On artificial birth control

(To this page’s many readers in the Philippines, mabuhay!)

A pious Russian Orthodox man once answered my questions on this matter by connecting it to fasting (in which sex as well as certain food are abstained from): with so many fasting days in the year an observant couple doesn’t need it.
...when I even mention the fact that much of Orthodox consensus up until the aftermath of the Lambeth conference of 1930 had been in opposition to the practice, the reaction is the same — they would immediately seem to want to take a rhetorical AK-47 and blow my head off, without much debate.
- Robert Thomas Llizo

Or simply refuse to answer the challenge.

The Catholic faith
Artificial birth control

Taking the Seventh-Day Adventist test:
I administer it to any SDA who tells me, "The Anti-Christ Pope changed Christian worship from the Sabbath to Sunday".
And that test is:
Exactly who "changed" this, exactly when did this change occur, what were the reasons cited, and how specific and widely held were the statements you claim the Church now transgresses? What, then, accounts for this "change"?
Google is wonderful really.

Bishop Kallistos (Ware) writes in one of the several versions of his book The Orthodox Church, now entirely online on at least two sites:

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. [Emphasis mine.]
Hmm. ‘Recently’. A lot later than the time of the Church Fathers, I reckon. Let’s see... this looks like it came from an older version of the book, and he first published it in 1963 so obviously modern Eastern Orthodox made the change sometime mid-C20.

Regarding the bishop’s last sentence, the apostolic ministry is the means by which Christians have a guarantee of forgiveness for sins against God and has power to change man-made laws, rules the church itself made for its own good order. That power doesn’t include overruling Godís or nature’s laws, which is what trying to OK contraception is.

How specific and how widely held? Enter Wikipedia, another lovely resource:

Prior to the 1930s, contraception was generally condemned by all the major branches of Christianity, including by major reformers like Luther and Calvin. This condemnation was relaxed by the Anglican Communion at the 1930 Lambeth Conference, and most Protestant groups followed suit over the course of the 20th century, though some individual Protestants adhere to the traditional view that contraception is wrong.
The only thing one should add are mock inverted commas around the word ‘reformers’ but other than that this paragraph is entirely correct.

Fr John Schroedel, an Orthodox who happens to agree with the magisterium on the subject, admits:

Although the evidence presented contains certain ambiguities, a consistent picture does emerge. Diverse sources from Ireland, Italy, North Africa, Greece, Serbia, Russia, and the Syrian Orient all attest to the fact that contraceptives were condemned by the Church. Until very recently opposition to contraception was commonly recognized as the traditional position ... It should be noted that it was not until 1930 that any mainstream Christian group officially endorsed the use of contraceptives. The Christian world had been universally opposed to the use of contraceptives until that time.

What were the reasons cited?

The Lambeth Conference of 1930 produced a new resolution, "Where there is a clearly felt moral obligation to limit or avoid parenthood, complete abstinence is the primary and obvious method," but if there was morally sound reasoning for avoiding abstinence, "the Conference agrees that other methods may be used, provided that this is done in the light of Christian principles."

By the 1958 Lambeth Conference, contraception was an accepted part of life among most Anglicans, and a resolution was passed to the effect that the responsibility for deciding upon the number and frequency of children was laid by God upon the consciences of parents "in such ways as are acceptable to husband and wife."

The Anglicans present an excellent microcosm of what happened among Protestant churches in the 1900s.
- A Protestant site

So soon afterwards, some and soon many modern Orthodox suddenly decided that the Church Fathers gave a free pass to non-abortifacients and 1,930 years of tradition were wrong. It’s a bloody miracle! Just like when the Mormons had a revelation that polygamy was wrong just in time for the vote to admit their colony of Utah as a state in the US.

What accounts for this change? Apparently some mainline Protestants did it first which gave them the idea.

One also hears from the Orthodox the argument that ‘non-abortifacients are new’ — something their church is still deciding what to do about. False ó condoms were used at least as far back as the Victorian era among the upper class.

