Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Birth control and the Church

I have met priests that take this matter very seriously, those that are completely hands-off on the topic, and those that don't consider birth control a big deal at all. As a parent of many children, I am decidedly in the pro-progeny camp. We seem to have taken individual instances where economia is called for (medical problems, extreme family issues, etc.) and recast being closed to life as a normal "choice." This is not only lamentable in its immediate effect on the family, but also on the every shrinking Orthodox birthrate. We are blithely not procreating ourselves into non-existence in a way that jihadi Islam, Communism, and radical enviro-secularism could only dream about.


(The Morning Offering) - Marriage, for the Orthodox Christian, is to have as it's foundation, Jesus Christ, and a commitment to live in full communion with the Church. When a couple are joined together in this mystical (sacramental) union with one another, they become one flesh, and begin their relationship as one. The crowning ceremony symbolizes martyrdom of self and a commitment to sacrifice self-will.

Marriage is not about sexual gratification, although sexual intimacy is an important component of any healthy marriage, but the intimacy of the marriage bed be open to the possibility of having children. The Church allows no form of contraception that is abortifacient, and the Fathers of the Church, such as Ss. Athanasius the Great, John Chrysostom, Epiphanios, Jerome, Ambrose, Augustine of Hippo, Caesarious, Gregory the Great, Augustine of Canterbury and Maximos the Confessor, all explicitely condemned abortion as well as the use of abortifacients.

There are a range of opinions on the issue of non-abortifacient contraception, however, the bottom line is that a Christian couple must be open to having children. A couple who would choose to have no children, or limit the number of children based on a desire for financial and lifestyle security, forgo the joy that only children can bring to a Christian marriage. Birth control should never be based on selfish motives, or the desire to live a more comfortable lifestyle. This life is not meant for personal gratification, nor personal gain, but that we might give glory and worship to God in all we do.

With love in Christ,
Abbot Tryphon

20 comments:

  1. I find it shocking that the official church teaching of the Orthodox churches seems to be that artificial birth control (and even abortifacient birth control) is licit if there are reasons to not have children- this is a beautiful letter, but it is 'only' written by an abbot- please correct me if I am misinformed, but I have heard from multiple sources that bishops and metropolitans have given priests the power to give lay people 'dispensations' so that they can morally use ABC much like some lay people are released from the fasting laws.

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    1. I know first hand that what you mention is so. Not only birth control, but also artificial insemination, and implantation. It is a topic of great importance and I hope it gets addressed quickly.

      So, while my previous pastor would not countenance even birth control for all but the most severe reasons, my father's pastor approved artificial implantation means even though it left frozen "extras" in a freezer somewhere. I was flabbergasted.

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    2. Quickly = Orthodox time.

      So inside the Assembly of Bishops process (of which nothing substantive has yet been produced) or the much talked about "Great Council."

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  2. This is but one of the reasons I left Orthodoxy and returned to Rome. The Orthodox especially in America are double minded and don't know what to believe or teach on birth control, abortion, euthanasia - they are all homogenized, Americanized, liberalized bishops and priests. But don't get them started on the filioque or papal infalybility/jurisdiction or communion in both kinds with leavened/unleavened bread! No sirree bobbie, these are the important things!

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  3. Great post. And I completely agree. Use of BC is an exception to a rule granted for good reasons. It is not a 'choice" within marriage. Far too many priests don't raise the issue before a wedding, but the teaching of the Church is clear. If you don't want kids, then you can't marry. Not every sexual act has to be open to procreation. But every marriage does.

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    1. Well said. And there are numerous times during the year dedicated to the family, to children, to adoption, to all manner of related things where the AoB could send out a CLEAR, PASTORAL, and TIMELY letter on the marriage embrace and all it means.

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    2. Every act and marriage, according to the fathers. We must follow the saints, not the liberal opinions of our times.
      http://www.holycrossyakima.org/orthodoxPdfs/BOOKLET%20ON%20CONTRACEPTION%20St.%20John%20Chrysostom.pdf

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  4. Not every sexual act has to be open to procreation. But every marriage does.

    Exactly right. This is why I don't buy the accusation from RCs that Orthodoxy has "caved" on contraception. A marriage can be wide open to procreation if the husband and wife are prayerful and discerning about when they are called to become parents. And that is not inconsistent with the judicious use of (non-abortifacient) contraception. Conversely, a marriage can be closed to life even if the couple only use NFP for contraception.

    The bottom line is that the vocation to marriage necessarily includes the vocation to parenthood, and being faithful to both of those vocations is more important than the "mechanics" of married sexuality.

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  5. I think both Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism have lost some of the ascetic attitudes the Fathers taught. If one abstains on Wed., Friday, before Communion and during the Fasting seasons of the Church, one could expect the children to be spaced in a reasonable manner. I agree with the Orthodox priest I read who said non-abortifacient bc might be allowed at times, but it does fall short of the ideal. I do think that if Orthodox are truly faithful to the Tradition, artificial birth control would be an exception at best, never the rule.

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  6. To be honest, the list of qualifications that would "ideally" go along with the "judicious" use of birth control to qualify it as "Orthodox" seem to place it in the realm of the "perfect Priest", unicorns and the world's greatest job. In other words, the precise definition of it becomes a seemingly relativistic bog of controversy and confusion.

