this issue.”11 However, this is not, as we shall see, an indication of the Church’s silence on the topic of contraception, since ecclesiastical doctrine cannot be reduced to the decrees of the Ecumenical Synods, an oversimplification that would leave us with little that we commonly recognize as Orthodox.
Locally, the Synod of the Church of Greece issued an encyclical letter shortly after the 1930 Lambeth Conference first admitted contraception into the Christian home. In 1937 the hierarchy of the Church of Greece responded to “the revolution in the field of ethics” by proclaiming that the only recourse available to parents for whom a child was an impossibility is abstinence.12 It characterized the phenomenon of contraception as degenerate and a threat to marriage, calling upon couples to bear their cross with faith in God’s help.13 The Church of Romania has reportedly issued a similar rejection of birth control.14
In 2000, at the Jubilee Council of Bishops, the Church of Russia published a set of guidelines for its clergy dealing with the variegated social issues facing Christians today. It states, “Among the problems which need a religious and moral assessment is that of contraception.” While acknowledging the need for couples to bear the office of parenthood responsibly, and distinguishing between abortifacient and non-abortifacient contraceptives, the document states that, “Christian spouses should remember that human reproduction is one of the principal purposes of the divinely established marital union. The deliberate refusal of childbirth on egoistic grounds devalues marriage and is a definite sin.”15
Many have seen the qualification “on egoistic grounds” as implying permissibility for potentially non-egoistic motivations. This would seem to be compounded by the call to responsible parenthood and the subsequent discussion of abstinence as a potential means for effecting it. The document’s caution to clergy in imposing this ascesis seems to many to seal the interpretation that the Moscow Patriarchate conditionally allows birth control.16 Yet the synodal statement itself does not say this; and it exercises as much caution against permitting its use as it does against being entirely insensitive to pastoral conditions. A non-egoistic motivation for avoiding childbirth is not the same as license to do so by any means. The 1937 Encyclical of the Church of Greece also condemns any form of birth control “that nullifies conception for selfish reasons, comforts, and luxuries.”17 Yet it does not for that reason imply a potential non-egoistic use. It is unequivocal that, “Abstinence constitutes for spouses the only lawful means of avoiding childbearing when an actual need for its avoidance appears.”18 The Basis for the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church is silent on the permissibility of artificial methods, only distinguishing them from abortifacients. As such, this communication from the Russian Church resists citation as a source of support for birth control per se.
The Traditional Sources
As for the writings of the Fathers, it is often said that they do not address the question, contraception being a modern phenomenon. Many modern commentators make sweeping statements about the silence of the first centuries on the subject. Evdokimov proclaims confidently: “In the age of the Church Fathers, the problem of birth control was never raised…. One must therefore start from the patristic spirit and not from a precise, inexistent teaching.”19 The belief that the Fathers never addressed the issue of contraception stems not only from an ignorance of the patristic writings and Church history, but from a failure to identify modern forms of contraception with their ancient prototypes.20 Here it would be helpful to define precisely the nature of birth control as it concerns our study. Contraception is generally spoken of as the active avoidance, by method or device, of the conception of a child during sexual intercourse. This is, of course, the biblical case of Onan (Gen. 38:4-10). It is subsequently divided into natural and unnatural: the former availing itself of a woman’s natural cycles of fertility, and the latter suppressing the fertility inherent in the sexual act. The claim that this problem was never raised “in the age of the Church Fathers” is not difficult to disprove.
Evdokimov asserts that to interpret the story of Onan as a repudiation of contraception is “an exegetical blunder.”21 He is most clearly reacting to Casti Connubii and its implied Augustinianism,22 and what he sees as facile moralizing. Presumably Evdokimov aligns himself with modern commentators, like Zion, who claim that the sin of Onan consisted in his failure to fulfill the levirate law (Deut. 25:5-10). Yet the former exegesis, which identifies Onan’s crime with the unlawful avoidance of fecundation during sex, is also the interpretation of Saints Epiphanius, Jerome, and Augustine. All of these see Onan’s sin as consisting in the misuse of intercourse itself. Zion’s position, on the other hand, is predicated on a presumption of superior familiarity with the Scriptures in light of modern Biblical criticism.23 But this is an obvious divergence from the Fathers and not a mere repudiation of a stereotypically Western Augustinianism, unless Evdokimov and Zion are capable of showing that their hermeneutic is indeed based on traditional sources.
St. Jerome, a scholar of Semitic languages, clearly sees Onan’s exercise of coitus interruptus as immoral in itself.24 Likewise, St. Epiphanius, a “Greek” Father and influence on
St. Jerome, claims that contemporary Gnostic practices, which promote intercourse with the conscious avoidance of fecundation, imitate the crime of Onan.25 Perhaps Evdokimov is unaware that the exegetical tradition he eschews has deeper roots, but it is undeniable that writers like Zion make a conscious decision to depart from the classical interpretation.
