The Orthodox Position on Contraception

Condoms

OCMCI’m reading a few books at the moment, but the one I’d like to mention today is Orthodox Christianity, Marriage & Contraception by Anthony Stehlin. I’m only about a third of the way through it so far, but I really wanted to do a short post concerning something mentioned in the first chapter….

A few months ago I decided to join an Eastern Orthodox online forum to try and soak up some more eastern knowledge. I actually found the group incredibly hostile to Catholics (especially Eastern Catholics), but that’s a post for another time.

Members of the group stated again and again that teaching in Eastern Orthodoxy has never changed, something which they contrasted to the supposed deviations of Catholicism. In response to this, I asked the group about the Eastern Orthodox position concerning contraception…

What happened in Lambeth?

You see, in times past, all Christian groups condemned contraception. This is attested to in the writings of the Early Church Fathers. Even the fathers of the Protestant Reformation were virulently anti-contraception. In fact, you have to wait until 20th Century to find any Christian commendation of contraception. In 1930, following the Lambeth Conference, narrow accommodations were made by the Anglican Church to allow limited use of contraception:

“Nevertheless in those cases where there is such a clearly felt moral obligation to limit or avoid parenthood, and where there is a morally sound reason for avoiding complete abstinence, the Conference agrees that other methods may be used, provided that this is done in the light of the same Christian principles. The Conference records its strong condemnation of the use of any methods of conception control from motives of selfishness, luxury, or mere convenience
– Resolution 15, Lambeth Conference

Following this small crack in the dam, it wasn’t long before the restrictions were discarded and, denomination-by-denomination, the rest of Protestantism came to embrace contraception.

What happened in Eastern Orthodoxy?

In response to my question about contraception on the Orthodox forum, I received a variety of replies (which I may discuss some other time), but it was emphatically denied that Eastern Orthodoxy had grown weak on this issue or that there had been any deviation in teaching.

In response to this, there was evidence that I was tempted to use, but I couldn’t quote the exact sources. Thankfully, in the first chapter of Anthony’s book, he gives the exact example of which I was thinking, together with citations. The example surrounds Timothy Ware’s book, The Orthodox Church, an extremely well respected book in Eastern Orthodox circles. The alterations which have been made through the various revisions tell us an interesting story, and paints a rather troubling picture concerning recent developments within Eastern Orthodoxy:

OC1963 Version
“Artificial methods of contraception are forbidden in the Orthodox Church”

1984 Version
“The use of contraceptives and other devices for birth control is on the whole strongly discouraged in the Orthodox Church. Some bishops and theologians altogether condemn the employment of such methods. Others, however, have recently begun to adopt a less strict position, and urge that the question is best left to the discretion of each individual couple, in consultation with the spiritual father”

1993 Version
“Concerning contraceptives and other forms of birth control, differing opinions exist within the Orthodox Church. In the past birth control was in general strongly condemned, but today a less strict view is coming to prevail, not only in the west but in traditional Orthodox countries. Many Orthodox theologians and spiritual fathers consider that the responsible use of contraception within marriage is not in itself sinful. In their view, the question of how many children a couple should have, and at what intervals, is best decided by the partners themselves, according to the guidance of their own consciences”

Regardless of how one views contraception, I think we must at least all agree that there has been a considerable shift in the Eastern Orthodox position over the last fifty years.

20 comments

  • Well, there has certainly been a considerable shift in Timothy / Bishop Kallistos’ opinion in any case. And the priests he hangs out with. No different than the pro-contraception Catholic priests I interacted with growing up – and they were legion.

    • Hey Al, welcome to RestlessPilgrim.net!

      Well, there has certainly been a considerable shift in Timothy / Bishop Kallistos’ opinion in any case

      From looking at the text, it appears to be more a reflection on the shift in official Orthodox teaching, rather than the Bishop’s own opinion.

      No different than the pro-contraception Catholic priests I interacted with growing up – and they were legion

      The difference as I see it is that the Catholic dissenter is exactly that, dissenting from the official teaching of the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church, in accord with the Fathers, teaches that contraception is a grave disorder of the conjugal act. This teaching will not change, no matter how unpopular it is.

  • I think this is an area where Orthodox-Catholic understanding breaks down fairly regularly.

