The Orthodox Pages



        18th October 2007




















































































































Last week we talked about marriage in the Orthodox Church and saw how in the Old Testament marriage had as its primary goal the reproduction of human beings and the continuation of the family line, it became necessary for man to reproduce so that the human race would continue until the time that God would send the Messiah. With the coming of Christ, children took a secondary position and the primary goal of marriage was lifted to a higher spiritual level: this being for the couple to help each other attain the highest state of human existence, the state of theosis (deification). But procreation was and still is regarded as an important part of marriage. Children are the natural result of a marriage, and, until relatively recent times, they were the expected and much-desired result of a marriage. Children were sought as a fruit of the marriage union, a proof that a man and a woman had become one flesh, and this was always seen as a very great blessing on a marriage. It was considered a great tragedy, a great sorrow, if the marriage was childless; so much so that, although the Church always permitted a childless couple to continue to live together as man and wife, if a wife was barren or a husband was impotent, it was accepted by the Church as grounds for divorce, so that either would be free to enter into a marriage relationship with another, in the hope of having children.
Nowadays, of course, our society considers children more of a nuisance than a blessing, and many couples wait one, two, three, or even more years before they have a child. Indeed, some couples decide never to have children. And so, although in the Orthodox Church the first purpose of marriage is not merely to have children, the desire of most young married couples today to wait before having children is considered sinful. If they are not prepared and willing to conceive and bear a child, without interfering with the will of God by means of artificial birth control, then in reality they are not ready to be married. If they are not prepared to accept the natural and blessed fruit of their union - that is, a child - then it is clear that their primary purpose in marrying is to have legalized fornication. It should be noted that the Church definitely teaches that marriage implies childbirth. The woman, says St. Paul, “will be saved through bearing children, if she continues in faith and love and holiness, with modesty” (I Timothy 2:15). However, nowhere in Scripture is it said that childbirth is the only aim of marriage. Marriage is essentially an inseparable union, both spiritual and carnal, of two beings. St. Paul teaches: “Do not refuse one another except perhaps by agreement for a season, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again.” (I Corinthians 7:4-5) I think it is clear by St. Paul’s teaching that the carnal union of a married couple is not always intended to be only for the conception of a child. If this is so then there is a need for some sort of birth control. Which brings us to the question: How do the Churches see birth control in marriage?
The Roman Catholic Church officially teaches that the primary purpose and function of marriage is to have children thus, procreation is the primary reason for sexual intercourse. This teaching is rooted in the Augustinian tradition, which treats sexuality, even within marriage, as basically sinful, and therefore procreation is held to be a necessary justification for the marriage act, as it serves to fulfil God's command to be fruitful and multiply.
Protestants, on the other hand, who do not accept tradition as an authority, but only the Bible, have a different attitude to sex and birth control. The Bible doesn’t explicitly mention birth control and so when the Pill became available in the early 60s, they welcomed it as human progress. The Protestant teaching, that God wants man to be personally fulfilled and happy, comes and seals the attitude that sexual gratification is from God and so the primary purpose of sexual intercourse in marriage becomes not procreation but recreation.
