Murder Before Conception

The Orthodox Church has historically taken a powerful stand against birth control.

Saints and Early Church Fathers put contraception on the same level as homicide.  St. John Chrysostom, St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, St. John IV Nesteutes (St. John the Faster), St. Clement of Alexandria, St. Epiphanius of Salamis, and St. Caesarius of Arles are among the holy Fathers who condemned contraception in the strongest imaginable terms.

St. John Chrysostom goes so far as to call it “murder before conception”.

Why is this the historic position of the Orthodox Church?
Why do the Saints say that birth control is equivalent to murder?

Murder in the Heart

Imagine that your next-door neighbor hates you. He does not merely dislike you;
He wants you dead.  He does not merely want you out of town, or out of the country.
He wants you off the planet.

His desire is for you to not exist.

According to Christ, this person is guilty of murder.  God not only judges outward sins;
He also judges sins of the heart.  Just as lust makes a person guilty of adultery,
hatred and anger make a person guilty of murder.

Murder by Time-Travel

Now suppose your neighbor hatches a wild plan. He attempts to invent a real working time-machine, so that he can use it to get rid of you. He does not want to kill you, because that would make a big mess, and he does not want to dispose of your body. He simply plans to go back in time, and provide your parents with birth control during the month you were conceived, so that you would never exist in the first place.

Does this new plan make you feel better about your neighbor?

Of course not.  Planning to avoid your existence is no better than murdering you.  Either way, he is showing hatred for you, regardless of the fact that you are a real human being, created in the image of God.  Even with his “time travel” plan, he is still a murderer at heart.

Now consider a slightly different scenario.  Instead of using a time-machine to go backward, you use it to go forward in time.  You and your spouse travel 12 months into the future, to see what your life will look like a year from now.  After making the trip, you find out that you will have a new little baby boy named “Johnny”.  He is a precious child, created in the image of God.

But you and your spouse do not want Johnny.  You don’t like him, and you would prefer that he never exist.  But you don’t really want to kill him.  You don’t want to dispose of his body.  So you just use your time machine to return to this present time. Then your family doctor provides a prescription for birth-control pills.  That way Johnny will never be conceived in the first place.  Thanks to you, Johnny will never exist.

If you do this, are you not showing hatred for Johnny?  Are you not a murderer at heart?

Yet millions of people make this sort of decision daily. With their current sexual practices, they know that a pregnancy is likely to occur within the next 12-24 months. They have good reason to believe that a precious little “Johnny” is on the way.  And with this likelihood in mind, they intentionally try to stamp out Johnny’s existence.  They use contraception, for no other reason than to avoid the existence of a precious child, created in the image of God.  In their minds, it would be better for Johnny to never exist.

They think about Johnny.  They hate him.  They seek to deprive him of existence.
By using birth control, they reveal themselves to be murderers at heart.

A child is a blessing, a human being created in the image of God.  It is an act of hatred–an act of murder–to intentionally avoid that blessing, whether the avoidance is done before the fact (via birth control) or after the fact (via abortion or infanticide).

Birth Control in the History of the Church

For 1,900 years, every church in the world opposed birth control.  Throughout history, the Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Serbian Orthodox, and every other Orthodox jurisdiction condemned the use of birth control.  Not only that, but the Catholic and Protestant churches prohibited birth control as well.  Prior to the 20th century, there was not a single “Christian” group that approved of contraception.

The Early Church Fathers did not merely call birth control a sin.  They called it murder.

One of the most respected saints in the history of the Church is St. John Chrysostom. The most frequently used Orthodox divine liturgy is named after him.  He was the archbishop of Constantinople, and he left us with many volumes of solid Orthodox teaching. Here is what he had to say about birth control, otherwise known as “medicines of sterility”:

“Why do you sow where the field is eager to destroy the fruit, where there are medicines of sterility [oral contraceptives], where there is murder before conception? You do not even let a harlot remain only a harlot, but you make her a murderess as well. . . . Indeed, it is something worse than murder, and I do not know what to call it; for she does not kill what is formed but prevents its formation. What then? Do you condemn the gift of God and fight with His [natural] laws? . . . Yet such turpitude . . . the matter still seems indifferent to many men–even to many men having wives. In this indifference of the married men there is greater evil filth; for then poisons are prepared, not against the womb of a prostitute, but against your injured wife. Against her are these innumerable tricks”

~ St. John Chrysostom (Homilies on Romans 24 [A.D. 391]).

Another well-known early Father is St. Ambrose, bishop of Milan. In his commentary on Genesis, this saint commented on the contraceptive drugs which many people procured during his time. He lamented that people using birth control,

“lest their patrimony be divided among several, deny their own fetus in their uterus and by a parricidal potion extinguish the pledges of their womb in their genital belly, and life is taken away before it is transmitted.’”

~ St. Ambrose (Hexameron 5.18.58 [CSEL 32: 184])

According to St. Ambrose, it was dreadfully sinful for people to limit the number of offspring, merely so they could avoid dividing their inheritance “among several”. When considering their children’s inheritance, they mistakenly believed that money and land would make a better heritage than brothers and sisters.