Apart from this well-known biblical locus, there are other examples of patristic engagement with the problem of birth control. St. Hippolytus of Rome, exposing the hypocrisy of noble Roman women, Christian in name alone, says of their illicit relationships: “The so-called faithful use anti-pregnancy medications because they do not want a child from a slave or a pauper on account of their nobility and great substance.”26 And lest it be thought that, like Onan, contraception is incidental to the crime of these women, we have the testimony of Minucius Felix who, precisely on the point of contraception, contrasts the holy life of Christians with the barbarities of the heathen, “who with medicines and potions squelch the source of a future human being and are parricides even before giving birth.”27 St. Ambrose, too, makes mention of contraception as behavior unbefitting a Christian. In contrast to the behavior of the dutiful, maternal crow, he says, “The females of our species… squelch with parricidal potions in their generative organs the pledges of their womb.”28
In his interpretation of Canon 21 of St. John the Faster,29 which speaks generically of anti-pregnancy medications, St. Nikodimos of Mt. Athos identifies contraceptives as an explicit sin.30 Evdokimov assures his readers that the ancient canons of the Church, among which St. Nikodimos includes the canons of St. John the Faster, no longer apply, though he gives no criteria or explanation for their sudden lack of relevance.31 St. Nikodimos tells us that these in fact form part of the living tradition of the Church over centuries, through common acceptance and implementation, if not formal ratification.32 The synodal document of the Moscow Patriarchate discussed above likewise explicitly refers to these canons as true expressions of Orthodox ethical teaching, regardless of their disciplinary import.33 While the oeconomic application of the disciplinary canons is common practice, the moral theology behind them is by no means relative, and a sufficient response is still awaited from those who claim the inconsistency of the Church’s ethical teaching behind her acceptance of these canons.
Yet even when contemporary authors are aware of the patristic commentary relating to sexual relations and childbearing, they have qualified it so as to prohibit its perfect relevance for the situation of today and so avoid being bound by a strict tradition: “Traditionally, contraception has been forbidden by Orthodox teachers; not only because of the value of children and the issue of love’s openness to life, but because in antiquity contraceptives were largely synonymous with abortifacients.”34 Indeed, this seems a feasible interpretation of some of the aforementioned texts, especially those which speak of parricide.
Yet, as John T. Noonan shows, while the abortifacient nature of many contraceptives compounded the ethical problem involved with their use, one cannot deny the distinction made in both pagan and Christian sources between actions intended to prevent conception and those intended to abort the fetus, in spite of the rhetorical and moral language of murder.35 St. Hippolytus, in addition to the aforementioned “anti-pregnancy medications” mentions a physical technique for inducing miscarriage. In so doing he contrasts the expulsion of the conceptus (τὰ συλλαμβανόμενα) with the drugs used to prevent its beginning (ἀτοκίοις φαρμάκοις). St. Jerome, too, distinctly refers to a sin which precedes conception: “Some drink sterility before [coitus] and commit the murder of a man yet unsown.”36 Likewise, alluding to the distinct practice of avoiding fertilization, St. Epiphanius says of the fourth century Gnostics that, while they indulge in sexual license, they do so in order to avoid conceiving: “Coming together they prevent the conception of children (τεκνοποιίαν).”37 In the condemnation by St. John the Faster mentioned above, two kinds of anti-pregnancy medications are explicitly distinguished—contraceptives and abortifacients, the one preventing conception (νὰ μὴ ἐγγαστρωθοῦν), the other killing the child after conception (ὅταν τὰ συλλάβουν)—the latter being more sinister. And St. John Chrysostom, too, condemns the avarice of the wealthy which resorts even to contraception, which he clearly distinguishes from the killing of a fetus: “That which is sweet and desired by all—to have children—they consider burdensome and grievous. On account of this many have even bought contraceptives (ἀτόκια) and have mutilated nature, not by aborting children in the womb, but by not even allowing their conception (φῦναι) to begin.”38
The contraceptives (ἀτόκια) here mentioned are medicines used to effect either sterility in the man or barrenness in the womb—agents which carry out a “murder which precedes coming into being.… Indeed, it is something worse even than murder, for it does not abort a pregnancy, but prevents even impregnation.”39 Thus it is plain that the identification with murder as a condemnation of the practice reflects the moral perception of the act without necessarily indicating confusion with abortion.
Additionally, in the face of a Gnostic and Manichaean separation of sex from its procreative capacity many holy Fathers advocated the indivisibility of marital intercourse and reproduction, defending the distinctly Christian approach to marital coupling as fecund and non-contraceptive.40 Here the ethical topic is sexual relations in themselves, and infanticide does not come close to entering the equation. St. John Chrysostom sums this up with the question, “Why do you sow where there shall be no reaping?”41 This kind of moralizing has nothing to do with abortion. It is apparent, then, that the patristic understanding is straightforward in distinguishing morally between contraception and abortion, even if the techniques and methods used were not necessarily so distinct. Furthermore, it is apparent the Holy Fathers do indeed speak to this issue, as even the Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium makes known, 42 so that not only their general spirit, but their very words on the subject can be compared to the writings of our modern theologians.
