50 years ago, Pope Paul VI issued a papal encyclical entitled Humanae Vitae, which he addressed not only to Catholics but also “to all men of good will.” In it, he reaffirmed the universal and unbroken teaching of the Church Fathers, both of the East and of the West, that artificial contraception is intrinsically sinful and incompatible with the Christian life. At the time of its publication, the widespread Orthodox response was summarized simply and concisely in the words of the Ecumenical Patriarch, His All-Holiness Athenagoras: “I agree absolutely with the Pope. Pope Paul VI could not have spoken otherwise.”
But few today are willing to join Patriarch Athenagoras in his endorsement of the Pope’s simple and clear affirmation of the traditional Christian teaching on this subject. In fact, I cannot think of any other Christian teaching which has been so universally rejected even by Christians as the Church’s teaching on contraception. I have mentioned before that in America 91% of all people believe birth control is morally acceptable, and even 89% of American Catholics believe that, on this subject, they know better than the Pope.
Meanwhile, the most widely-known book on Orthodoxy in English has been growing steadily more reticent on this subject with each new edition. The Greek Orthodox Church in America as recently as 1957 declared officially that the “use of contraceptive devices for the prevention of childbirth is forbidden and condemned unreservedly.” Now, various prominent Church figures who are otherwise quite traditional have begun to declare that this is a purely pastoral issue, and cannot be answered definitively or dogmatically. Despite the fact that not a single saint has ever blessed the use of contraception, today the most common answer to questions about the Orthodox position on this matter is: “Ask your priest.”
To be sure, it is absolutely vital that we receive our spiritual instruction and formation primarily from our spiritual father, and not from articles on the internet. And I want to be clear that I am not attempting to convince anyone to listen to me rather than to their father-confessor. But with that said, the fact remains that every single Church Father who has ever spoken about contraception has unequivocally declared it to be sinful and impermissible for Christians. Up until the 20th century, this question was debated by precisely nobody within any Christian body. But once it began to worm its way into our hearts, tragedy was by no means slow to follow.
Nelson Mandela once stated that “there can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.” I cannot think of any more damning statement about America and the West. Because the hard truth is that we now treat children precisely as consumer commodities. Contraception has turned children into optional lifestyle choices on the one hand, and enormous inconveniences to be avoided at all costs on the other. In our society, countless millions upon millions of children are designated as “unwanted pregnancies” which are routinely prevented and, failing that, routinely butchered. And even if our children are allowed to live and be born at all, we immediately shuttle them off to baby-sitters, day-care centers, and preschools, in order to get back to “our own lives” as quickly as possible. If they do not behave compliantly in these surrogate surroundings, society often recommends that we drug them.
But it does not end there. The rallying cry of “My body, my choice” is often criticized by pro-lifers on the grounds that there is more than one body involved in a pregnancy. But in doing so, even many pro-lifers have (perhaps unwittingly) embraced the fundamental philosophical precept of contraception: that we are the gods of our own bodies.
And this doctrine has led directly and inevitably not only to the meteoric rise of marital infidelity and general heterosexual profligacy, but also to the gay rights movement which culminated in Obergefell, and now to the current transgender ideology which is rapidly engulfing our society.
Because here’s the thing: once we have decided that children have nothing to do with the essence of the sexual act, then on what grounds can we say that it ought only to occur within marriage, or only between people of the opposite sex? Once we have decreed that we have the right to prevent our bodies from working in the way in which God created them, then on what grounds can we say that others ought not to make any further modifications as they see fit?
The Lord has never promised to anyone an unlimited fulfillment of their sexual appetites, free of any consequence or responsibility which is not specifically volunteered for. And so when Christians claim that marriage gives them that right and that prerogative, which they deny to everyone else in the world, then it should come as no surprise that they are widely regarded as hypocrites.
Indeed, ever since the widespread acceptance of contraception in Christian communities, the entire sacrament of marriage has come to be seen basically as a license to engage in sexual intercourse (a license, I will note, which is increasingly regarded as irrelevant). But the purpose of marriage is not to permit sexual intercourse. The purpose of marriage is to create a family, of which children are the fulfillment, the crown, and the glory.
As I wrote last week, the modern notion that morality consists simply in not harming others is a tragic smallness of vision and poverty of heart. Likewise, the modern notion that sex is merely about itself is an unspeakable tragedy and loss. The ancient world knew full well that children were the highest blessing that could ever be given by God, which was surpassed only by the Christian revelation of virginity and a life wholly consecrated to the Lord. But now it is hardly for virginity that childbearing is foregone, and we insistently demand a human right to barrenness, once the greatest curse imaginable.
I am well aware that this is a hard saying. The economic and social realities of the modern world have certainly conspired to produce the near-hatred of children which our culture now accepts as perfectly normal and commonplace.
But there is such a thing as faith in God. His commandments often seem difficult and incomprehensible. But there is nothing at all in this world which is more beautiful, more joyful, and more life-giving than their fulfillment. He will by no means fail to provide everything needful for those who place their trust in Him, and who obey His commandments in a spirit of humility and love.
There is nothing more beautiful in all creation than children. Let those who are married not willingly choose to deprive themselves of so great a joy and so precious a gift (though I do not speak of those who choose celibacy even within marriage, as some of the saints have shown forth). After all, children are so great a gift that even Christ Himself desires to be given them:
But Jesus called them unto him, and said, Suffer little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God.
Let us not deny them the joy of knowing Him, nor deny Him the joy of knowing them.
Many have responded with the assertion that the Church Fathers only knew about abortifacient methods of contraception, and that therefore we are dealing with a fundamentally new situation which has not been previously addressed by the Church. But this claim is demonstrably false. Actually, the ancient world was indeed familiar with non-arbotifacient contraceptives. Soranus of Ephesus wrote in the 2nd-century work Gynaecology: “A contraceptive differs from an abortive, for the first does not let conception take place, while the latter destroys what has been conceived. Let us therefore call the one ‘abortive’ [phthorion] and the other ‘contraceptive’ [atokion].”
St. John Chrysostom wrote specifically against sterilization, which is obviously not an abortifacient method, and other such methods have also been specifically forbidden by the Fathers.