When the Fifth Ecumenical Council singled out twelve “Holy Fathers” as being worthy of particular attention and veneration, St. Augustine was included as one of the twelve. (This list of 12 Fathers also included St. John Chrysostom and St. Ambrose, already quoted above.) In one of his letters, St. Augustine strongly condemns the use of birth control:

“I am supposing that then, although you are not lying for the sake of procreating offspring, you are not for the sake of lust obstructing their procreation by an evil prayer or an evil deed. Those who do this, although they are called husband and wife, are not; nor do they retain any reality of marriage, but with a respectable name cover a shame. They give themselves away, indeed, when they go so far as to expose their children who are born to them against their will; for they hate to nourish or to have those whom they feared to bear. Therefore a dark iniquity rages against those whom they have unwillingly borne, and with open iniquity this comes to light; a hidden shame is demonstrated by manifest cruelty. Sometimes this lustful cruelty, or cruel lust, comes to this, that they even procure poisons of sterility, and, if these do not work, extinguish and destroy the fetus in some way in the womb, preferring that their offspring die before it lives, or if it was already alive in the womb to kill it before it was born. Assuredly if both husband and wife are like this, they are not married, and if they were like this from the beginning they come together not joined in matrimony but in seduction. If both are not like this, I dare to say that either the wife is in a fashion the harlot of her husband or he is an adulterer with his own wife.”

~ St. Augustine (Marriage and Concupiscence 1.15.17, CSEL 42:229-230)

In St. Augustine’s understanding, there is very little difference between contraception and abortion. Either way, the spouses are avoiding the blessing of God, and are intentionally stopping a real human being from walking on earth.  Birth control renders sexual relations illicit, even within a marriage.  By default, the marriage bed is holy and undefiled.  But according to this saint of the Church, birth control reduces the marital act to the level of fornication and adultery, satisfying one’s fleshly lust as with a whore.

St. John IV Nesteutes (St. John the Faster), a 6th century Patriarch of Constantinople, had the following to say regarding birth control:

“If someone to satisfy his lust or in deliberate hatred does something to a man or woman so that no children be born of him or her, or gives them to drink (pharmakon), so that he cannot generate or she conceive, let it be held as homicide.”

Many other Saints and Fathers of the Church have spoken likewise against contraception.
For example:

“Because of its divine institution for the propagation of man, the seed is not to be vainly ejaculated, nor is it to be damaged, nor is it to be wasted”.
~ St. Clement of Alexandria

“They [heretics] exercise genital acts, yet prevent the conceiving of children. Not in order to produce offspring, but to satisfy lust, are they eager for corruption”.
~ St. Epiphanius of Salamis

“Who is he who cannot warn that no woman may take a potion [an oral contraceptive] so that she is unable to conceive or condemns in herself the nature which God willed to be fecund? As often as she could have conceived or given birth, of that many homicides she will be held guilty, and, unless she undergoes suitable penance, she will be damned by eternal death in hell. If a woman does not wish to have children, let her enter into a religious agreement with her husband; for chastity is the sole sterility of a Christian woman.”
~ St. Caesarius of Arles

Marital Abstinence is Permitted

This last comment by St. Caesarius is noteworthy.  While he agrees with the patristic consensus that artificial birth control is equivalent to homicide, he nevertheless observes that “chastity is the sole sterility of a Christian woman.”  It would be wrong for a married couple to have sex, while using birth control to prevent conception.  But it is OK to avoid sex itself.  A married Christian couple is not required to copulate daily, in order to have as many children as possible.

St. Paul himself notes that marital abstinence is acceptable, as long as it is for the purpose of deepening the spiritual life of the couple:

Do not deprive one another except with consent for a time,
that you may give yourselves to fasting and prayer; and come together again so that Satan does not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. (1 Corinthians 7:5).

It is acceptable for a husband and wife to avoid sexual relations for a time, so they can focus on prayer.  It is also acceptable for a husband and wife to have normal sexual relations, with a willingness to conceive children.  But it is sinful to intentionally separate sex and conception from one another.  It is sinful to have sexual relations, while intending to avoid the conception of children.

Consensus Through Recent Times

As recently as 1963, in his book, The Orthodox Church, Bishop Kallistos (Timothy) Ware states clearly and without qualification:

“Artificial methods of birth control are forbidden in the Orthodox Church.”

(Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church, Penguin, 1963, p. 302.)

Similarly, after the Humanae Vitae encyclical letter was released in 1968, reaffirming Rome’s rejection of contraception, the Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople reviewed it and then wrote a letter to the Roman Pontiff, affirming the Orthodox Church’s “total agreement” with the contents of the encyclical:

“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 Humanae Vitae. We are in total agreement with you, and wish you all God’s help to continue your mission in the world.”

(Patriarch Athenagoras telegram to Pope Paul VI, 9 August 1968, reprinted in Towards the Healing of Schism, ed. & trans. E.J. Stormon, 1987, p. 197.)

For nearly 2000 years, the Orthodox Church has spoken with one voice.
Contraception is a sin.  Artificial birth control is unacceptable.

If it was wrong for the Saints and the Early Church Fathers,
then it is wrong for us.

If it was wrong from the first century until the year 1968,
then it is still wrong today.

From the first century through the 1960s, I do not know of any Orthodox sources which advocate artificial birth control. The first hint of doctrinal innovation came in 1974 with
the article, “Morality of Contraception: An Eastern Orthodox Opinion”, written by Chrysostom Zaphiris and published in the Journal of Ecumenical Studies.  Interestingly, this article ignores 1900 years of Orthodox consensus on this topic, and fails to address any of the pertinent quotes from St. John Chrysostom, St. Ambrose, St. John the Faster, St. Clement, St. Epiphanius, etc.  Instead, Zaphiris invents a new “Orthodox” opinion out of thin air, without relying on the historic teachings of the Orthodox Church and its saints.

CJS Hayward offers an effective critique of the Zaphiris article in his booklet,
Orthodoxy, Contraception, and Spin-Doctoring, available from the Amazon.com website.

Thankfully, people like CJS Hayward, Taras Baytsar, and a number of other Orthodox Christians are remaining faithful to the historic teachings of the Orthodox Church.

Contraception is not a Christian option.

