Eastern Othodoxy and Contraception
Contemporary VS. Traditional Views
By Taras Baytsar
Teaching on contraception among Orthodox Churches
The voices of the various Orthodox churches have been muted in addressing the issue of contraception and “family planning.” Even when church leaders have spoken, their communication is often inconsistent with early Church traditions and teachings, or contradictory from one period to the next or among Orthodox theologians. While the desire to avoid controversy is understandable, controversy can not be avoided at the cost of error or indifference.
By way of example, consider the statements made by distinguished theologians of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople — the oldest and most respected of the Orthodox churches. In his monumental book, The Orthodox Church, Bishop Kallistos Ware, probably one of the Church’s most famous contemporary authors, wrote:
“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.” 1
However, in an earlier (1963) edition of this book, Bishop Ware clearly and unambiguously states:
“Artificial methods of birth control are forbidden in the Orthodox Church.” 2
In support of Bishop Ware’s 1963 expression of the position of the “Orthodox Church” comes no less a personage than the Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople. In 1968 the Roman Pope Paul VI wrote the encyclical letter Humanae Vitae in which he reaffirmed the Latin Church’s rejection of contraception. After reviewing the encyclical, the Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras wrote to the Pope to assure him of the Orthodox Church’s “total agreement” with the encyclical’s contents:
“We assure you that we remain close to you, above all in these recent days when you have taken the good step of publishing the encyclical Humanae Vitae. We are in total agreement with you, and wish you all God’s help to continue your mission in the world.” 3
Similar inconsistencies and ambiguities can be found within the Russian Orthodox Church. Father Alexander Men, one of Russia’s best known and widely read theologians, addressed the morality of contraception in this way:
“This is not my own opinion. I have consulted with our bishops and they are of the opinion that a person has a right to practice birth control. Otherwise, they may bring more children into the world than they can support, in which case they will become animals rather than human beings.” 4
A modified version of this view was also endorsed in August, 2000 at the Jubilee Bishop’s Council of the Russian Orthodox Church, to whit:
“Among the problems which need a religious and moral assessment is that of contraception. Some contraceptives have an abortive effect, interrupting artificially the life of the embryo on the very first stages of his life. Therefore, the same judgments are applicable to the use of them as to abortion. But other means, which do not involve interrupting an already conceived life, cannot be equated with abortion in the least.” 5
Thus, while it is clear that the Russian Orthodox Church allows contraception, it bans the use of those which are abortifacient, and which may have a primary or secondary effect of
Back to Basics
Although the positions stated above are only a few of the many that have been taken over the years by Orthodox Churches and theologians on the issue of contraception, it suffices to illustrate the basic point that much work remains to be done in accepting God’s truth. It is obvious that — of two contradictory views — only one can be true. And that one can be found only with reference to the Bible, early Church teachings and the Church Fathers.
From the earliest days of the Church, the Holy Scriptures have been the bedrock of Orthodox Christian dogma and tradition. And the supreme authorities for interpreting the Scriptures have always been with the divinely inspired Fathers of the Church. The revealed truth given to them by the Holy Spirit can not replaced or over-ruled, and their authority as supreme Doctores et magistri of the Church cannot be discarded without risk of heresy. This was clear from the very beginning of the Church:
“…The very Tradition, teaching and faith of the catholic Church from the very beginning, given by the Lord, was preached by the Apostles and preserved by the Fathers.” 6
The true meaning of “Tradition” lies in the keeping and defense of revealed truth… truth that can not be changed, because “Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday, today and forever” (Heb. 13:8). Those who hear His call to live according to His Truth need only look for it in the Holy Tradition of the Church.
The central Biblical theme is the covenant between God and His people — a covenant based on God’s love for His people, which is compared (by the Prophet Hosea) to that of a husband and wife. In Ephesians 5, St. Paul restated this concept by comparing God’s covenant with His church to that of the bond of matrimony.
The fruits of that marriage that is, the giving of birth to God’s children, is also a principal source of a woman’s salvation. According to St. Paul, if she “continues in faith and love and holiness with modesty” (I Timothy 5, 15), she “will be saved through bearing children” (I Timothy 2, 15). Time and again the Bible emphasizes “fruitfulness” in child-bearing as one of God’s greatest blessings and rewards for righteousness and a clear sign of His approval.