Orthodox Christian Ethics
What then is the approach of modern writers to ethical questions, through which they claim to cling to the patristic mind yet rescind from their testimony? Several of their principles, which purport to be “in the spirit of the Fathers” are manifest. One increasingly commonplace sentiment is that the marriage bed is absolutely beyond the reach of outside interference, and therefore the Orthodox Church has never, and will never, issue directives on conjugal relations. “The Church Councils clearly respected the honour and intimacy of the marital bed, and did not legislate or permit a third party to regulate the relationship of two who became one.”43 Engelhardt interprets this as being the meaning of Canon 3 of St. Dionysius of Alexandria: “Self-sufficient and married persons ought to be judges of themselves.”44 For this reason he and others believe that prohibitions like those of the papacy against artificial birth control to be foreign to the Orthodox ecclesiastical phronema.45 The Church, it is said, does not intrude into the privacy of the marital bed.46 Yet, while one may sympathize with the undesirability of outside interference in marital relations, and question the value of “directives,” the reasoning presented here is problematic. For one, it is not clear that pastoral guidance, let alone moral theology, somehow amounts to third-party intrusion. If ethical teaching offered to the married couple constitutes clerical interference and invasion, then this severely diminishes the Church’s role in Christian life. Writers who insist on this point seldom indulge the reader in outlining the specific parameters of ecclesiastical involvement in the Christian home. They do not reconcile this position with the Church’s frequent exhortations to marital abstinence, whether during fasting periods or in preparation for holy Communion. Nor do they expound on the Church’s precise function as transmitter of an ethical teaching when it is prevented from touching the subject of sexual relations altogether.
Evdokimov locates the problem in the absolute artificiality and insufficiency of moral dictates.
‘Morality’ has little to say here, for it is the person who is at stake, and there exist no two identical persons in the world. The one who is immature and is satisfied with a priori ethics does not transcend the level of the herd, and may find adequate directives therein. But on the level of the person, nothing can be imposed on love. Love knows no moral norms. It knows normative and spiritual values where freedom and inspiration prevail; it is love that discovers these and is nourished by their revelations.47
As poetic as these words may be, they contain several divergences from the patristic spirit which Evdokimov claims as his goal. For one, the particular romanticist, personalist ideology that he espouses stands in stark contrast to classical Christian anthropology. The latter puts the common nature of man, and not individual differences, at the center of moral and ascetical theology.48 Furthermore, it misunderstands the Church’s role in providing her children with salvific ethical teaching for upright living. Many are the times that the holy Fathers and Ecumenical Synods have prescribed canons for the spiritual formation and correction of their flock, simultaneously codifying the moral teaching of the Church for pastors and laity alike. These do not interfere with genuine love, but rather enable its authentic expression and exercise. To argue that the guidance of the Church stands in the way of love is to radically misunderstand the mission of the Church in the world.
The canonical expression, though, is secondary to the need for a consistent articulation of the Church’s ancient teaching, whatever form it takes. Problematic is the idea that a conscience may act appropriately, even with the seeds of sound principles, without ever receiving any specific instruction from the Church. The history of the Church is one of continual clarification and definition, and this is not artificial or external unless it is received this way—without assimilation—for the holy Fathers have always struggled to ensure the well-being and sanctification of their flock in the midst of potential doubts and misunderstandings, as well as errors and distortions, by infusing the faithful with life-giving dogmas and ascetic norms. Only when these remain on the level of legalism and pharisaic execution do they become dead letter.
Furthermore, it must be said that the interpretation offered by Engelhardt of Canon 3 of St. Dionysius is unfounded and ignores both its context and reception. Canon 2 of the same saint, on the communion of menstruating women, says that, “Not even they themselves, I think, being faithful and pious, would dare when in this state to approach the holy Table or to touch the Body and Blood of Christ.”49 Thus it appears that what St. Dionysius understands by a person’s judgment is not necessarily in keeping with what one finds today. According to St. Dionysius a faithful and pious Christian naturally acts in accordance with the piety and praxis of the Church. For this reason St. Nikodimos understands Canon 3 to refer to a couple’s abstinence from relations before holy Communion—a practice which a faithful and pious couple would know to be the proper reverential behavior.50 The spouses “are judges of themselves” when, like the menstruating woman, their conscience informs them of the need to abstain from one another prior to holy Communion. Thus even the Anglican John Johnson, writing in 1731, epitomized this canon according to the Greek scholiasts (Balsamon, Zonaras, et al.): “They that can contain and are aged ought to judge for themselves. They have heard St. Paul say that they should ‘for a time give themselves to prayer, and then come together again.’”51 Johnson’s translation, then, in light of the consistency it shows with Canon 2, is much to be preferred to the modern interpretation which reads into it a justification for license. Acting in good conscience is a prerequisite of all ethical behavior, but it is never the sole criterion.
The view, then, which bases the morality of contraception on the private, individual discernment of the couple and denies even the spiritual father a role in the ethical decision-making of a married couple, while it may seem extreme, is in fact becoming prevalent.52 Whereas Metropolitan Kallistos Ware had still in 1984 characterized the more liberal view on contraception as leaving the matter “to the discretion of each individual couple, in consultation with the spiritual father,”53 by 1993 even the consultative role of the spiritual father is abandoned, and the matter is said to be “best decided by the partners themselves, according to the guidance of their own consciences.”54 Nevertheless, the argument for discernment under the guidance of a spiritual father continues to be heard today.