As St. John Chrysostom said, birth control is “murder before conception”.  

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About Fr Joseph Gleason

I serve as a priest at Christ the King Orthodox Mission in Omaha, Illinois, and am blessed with eight children and one lovely wife. I contribute to On Behalf of All, a simple blog about Orthodox Christianity. I also blog here at The Orthodox Life.
This entry was posted in 553 A.D. - Constantinople II, Contraception. Bookmark the permalink.

27 Responses to Murder Before Conception

  1. tpkatsa says:

    Wow. Where is the scriptural support for the statements above?

    The argument that we can’t utilize contraception because it *might* prevent conception, but that we can choose to engage in an act (abstinence) which is *certain* to prevent conception is not logically compelling.

    Abortion after conception is murder. Claiming that “avoiding God’s blessing” is morally equivalent to murder trivializes both abortion and murder.

    My understanding is that the Orthodox Church leaves decisions regarding birth control to the discretion of the individual married couple, which is as it should be.

    • Thomas, your understanding is incorrect. It sounds like your argument is not with me. Rather, your argument is with the saints and the Fathers of the Orthodox Church. I am merely following them.

      While Scriptural support is not necessary, it is available. The sin of Onan in Genesis 38 was commonly interpreted by the Fathers as being a judgement against contraception.

      According to the Fathers, the sin comes in trying to *separate* the act of procreation from the fruit of procreation. If a person is going to engage in the procreative act, seeking the pleasure, but denying the possibility of conception, that is where the sin comes in. With abstinence, this unnatural separation does not occur, and there is no resulting sin.

      From what I can tell, all of the Fathers prohibited artificial birth control, and all of the Fathers were OK with abstinence. Enough said.

      • The whole issue of contraception as murder is about ABORTIFACIENT POTIONS, all the canons say this, one alone is briefer but in the context of existing canons and social practices being denounced, it is still against abortifacient type “contraception” not against contraception that doesn’t harm the unborn. “murder before life” phrasing may sound like all contraception is at issue, but note that the child is not considered alive until born in some of these quotes. It is talking about murder of the unborn.

      • You are incorrect. The Orthodox Church historically condemned all forms of birth control, without exception. Even coitus interruptus has always been condemned, and everyone knows that would not cause the death of an embryo.

    • During the entire time I have been following this blog, I have seen “tpkatsa” interacting with the posts and I’m trying to remember when there was a time when you were not a dissenter. Has there been a time when you have wholeheartedly agreed with anything on this blog and actually replied as such? Or do you only reply to that which you vehemently disagree? This is not necessarily a bad thing as having an antagonist often sharpens the protagonist.

      However, my assumption was always that you were a Protestant! I mean, the grounds on which you argue are almost always based on *your own opinion* – a purely Protestant hermaneutic. It was only recently that I realized that you are the same Thomas whom I met at Antiochian Village a couple of years ago, the same Thomas who is a professing, communing member of the Orthodox Church. Imagine my surprise!

      What is confusing to me is that any knowledgeable Orthodox Christian knows that it is The Church (from the first century until today) who determines our theology – not *our opinion*.

      Dn. Joseph presents a teaching of the Orthodox Church, backs it up with Scripture, quotes from Early Church Fathers (and not obscure names, but well-known names like St. Ambrose, St. John Chryostom, St. Augustine, St. Clement), and directly quotes from councils in the Orthodox Church – many of them Ecumenical. If you disagree, fine! You should show the rest of us who read this blog why you disagree! You should quote dissenting views from the Early Church Fathers, show us Orthodox resources from the councils that do not correspond to Dn. Joseph’s statements, back up your opinion with Scripture for goodness sake. Anything! You said, “Where is the scriptural support for the statements above?” Well, I will ask you the same, Thomas.

      But up til now you refuse to interact this way. Instead, you simply say that you disagree (as if that carries any weight whatsoever) and the entire time you’re not disagreeing with Dn. Joseph. NO! You who have merely completed a distance reading course of study (St. Stephen’s) have the nerve to disagree with recognized and venerated Saints of the Church; Patriarchs, Bishops, Priests, Doctors, Theologians. Up til now, you have completely disregarded out of hand these very VERY weighty men and writings of the Church in exchange for your own opinion – and then expect others to listen, agree and respect said opinion.

      If the Fathers have said that BIRTH CONTROL IS AKIN TO MURDER, and the Church has agreed with it for nearly 2000 years – you have no leg to stand on when you argue against them (neither does any other Orthodox Christian from lay person to patriarch).

      If the Fathers have said that USURY IS AKIN TO THEFT, and the Church has agreed with it for nearly 2000 years – you have no leg to stand on when you argue against them (neither does any other Orthodox Christian from lay person to patriarch).

      The Orthodox Church has spoken: birth control is akin to murder and usury is akin to theft. There can be no other (Orthodox) position.

      You must understand, Thomas, that when it comes to theology, no one cares about your opinion or mine! Personal opinions hold no weight or authority. It is only the collective opinion of the Church throughout all time that matters. The Church is correct and is not to be argued with. Period!

      It is time, Thomas, for you to change your hermaneutic from one based on your modern progressive opinion, to one based solely on the Councils, the writings of the Saints and the Orthodox Church’s interpretation of Scripture throughout history. It is time to become Orthodox in your way of doing theology, instead of simply being a Protestant in Orthodox clothing.

      • The canons outweigh The Fathers, and the canons only target the forms of contraception that kill the unborn, or are likely to do so. These were the usual forms of contraception back then, easier and lazier than barrier contraception or self discipline (timing of sex).

      • You are incorrect. Unanimously, the Orthodox Church historically condemned all forms of birth control, without exception. Even coitus interruptus has always been forbidden, even though it does not cause the death of an embryo. Barrier methods and spermicides have always been forbidden as well.