    Orthodoxy unequivocally condemns contraception regardless of what some Synod says about it. You will look long and hard to find any acceptance of contraception in Orthodox thought prior to, say, 1965. Thus it’s heretical regardless of how badly many Orthodox theologians want to get invited to cooler parties. =)

    Likewise, and somewhat interestingly, Catholic thought on birth control has stayed firm on the artificial side… but gotten very, very squishy on the NFP/natural side. I was taught via catechism growing up (born in 1973) that NFP could ONLY be used with ‘grave’ reasons, and that without such it was a mortal sin.

    Now we have the unfortunate belief that NFP can never be contraceptive, with the implication that any such shortcoming in its use is more of (to use. Thomas Aquinas’ terminology) an imperfection vs. a sin.

    This is disturbing because it ignores the reality that 1) many Catholics are using NFP as de facto birth control, including the not-uncommon practice of permanently limiting births after X number of children, and 2) it creates confusion morally by claiming that a non-act can’t really be sinful.

    The former point is ease to prove – just go to your local conservative (NOT traditional!) Catholic church and ask around. The latter point hails the demotion of sins of omission, which were highly stressed back in pre-V2 days but which have fallen out of favor in the past 20-30 years.

  • Orthodoxy unequivocally condemns contraception regardless of what some Synod says about it.

    What good then, is a synod if it isn’t binding?

    Catholic thought on birth control has stayed firm on the artificial side… but gotten very, very squishy on the NFP/natural side.

    But NFP isn’t contraception. It isn’t taking an act which is fertile and sterilizing it.

    I was taught via catechism growing up (born in 1973) that NFP could ONLY be used with ‘grave’ reasons, and that without such it was a mortal sin.

    Do you think that has changed?

    Now we have the unfortunate belief that NFP can never be contraceptive

    This hasn’t been my experience. Most presentations of NFP I’ve encountered will usually make a point that NFP can be used with a contraceptive mindset and this isn’t allowed.

    1) many Catholics are using NFP as de facto birth control, including the not-uncommon practice of permanently limiting births after X number of children

    Do you have some statistics to confirm this, or is it just your impression?

    2) it creates confusion morally by claiming that a non-act can’t really be sinful.

    I’m afraid I’m not quite sure what you mean by this.

    • It cannot be denied that the vast majority of Catholics not only reject the Church’s teaching against contraception (which is confirmed in polls/surveys) but also reject the Church’s teaching that NFP can only be used for grave reasons. All you have to do is look in the pews and see how few large families there are, or study the average number of children in Catholic families. Even in devout parishes, the average number of children born to a husband and wife is far less then in places like Africa where the infant death is much higher.
      The main issue at hand is a common problem in the Catholic Church: Failure to teach that the commandments of God must be incorporated into the heart and be motivated by a unadulterated love of Christ, rather than merely following the letter of the law; as such, with birth control, it really comes down to a trust issue: Do I trust God even with my family size (and timing) or do I not? If one has given one’s life completely to God, and is truly a piece of clay being molded by The Potter, then one can never say “no” to God – Our response to anything God might have for us, no matter how difficult or costly, must be the response of the Blessed Virgin; “Be it done unto me according to Thy word.” And since the primary purpose of marriage and the procreative act is of course procreation, it is obvious that “natural family planning” is neither natural nor in accordance with God’s design.

      “And this again you do. You cover the Lord’s altar with tears, with weeping and groaning because he no longer regards the offering or accepts it with favor at your hand. You ask, “Why does he not?” Because the Lord was witness to the covenant between you and the wife of your youth, to whom you have been faithless, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant. Has not the one God made[g] and sustained for us the spirit of life?[h] And what does he desire? Godly offspring. So take heed to yourselves, and let none be faithless to the wife of his youth.”
      Malachi 2:13-15

      The failure of modern Orthodox leadership clearly teach that contraception is intrinsically evil was the primary reason I could not become Orthodox, but instead knew I had to enter the Catholic Church.

      • Hey Kevin, welcome to Restless Pilgrim!

        As you point out, most Orthodox have actually departed from historic teaching on this matter. While the Catholic Church, although often inadequately taught to the faithful, still teach the truth about sex and marriage.

  • Catholic but questioning

    I am seriously considering Eastern Orthodoxy, but this is one thing that is holding me back……I agree with the Catholic Church’s teaching on contraception. Otherwise, I’d become Orthodox.

  • Hey Catholic but Questioning: Please read my commentary above. And if you have more questions, let me know and I’m happy to answer them as a lifelong traditionalist Catholic who converted to Orthodox a couple years ago after several years of researching the different perspectives of Orthodoxy and Catholicism.

    Just like in Catholicism, there are large swaths of people in the pews who don’t live up to the teachings of the Church. But Orthodoxy unequivocally condemns contraception.