The Role of the Spiritual Father
In spite of the famous unanimity of Patriarch Athenagoras with Humanae Vitae,55 the Ecumenical Patriarch elsewhere espouses the more familiar position in favor of birth control, showing that his agreement with Paul VI is in fact qualified. “Our Church has granted full authority to the spiritual father. It is for him, conscious of his responsibility and his mission, to give the advice and the direction that are appropriate.”56 Indeed, this is a very common position.57 It may be pertinent to point out, though, that just as no Ecumenical Synod has ever forbidden contraception, no dogmatic or canonical source has ever “granted full authority to the spiritual father,” whatever that might mean. Furthermore, both this stance and that of those who support the “right to privacy” take it completely for granted that contraception is essentially neutral,58 and only its use is determinative of sinfulness, since what is intrinsically evil does not admit of conscientious use; neither can it be blessed. This assumption of contraception’s neutrality is a critical flaw in the apologetics of birth control, since it precludes intelligent discussion of the philosophical and anthropological basis for the arguments against it and labels all moral opinion as meddling.
Nevertheless, appeals to Orthodoxy’s tradition of spiritual fatherhood are not of themselves calls for leniency or laxity. Bishop Athenagoras Kokkinakis, a decade before the Patriarch’s response to Humanae Vitae, also urges the involvement of the spiritual father as a distinctive element in the Church’s role as ethical teacher. The bishop’s purpose, though, is to stress the priest’s role as teacher of the Church’s traditional outlook on contraception and as moral guide in warning spouses against it. He insists that the confessor should always be consulted in making decisions about childbearing and family life. This, of course, is a familiar element of pious living, which resorts to the rich support system provided by the Church in carrying out a godly life. Athenagoras insists that the priest has a responsibility before God to inform the couple of the dangers of birth control, both physical and psychological—and this from the mouth of a hierarch famous for his modernizing tendencies, especially in his capacity within the Ecumenical Patriarchate.59 Nevertheless, on this issue he holds strictly to the position of the 1937 Encyclical of the Church of Greece:
The reverend priests are not unaware that every transgression of priestly duty imposes upon the priest a grave responsibility and threatens such penalties as the Lord pronounced upon the evil servants (cf. Mt. 24:48–51; Lk. 12: 45, 46) (priests being the servants of the Mysteries). But the behavior of the spiritual father who in the matter of childbearing reasons contrary to all that the truth of Orthodoxy teaches and is persistent in abetting the revolt which is perpetrated by those parents who by any means nullify the conception and birth of children is tantamount to great and criminal scandal for which the responsibility of the priest is fearsome. To him in this situation apply those words of the Lord, They be blind leaders of the blind. And if the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch. (Mat. 15:14).60
As previously noted, the ethical methodology which relegates the morality of contraception to the uprightness of the conscience or the blessing of the spiritual father necessarily takes for granted the neutrality of contraceptive methods and devices. According to such a view, it is how and why one uses them that renders contraception sinful. This presumption stands behind any qualified acceptance of artificial birth control. This is because the premises accepted by contemporary apologists upon which they elaborate ethical systems or opinions are limited to principles relating exclusively to marriage or to sexual life in toto, with a neglect for the ethics of the sexual act in se. Thus it is granted that the absolute rejection of children is forbidden; that the avoidance of childbearing must never be a consequence of selfish desire for comfort, avarice, distrust in God’s providence, or lustful indulgence; and that contraception, like abstinence, can never be imposed by one partner on the other.61 It is marriage, then, and not sexual union, which must be open to children. And so long as the motivations are neither egoistic nor faithless—relative terms—contraception cannot be ruled out, though a wide range of opinions exist as to what constitutes just cause.62
For this reason, on account of its acceptance of natural family planning, on the distinction between natural and unnatural methods for avoiding children, the papal church has been accused by many of extreme hypocrisy. Philip Sherrard expresses the contempt of many when he says that this “may pass as an adroit piece of legalistic or moral quibbling, but it is surely a very pathetic argument with which to present the mature Christian intelligence and conscience.”63 And Meyendorff asks, “Is there a real difference between the means called ‘artificial’ and those considered ‘natural?’”64 To this both the papist and the student of the holy Fathers must respond at once negatively and positively. Certainly there is no real difference insofar as the end is avoiding children. But that single overlap aside, Meyendorff fails to distinguish between the non-use of fertility and its suppression.65 Indeed, this distinction is completely overlooked by modern Orthodox theologians, though it is a key factor also in the patristic condemnation of artificial birth control, and in that regard the Roman Church has maintained the traditional teaching concerning the destruction of fertility, to the shame of present-day Orthodox.66
Zaphiris, although a medical doctor, does not see artificial contraception during sex as the spoliation of fertility. He speaks of it rather as prolonging “the non-fecund period which comes from God.”67 But the problem is precisely that, unlike the naturally non-fecund period, its extended state does not in fact come from God. If the natural cycle of non-fecundity is God-sent, then there is no logical reason for not likewise seeing the return of fecundity to the woman’s body as God-provided as well (if not more so, fertility being a primordial blessing and never a curse). But this renewed fecundity is actively obstructed by contraceptives, so that not only is a God-sent condition not prolonged, but the artificial extension thereof would seem to frustrate another divine gift. Thus, no matter what one concludes about the moral parity of the two states, the advantageous utilization of a natural state is undeniably different from the annihilation of its contrary. Additionally, Dr. Zaphiris, in his nebulous discussion of birth control, fails to note that many contraceptive drugs or devices have nothing to do with a woman’s cycles but merely render sex infertile through a variety of obstructive or destructive applications.68 Yet this distinction, between the mere avoidance of children and the accomplishment thereof by the extermination of fertility is central to providing greater nuance and subtlety to an assessment of theological arguments on contraception, and relying thereon it is possible to examine the teaching of the later twentieth-century theologians with the Fathers, for whom fecundation was central to the ethics of marital intercourse. We have already seen that a failure to note this distinction could lead one to incautiously misinterpret the Russian Synod’s statements on the issue, which only implies the possibility of non-egoistic avoidance of childbearing, yet says nothing about the interference with the nature of the reproductive act or the body.