  2. Pingback: Birth Control and the Supreme Court | The Orthodox Life

  3. tpkatsa says:

    @itsasimplelife
    Hard to know where to begin in response to this. I usually don’t respond a second time on a post. If I agree I will either leave a short comment like “I agree,” or “nicely written” or whatever. I have great respect for Dn. Joseph as a friend and a writer. He has a gift in these things. That is why I make it a point to read all of his writing. One might say that yes, I challenge him as a way of “sharpening the protagonist.” I would not spend time commenting and challenging if I did not enjoy his posts. I do not spend a long time when a simply “I agree” or “nicely written” will suffice. I don’t have time to be a cheerleader.

    For the sake of simplicity let’s take the case of birth control being akin to murder. You claim that, “if the fathers have spoken,” then I do not have the right (i.e. a leg to stand on) when it comes to disagreeing with this position.

    I respectfully disagree. Birth control may prevent pregnancy. Abstinence prevents pregnancy. What was the intent of the fathers here? If the intent of the church fathers was to say, actions which prevent the possibility of life (conception) are morally equivalent to murder, then it follows that abstinence – as an action that prevents the possibility of life – is morally akin to murder. That is why I find that the notion that we can’t utilize contraception because it *might* prevent conception, but that we can choose to engage in an act (abstinence) which is *certain* to prevent conception not logically compelling. If abstinence is certain to prevent conception, and therefore cause murder, then it should certainly be prohibited, if a thing which is only likely to prevent conception, and therefore cause murder, is also prohibited.

    This notion that “the Orthodox Church has spoken” and therefore no other opinions are or could possibly be valid – i.e. the rest of us are to shut up (pardon my directness but that is how I interpret your overall tone and capital letters above) also is not logically compelling given the history of vibrant theological debate in our Church. In attempting to squelch dissent you sound like a popish Roman Catholic. That’s not meant as a criticism – I have great respect for the Roman Church – so don’t take it as one. We don’t argue with the Nicene Creed and other fundamental articles of dogma concerning the Life, Death, and Resurrection of our Lord, but outside of a few dogma there are many theologumena on which reasonable people can and do disagree.

    And yes I am the same Thomas that you might have met at St. Stephen’s. What is more – I disagreed with a sizable portion (though not even close to a majority) of what was said and taught in our readings and at the lectures. I made my disagreements clear and in my papers I carefully articulated solid reasons why I disagreed. In one of my papers I challenged the problem of perceived anti-semitism when canons such as “Christians cannot see Jewish doctors” are allowed to remain – even as dead canons – on the books. I challenged this in Fr. Patrick Viscuso’s class if you’ll remember. You may be surprised to learn that I actually fared better on papers where I disagreed with some element of the content than in papers where I simply agreed with everything in the text. I am lousy at agreement, sorry.

    Your characterization of me as a “modern progressive” is way off the mark. I am pretty conservative theologically. My friends will attest to that. But on the other hand I do not accept things simply because they were said or written by some saint 1,500 years ago. I do not believe in blind obedience. God gave us the power of reason, and like Galileo I do not believe He intended us to forgo its use. In the example above murder is the wrongful taking of a human life. Birth control before conception is not factually the taking of a human life – there is not yet a human life to take – therefore it is not and cannot be murder. Now, if the fathers intent was really to say that it is sinful to use birth control because it prevents the potentiality (possibility) of life, that seems to be a much more accurate way of expressing the point. But given the gross evil of murder, we cheapen the word “murder” if we use it to describe something that is not actually and factually even close to murder.

    Finally, I do not “disagree with out of hand” with all the writings of the Church, of the Fathers, and so on. This is balderdash. I agree with a majority of what I have have seen and read from the early fathers. I challenge those things which do not appear to withstand logical or moral scrutiny. Yes, I was an evangelical for 20 years. I reverted to Orthodoxy because historically we are the first church. Historicity doesn’t mean every Orthodox writer wrote perfectly on every issue. It doesn’t mean that Orthodox saints, priests, bishops, deacons and so on are infallible – even Peter and Paul had their disagreements. What historicity means is that in the Orthodox Church one will find the fullness of the Christian Faith, because we maintain the Faith as handed down by Christ and His Apostles, neither adding nor subtracting from it. Part of that Faith sometimes demands respectful dissent instead of blind obedience.

  4. tpkatsa says:

    It is only the collective opinion of the Church throughout all time that matters. The Church is correct and is not to be argued with. Period!

    Since we don’t have a Pope, nor a Magisterium, who determines this? How do you define the “collective opinion of the [Orthodox] Church?” Good luck. This is one difficulty I’ve had since becoming Orthodox. Obviously, no one disagrees on points of dogma – things believed everywhere, in all times, and by all. But as I point out above, people can and do disagree all the time on non-dogmatic theologumena. If they didn’t we wouldn’t need most of the Ecumenical Councils, the Apostolic Canons, and so forth.

    Second, if we find a passage or two in St. John Chrysostom that we believe supports a particular viewpoint or position in relation to a modern-day moral controversy, how do we bridge the gap between one man’s opinion on a matter – albeit a great man – and the “collective opinion of the Church?” If I agree that the Church is correct and is not to be argued with, who is authorized today by the “Church” to proclaim her “collective opinion?”