Acquaintance Jim Coffey cites modern Orthodox theologian Fr Stanley Harakas, whose dodge to allow contraception is to separate the unitive aspect of sex from its procreative potential (yes, the naturally sterile and the old may have sex ó Fr Stanley misrepresents the Catholic position in the linked article), setting up a strawman/false opposition between the two. However much Fr Stanley tries to market this as ‘sacramental’, he sounds just like mainline Protestants and, one jump removed from them, secular people:

Fr. Harakas [actually in the Byzantine Rite that should be Fr Stanley] describes the sacramental view, in its affirmative response to contraception under the appropriate circumstances, as emphasizing the close relationship of body and soul, and places the contraceptive issue in the total context of marriage and family. He describes the sexual relations between husband and wife as having an intrinsic value to unite husband and wife in flesh and soul in a bond of mutual love and commitment.

Fr. Harakas states a clear preference for the sacramental approach.
- Contemporary Moral Issues Facing the Orthodox Christian: Revised and Expanded, Light and Light Publishing Co., Minneapolis, 1982, pp. 78-81

Of course it’s rather blasphemous to go against the holistic view of marriage (which unites the unitive and procreative) and call mutual masturbation with your spouse (which is what deliberate contraception is) ‘sacramental’. Not exactly the holistic approach to things that those of us who like religion expect from the Orthodox!

I dare say the patriarch in Istanbul (Fr S’s boss) knows who’s paying his electric bills (the Hankses, Sarbaneses, Snowes and Stephanopouloses).

But as recently as 1968 he held the line:

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 Humanæ Vitæ. We are in total agreement with you, and wish you all God's help to continue your mission in the world.
- Patriarch Athenagoras’ telegramme to Pope Paul VI, 9th August 1968, reprinted in Towards the Healing of Schism, ed. & trans. E.J. Stormon , 1987.

Somebody also wrote:

Serge objected that, in essence, only converts and liberal, pro-Hollywood Greeks believed this.
Actually Serge says ‘would to Бог that only those types believed this’. But this chap disabuses us all of that notion:
I produced statements from non-Greek, non-converts to demonstrate this was not the case. Most important among these was the Bases of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church issued by the Moscow Patriarchate in 2000, which states:
Some contraceptives have an abortive effect, interrupting artificially the life of the embryo on the very first stages of his life. Therefore, the same judgements 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.
In addition to the Patriarch of Moscow, Fr. Alexander Men, the Ukrainian Orthodox, and the very conservative Coptic Church ("Oriental Orthodox"/"Monophysites") share this view. And yes, the Greeks hold this view, as well.
Well, heís certainly cleared that up. Even more damning that the misquoted allegation of Serge! Thank you.

Sed contra:

Since, therefore, openly departing from the uninterrupted Christian tradition some recently have judged it possible solemnly to declare another doctrine regarding this question, the Catholic Church, ... in order that she may preserve the chastity of the nuptial union from being defiled by this foul stain, ... proclaims anew: any use whatsoever of matrimony exercised in such a way that the act is deliberately frustrated in its natural power to generate life is an offence against the law of God and of nature, and those who indulge in such are branded with the guilt of a grave sin.
- Pope Pius XI, Casti conubii

Causa finita est.

Notes:

Also, the hyper-convert Orthodox Church in America (OCA) seems to endorse this view, at least in part.
In part? Close, but for the real faith of the Church Fathers, try all. Though they get a share of the recent convert boomlet (people who would have become Anglicans or Newman-like RCs 50 years ago) the OCA aren’t hyper-convert; that’s the Antiochians. The OCA are a small, slightly shrinking denomination mostly in the US Northeast and made up of Rust Belt ethnic Slavs, about 60 per cent of whom are descended from former Byzantine Catholics from what’s now Slovakia, Poland and the Ukraine.

I remember "mortal" sins encompassed the "seven deadly sins" and other major iniquities, bringing with them a de facto excommunication until forgiven in penance. (How am I doing?) "Venial" sins, on the other hand, are less important. Masturbation, as I recall, as the latter rather than the former. (My memory here is from my memories of catechism class, not, ahem, from the confessional.)
Incorrect on masturbation. As The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains, it is objectively a mortal sin but many people (such as children) aren’t guilty to that degree. There are three criteria to commit a mortal sin: grave matter, sufficient reflection and full consent of the will. Lots of people may fall into the first (an old joke: 99 per cent of guys do it and 1 per cent are liars*) but not the second two criteria.

*It’s just a joke: of course many saints eventually practised perfect chastity in their state of life.

More from me to another, nicer correspondent

Modern Orthodox sound off

A conservative blog for peace

HOME