The Suppression of Fertility
But Zaphiris is misleading here. For while prolonged abstinence indeed opens one up to temptations, and the gift of continence is indeed particular, it is nevertheless true that continence is oftentimes a necessity that is imposed by circumstance. Many are the situations in which husbands and wives are prevented from coming together, for one reason or another. If the cross of continence must be borne from time to time, it is not self-evident that the need to avoid conception is not another occasion. The Holy Synod of Greece says, [Abstinence] may appear stern and unattainable, but it appears so only to non-Christians, only to those living according to the flesh and not according to the spirit. To true Christians it is possible, because ‘self-control’ is a fruit of the Spirit which true Christians receive, according to the God-inspired Apostle Paul (Gal. 5:23). And pious spouses especially receive from God the grace to encounter the difficult circumstances of spousal life via sacrifice and self-denial. This is a most certain truth, confirmed by ancient and contemporary experience.73
Furthermore, in the verses to which Zaphiris alludes, it is clear that St. Paul is addressing ascetical discipline, which must be undertaken according to one’s strength. He is not addressing circumstances beyond one’s control, such as the undesirability of a pregnancy due to the woman’s health.
St. Paul emphasizes that abstinence cannot be one-sided—Defraud ye not one the other, except it be with consent. This is also the emphasis of St. John Chrysostom, who notes that it is the refusal of one spouse by another which leads to immorality: “For this kind of self-control has produced great evils. For from thence have often arisen adulteries, fornication, and the overthrow of homes.”74 But St. John is not opposed to a perfectly chaste life for husband and wife even in perpetuity.75 And he believes the divine origin of the gift of continence to be an admonition against presumption: man is so enslaved to the passions that he is unable of his own volition to exercise self-control; God must grant him this gift. But he never states that the divine origin of self-restraint is an excuse for intemperate indulgence of the flesh, even within marriage. In fact, he says the opposite: marriage is oriented toward learning that self-control.76 St. John Damascene, too, reminds us that satisfaction of the sexual urge is not an absolute requirement:
Of bodily pleasures, some are natural and necessary, without which life is impossible…. Others are natural but not necessary, as, for example, natural and lawful intercourse. For though this secures the permanence of the whole race, it is still possible, without them, to live in virginity.77
And Bishop Athenagoras reminds us that this chastity within marriage is a distinguishing mark of the Christian.78 So it is anything but self-evident that the sex life of spouses does not admit of legitimate interruptions.
Yet, more and more, writers are arguing for the importance of a thriving sexual life in spite of the active avoidance of children, not only for the alleviation of the sexual urge, but for the necessary expression of love which sexual intercourse perfects.79 Sherrard writes in 1969: “There is a growing assertion that the physical sex act is intimately related to the mutual love between man and woman, and can serve to express this love, and increase it, quite apart from any procreative capacity it may have.”80 This “growing assertion” is astounding for its late arrival. Also intriguing is its coincidence with the flourishing secular movement which divorces sex from childbearing for what are predominantly “egoistic motivations.”81 Yet many Orthodox Christians are fond of proclaiming that marriage and sex exist for more than mere reproduction, and that the rational control of fertility opens the way to a sexual life free from the dangers of pregnancy, real or imagined. It is often claimed that this is a “sacramental view” of marriage, which transcends the biological determinism of the body.82 The body, and the very unitive act itself, may be manipulated by technology or pharmaceuticals to ensure that a sex life may be continued in situations where children are not a possibility.