    I know I might sound like a Protestant here – but frankly I just don’t care. This issue deserves a great deal of rigor because it is important. Define “the collection opinion” of the Orthodox Church and then tell me who – give me names – is vested with the authority to unarguably proclaim this “collective opinion” of the Orthodox Church. If none of our opinions count, then whose does? Not even the Patriarch of Constantinople is above being wrong, otherwise we would not have this current tussle between the Patriarchates of Antioch and Jerusalem regarding the jurisdiction of Arabia. So either no one’s opinion counts, and you have this nebulous thing called “the collective opinion of the Church,” with which no one can argue, or everyone’s opinion matters to varying degrees (ours perhaps very little, our Bishop more so, the Patriarch’s quite a bit).

    One thing that strikes me about your claim that “when it comes to theology, no one cares about your opinion or mine,” is the question of con-temporality. That is to say, I sense that you make this claim because we are far removed in time from the heady days of St. John Chrysostom. Sure, we can agree that like a fine wine, St. John’s writing gets better with age. But let us suppose that we were Christians contemporary to St. John. Who is to say that you or Deacon Joseph or even me (God forbid!) could not have become a Saint like Saint John C. whose opinion at that time would one day become “the collective opinion of the Church?” I get the sense that you believe our opinion is worthless because we cannot hope to match the eloquence and giftedness of St. John C. That may very well be true, and without taking anything away from St. John C., the writers of Church history tend to magnify men like St. John C. while minimizing those who might have held differing opinions. What part does this hagiography play in shaping the “collective opinion of the Church?”

    We care about the opinion of St. John C. because he is a major historical figure in the Orthodox Church, but during the time he was alive he was certainly a contemporary with many other bishops in the Church. How would St. John have reacted in his day if someone had said to him, “no one cares about your opinion or mine – just the collective opinion of the Church?” In what year precisely did St. John’s opinion cease being one opinion among many Christians of that era and become the “collective opinion of the Church” with whom we ostensibly cannot argue? 500 AD? 1000 AD? 1500 AD? When?

    Finally, if “no one cares about your opinion or mine,” what is the point in doing theology at all (or, telling someone else how he ought to do theology)? That’s not meant to be harsh, but let’s face it. We can all read the Bible and we know all the stories. Although the riches of God’s Word are infinite, the Bible is a physical book and there are a finite number of pages to read. If one is not going to simply repeat the stories of the Bible, then “doing theology” necessarily becomes for example, a matter of commenting on the Scriptures in a way that sheds new light on old passages – in other words, giving an opinion.

    I close with a quote from St. John Cassian which I believe sums up a good way of thinking about these matters:

    “In essentials [i.e. dogma], unity; in non-essentials [i.e. theologumena], liberty; and in all things charity.” -St. John Cassian

    • I agree with St. John Cassian that we should have unity in all essentials. And this is an essential. The Orthodox Church’s consistent condemnation of birth control is not a mere “non-essential”.

      It is fairly easy to demonstrate that the condemnation of birth control was unanimous within Orthodoxy for over 1900 years. I simply challenge you to offer some counterexamples. We can point to numerous fathers and saints who condemned birth control just as much as they condemned abortion. But if you are aware of some historical “debate” on the issue, then present your case. Show me a handful of patristic quotes by fathers or saints who approved of birth control.

      Thomas, if you cannot find a shred of historic support for contraception within the Church, then you do not have a leg to stand on. Your mindset is as Protestant as can be.

  5. tpkatsa says:

    I’ve already explained my reasoning several times. Birth control after conception is abortion and abortion is murder. Once again the Church condemns only abortifacient forms of contraception; that would include things like IUDs and certain birth control pills. Barrier methods such as condoms diaphragms, barrier foams and abstinence are acceptable methods. We are not Roman Catholic and do not only rely on the so called-rhythm method for family planning. Yes Orthodox Christians can family plan and yes we condemn abortion. We do not take the words of the Fathers to create our own rules and theology. Let’s not forget about economia. Go and learn this says the Lord: “I desire mercy not sacrifice!”

    • Thomas, you obviously have not done your homework. The fathers and the saints unanimously condemned birth control . . . not merely abortifacient contraception, but all contraception without exception. The writings of the fathers make clear distinctions between medications/procedures which kill a child already conceived, and medications/procedures which prevent the conception of a child in the first place.

      This is not a new question, Thomas. It is a very old one. And the fathers have already spoken. If you don’t follow them, then you are not Orthodox on this point. The Roman Catholic Church has merely preserved the ancient–Orthodox–position in opposition to birth control. And those who are truly Orthodox preserve it as well.

      Again, I challenge you to provide evidence that any of the fathers approved non-abortifacient forms of birth control. There are many such forms which have been in existence for thousands of years. Yet for the first 1900 years of the Church, all such forms of contraception were unanimously condemned.

  6. tpkatsa says:

    You have not answered my fundamental objection to your reasoning, and yes, to the fathers’ reasoning as well: “an activity that may prevent conception is murder, but one that certainly prevents conception is not.” Answer that objection, please!

    Neither of you have not answered my objection regarding your wanting to squelch any view which opposes your own as being contradictory to the very vibrancy of theological debate which the Orthodox Church has enjoyed for 2,000 years. Please answer that objection.

    You have not responded to my argument regarding St. John Chrysostom being a contemporary of his own time, and the fact that you seem to apply a different standard to us today than you apply to him. You say that “no opinion matters” because the “church has spoken.” But then why should St. John’s opinion on anything have mattered during his lifetime? After all, had not the “church spoken”? (Clement, Polycarp, Justin Martyr, et al.). It is the hagiography of history that has magnified St. John to be infallible in your mind such that no one can ever offer a valid differing opinion.

    You have not answered my question of when did the writings of St. John (or any other saint) for that matter cease to be the writings of one Christian bishop among many and suddenly become the “collective voice of the church.” I thought that the collective voice of the church could ONLY be proclaimed in an ecumenical council, and we’ve not had one of those since 787 AD. Importantly, in the middle ages people were still slavishly following Galen even though dissection had by then dis-proven many of his theories. Certainly, the fathers knew nothing of human genetics,advanced medicine, or the mechanics of fertilization.