“Blessed is every one who fears the Lord, who walks in his ways! You shall eat the fruit of the labor of your hands; you shall be happy, and it shall be well with you. Your wife will be like fruitful vine within your house; your children will be like olive shoots around your table. Lo, thus shall the man be blessed who fears the Lord” (Psalm128, 1-4); Lo, sons are a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward.” (Ps.127, 3)
Conversely, the Bible condemns those who frustrate or reject God’s blessings by unnatural forms of birth control. In Genesis we read:
“Then Judah said to Onan, ‘Go into yours brother’s wife and perform the duty of a brother-in-law to her, and raise up offspring for your brother.’ But Onan knew that offspring would not be his; so when he went in to his brother’s wife he spilled the semen on the ground, lest he should give offspring to his brother. And what he did was displeasing in the sight of the Lord, and He slew him also.” (Gen. 38, 8-10)
Onan had used the contraceptive method called “withdrawal,” and deliberately ejaculated outside the woman. For centuries thereafter Christians used the term “Onanism” to refer to unnatural forms of birth control, and the message of God’s displeasure did not escape them.
While many defenders of contraception would argue that Onan’s sin was not in his fruitless ejaculation but in disobedience to his father and the law of the Levirate, John Kipley, a leading Western moral theologian, sums up the Tradition of biblical interpretation, as follows:
“The interpretation that Onan’s sin was only the violation of the Levirate custom is a recent accommodation for the practice of unnatural forms of birth control. It is not upheld by the text or the context. On the contrary, the Onan account provides a powerful biblical basis for the traditional Christian teaching that unnatural forms of birth control are immoral. This interpretation is reinforced by certain New Testament passages, and it is certainly confirmed by centuries of usage.” 7
Has the Early Church Addressed Contraception
It is customary to ascribe the current confusion, ambiguity, and error on the subject of contraception to an alleged paucity of teachings transmitted by Church Fathers, as illustrated by one of the most authoritative orthodox theologian’s of the 20th century, Paul Evdokimov:
“In the age of Church Fathers, the problem of birth control was never raised. There are no canons that deal with it. The ancient collections of penitential discipline are no longer entirely applicable; moreover they say nothing on the subject… ” 8
This argument, however, does not stand up to close scrutiny of the historical record. Contraception is not a contemporary invention. It has been known for thousands of years and in all areas of the world. We have testimony from the ancient Roman physician, Soranos of Ephesus, who in his 2nd century Gyneciorum Libri provides detailed descriptions of various contraceptive methods. Studying ancient documents on this subject, modern researcher Paul Veyne has concluded that:
“Abortion and contraception were common practices, although historians have distorted the picture somewhat by overlooking the Roman use of the term “abortion” to describe not only surgical practices that we would call abortion but also techniques that we would call contraceptive…All classes of the population certainly made use of contraceptive techniques.” 9
The Fathers of Church would most certainly have been aware of the common birth control practices of their day and among the faithful. As guardians of Christian values and the sanctity of marriage they would have been called upon to address sensitive and important issues involving married life, sexual intimacy, abortion, and the use of contraceptives.
Early Church Recognition of the Evils of Contraception
The historical record shows that even the very earliest Ecumenical Councils and Synods had to deal with the problem of abortion and contraception. The Fathers of those Councils were unequivocal in their condemnation, as illustrated by the following written affirmations:
“Concerning women who commit fornication, and destroy that which they have conceived, or who are employed in making drugs for abortion, a former decree excluded them until the hour of death, and to this some have assented. Nevertheless, being desirous to use somewhat greater lenity, we have ordained that they fulfill ten years [of penance], according to the prescribed degrees.” [Synod in Ancyra can. XXI (A.D. 314.)] 10
“Those who give drugs for procuring abortion, and those who receive poisons to kill the foetus, are subjected to the penalty of murder.” [Council in Trullo can. XCI. (A.D. 692)] 11
“Let her that procures abortion undergo ten years’ penance, whether the embryo were perfectly formed, or not.” [Can. II of St. Basil the Great] 12
In A.D. 191 St. Clement of Alexandria (a Greek theologian of considerable influence on the theological development of the early Church) referred to Onan’s evil act in these words:
“He broke the law of coitus.” 13 He went on to explain that “Because of its divine institution for the propagation of man, the seed is not to be vainly ejaculated, nor is it to be damaged, nor is it to be wasted.” 14
Origen — theologian of the early 3rd century Alexandrian Church — considered by many to be the most accomplished biblical scholar of the early church — refuted the teachings of the pagan philosopher Celsus by reference to God’s people in the Old Testament:
“nor were there among them women who sold their beauty to anyone who wished to have sexual intercourse without offspring, and to cast contempt upon the nature of human generation.” 15
In the early Church it was clear that to have sexual intercourse without being open to offspring was to commit an evil act.