    The bigger issue you should consider – which just about everyone glosses over to my ongoing mystification – is salvation.

    If you’re Catholic, and a traditional one, then all non-baptized people (with very, very few exceptions) go to Hell. Including children and infants.

    I can’t seem to get Catholics to engage with this. Admittedly, those children go to “nice” Hell without pain, but are explicitly defined as being in Hell as per Lyons, Florence and Trent. And it also means that there are a lot of 9 and 10 year old in anguish in horrible Hell, since actual sin without baptism (all non-Christians, most evangelicals who don’t baptism until one makes a “decision for Christ”, etc.) leads to the fires of Hell as per Catholic teaching.

    Orthodoxy not only affirms the Fathers but is much more reasonably and evocative of God’s mercy by acknowledging that God is in fact merciful and that we don’t know the status of the vast majority of people’s final destination.

    • …Orthodoxy unequivocally condemns contraception.

      I think that’s a rather hard statement to back up. Timothy Ware’s assessment doesn’t reflect this.

      If you’re Catholic, and a traditional one, then all non-baptized people (with very, very few exceptions) go to Hell. Including children and infants

      We can hope for the salvation of others, but we know the normative means of salvation are the sacraments which were given to the Church by Christ.

      I can’t seem to get Catholics to engage with this

      If you’d like to present your case here, I’d happily dialogue about it for a bit. It seems to me that you’re reading Catholic sources in a rather blunt fashion but then allowing for greater nuance in those of Orthodoxy. For example, if I asked an Orthodox priest “Is baptism necessarily for salvation?” surely he would say “Yes!”? Could I therefore make similar statements to those you make about the Orthodox Church’s assessment of unbaptized children?

    • Catholic but questioning

      Wow so you used to be trad….as in TLM exclusively?

      • Catholic but questioning: I was exclusively TLM and/or Eastern Rite. Prior to my conversion, I hadn’t attended the Novus Ordo for about 15 years. The NO is a completely new style of liturgy that is Protestantized to the extreme. It’s only gotten worse since I stopped attending, based on the (very) rare occasions where I’ve been required to attend a NO wedding or funeral.

    • Catholic but questioning

      Wow I’d love to read your conversion story.

      • If you’d like, we can chat offline. Trying to think of a way for us to communicate without it being public =D If you have a throwaway email address, you can share it here. Or I can try to find one. It’s probably easier to chat over the phone or Skype than for me to type it out, especially since my journey is a relatively long one.

        Let me know if you want to give it a try. And keep praying and searching!

  • Catholic but questioning

    Many things are attracting me to Orthodoxy. I’ve been doing a lot of reading.

    • Can you give me an example? Additionally, have you explored the Eastern Rites of the Catholic Church? I too was greatly attracted to Orthodoxy, particularly Liturgy and theological expression… but union with Rome was just too important for me to abandon Peter’s successor. There were also issues within Orthodoxy which caused concern, but these were less significant when compared to the positive case for communion with the keeper of “the keys”.

      • In fairness to CbQ, the Eastern Rites are Catholics playing dress-up at Orthodoxy. If you’re Catholic, be Catholic which really means Roman. 99%+ of Catholicism is Western, and the Easterners are slighted to the point of complete irrelevance.

        Catholic but Questioning: Google “John Ireland” and “Alexis Toth” if you want more information about how the Unia is seen within traditional Catholicism – and know that they are seen as traitors within Orthodoxy, so they are essentially outcasts in both faiths. Post-V2 Catholicism is 180 degrees more welcoming, but at the cost of losing anything that’s even remotely traditional.

        V2’s treatment of Uniates is a perfect example of “the operation was a complete success, and the patient died”.

        • In fairness to CbQ, the Eastern Rites are Catholics playing dress-up at Orthodoxy.

          Well, that’s not insulting at all…

          If you’re Catholic, be Catholic which really means Roman

          Utter nonsense.

          …the Easterners are slighted to the point of complete irrelevance.

          Not my experience in the slightest.

        • Post-V2 Catholicism is 180 degrees more welcoming, but at the cost of losing anything that’s even remotely traditional.

          What is this “cost” of which you speak?

        • Catholic but Questioning: Google “John Ireland” and “Alexis Toth” if you want more information about how the Unia is seen within traditional Catholicism

          Not exactly a shining moment in the western Church…but what do you think that this proves?

          (Incidentally, this story was retold each year at my old parish’s yearly catechesis series).

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