    You have not answered my question as to the whole point of doing theology (i.e. having these discussions) if “the church has spoken” and therefore no one today can (including you, by the way). You have not answered my point that doing theology is of necessity presenting an opinion. Since your position is that no one today has anything valid to say about issues – after all “the church has spoken,” hasn’t it, why is your opinion valid and mine is not?

    By your own reasoning, the “church has spoken” and therefore you yourself don’t have the right to present your opinion as the “teaching of the church” by quoting the fathers. How do I know you’re quoting them correctly? In the way that they would have intended? What gives you a monopoly on patristic interpretation?

    Finally, you have not answered my objection as to who today defines the “collective opinion of the Orthodox Church.” This begs the question: are we not all members of the Church? Have not all of us who have been baptized into Christ clothed ourselves with Christ? When did “the Church” become fossilized, so that no one after a certain point can speak or contribute anything valid regarding an issue? If Jesus does not return until 1000000 AD, then restricting authoritative opinion to those who have lived during the first 0.1% or 0.2% of the Christian era is going to seem very foolish indeed! Do we who are alive today have nothing of value to contribute to these issues?

    As Paul says, “I think that I too have the Spirit of God” (1 Corinthians 7:40).

    This has been a very interesting conversation, but I think I’m done with it. Lord have mercy.

    • Thomas,

      You said: “You have not answered my fundamental objection to your reasoning, and yes, to the fathers’ reasoning as well: ‘an activity that may prevent conception is murder, but one that certainly prevents conception is not.’ Answer that objection, please!”
      — You cannot understand algebra until you first learn your multiplication tables. First, you must submit to the Fathers’ teaching regarding contraception being a sin. Then, and only then, can we have a discussion about “what type of sin” it is.

      You said: “Neither of you have not answered my objection regarding your wanting to squelch any view which opposes your own as being contradictory to the very vibrancy of theological debate which the Orthodox Church has enjoyed for 2,000 years. Please answer that objection.”
      — Thomas, there has been zero “debate” over contraception for over 1900 years of the Church. Nobody even dreamed of arguing “for” contraception until after the Anglicans opened Pandora’s box in the 1930s. Thus, your objection is moot.

      You said: “You have not responded to my argument regarding St. John Chrysostom being a contemporary of his own time, and the fact that you seem to apply a different standard to us today than you apply to him. You say that “no opinion matters” because the “church has spoken.” But then why should St. John’s opinion on anything have mattered during his lifetime? After all, had not the “church spoken”? (Clement, Polycarp, Justin Martyr, et al.). It is the hagiography of history that has magnified St. John to be infallible in your mind such that no one can ever offer a valid differing opinion.”
      — Thomas, you have not been paying attention. St. John Chrysostom is not the only Early Church Father I quoted. In fact, I quoted many others. This teaching was not invented by St. John Chrysostom. He was merely passing down the apostolic tradition, condemning birth control. And all other saints–all of them–agreed with him on this point.

      You said, “You have not answered my question of when did the writings of St. John (or any other saint) for that matter cease to be the writings of one Christian bishop among many and suddenly become the “collective voice of the church.”
      — See above. You have not been paying attention. All Orthodox saints have opposed birth control. Not just St. John Chrysostom.

      You said, “I thought that the collective voice of the church could ONLY be proclaimed in an ecumenical council, and we’ve not had one of those since 787 AD.”
      — You are incorrect, Thomas. The voice of the Church is only rarely proclaimed via an Ecumenical Council. Its voice can also be seen via the consensus of the teachings of the Fathers. Otherwise, one would have to relegate infant baptism, paedocommunion, the sacramental nature of marriage, the ordination of men-only, and numerous other important doctrines to “optional” status. And any Orthodox Christian worth his salt knows how ridiculous (even blasphemous) it would be to do that. The reception of all doctrine–even that of the Councils–is via a consensus of the Fathers.

      You said, “Importantly, in the middle ages people were still slavishly following Galen even though dissection had by then dis-proven many of his theories. Certainly, the fathers knew nothing of human genetics,advanced medicine, or the mechanics of fertilization.”
      — Thomas, for thousands of years, many people have been well aware of “where babies come from”. Genetics and advanced medicine are irrelevant to this discussion. Numerous methods of non-abortifiacient birth control have been around for over 2,500 years, and the Early Church Fathers were well aware of them. 2,000 years ago, there was the barrier method, the coitus interruptus method, the spermicide method, and others as well. And the Saints condemned them all.

      You said, ‘You have not answered my question as to the whole point of doing theology (i.e. having these discussions) if “the church has spoken” and therefore no one today can (including you, by the way). You have not answered my point that doing theology is of necessity presenting an opinion. Since your position is that no one today has anything valid to say about issues – after all “the church has spoken,” hasn’t it, why is your opinion valid and mine is not?’
      — Thomas, “my opinion” and “your opinion” are equally irrelevant. The important thing is that we submit to the teachings of the Fathers. That is how we submit to the Church. I am willing to do this, and you apparently are not.

      You said, ‘By your own reasoning, the “church has spoken” and therefore you yourself don’t have the right to present your opinion as the “teaching of the church” by quoting the fathers. How do I know you’re quoting them correctly? In the way that they would have intended? What gives you a monopoly on patristic interpretation?’
      — Multiple times, Thomas, I have invited you to give your own presentation of the Patristic evidence. Show me the “debate”, as you see it. Show me any quotations by the Saints–any quotations at all–which you believe show the Fathers to be in support of contraception. I am still waiting for you to accept this challenge. It is not that I have a “monopoly” on Patristic interpretation. Rather, it is just that you have refused to participate.