In A.D. 307 the Latin philosopher and apologist, Lactantius Firmianus, attested to the Christian belief that abstinence is the only licit means of limiting family size. He spoke of those who
“…complain of the scantiness of their means, and allege that they have not enough for bringing up more children, as though, in truth, their means were in [their] power… or God did not daily make the rich poor and the poor rich. Wherefore, if any one on any account of poverty shall be unable to bring up children, it is better to abstain from relations with his wife… the genital [generating] part of the body, as the name itself teaches, has been received by us for no other purpose than the generation of offspring..” 16
In A.D. 375, the Greek theologian St. Epiphanius of Salamis (who later became Bishop of Salamis) wrote against those who:
“…exercise genital acts, yet prevent the conceiving of children. Not in order to produce offspring, but to satisfy lust, are they eager for corruption.” 17
St. John Chrysostym and other great Church Fathers
No Christian can challenge the moral and theological authority of the great St. John Chrysostum, the 4th century Patriarch of Constantinople. In a homily he preached in 391 A.D., this illustrious Father of the Church condemned both contraception and abortion:
“Why do you sow where the field is eager to destroy the fruit, where there are medicines of sterility [oral contraceptives], where there is murder before birth? You do not even let a harlot remain only a harlot, but you make her a murderess as well… Indeed, it is something worse than murder, and I do not know what to call it; for she does not kill what is formed but prevents its formation. What then? Do you condemn the gift of God and fight with his [natural] laws?… Yet such turpitude… the matter still seems indifferent to many men; even to many men having wives. In this indifference of the married men there is greater evil filth; for then poisons are prepared, not against the womb of a prostitute, but against your injured wife. Against her are these innumerable tricks”. 18
In another homily, St. John Chrysostom went on to say:
“The procreation of children in marriage is the ‘heritage’ and ‘reward’ of the Lord; a blessing of God (cf. Psalm 127:3). It is the natural result of the act of sexual intercourse in marriage, which is a sacred union through which God Himself joins the two together into ‘one flesh’ (Genesis 1-2, Matthew 19, Mark 10, Ephesians 5, et. al.). The procreation of children is not in itself the sole purpose of marriage, but a marriage without the desire for children, and the prayer to God to bear and nurture them, is contrary to the ‘sacrament of love.'” 19
The great 4th century Latin Father St. Ambrose of Milan (who was responsible for the conversion of St. Augustine), wrote against abortion and contraception. John Noonan records, “St. Ambrose spoke of potions used in marriage in the course of his commentary on Genesis, …he exclaimed, The rich “lest their patrimony be divided among several, deny their own fetus in their uterus and by a parricidal potion extinguish the pledges of their womb in their genital belly, and life is taken away before it is transmitted.'” 20 John Noonan went on to explain that: “To users of potions preventing life, [Ambrose] applied the condemnation ‘parricide.’ From the context where protection of inheritance is the object of these acts, it is probable that any use of the potions in marriage is what is condemned.” 21
Another 4th century Latin Father, St. Jerome, also treated the subject of contraception. As a student of St. Gregory the Theologian and translator of the Vulgate edition of the Holy Bible, St. Jerome was well qualified to reflect the established dogma of the Early Church. Condemning the immorality of the Roman women of his time, he wrote, “Others, indeed, will drink sterility and murder a man not yet born.” 22 This repeated reference to “drinking sterility” by the Fathers is an obvious reference to pharmakeia or oral contraceptives. Noonan comments: “Evidently contraception was known and practiced in fashionable Catholic circles. Jerome denounces it in strong terms…” 23
Then there is the witness of St. Augustine, probably the most authoritative doctor of the Western Church. St. Augustine, in one of his letters, wrote:
“It is one thing not to lie [with one’s wife] except with the sole will of generating: this has no fault. It is another to seek the pleasure of the flesh in lying, although within the limits of marriage: this has venial fault. I am supposing that then, although you are not lying for the sake of procreating offspring, you are not for the sake of lust obstructing their procreation by an evil prayer or an evil deed. Those who do this, although they are called husband and wife, are not; nor do they retain any reality of marriage, but with a respectable name cover a shame. They give themselves away, indeed, when they go so far as to expose their children who are born to them against their will; for they hate to nourish or to have those whom they feared to bear. Therefore a dark iniquity rages against those whom they have unwillingly borne, and with open iniquity this comes to light; a hidden shame is demonstrated by manifest cruelty. Sometimes this lustful cruelty, or cruel lust, comes to this, that they even procure poisons of sterility, and, if these do not work, extinguish and destroy the fetus in some way in the womb, preferring that their offspring die before it lives, or if it was already alive in the womb to kill it before it was born. Assuredly if both husband and wife are like this, they are not married, and if they were like this from the beginning they come together not joined in matrimony but in seduction. If both are not like this, I dare to say that either the wife is in a fashion the harlot of her husband or he is an adulterer with his own wife.”
