It goes without saying that the Orthodox Church does not approve of the use of contraception or birth control for anyone not married. Unmarried Orthodox Christians should remain celibate until marriage. While this is difficult to do and requires a lot of self-discipline, it is not impossible! In this post, we focus instead on married Orthodox couples and the uses of contraception and birth control.
Birth control vs. contraception
Often, birth control and contraception get confused with one another in conversation. So first, a clarification: Contraception refers to methods that act against conception of a child (i.e. the morning-after pill, IUDs); birth control, in contrast, refers to actions that limit the number/timing of children naturally, like NFP and abstinence.
The purpose of sex
Is it okay for a married Christian couple to have sex without the goal of conceiving a child? Could a husband and wife “be together” in that way without falling into sin? The Orthodox position on contraception and birth control somewhat mirrors that of the Roman Catholic church. However, the reasoning behind our teachings differs in a few subtle ways, when it comes to our views of sex.
The Roman Catholic church historically understood sex as a purely procreative act, done to continue the human race. Over time, Catholicism has embraced the unitive aspects of marriage as well, but still insists that procreation is essential. The Orthodox Church, on the other hand, views human sexuality as beautiful when ordered according to God’s design. She also always highlights multiple purposes for sex. To the Orthodox, intimate union and protection against the selfish abuse of sex are just as important as procreation. And while it may be ideal that all three purposes are present in every marital sexual act, nowhere are we taught we must always have all three.
The Orthodox Church in America states: “Married couples may express their love in sexual union without always intending the conception of a child”. Think of it like this. When we eat, we do it to nourish our bodies and to enjoy what God gave us. If you eat a piece of chocolate, you engage the second purpose, but not the first. And that is completely okay. So long as we do not abuse it and eat so much of it that it damages our health and undermines food’s other purpose. So it is with sex within marriage.
Orthodox teachings on contraception
The Greek Orthodox Church permits the use of certain contraceptives in marriage to “space children, enhance the expression of marital love, and protect health”. Many Orthodox agree with this in general. However, the difference between birth control and contraception matters for certain Orthodox Christians. These Orthodox typically follow the Church of Greece in condemning contraception, but not natural methods of birth control.
Other Orthodox writers and thinkers point out an interesting nuance. Using contraception that prevents fertilization (non-abortifacient) is essentially the ethical equivalent to abstaining from sex altogether or using the rhythm method, both of which the Roman Catholic church considers acceptable. Regardless of which method the couple uses, the sperm and egg produced die. Fertilization does not happen, and thus, life is not created. Therefore, the Orthodox Church typically views these situations as ethically identical re: contraception, and thus allows non-abortifacients if their use is blessed by the couple’s spiritual father.
As an aside, some Orthodox might hold another view: that anything other than abstinence is sinful, and that procreation is the only permissible reason for sex within marriage. This view that procreation is essential for a valid marriage, and that procreation is more important than spousal unity, is more prevalent in the Latin West. Thus, not many Orthodox hold this belief, since the Orthodox East sees procreation as normal within marriage, but not essential to it (St. John Chrysostom). Put another way, this means that marriage does not always have to lead to children.
In summary, most Orthodox churches do allow both birth control and some forms of contraception within marriage, subject to the following conditions:
1. Human life cannot end as a result
Human life, according to modern science and ancient theology, begins at the moment of conception (fertilization). At this moment, a human being has all the genetic information she needs to be a unique individual separate from her mother. This is why the Church considers abortion a form of murder and condemns abortifacient contraception.
2. You have the blessing of your spiritual father
Secondly, you must have the approval and blessing of your spiritual father if you desire to use non-abortifacient contraception. And this is typically unusual, since most priests will counsel abstinence or NFP first, barring any medical concerns.
Ultimately, the Orthodox Church’s position on contraception boils down to understanding marriage as an exercise of agape love. If a person decides to use contraception within marriage purely for selfish reasons, this violates that principle. So long as these decisions are mutual between both marriage partners, and are blessed by your priest, agape love is still the focus of your marriage.