      You said, ‘Finally, you have not answered my objection as to who today defines the “collective opinion of the Orthodox Church.” This begs the question: are we not all members of the Church? Have not all of us who have been baptized into Christ clothed ourselves with Christ? When did “the Church” become fossilized, so that no one after a certain point can speak or contribute anything valid regarding an issue? If Jesus does not return until 1000000 AD, then restricting authoritative opinion to those who have lived during the first 0.1% or 0.2% of the Christian era is going to seem very foolish indeed! Do we who are alive today have nothing of value to contribute to these issues?’
      — Thomas, the full deposit of the Faith–all of it–was delivered to the apostles, 2,000 years ago. You have nothing to add to that deposit of Faith. Neither did Chrysostom, for that matter. Every generation has a choice: Either submit to those who have gone before us, and keep the apostolic Faith, or else turn your back on the Fathers, and invent your own version of heterodoxy. I have chosen the former. You apparently have chosen the latter.

  7. tpkatsa says:

    Deacon Joseph,

    You believe pre-conception birth control is a grave sin. I believe that pre-conception birth control is acceptable by couples in consultation with their priest. I specifically asked our Deacon about this and that is what he said. If you think we are wrong on this, fine. I don’t care so much about whether or not it is a sin. Even if we agreed that pre-conception birth control were a sin, we still have a profound disagreement regarding the gravity of this sin. I reject your equation of pre-conception birth control to the crime of murder of a living human being.

    There are gradations of evil in this world, and to equate pre-conception birth control to the murder of a living person is morally insane. To show just how nutty this is, consider the question – should those who support the death penalty for criminals who murder living persons also support the death penalty for people who pre-conception birth control?

    This is such a crucial point that the only way I could ever believe that pre-conception birth control and the murder of a living human being were morally equivalent would be to hear this from the lips of our Lord Himself. And even then, I might dare to argue with Him, as did Abraham regarding whether there were any righteous persons in Sodom or Gomorrah.

    Having given much study to the Second World War, the Shoah (Holocaust), the murderous regimes of Stalin and Mao, and having done a great deal of thought and writing about when taking a human life is justified (murder of course is never justified), I will never accept this equivalency, between pre-conception birth control and the murder of a living human being, from the writings of any saint, Orthodox or not, regardless how exalted he or she is! If that makes me “Protestant, heterodox, un-orthodox, or Roman Catholic” in your view, then so be it.

    As touching the rest of the issues, where we disagree, we disagree. Maybe you are right and that’s fine with me. But on this one point I will not yield, neither to you nor to anyone else.

  8. UnderTruth says:

    I am fascinated by this discussion–particularly because I am getting married in two and a half weeks. I have some “skin in the game” on this, you might say.

    But I am a convert, and a recent one at that, from a pretty do-as-you-please church before coming to Orthodoxy, and I suppose I have some questions.

    If the person being “murdered by time travel” doesn’t ever actually exist in reality, then isn’t it the same as “having a strong desire to murder a unicorn”? That is, it’s a desire that has no referent object in reality. It’s like painting a portrait of someone that doesn’t exist, or writing about events that never happened–fiction.

    But a strong desire to murder a fictional character, while odd, hardly seems overtly sinful, except if it becomes obsessive.
    (Imagine watching a TV show in which a father defends his family from an attacker. You may in a sense want the man dead for the sake of the family, but of course both are equally imaginary.)

    Even more, the intentional object or referent in the “murderous” thought is not a person, because there is no person, even fictional. It is a desire to keep sperm and egg from having their happy meeting. But this seems hardly any more immediately morally perilous than wishing to keep blood that’s in the body from hitting the air outside the body. They are, at the point in question, bodily fluids.

    It’s true that a couple may have a selfish desire to be free of responsibility, connected with using birth control without a second thought, but this another matter from murder entirely–though equally sinful and against the mind of the Church.

    Unrelated to the concern of the ontology of the child that never was, I have to point out that the Chrysostom quote you use at the outset is rendered differently at CCEL, as “Why sow where the ground makes it its care to destroy the fruit? where there are many efforts at abortion? where there is murder before the *birth*?” and “For I have no name to give it, since it does not take off the thing born, but prevent its being *born*.” But this of course is considerably different from preventing formation–to merely prevent live birth is simple abortion. (Here is the passage in Patrologia: http://books.google.com/books?id=lHsQYhPAYZgC&pg=PA625#v=onepage&q&f=false And at CCEL: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf111.vii.xxvi.html?highlight=murder#highlight )

    Augustine is similarly translated differently: “…extravagant methods as to use poisonous drugs to secure barrenness; or else, if unsuccessful in this, to destroy the conceived seed by some means previous to birth, preferring that its offspring should rather perish than receive vitality; or if it was advancing to life within the womb, should be slain before it was born.” ( http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf105.xvi.v.xvii.html?highlight=offspring#highlight ) Here again, the intent seems to be that the “conceived seed” (remember Augustine seems to have believed the fetus was ensouled after conception at some point not easy to determine) is destroyed, as the issue. But Augustine was notoriously strict in his view on these kinds of things.

    Further, the quote from Ambrose in the context could be seen as contrasting the liveliness of the birds with their families versus the barrenness of those who choose to abhor children–a far different matter than delaying their being welcomed into the world while one works off student debt for a couple years.

    The quote from John the Faster is not even from him: ( http://books.google.com/books?id=S-fBxgQoYQ0C&lpg=PP1&pg=PA168#v=onepage&q&f=false ) and the nearest equivalent is given as “the drinking of a drug as a result of which one *cannot further procreate*” [total sterilization] or a reference to an Armenian Orthodox penitential that equates wasted seed with murder–which seems extreme, rather than representative.