A Greek penitential, ascribed to St.John IV Nesteutes (St. John the Faster), the 6th century Patriarch of Constantinople, states:
“If someone to satisfy his lust or in deliberate hatred does something to a man or woman so that no children be born of him or her, or gives them to drink (pharmakon), so that he cannot generate or she conceive, let it be held as homicide.” 25
We have seen the witness from Holy Scriptures, early Councils and holy Fathers of the Church. All of them attest to the immorality of contraceptives. St. Clement of Alexandria, St. Hippolytus of Rome, St. Epiphanius of Salamis, St. John Chrysostom, St. Ambrose of Milan, St. Jerome, St. Augustine, and many teachers and Doctors of the Church; proclaim the constant teaching of the Faith about this issue. They witness to the unchangeable nature of Tradition about artificial birth control.
The Church has proclaimed throughout all the ages that procreation is the primary end of marriage. She has continually preached the beauty of marital intercourse as a participation in God’s creative work. The Church has always highly regarded the bearing and raising of children. The Father’s of the Church attested that the joyful unitive aspect of marriage flowed from marital intercourse when it is open to new life. The Church’s constant teaching on Marriage and sexual intercourse is a gift we should rejoice in and continue to proclaim today.
1. Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church, 2nd edition, Penguin, 199E p.296.
2. Ibid., 1st edition, p.302.
3. Patriarch Athenagoras telegram to Pope Paul VI, 9 August 1968, reprinted in Towards the Healing of Schism, ed. & trans. E.J. Stormon ,1987, p. 197.
4. A. Men’, Kul’tura i dukhovnoe vozrozhdenie, (Moscow 1992), pp. 445-450.
5. “Bases of Social Concept of Russian Orthodox Church,” confirmed on Jubilee Bishop’s Council of the Russian Orthodox Church (Moscow, August 13 – 16 2000) retrieved from http://www.russian-orthodox-church.org.ru/sd00e.htm.
6. St. Athanasius the Great, First Letter to Serapion, 28; (d. 373 A.D.)
7. John F. Kipley, Birth Control and Christian Discipleship, Couple To Couple League, 2001 pp. 23-28.
8. Paul Evdokimov, The Sacrament of Love (Crestwood, NY: SVS Press, 1995) p.174.
9. Paul Veyne, A History of Private Life, Vol. I: From Pagan Rome to Byzantium, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1987), p.12.
10.Canons of Council of retrieved from: http://www.synaxis.org/ecf/volume37/.
11. Canons of Council in Trulo, retrieved from: http://www.synaxis.org/ecf/volume37/.
12. Canons of St. Basil of Coesarea, retrieved from http://www.synaxis.org/ecf/volume37/.
13. St. Clement of Alexandria, Comments on Genesis 6, (PG 69:309).
14. St. Clement of Alexandria, Pedagogus (The Educator) 184.108.40.206, (GCS 12; 212).
15. Origen, Contra Celsum, Bk: 5, chp. 42, retrieved from : http://www.ccel.org/fathers2/
16. Lactantius Firmianus, Divine Institutions 6.23.18, (CSEL 19: 567).
17. St. Epiphanius of Salamis, Panarion (Medicine Chest) 26.5.2-6, (GSC 25: 294-298).
18. St. John Chrysostom, Homily 24 on Romans, (PG 60: 626-627), quoted in book: John T., Jr. Noonan, Contraception: A History of Its Treatment by the Catholic Theologians and Canonists, Harvard Univ. Press, 1986, p.98.
19. St. John Chrysostom, Homily on Ephesians 20, PG.
20. St. Ambrose, Hexameron 5.18.58 (CSEL 32: 184).
21. John T., Jr. Noonan, Contraception: A History of Its Treatment by the Catholic Theologians and Canonists, (Harvard Univ. Press, 1986) p.99.
22. St. Jerome, Letter 22, to Eustochium 13, (CSEL 54: 160-161).
23. Noonan, Ibid., p.101.
24. St. Augustine, “Marriage and Concupiscence” 1.15.17; quoted by John T., Jr. Noonan, Contraception: A History of Its Treatment by the Catholic Theologians and Canonists, Harvard Univ. Press, 1986,p.136.
25. Penitential (PG 88:1924A): quoted. by John T., Jr. Noonan, Contraception: A History of Its Treatment by the Catholic Theologians and Canonists, Harvard Univ. Press, 1986 p. 168n.
26. John Breck, The Sacred Gift of Life: Orthodox Christianity and Bioethics (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1998) p. 9.