But while the insistence on the sacramental nature of marriage is welcome, and while it is true that the institution resists reduction to a mere reproductive mechanism, this point must be separated from its false corollary. The idea that marriage is more than just baby-making does not logically entail the idea that its procreative capacity can therefore be lawfully thwarted.83 Implicit in this reasoning is the aforementioned assumption of the neutrality of contraceptives, whose “noble” use provides their validation, or at the very least minimizes their general depravity.84
As proof that an exalted understanding of the sexual act does not of necessity involve the denigration of childbearing, we have the exegesis of St. Methodius of Olympus. Through the mouth of the virgin Theophila, he allegorically interprets the formation of Eve from the bone of Adam as an image of the ecstatic dynamism of intercourse:
This perhaps is the mystery of the somnolent ecstasy cast upon the first-formed man, a prefiguration of man’s enchantment by love, when ecstasy befalls him in his thirst for children so that, enervated (θηλυνόμενος) by the pleasures of procreation, something drawn from his flesh and bones might once again be formed into another person. For the harmony of the bodies being disturbed in the agitation of intercourse, as those who have been initiated in the rite of marriage tell us, everything marrow-like and generative in the blood (which is a kind of fluid bone) rushing together from all the members, foaming and curdling, is projected through the generative parts into the living soil of the female. And it is naturally for this reason that a man is said to leave his father and mother, altogether putting everything out of his mind at the moment when, united to his wife in affectionate embrace, he is overcome by the desire to procreate, offering his rib to the divine Creator to be taken away, that the very father might appear again in the son.85
Such a discourse makes it clear that it is not integral to an exalted vision of sex to divorce it from childbearing. One may reasonably connect the two so intimately that pregnancy becomes the supreme fruit of erotic ecstasy, indeed its driving force. St. Methodius characterizes the sexual desire not as a solipsistic eros between husband and wife, but as a comprehensive longing to bear fruit and come together to burst forth extensions of oneself in the power of the embrace. In this respect, too, St. John Chrysostom interprets the unity of man and woman in sex as manifested in the child which their love produces.
How do they become one flesh? As when you extract the purest element of gold and mix it with other gold, so also here the woman, receiving the richest part [of the man], poured out in pleasure, nurtures it, warms it, and, contributing her own substance, returns it as a human being. The child is a bridge. Thus the three become one flesh, the child fusing together opposites. For as two cities completely separated by a river become one by a conjoining bridge, so does it happen in marriage, but even more radically! For this bridge is made of the substance of each. And for this reason they come to constitute one thing, as a complete body is composed of a body and a head. For these are separated by a neck, or rather, not separated but joined. For since it is in the middle, it joins the two, and it becomes one and the same with them…. Indeed, for this reason it even states precisely, not ‘They shall be one flesh,’ but ‘into one flesh,’ indicating that they are joined by the child.86
Elsewhere, too, when he speaks most exaltedly about eros, he connects it immediately with the begetting of children and the propagation of the race.87 Compare this image with that of many modern writers, who see impregnation as the degradation of holy eros rather than its pinnacle.88 For many contemporary authors, fertility is seen as an obstacle to the free expression of love rather than the ground for its ultimate creativity and cooperation with the divine, 89 while for the holy Fathers childbearing is not a lower faculty of sex, but the summation and incarnation of all its goods.90
The Fathers abhor the thought of thwarting fecundity and never countenance the possibility of doing so for the purpose of continuing the sexual relationship. The Latin writer Lactantius strongly insists that, “If anyone, on account of poverty, is not able to bring up children, he had better abstain from coming together with his wife.”91And St. Caesarius of Arles likewise states that, “Chastity is the sole sterility of a Christian woman.” He says that otherwise the woman condemns “in herself the nature which God willed to be fecund.”92 St. Augustine, too, says of the Christian marital bed: “Even if they are not lying together for procreation of offspring, yet the procreation of offspring is not obstructed for the sake of lust.”93
Apologists for birth control nevertheless believe these authorities are not representative of the entire tradition. Some believe that they themselves, as modern Orthodox thinkers, represent a different strain, a more balanced side of the ecclesiastical inheritance, often claiming to follow St. John Chrysostom. Rending him from the broad consensus of the Fathers on this subject, they see in his other statements that sex is not merely for the procreation of children validation for the permissibility of squelching fertility from time to time.94 In light of such a bold claim, one cannot but sympathize with the words of St. Augustine to Julian of Eclanum. Then, as now, St. Chrysostom’s words were being used to misrepresent the Church’s teaching on a subject with deep implications for marriage and sexual desire—Pelagianism. To this Augustine responded with an invocation of the Golden-mouthed:
Come in, St. John, come in, and sit down together with your brethren, from whom no argument and no temptation have separated you. There is need of your opinion, too, and yours most of all, for this young man thinks he has found among your writings what he believes to be proof that he has diminished and invalidated the opinions of so many of your great fellow bishops.95
And examining St. John’s writings in full, one finds him to be no exception to the patristic rule. While he maintains the broader purpose of sex, for him this does not amount to the destructibility of fecundity. We have already heard him call childbearing something “sweet” and “desired by all.”96 Indeed, we have seen him exalt childbearing as central to marital union. Yet some theologians, understanding this reality, have failed, as already noted, to connect it to each and every instance of sexual union.97 Children are seen as the fruit of the marriage in general and not of each sexual encounter, which may even be rendered sterile for the sake of sterility, for the enjoyment of the physical encounter when fertility poses a threat. This too is rejected by St. John. He characterizes the barren womb’s destruction of seed through contraceptive medicine an atrocity. He calls this the mutilation of nature:98 a womb which is intended by God to produce children (τὸ ταμεῖον τῆς γενέσεως) is rendered injurious to the material designed to fertilize it. Woman, the gift of God to man for the begetting of children (τὴν πρός παιδοποιίαν δοθεῖσαν γυναῖκα), is rendered a barren instrument for sexual gratification.