So we have two churches that teach two different extremes. The Roman Catholic Church which considers the marital act as sinful and should only be performed as a means to reproduce and the Protestant attitude where anything goes and as long as we are happy, God is happy. So where does the Orthodox Church stand. Some Orthodox writers take the negative view and count any use of contraceptive methods even within marriage as immoral. They believe that the primary and almost exclusive purpose of marriage is the birth of children and their upbringing. They tend to consider any other exercise of the sexual function as pleasure-seeking, passion, and bodily gratification, which are held to be inappropriate for the Christian growing in spiritual perfection. These writers hold that the only alternative is sexual abstinence in marriage, which, though difficult, is both desirable and possible through the aid of the grace of God. Fortunately, most Orthodox writers do not agree with this and neither does the Church. The Orthodox Church has never considered sexual relations in marriage as sinful for as St. Paul says: “Marriage is honourable in all, and the bed undefiled.” (Heb. 13:4) How can the Church bless the union of two people in the Wedding ceremony if she considered it a sin? But the Church does teach a limitation on sexual relations. For as St Paul said, there are times to come together but also times when the couple should abstain for certain periods to devote themselves to prayer. This approach readily adapts itself to an ethical position that would not only permit but also prescribe sexual relationships of husband and wife for their own sake as expressions of mutual love. Such a view clearly would support the use of contraceptive practices for the purpose of spacing and limiting children so as to permit greater freedom of the couple in the expression of their mutual love.
There are two categories of birth control, the Natural and the Artificial. The natural birth control methods are
1. Total abstinence: in other words - no sex at all. For most marriages this is not an option but there are many very pious couples who having brought a number of children into this world, have agreed to abstain from one another, both for spiritual and worldly reasons, living the rest of their lives in peace and harmony as brother and sister. This has happened in the lives of saints - most notably in the life of Saint John of Kronstadt.
2. A limitation on sexual relations. This of course already happens with the Orthodox couple that sincerely tries to observe fully all of the fast days and fasting periods of the year.
3. The Rhythm method or the newer Natural family planning method which again involves a limitation on sexual relations and where the couple only come together during the days that are considered safe.
All three natural birth control methods are acceptable to the Church under the right circumstances and can be used by a couple without burdening their consciences, because they are what we would call “ascetical” methods; that is, they have to do with self-denial, self-control.
A fourth natural birth control is Coitus interruptus or more commonly the Withdrawal method which is often not mentioned as a form of birth control by Orthodox writers. I think the reason is because is often reminds us of Onan in the Old Testament who spilled his seed on the ground rather than sire children by his dead brother’s wife, Tamar. (Gen.38:1-11) This has always been interpreted as a form of masturbation and the two words Onanism and masturbation are used synonymously. In reality, Onan used the withdrawal method with Tamar, refusing to father children by her since they would not be considered his, but rather his brother’s. This displeased the Lord: and slew him. Personally I think, no matter what method of natural or barrier birth control is used, it doesn’t differ from Onan’s coitus interruptus because they all have the same intention and that is not to father a child, the avoidance of conception. Onan’s sin was not that he spilled his seed, but that he deliberately refused to fulfil his obligation to Tamar and God’s will.
Of the Artificial birth controls, The Pill and the morning after pill, the Condom, Diaphragm and the Coil, the church has never permitted their use. However, in recent years, a new view has taken hold among Orthodox writers and Spiritual fathers on this topic, which permits the use of certain contraceptive practices within marriage for the purpose of spacing children, enhancing the expression of marital love, and protecting health. They have allowed as an “economy” the use of the barrier contraceptives, that is the condom and the diaphragm because these do not involve fertilisation and conception. The Pill on the other hand and the coil involve the aborting of the ovum which may or may not have been fertilized. If fertilization has taken place, then this is considered as an abortion and therefore murder. So let’s look at the Church’s view on Abortion.
One of the most widely used arguments in favour of performing abortions is that each woman has the right to control the functions of her body, in whatever way she finds necessary, right up to terminating the life of an unwanted baby. The Church rejects this argument outright. First of all, the Church points to the sacredness of God-given life, and likewise points to the fact that if it is forbidden for the Christian to raise his hand against his own life, all the more so does a Christian not have the right to terminate the life of another, even if this life has the appearance of a still not completely formed embryo. Our body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, as the Apostle Paul teaches; this means that the termination of the life of any other person is considered to be a crime not only in regard to that person, but likewise in regard to the Holy Spirit. We tend to think of abortion as meaning the termination of a pregnancy which has reached a stage where the embryo has developed into a recognizable body, in other words between one and three months.
