Saturday, February 24, 2007

I Have a Dirty Secret

Though this post is concerned with those who "revert" to the Catholic Church, there is much food for thought for those of us interested in facilitating the reconciliation of lapsed Orthodox Christians to the Church.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Amy Wellborn's "Open Book" blog has an interesting post on "Reverts", that is, Catholics who left the Church, then returned (click on the title of this post to go there). The "dirty secret" is a journey of faith (and doubt or disinterest or disdain or disillusionment, etc.) that, believe it or not, everyone seems to have. We Catholics seldom ask for permission of one another to talk about that journey, which is why I'm jokingly calling it a dirty secret. There are quite a few stories of reversion there, but I'd like to make a few observations about what I've seen on that thread. However, I encourage you to go see for yourself!

Read more: Intentional Disciples: I Have a Dirty Secret

Sacramentum Vitae: Does Orthodoxy allow contraception or not?

From Michael Liccione's always thoughtful blog comes the following question: Sacramentum Vitae: Does Orthodoxy allow contraception or not?

He writes:

I'd be interested in reactions, especially from Orthodox believers, to the online article of the above title. At the very least, there appears to have been some backtracking in Orthodoxy on the topic. And as usual, there is the problem that nobody seems to speak for Orthodoxy as such.

My response:


Your question is, if I understand it, whether or not barrier method of contraception is acceptable within the tradition of the Orthodox Church.

At least as I read the various authors quoted in Armstrong's essay it is less a matter of Orthodox authors saying "Yes, the barrier method is a good thing," and more that they are responding (albeit not well in my opinion) to pastoral situations.

Ideally married couples should simply follow the ascetical tradition of the Church (abstinence from sexual relations on fast days and the evening before receiving Holy Communion) and entrust themselves to God for whatever child He may grant them. If they are unable (as opposed to unwilling)to do this then, in consultation with their spiritual father (and in the main Orthodox Christians who are serious about their faith will have an intimate and long term relationship with their priest-confessor) MAY use so-called barrier-methods of contraception.

But in saying this, no one is suggesting, to repeat what I said above, that the use of a condom is a good thing--only that it is a tolerably thing for those who still need to mature in Christ.

That said, yes certainly some Orthodox clergy (both priests and bishops) and theologians take a rather more accepting view of barrier-methods of contraception. But to the best of my knowledge no one argues that the use of a condom it is a good thing.

Have the Orthodox Church departed from our own tradition in our pastoral praxis regarding the use of the barrier method of contraception? Again, I would argue that no one is saying that the use of a condom is a good thing--it is a concession to human weakness.

The Orthodox pastoral response is I think not that far away from Paul VI in Humanae Vitae when he encourages couples using contraception to have recourse to the sacraments (especially Confession) to grow in Christ so that they can put aside contraception. Would, for example, a Catholic priest forbid Holy Communion to a couple who--out of weakness--use a condom? I suspect that they he would not--which is quite different from saying he would approve of their behavior.

I will grant that artificial contraception is not a good thing--even an intrinsic evil to use Paul VI's language. And yes, the separation of conjugal relationship from procreation is also evil--even as a separation of love would from conjugal intimacy is.

However the question for me as an Orthodox priest is how do I help married couples remain faithfully and obedient to the ascetical tradition of the Church? At the risk of being overly polemical, I would point out that this asceticism is (to the best of my knowledge) almost wholly ignored in the Catholic Church.

In its place one sees such a focus on contraception that you risk robbing married couples of an important part of their own asceticism and opportunity for spiritual growth.

This call to asceticism is largely absent for most Catholics. I am scandalized by the lack of fasting among almost all Catholics (to take one example). I would be encouraged more if Catholics relearned the ascetical tradition--Armstrong simply criticizes Orthodoxy without any understanding that, just maybe, the is something else going on in confession other than Orthodox priests saying it is okay to use a condom.

The real question for me is how do we answer the question of contraception and Natural Family Planing (NFP) within the context of the shared ascetical tradition--East and West. It is easy to score points off each other on the issue--but in fact neither side really takes serious the question in light of the Christian ascetical tradition.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory