Saturday, February 24, 2007

Does Orthodoxy allow contraception or not?

Recently Owen the Ochlophobist has posted a series of articles on the twin subjects of pansexualism and contraception in Orthodoxy. These essays are extremely well written and I enthusiastically commend them to the reader’s attention. (contraception 1 contraception 2 pansexualism ) In response Dr. Micheal Liccione, one of my favorite Catholic Bloggers, wrote several posts responding to Owen’s essays. (Pansex 1 pansex2 contraception) I encourage the reader to read (time permitting) all of the above linked essays. However it is chiefly the last very short one I have chosen to address, I am sure inadequately. I am posting my response here instead of in the combox over at Mike’s blog due to the restrictions on the size of comments and the length of my reply. I apologize for any confusion resulting. Finally, I attach the caveat that I am neither a bishop, nor priest and my opinion is that of a layman which along with a dollar will get you a small cup of coffee.

I think the principal complaint you have is with our ecclesiology, more so than the issue of birth control. Today we are more or less where the Roman Church was in the 1960’s when the debate over BC heated up all over the Catholic world. This is to say that we are having a discussion in light of the sudden and very dramatic changes in modern science and medicine. That debate on your side of the Tiber resulted in the reaffirmation of the traditional Roman Catholic teachings and discipline regarding contraception. On our side of the Bosphorous that discussion is only just warming up.

Of course the RCC has an ecclesiology where from an Orthodox point of view you essentially have one bishop with a large number of mitered assistants whose job is basically to carry out the orders and policy decisions emanating from the Holy See. In the ecclesiology of the RCC the Pope has taken over the decision making responsibilities which in Orthodoxy reside with the local bishop. In terms of being able to make quick decisions this sort of ecclesiological framework obviously has some advantages over Orthodoxy’s.

In Orthodoxy our ecclesiology leaves (by Roman standards) an almost breathtaking degree of autonomy to the local bishop. This is in my experience often deeply frustrating to Roman Catholics (and sometimes we converts from Rome) who are used to asking a question and getting a rapid answer that will be the same from one jurisdiction to another. But that’s not the way things work here. On a lot of issues (not just BC) you will find variation and even disagreement between jurisdictions and in some cases even between dioceses within the same jurisdiction.

An example would be the sometimes heated debate over whether to receive converts from liturgical and Trinitarian confessions by Baptism & Holy Chrismation or to receive them through Holy Chrismation alone. In the OCA , the Greek Archdiocese and the Antiochian Archdiocese converts who were previously baptized using water, the Trinitarian formula, and with something resembling a sacramental intent are typically received by Chrismation. However in the Russian Church Abroad, the Serbian Church, and the parishes under the Jerusalem Patriarchate the general rule is to baptize all converts. Both methods are considered canonical and acceptable within Orthodoxy. Even within the respective jurisdictions just named you will find variation. I know of Catholics and Episcopalians (especially those baptized by ECUSA in recent years) who have been received in the OCA by baptism and I know that there have been rare cases in ROCOR where bishops have permitted reception of converts by Chrismation alone through oikonomia.

On subjects which are controversial it can in some cases take a long time for a consensus to form within the Church. If the subject is one which threatens the unity of the Church the traditional method of resolution is through a Great Council. However, the more normal method is to debate the issue until a consensus is reached. While this can be maddeningly slow it does have perhaps one advantage over the system employed in the RCC. Once accepted, a given understanding of Church Doctrine or Discipline in Orthodoxy rarely “developes.” Although I am aware that you are staunch defender of Doctrinal Development (a can of worms I do not want to reopen) most in Orthodoxy view that approach in the West with deep misgivings. We see it as among other things a cover for altering doctrine on important matters or simply correcting an earlier mistake without admitting that there was a mistake.

When you ask if Orthodoxy permits birth control and point (quite justifiably) to its historic opposition to the practice one could easily respond with “does the Roman Catholic Church permit capital punishment?” Until quite recently Rome’s position on the DP was more or less settled as official teaching and no RC priest or bishop prior to 1950 or so would have told you that the Catholic Church was opposed to capital punishment. Most in fact would have told you emphatically that the DP was not only permissible but in some cases even a moral imperative. A glance at any of the various catechisms then in use would confirm this. (I own several, all with the appropriate Imprimatur and Nihil Obstat .) The apparent change or development, (however one wants to call it) has effectively reversed Rome’s position on the DP even if some bishops are still careful to say that the DP is not “intrinsically” malo insea Even NFP is something of novelty that unless my memory has failed me was only authorized by +Pius XI. The only difference is that Roman ecclesiology ensures that when there is a shift in thinking on an issue that it often comes quickly and it is imposed on the entire church by fiat.