Abortion, as we all know, is the killing of an unborn child. The Church’s belief is not the same as society’s. For Orthodox Christians and many other religions, abortion is considered murder. From the moment of conception, the Church, in keeping with Biblical teaching, holds that human life exists. The Church professes that the so-called “blob of tissue” (in the words of the pro-choice lobby) inside the mother is a sacred human life and no one but God has the right to decide the future of that child. Another argument of those who are for abortion is that during the first weeks of pregnancy the embryo is not “viable.” This basically means that the child cannot live by itself outside the mother. They would argue therefore that it is a part of the woman’s body, and not a separate entity of life. The Church, of course, does not adhere to this belief at all. From the moment of conception, a new life had been created. Using the same argument, can we say the same is true for a newborn child? Without someone to feed and care for the newborn, it would die. We do not accept the belief that just because the child cannot live by itself that it is not human and alive. Women have abortions for various reasons but no reason justifies the removal of a living person except in the case where the mother herself is in danger of her own life if she carries the pregnancy to full term.
A common argument is: “What if the mother was raped, and the child that she would have is of a man that violated her in the cruellest way? The child would only be a tangible reminder of that horrible time.” The Orthodox Church condemns rape but does not view abortion as the best possible solution to the woman’s problem. The Church never says that the woman must keep the baby. If a mother cannot deal with her child because it is a reminder of rape, there is still the option to put the child up for adoption. The Church, in this case, does not accept the idea of abortion as a solution to the problem because there is an alternative.
Now here comes the tricky part. There are some cases and situations where giving birth may endanger the life of the mother. “What if the mother has a serious illness, such as cervical cancer, which indicates a more than likely chance that treating the mother may endanger the child?” This is a very serious and sensitive issue. The Orthodox Church tries to take each case separately and fairly. A mother may be afflicted with cervical cancer and be pregnant at the same time. In rare cases it may be necessary for the mother to undergo treatment to save her own life during the pregnancy. If the child inside of the mother’s womb dies as a consequence to that procedure, the Orthodox Church does not view it as an abortion. The intent of the treatment was to save the mother’s life, not kill the child. The child’s death was an unfortunate casualty of trying to save the mother’s life. But there have been many cases where doctors have advised women to have an abortion for their own safety and yet these women decided to leave things in God’s hands and both they and the babies survived. Women finding themselves in these situations bear a very heavy cross and should not have to make a decision only on the doctor’s advice. A woman should pray and talk with her priest, as well as her husband if she’s married, to determine what is best. There are rare situations where the Church accepts and understands the circumstances that cause the death, or abortion of an unborn child - like the situation above. It is still viewed as killing, but judgment is, as always, ultimately left to God. But all too often in our society, abortion is diminished to just another form of birth control, where the “problem” of an unexpected child can be eliminated easily. We as Christians should stand firmly behind the Church’s belief that it is wrong and inhumane.

Part of the problem with unwanted pregnancies is the fact that not only has society changed but also our faith in God to provide has diminished. In former times, when poor parents knew nothing about contraceptions, they relied exclusively on God's will - and this should in fact be an example for us today. Children were born and they accepted the last one just as they had the first, saying, "God gave the child; He will also give what we need for the child." Such was their faith, and it often happened that the last child proved to be the greatest blessing of all.
