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No longer a graduate student, Teresa is now a professional know-it-all.

Sunday, April 30, 2006

Contraception Debates Get Dirty: East versus West!

This is my final entry on the issue of the Torode's recent recantation of their anti-contracpetion book Open Embrace. I think I've probably said more than enough about what seems to have changed about the Torodes' position, and what they might be (from a Catholic perspective) getting wrong. Here I want to comment briefly on their references to Church tradition, because I feel that the letter could give a misleading impression. Here's the passage in question:

For starters, we joined the Greek Orthodox Church and are now in closer agreement with what some Orthodox have written on this topic (see The Sacrament of Love by Paul Evdokimov and Marriage: An Orthodox Perspective by John Meyendorff). The book we recently edited, Aflame: Ancient Wisdom on Marriage, reflects this, especially in that we have no quotes on sex from Augustine, Jerome, and Gregory the Great -- three major fathers of the Western church, in whose writings you are hard-pressed to find anything positive about sex.

Someone unfamiliar with Eastern Orthodoxy or the Church fathers in general might read this and say "Oh, so the Eastern Orthodox aren't in favor of Natural Family Planning, and the only major fathers of the Church who were against contraception were those bad Western misogynists like Augustine, Jerome, and Gregory the Great." In fact, both of these assumptions are are wrong.

First of all, there are a number of Eastern Orthodox theologians who are opposed to contraception. Some accept the use of NFP as permissible, while others advocate total abstinence for couples who need to avoid conceiving children. I'm no expert on Orthodox theology, but it is my understanding that there's quite a bit of disagreement about the issue of contraception. This article on Orthodox bioethics, which tends to be critical of the anti-contraception view, still makes it clear the seriousness of the disagreement:

Less agreement exists among Eastern Orthodox authors on the issue of contraception within marriage for the spacing of children or for the limitation of the number of children. Some authors take a negative view and count any use of contraceptive methods within or outside of marriage as immoral (Papacostas, pp. 13-18; Gabriel Dionysiatou). These authors tend to emphasize as the primary and almost exclusive purpose of marriage the birth of children and their upbringing. They tend to consider any other exercise of the sexual function as the submission of this holy act to unworthy purposes, i.e., pleasure-seeking, passion, and bodily gratification, which are held to be inappropriate for the Christian growing in spiritual perfection. These teachers 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. It must be noted also that, for these writers, abortion and contraception are closely tied together, and often little or no distinction is made between the two. Further, it is hard to discern in their writings any difference in judgment between those who use contraceptive methods so as to have no children and those who use them to space and limit the number of children.

Other Orthodox writers have challenged this view by seriously questioning the Orthodoxy of the exclusive and all-controlling role of the procreative purpose of marriage (Zaphiris; Constantelos, 1975). Some note the inconsistency of the advocacy of sexual continence in marriage with the scriptural teaching that one of the purposes of marriage is to permit the ethical fulfillment of sexual drives, so as to avoid fornication and adultery (1 Cor. 7:1-7). Most authors, however, emphasize the sacramental nature of marriage and its place within the framework of Christian anthropology, seeing the sexual relationship of husband and wife as one aspect of the mutual growth of the couple in love and unity. This approach readily adapts itself to an ethical position that would not only permit but also enjoin 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.
See the Stephanos Project for an anti-contraception view of the matter. In short, I think the Torodes are misrepresenting their new Church's position to the extent that they imply that Orthodox theologians are generally in agreement with their new beliefs.

I am more concerned, however, with the comment about the authors which were included in Aflame, the Torodes' compilation of Patristic teaching on marriage. The implication seems to be that in excluding Augustine, Jerome, and co. the Torodes were giving a sort of advance signaling of their change of mind about sexuality. Further, the letter suggests that the authors they do quote in Aflame support their new position rather than their old one. What they don't say is that the theologian they quote most often in Aflame is John Chrysostom. Chrysostom did speak very postively about marriage- but he continued to link sexuality and sexual unity to procreation. More importantly, he strenuously opposed the use of contraceptive potions and mutilation for the purpose of sterilization. (You can find these references online here, among other places.) Many see in John Chrysostom's writings on the unity of marriage the foundation for John Paul II's Theology of the Body. Chrysostom, like John Paul II, saw sexuality as good both in terms of the bond it created, and in terms of the fruit of that bond in the form of offspring. Chrysostom is, therefore, a theologian whose work ultimately supports the position the Torodes have rejected.

The Torodes may feel that they are not defying the teaching of John Chrysostom because they are advocating neither oral contraceptives nor sterilization. However, in advocation barrier methods and "Sensual massage," they are contradicting the teachings of Clement of Alexandria, who, in another oft-quoted passage, wrote:

"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" ( 2:10:91:2 [A.D. 191]).

Clement is quoted several times throughout Aflame. He has a number of positive things to say about marriage. Nevertheless, he is clearly one the side of the "Western" view that privileged procreation. I don't mean to say that anyone should accept everything Clement taught about marriage and sexuality. (Modern Catholic theologians would not agree with him that sexuality is only for the purpose of procreation, for instance.) What I am saying is that, with regard to Patristic views on marriage and sexuality, the situation is far more complicated than the "Open Letter" would imply. In fact, the Torodes must have realized this when they put together Aflame, because the truth is that they do quote Augustine of Hippo on marriage, though not on the subject of sex. On page 75, they have a single, short quote from the great Latin doctor:

"At Cana, Christ confirmed what He instituted in Paradise."

Short and simple, isn't it? I'm glad that they found something good on marriage in the writings of Augustine. I wish they had admitted it in their "Open Letter." Instead, they went in for the cheap shot of making it sound as if the Western tradition were primarily anti-pleasure, and as if the Eastern tradition were entirely accepting of contraception. Neither of these claims is true. Sam and Bethany have the right to reject their earlier view of contraception, and they have on obligation to inform their readers of the change, but I wish they'd do it without (implicitly) turning the matter into an "East versus West, our tradition's best" battle. There is too much of that in the religious world as it is.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am guessing that you are Catholic as am I. I have an Eastern Othodox friend and I am trying to explain the issue of birth control with her. Thanks for you blog. I am so thankful to have a Pope if not for the sole reason that we have a teaching authority instituted by Christ.

12:32 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My name is Augustine, and I am a monk in the Orthodox Church. I can assure you that the traditional position of Orthodox Church - the position of the Fathers and the Apostolic Tradition - is that birth control is immoral and not blessed.

It is true that in some extreme circumstances where a couple feels compelled to use birth control for one reason or another, spiritual fathers might work with a couple where they are at. They should not come forward for communion during this time, unless they abstain from sexual relations for a while and prepare for communion perhaps on Pascha or Christmas. But, they would be given more ascetic acts to perform and would be encouraged to cultivate an attitude of repentance and work towards abstaining.

This should not amount to an approval of birth control; it is a last-ditch effort to prevent a couple from despair. Say, a young newly-wed couple that learns a pregnancy would be fatal to the mother, and they haven't the strength to abstain.

Unfortunately, many Orthodox Christians are claiming that contraception is permitted and not sinful. This is a NEW idea, and is thoroughly condemned by Orthodox teaching. Those of us who know this are fighting an uphill battle, much like the Roman Catholic Church has fought an uphill battle on some fronts since Vatican II.


10:15 AM  

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