One downside is that there is little room for the kind of consensus populi that Orthodoxy typically requires for doctrine to be accepted as universally binding. That consensus along with the long drawn out process that takes us to it creates a remarkable degree of stability in doctrine once the issue in question is finally settled. Of course it would be disingenuous to say that no subject that appears to be settled is ever revisited. The very fact that BC is being talked about is a clear indication of that. However to open a discussion on an issue that has previously been non-controversial is extremely rare in Orthodoxy. Only the already alluded to dramatic advances in our understanding of medicine and science seem to have combined to open up a subject which has never really been debated in the past.

To end what has already become a much longer response than I originally intended I will return to the question “does Orthodoxy allow contraception or not.” The short answer is what does your bishop say? Broadly speaking a consensus does not presently exist in the Universal Church. This is somewhat aggravated here in North America as a result of the jurisdictional chaos that presently exists. (A situation that is universally acknowledged to be uncanonical and more than slightly scandalous.) Until such time as the Universal Church reaches a consensus on this issue the matter rests with the local bishop and the respective Holy Synod. In Orthodoxy each bishop and his diocese is The Church.

As for predictions on where a debate that has really only just begun will end, I am rather reluctant to go there. My personal opinions are very close to those expressed by Owen in his already referenced excellent posts. I think I might be seeing a very slight shift towards a consensus in the big three jurisdictions (OCA GOA AOCA) favoring the permissibility in extraordinary circumstances of non-abortifacient contraception, but I could easily be wrong. Also it needs to be mentioned that there is little movement in this direction among the more conservative jurisdictions who by and large remain strongly opposed to BC in any form (some also reject NFP). For now we will have to wait and see how things develop. I suggest checking back in a century or two.


Michael Sullivan said...

As far as the (re)baptism of converts goes, why is this not considered settled ever since the Donatist controversy?

John (Ad Orientem) said...

Because the Donatist controversy revolved around personal sin, as opposed to heresy. The Church has been fairly consistent in teaching that the grace of the Holy Mysteries operates only within the and through His Church. The question to Orthodox in this controversy is where do the boundaries of the Church lie? Those outside the Church lack the grace that can only come through the Church in their mysteries. Those however who are still in some way part of the Church may retain it depending on the degree of separation. This is another area of ongoing debate since we don't really have a test for fixing the exact borders of the Church. We are thus left with theologumen. See the essay by Florovsky on "The Limits of the Church" posted on 9 & 10 November 2006 in two parts.

Michael Sullivan said...

But I thought that e.g. Arians were not to be rebaptised. Is this wrong?

John (Ad Orientem) said...

May I suggest the excellent essay by Archimandrite Ambrosius (Pagodin). It may be found at

Reove any spaces in the above address

Seraph said...

This is a fine article by Fr. George Florovsky, once dean at St. Vladimir's Seminary.

123 said...

Arians were not baptized again because they had maintained the proper form of the baptismal ceremony also in use by the Orthodox. There are examples of other schismatic/heretical groups with almost identical theology to the Orthodox but who had altered the baptismal ceremony and thus were received into the Church by baptism, and not by chrismation or the laying on of hands.

"I Confess On Baptism" is the traditionalist's manual on why a convert should be baptized, regardless of their Protestant or RC baptisms. It goes along the lines of the fulness of the rite - especially triple immersion.

Young fogey emeritus said...

I also linked to one of Owen's excellent essays, the one on pansexualism and how awful secular culture is today.

A bishop can't change faith or morals - he can modify disciplinary things like fasting and abstinence but not the law of God against, among other things, artificial contraception. The Pope is with the ancient church on this one.

Bonfire said...

I think the death penalty example supports the development theory rather then change. Read the teaching from the current catechism.

2267 Assuming that the guilty party's identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.

If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people's safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.

Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm - without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself - the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity "are very rare, if not practically non-existent."
Basically it is saying the death penalty was ok back when societies were less stable and prison breaks were more common, but now that we have a better option we must use them.

In this case it seems obvious that the teaching developed for a new situation, rather then just being a reversal of a previous teaching.