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  7. I would suspect, given typical American attitudes, it is usually used for less than praiseworthy reasons. All Christians, for the most part (including Roman Catholics who overwhelmingly use bc), have decided in practice that they cannot imagine spacing their families any other way. The reasons for spacing are probably often selfish reasons, combined with incredulity at the idea they might simply abstain for a season. Marriage, according to the cultural creed, means being able to have sex whenever you want to, doesn't it? I mean, we don't even wait until we're married.

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    1. Marriage, according to the cultural creed, means being able to have sex whenever you want to, doesn't it?

      That is what the "cultural creed" says, but I'd like to think that serious Christians are a little more discerning than that. Besides, a few years' experience shows that that is not what marriage is like, and it is not what marriage "means." Whatever a young man's hope and expectation is going into marriage, it isn't sex every night and twice on Sundays. One soon finds out (when the first child comes along if not sooner) that there is a whole lot more going on in a marriage than sex. It is mostly the day-by-day, week-by-week struggle to bear one another's burdens and make it through the problems of this fallen world without losing one's shirt or one's soul. On the days that the two of you can do that without being emotional wrecks or physically exhausted, if the two of you are not at each other's throats because you are taking out the frustration of your lives on each other, and if the kids will give you half an hour's peace and privacy before you fall helplessly to sleep, maybe you can think about making love. In thirty-five years of marriage, I have found that "abstaining for a season" usually takes care of itself.

      That, I think, is the reality in most marriages, Christian or otherwise. Still, most Christian couples understand that they are called to be parents, and are "open to life" in the sense that they will receive with joy any child that God blesses them with, whether or not that child fits in to their "plans" and "spacing." (I myself was one such child. My parents lost a child a few hours after birth a year (to the day) before I was born. They were so devastated that they determined not to have any more children; but God had other plans. I was unplanned and seemingly unwanted, but no child could be more treasured and more loved than I was.)

      Given all of that, if a couple try to plan and space out their children, but with a "thy will be done" attitude and a willingness to take on whatever calling God gives them, then they are "open to life" even if they use birth control.

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  8. I go to church with a lovely couple that has five children. I don't know if they use bc or not, but no one could say they are not generous in giving life. :) I agree with you that motives matter-but as a former Roman Catholic and now Orthodox, I do still question artificial birth control. I wonder what it says when one medicates a healthy human process, or when a couple has sex, but then blocks a certain aspect of the union (condoms). Please understand, I'm not saying it could never be done EVER, but it seems "off" to me. I would also heartily agree with you that the seasonal abstention takes care of itself when you have kids, and a job, and......:)

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  9. Teena,
    I see where you are coming from. My husband not too long ago said that when using birth control, that person (husband or wife) is not giving themselves fully to their spouse, cheating them out of sexual unity for 'fear' that a child may be the product of their lovemaking.

    My thoughts on the matter are more practical...why would a guy want a piece of latex wrapped around his manhood? How comfortable he must be...NOT! Why would a woman want foams, diaphragms, wires and whatever else is out there stuck in her hoo-ha or underneath her skin causing all kinds of reactions / side effects? Does that sound normal?

    NFP really does work if it's done right and if a woman knows her body / cycle and knows what to look for.

    I have noticed a decrease of children though in one of the RC parishes I visit from time to time. I remember looking around and going 'where are all the children'?
    The Byzantine church my husband and I visit seems to be flourishing with little ones though. :)

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  10. @Teena and Dawn and well everybody:
    That's the crux of the issue isn't it? Are we seriously willing to say that using birth control is an example of holiness and one to follow?

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  11. I think it is a concession that can be granted sometimes due to human weakness and serious circumstances. I remember reading a blog post by a Catholic woman who had 8 pregnancies-some of which miscarried. She absolutely could not risk another pregnancy, but did not want to be celibate-could not be? Who knows? She and her husband used barrier bc, but felt very badly about it. She had been very generous in her attempts to bring children into the world. I could not think harshly of her and her husband for using condoms-but I would still agree with what appears to be the historic consensus-bc is a concession, not the ideal.

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    2. That is exactly the sort of situation where economia is called for. The Catholic response would be that she and her husband must be celibate or risk dangerous health problems. But again we need to remember that BC is an EXCEPTION, not a choice and certainly not the rule. Non-abortificient artificial birth control should be an available option for unusual situations, to be used only with the blessing of one's spiritual father or under medical orders. The problem is that it has become normative in most marriages and way too many Orthodox think we have the same view as 98% of Protestants.

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  12. There are never exceptions to allow contraception or it's sister form of "Natural Family Planning". It is not the teaching of the Church to allow it. All bishops in recent decades who support that practice do the work of the evil one and follow modernist humanist influence. As (hegumen?) Tryphon said no Father of Bishop of the Church ever condoned it. Ecumenical councils taught against it.

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    1. The Orthodox Church in America is a poor witness to true Orthodoxy. Orthodoxy, however, is indeed the truth. You can see this by the number of patriarchs who remained in union vs how many split off in 1054.
      Orthodoxy does not bless birth control. NFP as a concession only http://www.holycrossyakima.org/orthodoxPdfs/BOOKLET%20ON%20CONTRACEPTION%20St.%20John%20Chrysostom.pdf

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