St. Chrysostom cannot see anything in this but the work of the devil, and he posits that this drastic avoidance of children by any means necessary leads to idolatry (ἐντεῦθεν καὶ ἐιδωλολατρεία) and recourse to magic. Indeed, the connection between contraception and ungodly prayer is a well-known element, in pre-modern contexts, of the desperate desire to indulge in the generative act while at the same time avoiding procreation.99 He that wants no offspring but cannot control himself goes to any measure to prevent them without at the same time being deprived of sexual gratification, even resorting to spells and prayer to demons (δαιμόνων κλήσεις). St. John characterizes contraceptive drugs as one of these satanic measures on account of its abominable perversion of both the man and woman involved, not to mention the act itself.100
Thus, in light of this clarification of the saint’s meaning, one must ask with St. Augustine:
How, then, has it been to your advantage to proffer the testimony of John of Constantinople as though he would help your case? ... What has been the benefit of these words of yours except to show that either you have failed to learn the opinions and sayings of the Catholic Teachers, or, if you took the time to familiarize yourself with them, that you were attempting to deceive the ignorant by a kind of trick!101
Clearly for St. John the broader purpose of marriage does not permit the corruption of its fecundity, and this saint’s writings cannot be used to justify contraception.
Obviously, it would also be incorrect in light of what has been said to think that sex was somehow dependent upon fertility.102 Contraception is not tolerated insofar as it destroys fecundity and constitutes a repugnant corruption of divinely-created bodies and of the divinely-appointed marital act; but the absence of fertility does not of itself render sex illicit. Such an inference is inexcusable. As modern critics delight in pointing out, coitus is often unfruitful: women are often naturally barren; men are often naturally sterile; the female body itself is periodically infertile; and spouses are not forbidden from coming together in old age, even when the woman is past her childbearing years.103 Lactantius, exceptionally among the Fathers and ecclesiastical writers of the first centuries, even allows a man to lie with his pregnant wife, though he does so as a concession to weakness.104 Clearly, the possibility of enjoying the marriage bed in these cases is indicative of an understanding of sexual relations which is not bound by fertility; the two are not coterminous.105 Yet this does not in turn legitimize the destruction or suppression of fecundity when it is present.
Nature and Morality
The inviolability of fecundity is in our times dismissed as an uncertain moral principle, even as the necessity of a vigorous and unhindered sex life is taken as self-evident. It is said to be drawn from Roman Catholic natural law theory, which is in turn understood as a canonization of Aristotelian teleology (presumably alien to Orthodox thought), with touches of Stoicism.106 Yet within the Roman Catholic tradition, natural law is defined as “the rule of conduct which is prescribed to us by the Creator in the constitution of the nature with which He has endowed us.”107 Such is the reality that is denied by modern authorities as conflicting with traditional Orthodox morality. It is said to have no place within the “Eastern” tradition. As such, the concept appears to be misunderstood by many Orthodox theologians. Sherrard and Meyendorff see in this a blind acceptance of “natural laws,” the laws of nature, by which they understand the determinism of matter, including gravity and the like.108 For this reason Meyendorff asks, “Is anything ‘natural’ necessarily good?”109 Clearly such an interpretation is confused. To say man is intrinsically obedient to the divine will when he acts in accordance with the way God made him is very far from claiming that the natural motions of created things are all absolute, sacrosanct, and morally resistant to interference. This is to confuse “natural law” with the laws of nature.
Yet other theologians fight against any natural law in principle. Zaphiris is the most intense advocate of a strange freedom which he calls synergism.110 Generically invoking “the Greek Fathers,” he colors his perspective on moral choice with the language of free will and self-determination, though he declines to supply an object on which man might exercise this Godlike attribute and in turn hit the mark of the divine will. Indeed, in his discussion, there is no sense that the divine will is essentially distinct from man’s will. Needless to say he has confused one of man’s critical capacities (freedom) with man’s role in the moral order. In his opinion man is not the slave of natural law, but its creative agent. Man is taken from being a creature who can render obedience and love back to God in return for his gifts, to a creature whose cooperation is demiurgic even in the realm of right and wrong.111 The depths of confusion of such a theory cannot be overstated. Indeed, it is hard to know what it even means.
Nevertheless, it is clear that the holy Fathers have always taught that God has established divine laws, some of which he has written into the very being of man.112 In turn, man sins when he acts contrary to his divinely-constituted nature (παρὰ φύσιν). Likewise, he is blameless before God when he walks according to that same divinely-designed constitution (κατὰ φύσιν). “That alone is dishonorable,” says St. John Damascene, “which does not have its cause in God but is our own invention, through the change from what is according to nature to what is contrary to nature, and by the downturn of our will—this is sin”113 This “law of nature” written into man is breached through the misuse of our psychic faculties and bodies—even our misuse of other created things. St. Maximus the Confessor says,
Of those things given us to use by God, some are found in the soul, some in the body, and others around the body. In the soul are its powers; in the body the sensory organs and the other members; around the body are food, money, and possessions.
We are shown to be either virtuous or careless in whether we use them and their accidents well or wickedly.114
For this reason the Letter of Barnabas forbids spouses to indulge their sexual desire by the misuse of their genital organs: “Do not be likened to them whom we hear of as committing iniquity (ἀνομίαν) with the mouth through impurity; neither come together with those who commit iniquity in impurities with the mouth.”115 And likewise St. Augustine says that, “When a man wishes to use a body part of the woman not allowed for this purpose, the wife is more disgraceful if she permits it with herself than if with another.”116 The generative organs have their proper use. This restricts their exercise not only to lawful marriage, but even to certain bounds in relation to the spouse’s body.