Now modern society has had a tremendous effect on the size of families. Over the past hundred years we have changed from an agricultural society, to a mostly urban and industrial society. In past generations large families were actually needed in order to run the farms. The extra hands were always welcomed because most families, although self sufficient, could not pay helpers to help them plough, sow, irrigate and harvest their crops, to feed and take care of the animals and all the others duties involved with farming. Most of us in Cyprus are descendants of such farmers who didn’t have much in the way of worldly wealth except for the land that they worked. They lived without the daily comforts we are accustomed to and the whole family usually lived in two or three rooms at the most. They didn’t all have the luxury of separate bedrooms, parents and children slept in one room which often was also their dining and living room. Extra rooms were usually reserved for the animals especially the family donkey which was a necessity and the goat for the daily milk and cheese and the chickens for the eggs. Life was unimaginably different but there was always enough food and work to go around. Another factor was education. Most of the people had a very basic education or none at all. It was only the privileged few that finished school and had the opportunity to go on to further education. Parents would take their children out of school after only having attended what we would call the Infant school because they needed them to work in the fields. Today, of course we have the opposite problem and for most people their financial status plays an important part in how many children they can raise. We no longer need children to help us with our daily chores and emphasis is put on providing them with the best our modern world can provide. We need large houses with separate bedrooms for each, we have to keep them in fashion with their peers and provide them with computers and all the latest mobiles and other gadgets. For us Cypriot parents it is even harder because we have to pay for their extra curriculum lessons, save or borrow to send them to university, provide them with a car, pay for their weddings and if possible build them a house. Couples understandably consider having only one or two children at the most so that they can provide their children with the demands of modern society. There are of course large families that may not have all the luxuries of modern life, but with faith in God manage to send their children to university. An example is my wife’s sister’s family. They have nine children. Three are still at school but of the other six, five have successfully finished university and obtained their degrees.
From a strictly spiritual point of view, one should try to have a large family so that the family will be strong and durable and full of love, with all of its members bearing the burdens of life together. A large family accustoms children to being concerned about others, makes them more sensitive, etc. And while a small family might be able to provide more of this world's goods for each child, a small family does not at all guarantee a good upbringing. Single children are sometimes the most difficult of all, for they often grow up spoiled and self-centred. There is no general rule as to how many children we should have, but we should be prepared and expect to have as many children as God will send, bearing in mind also what the moral and physical health of the mother and the family as a whole will allow, always staying in close touch with one’s priest on these matters.
We must be careful, however, not to over-emphasize this whole business of having children, having a certain number, etc. Saint John Chrysostom says, “Giving birth to children is a matter of nature. Far more important is the parents’ task of educating their children’s hearts in virtue and piety.” Indeed, this puts the emphasis back where it belongs, rather than on negative things about birth control and family size. For what the Church wants us to understand and remember is that the children we bring into the world do not belong to us; they belong to God. We did not give them life; rather, God, using us as His instruments, called them into existence. In a certain way, we parents are really only babysitters for God’s children. And so our greatest responsibility as parents is to bring up our children “in the Lord,” so that they come to know, love, and serve their Heavenly Father. Bringing up children in a Christian manner is not an easy task when so much of contemporary life is anti-Christian. We don’t have time today to look into the problems of raising children – that’s a subject for another talk that we can have at a later date. Today we have seen the need for children in marriage, what birth control methods are acceptable to space out and control unwanted pregnancies and the Church’s view on abortion. But what about those couples who cannot have children, who have been trying for years without success of a pregnancy or who cannot carry the pregnancy to full term. The rapid development of biomedical technologies has given great possibilities to these couples to have children using the In Vitro Fertilization technique, in other words “Test tube babies” and if the woman cannot carry the pregnancy to full term, the use of a surrogate or foster mother.

