The Eastern Orthodox Religion and Procreation

            We continue with our examination of various religions and their views on procreation, this time focusing on the Eastern Orthodox Church. Its separation from the Roman Catholic Church resulted in differences between Catholicism’s and Eastern Orthodoxy’s views of procreation. Eastern Orthodoxy is divided into national subdivisions, including the Greek, Russian, Serbian, Coptic (Egypt and Middle East) and other regional Orthodox churches. 

The famous Russian Orthodox church in Moscow

St. Basil’s Cathedral on Red Square in Moscow. Photo – wikipedia

    During the first eight centuries of Christianity there was one Church, which then divided into Eastern and Western divisions. The Church in the western Mediterranean became the Roman Catholic Church, and divided up again with the advent of Protestantism. The Church in the eastern region became known as the Eastern Orthodox Church, which sees itself as separate from Western Christianity in that it views the Scriptures as they relate to the Holy Tradition of Apostolic times.

            Unlike the Roman Catholic religion, previously discussed in another essay, the Eastern Orthodox faith does not teach that procreation is the primary function of marriage. Spiritual oneness, the striving for eternal salvation, is.  However, and this is a big “however,” children are considered to be a natural part of being married. So, those who wait before having children, or those who decide never to have children, are in violation of the marriage union. 

            According to retired Orthodox priest Stanley Samuel Harakas, “Orthodox Christians are considered free in making moral choices.” In his essay, “Religious Beliefs and Healthcare Decisions,” Father Harakas states that “the Tradition guides and directs, but does not coerce, though ecclesial consequences can follow what the Church regards as improper decisions.” This is quite a paradox for the Orthodox community – freedom to think for oneself about what is moral, but such thought could occasion religious consequences.

           Birth control is allowed as long as it’s not “artificial,” such as birth control pills or condoms. (There are exceptions to this discussed in the next paragraph). Natural methods are acceptable if the circumstances are valid. A plus here for the pious is that these methods involve self-denial and self-control, and require a priest’s blessing.  The three acceptable ways to practice birth control in the Orthodox way of life are:

  • Limit sexual relations – this is a frequent choice when couples observe the traditions of fasting days and periods
  •  Total abstinence – when a couple has given birth to a number of children, and no longer feel that sexual relations must be part of their marriage
  •  Rhythm method (Natural Family Planning)

             The Orthodox Church does not subscribe to the dogmatism of the Roman Catholic Church regarding the birth control pill. In other words, there are circumstances where artificial birth control may be used, but this is largely a “pastoral issue where there may be multiple considerations.”

            Because the Orthodox Church considers the embryo to be human from conception, abortion is generally verboten. If a mother’s life is threatened or she has an ectopic pregnancy, the Church allows for some choice, and in these cases, preserving life is essential to the decision-making process.

            Orthodox religions disapprove of aborting pregnancy due to a physical abnormality in the child. These children are seen as “human beings in their own right, deserving of care and love.”

            Those who decide on a childfree lifestyle are considered sinners. Sterilization and birth control, other than for health reasons, is morally unacceptable. Couples of child-bearing age should “be prepared and expect to have as many children as God will send,” taking into consideration the health of the mother and the family as a whole.

            In our book, Enough of Us: why we should think twice before making children, we refer to a 1997 statement by Bartholomew I, patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church, who passionately maintained that the ruination of the earth is against God’s will. To bear as many children as possible does not take into account that there already are enough of us. Seven billion strong and counting causes the degradation of the earth. This is a conundrum that all anti-family-planning dogmas must deal with.           




  1. Christopher Wachlin says:

    Thanks for another informative essay.

  2. As an Orthodox Christian I am pleased with the unbiased treatment in this post.
    I know of one priest who advised a couple to get an abortion when it was certain that the child would have horrible health problems. However, it is the view of the Church that abortion should never be used as retroactive birth control.
    Policy is set at the level of bishops, and each geographic region has its own ruling bishop, but the priests also have some measure of flexibility when it comes to counseling individuals (or couples).
    And then there are the various jurisdictions (Greek, Russian, Coptic, etc…) that overlap territories. I have found that the more ethnic a church, with priest, bishops, and parishioners from “the old country” the more difficulty they have separating real theology from cultural tradition.
    This leads to a lot of confusion and misunderstanding, especially among the news and entertainment media, as well as blogs.
    In the closing statements of your post you say that “Those who decide on a childfree lifestyle are considered sinners.” I have not heard this in any Orthodox classes or literature, though it may be that a particular priest or bishop has said it. Clergy are only human and not all are in agreement.
    In the end, only God has all of the answers.


  3. Thanks, James, for expanding our own understanding of Orthodoxy

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