One may indeed wonder if present-day theologians admit the possibility of perverting married sex in this way. Can spouses express their mutual love physically in any form? Are the generative organs validly used for mutual stimulation outside their obviously intended boundaries? Our modern authors do not indicate any reason for rejecting such a possibility. After all, they present the divinely-appointed marital act as consisting not in the deposition of seed in the womb, but in the stimulation to climax of the sexual organs. Since even when the natural outward form is preserved, a mockery is made of the process, the question is naturally raised as to why the natural form should matter at all.
The proper use of the generative organs demands also the preservation of their God-designed function. As food exists for nutrition and health, so the generative organs, as even their name (genitalia) implies, exist for the purpose of procreation, even if their use admits of broader enjoyment.117 When parts of the body are distorted for the avoidance of their natural functions, in this case begetting and conceiving, this is said to be contra-natural, becoming the object of St. Chrysostom’s aforementioned criticism (τὴν φύσιν ἐπήρωσαν).118 For this reason St. Maximus the Confessor states that sex for gratification is a misuse of sexual intercourse, whose end is the begetting of children.119 It would make no sense to limit bodily members to a specific use if their purpose can simultaneously be stifled; such an inconsistency is ridiculous. For the holy Fathers the act has its limits because it also has its natural function. For this reason St. John Chrysostom characterizes the destruction of fecundity as battling against God’s laws.120
Sherrard, in his belittling of Humanae Vitae, further points to the pope’s alleged failure to differentiate between nature before and after the fall—a familiar feature of patristic anthropology. He does so in order to poke holes in natural law theory, predicated as it is on a fallen and corrupted condition. This is not an insignificant point. But Sherrard himself fails to draw out the implications of this distinction for ethics. Perhaps he intended to demonstrate that this shift allows for seemingly “unnatural” behaviors, such as foregoing marriage or refraining from meat—things that hearken rather to Paradise than to the world as we know it.121 This is, in fact, important, since on account of Adam’s sin, neither can man presume all his native proclivities to be perfect.122 And the Fathers often speak of φύσις in these two senses.123 But by hearkening to Eden, Sherrard does not find any assistance in his quest to liberate sex from reproduction. What we find in the Garden, instead, is the exact opposite: procreation devoid of carnal passion. For whereas the Fathers understood the multiplication of the species to be a commandment from the beginning (Gen. 1:28), they understood the physical union of man and wife to be a consequence of the Fall (Gen. 4:1).124 In attempting to undermine natural law, then, Sherrard has unwittingly undermined his own eros theology, which comes out in distinct opposition to the order of Paradise.
William Basil Zion points to the essay of Dr. Chrysostom Zaphiris as the most cogent defense of contraception. “His discussion is, in our opinion, the most nuanced and persuasive found in contemporary Orthodoxy.”125 Indeed, one finds little in any other author which improves upon the shortcomings of Zaphiris. Zion’s own study is perhaps the most honest in dealing with the patristic evidence, but he cannot bring himself to feel bound by it. In fact, in no modern defense of contraception does one find a comprehensive analysis of the relevant patristic texts or a sensitivity to their testimony. Philosophically, the arguments made in support of birth control are shallow and lacking in rigor; and they fail to truly engage the issue’s complexities. True critical thinking is nowhere exhibited. The glaring failure to make simple distinctions, along with the tendency to settle for worldly “common sense,” falls short of the Christian patrimony, both intellectually and ascetically. In spite of the claim to “acquire the mind of the Church” and to think with “the patristic spirit,” many theologians of today have failed to give an adequate response to the controversy over contraception. They have fallen short of their stated intentions and have at times been severely dishonest in their presentation of the patristic inheritance. Worse still, they have not sought to imbibe this teaching, but have dismissed it, qualified it, and revised it in ways that are unacceptable to an Orthodox conscience.
The timeless teaching of the Church is clear that anything which renders bodies infertile and which destroys the fecundity of the sexual act for the sake of avoiding children has no place whatsoever in the Christian home. Contraception is a remedy that lies outside of the Christian mindset and way of life. In its place the holy Fathers offer spiritual growth and ascetical self-discipline as befits a follower of Christ. The Fathers speak clearly and unanimously in transmitting to our generation a hatred for perversions of conjugal love. It is incumbent upon clergy and laity alike to assimilate this saving ethical truth. Much caution must be exercised in heeding the unwarranted authority of modern theologians who depart shamelessly or ignorantly from ecclesiastical tradition. Any system which seeks to modify the Church’s teaching under pretense of a false sympathy shortchanges Christ’s little ones. Contemporary man thirsts for refuge from moral relativism. The Church alone can satisfy that thirst, providing real ethical guidance for the salvation of souls, and not for the sake of a cultural agenda, that Christians may know how to walk the dangerous pathways of this world in the light of Christ; and blessed is he, whosoever shall not be offended in me (Mt. 11:6).