These methods have become a cause of great concern for the Church especially the use of these methods without moral and ethical limits. Let’s look first at IVF. The woman is given fertility drugs to increase the number of ovum (eggs) produced. Some of these drugs are said to be highly dangerous and can cause cancer. The eggs are taken out of the woman and fertilized in a dish with the sperm given by the husband. The fertilized eggs, which for us Christians are now human beings, are then implanted into the womb of the woman and hopefully will reach full term. The procedure sounds simple so what is the problem? The problem lies in the fact that many eggs are fertilized but only three can at any time be implanted into the womb. What happens to the other fertilized eggs, the other human beings? They are sometimes kept in cold storage to be used at a later date, sometimes they are given for adoption by other childless couples – this would be similar to a usual adoption and recognized as such by the legal courts and the Church, or they are donated for stem cell research. Stem cells are a particular kind of cells, they are unspecialized (blank) cells that can divide over and over for very long periods of time which can become all 210 different kinds of human tissue. Researchers hope that someday these cells could provide cures for all kinds of serious diseases, even repairing vital organs. We have stem cells throughout our bodies, but they are most abundant in human embryos. To get embryonic stem cells, however, requires killing those human beings. The Church sees this as another form of abortion and therefore murder. It should be said the the Church is not opposed to research, but the task of research, the efforts to cure disease, should not be at the expense of human life. People contemplating IVF should speak with their spiritual adviser before going ahead with the procedure. It should be remembered at all times that the eggs taken from the mother belong to her and not to the doctors. She can demand that no more than the number of babies she is willing to carry should be fertilized. In other words if only one baby is desired then only one egg must be fertilized, if two then two eggs fertilized. This might reduce the success rate but at least the parents will not be guilty of murdering their own children. IVF should only be contemplated in marriage and only with the use of the couple’s own egg and sperm. Using a donor egg or sperm is viewed by the Church as an intrusion of a third person into the sacred marital relationship and rejects it as a form of adultery not ethically appropriate. There is also the problem of not knowing the biological father’s or mother’s other children who would be the baby’s brothers and sisters. And if the biological father or mother often donate sperm or eggs, how many brothers and sisters are out there in the world who might one day fall in love with each other and marry? It would seem consistent, though, to hold that, so long as the sperm and ovum are those of the husband and wife, and the wife carried the child to term, such procedures would not in themselves be objectionable. However the use of donor material undermines the foundations of family relationships, since it presupposes that a child has, in addition to the «social» parents, the so-called biological ones.

Which brings us to the ethical question of whether “Surrogate motherhood” should be considered in the case where the mother cannot bear a pregnancy to full term. Surrogate or foster motherhood is the bearing of a fertilised ovule by a woman who is not the biological mother, who after the delivery returns the child to the biological parents or to be more precise to the «customers» because there is usually a large fee involved. Again the Church rejects this method as unnatural and morally inadmissible even in those cases where it is realised on a non-commercial basis. The method involves the violation of the profound emotional and spiritual intimacy that is established between mother and child already during the pregnancy. On examining the question of surrogacy, the Holy Synod of the Church of Greece said that: “Surrogate motherhood may have a positive aspect for it assists child bearing. However, since the developing relationship with the embryo during pregnancy is an essential and integral part not only of motherhood, but also of the embryonic development, the continuation of the relationship between the surrogate mother and the child is unjust for the genetic parents; its interruption is unjust for the surrogate mother; and, furthermore, both solutions are unjust for the child, for they disrupt family cohesion.”
What if a woman offers to be the surrogate mother for her sister’s baby? Keeping it in the family “so to speak.” This sounds like a beautiful, generous and loving gesture that only a sister can offer, but in reality it creates even more problems. The surrogate mother is both mother and aunt to the child and the father will no longer see his sister in law as his sister in law but as the woman who gave birth to his child. Wouldn’t this put a strain on the family unit?
We have something of a precedent in the Bible. Sarah, Abraham’s wife eager to help her husband achieve God’s promise that he would be the father of many nations, offered her maid-servant Hagar to be a mother for his child. Hagar would simply have to give birth while lying upon Sarah’s lap and the child would be considered Sarah’s and not Hagar’s. The Bible shows how this Surrogate motherhood arrangement did not work as planned. The child, Ishmael, was indeed beloved by God and Abraham, but when Sarah gave birth to Isaac, her own son in the flesh, she insisted that Hagar and Ishmael leave the family unit and continue their lives apart from Abraham's family, to resolve the complex inter-personal relations that developed out of this initially generous and loving gesture by Sarah.
Modern technology has given many challenges to our ancient faith. Things once impossible now become possible. Who could have thought centuries ago that parents, eager to fulfil the natural and God-given drive to reproduce fellow human-beings, would be able to consider the possibilities given them today? But let us not forget that the primary goal in marriage is not children but as a means to reach salvation. In the instances in which the couple are not able to bear their own children they can always consider to adopt children. Just because the technology exists to do something new doesn’t necessarily make it moral or ethical to do so.