    Caesarius is a bit hard to find in original, but it appears the quote is correct, so he seemed to believe that preventing conception was equally bad, though it was clearly associated for him with the abortion of already-conceived fetuses, so it could be in part because of the abortifacient properties of many methods of contraception.

    So to me it seems that the consensus was more on the abortion side of things, and not on the mere contraception side being illicit. But the two were hard to distinguish in their time, because they didn’t exactly have mass-produced condoms available.

    What are your thoughts on this?

    • Thank you for your research! It is much appreciated. When I have time, I would like to look into these examples further. I agree that if there are certain quotes which are spurious, then those specific quotes should not be used to bolster an argument.

      Thankfully, the argument against contraception does not depend on the few quotes mentioned above. There are numerous passages where many Saints make it clear that birth control is always forbidden.

      To see an example of this, please consider the following article. This article demonstrates that Orthodox Saints throughout history have clearly understood the distinction between contraception and abortion, and they have unanimously forbidden both:

      https://theorthodoxlife.wordpress.com/2015/05/18/sacred-seed-sacred-chamber/

      • UnderTruth says:

        Thank you for your reply, Father.

        I have come to agree on the issue of contraception, both because of the need for chastity in marital love as much as elsewhere, (which the fathers express) and because of the argument that consent, exclusivity, and fruitfulness all must apply to both the marriage as a whole, as well as in each sexual act of the married couple. (The argument that a couple “plans to be fruitful eventually” parallels an argument that they “plan to be exclusive” someday, etc.)

        I can see why pastorally many have chosen to tolerate non-abortive and non-sterilizing contraception, especially for very young couples or those with medical reasons to avoid childbirth, either temporary reasons or otherwise, since it does still seem that there is a purpose to marital sexuality beyond either regulating lust or procreating children; the unity of the man and wife, however it’s clear that the majority of the fathers, especially in your new “seed” article, prohibited sex intended for pleasure that excludes the possibility of having children, and that until very recently this meant an outright ban on contraception even in American Orthodoxy, (as an Encyclical on the OCA website still says: “The greatest miracle and blessing of the divinely sanctified love of marriage is the procreation of children, and to avoid this by the practice of birth control, or, more accurately, the prevention of conception, is against God’s will for marriage.”)

        I think this issue needs to be addressed, because it’s a clear case of the romanticism of emotions and pleasure that’s characteristic of the culture having entered the minds of the faithful, and if the clergy don’t act to uphold truth, this will spread to other areas of Christian life all the more.

  9. Cyranorox says:

    Pullling out and spilling it – no need for Latin – also assumes an implantation model of conception, and thus the death of an embryo. Since this is false, we must reconsider this point. There is no getting around the fact that the Fathers, for all their wisdom, did not understand the physical basis of generation.

    • You are incorrect. The Fathers of the Church did not believe in a mere “implantation” model of conception. That is a myth.

      • Cyranorox says:

        The quote from St John Chrysostom clearly indicates that he considers conception to be implantation by the male, a false understanding, which would make contraception resemble murder. Kindly describe your view of the general Patristic notion of conception, as it contrasts to implantation, ie, as it is aware that the male has no seed, but only a half. If you do, however, you will then display a contradiction to the quote, and have a difficulty claiming a Patristic consensus.

      • You believe that “the male has no seed”? Then you are in disagreement with Holy Scripture.

        In Scripture, God himself speaks of Abraham’s “seed”. The apostle Paul speaks of it as well. In Genesis 38, Onan spilled his seed, and God put him to death for it.

  10. Pingback: Sacred Seed, Sacred Chamber | The Orthodox Life

  11. Tona says:

    I’ve noticed a lot of people use the “..if your priest says it’s ok” argument. This strikes me as an all too convenient defense by people who know that now days it is quite common for even Orthodox priests to condone or slack off on the issue of contraception. This way they can say “but my priest said it’s ok” and feel that they do not have to take responsibility for their own conscience and actions. The Church has already made it quite clear as to what their stance is when it comes to “murder before conception”. It’s only recently being questioned. I think it is SO important for us as Orthodox Christians to take a strong and bold stance on this issue!! If we don’t I shudder to think of what we’ll be trying to justify next! Lord have mercy!!

  12. I have been so blessed reading every comment herein meticulously. Father Joseph – you absolutely and categorically have a living Orthodox mind!

    Yes, I am used to tedious heterodox surmising of deceived or deluded persons – of a worldly type of thinking and feeling. To have an Orthodox mind one must prepare the mind through humility which is profoundly rare in our Holy Church presently.

    Father Joseph, I do not consider myself to be the “sharpest tool in God’s tool shed.” I am resigned to this actuality. However, at age 11 I was professing the True Orthodox teaching on contraception, etc. It is a dangerous thing to teach obnoxious children to read! The canonical Bible is all I had to read! Yet I came to the full Orthodox teaching of these God-ordained things so young! How is it that all these wonderful minds that God made to organically work right don’t get the truth of the topic at hand?

    “God always chooses the fools of this world to confound the wise.”

    I may not have ever been married but the teaching of the Fathers rooted in the Sacred Scriptures is just so invincibly clear.

    I pray my Orthodox cleric brothers will repent of the contraceptive world and mind they so unconsciously bring into the congregation of the Holy Church.

    Heterodox opinion is just so many anti-true doctrinal parasites in our bellies of belief.

    And we wonder why the people of God have no energy to live or proclaim the Gospel of truth in love of our God’s Holy Gospel!

    Peace in Christ Father Joseph!

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