Elijahmaria, you might like to add Fr. Alexei Young to your collection of nameless Orthodox clerics supporting your views. Do let me know if I am mistaken in that.
This brings me to the most difficult and controversial question of all - what everyone wants to know about and no one wants to ask about: birth control.
Frankly, it is difficult to know where to start because the subject has many ramifications. Perhaps I might begin by mentioning how other churches tend to view this question. In the Roman Catholic Church, for example, artificial birth control is forbidden under any circumstances. The reason is because the Roman Catholic Church officially teaches that the primary purpose and function of marriage is to have children; thus, procreation is the primary reason for sexual intercourse. This teaching is rooted in the augustinian tradition, which treats sexuality, even within marriage, as basically sinful, and therefore procreation is held to be a necessary justification for the marriage act, as it serves to fulfill God's command to be fruitful and multiply. In Old Testament times there was a legitimate concern to perpetuate the human race. Today, however, that argument is unpersuasive, and many Roman Catholics feel justified in disregarding it.
Protestants, on the other hand, had never developed a clear teaching on marriage and sex. Nowhere was birth control explicitly mentioned in the Bible, so when the Pill became available in the early '60s, they welcomed it and other reproductive technologies as milestones in the march of human progress. Very soon these came a proliferation of sex manuals, all developed on the notion that God had given man sexuality for pleasure. The primary purpose of the marriage act became not procreation but recreation, an attitude which simply fortified the Protestant teaching that God wants man to be personally fulfilled and happy, and therefore sexually gratified.
Even abortion was accepted. It was only in the mid '70s, when the Roe v. Wade debate heated up, and it became increasingly evident that abortion was murder that evangelical Protestants began to rethink their position. In the late '70s they came aboard the pro-life cause, where they remain in the forefront today. It was the issue of abortion that made them realize that human life must be protected from the moment of conception, and that contraception by means of abortifacients was impermissible. Meanwhile, liberal Protestant mainline churches remain committed to the pro-abortion position, and have no restrictions on birth control.
It is important for us to be aware of the teachings of these other churches on the subject of sexuality, for they can unconsciously affect our own views. We must be aware, furthermore, of the pervasive influence on our society of the sexual revolution unleashed by the availability of the Pill. The promiscuous attitude that it fostered still prevails today. Because of our culture's obsession with sex and sexual gratification, it is essential that we have a clear understanding of our Church's teaching concerning sexuality. This teaching is found in Scripture, in the canons of various Ecumenical and Local Councils, in the writings and commentaries of various Holy Fathers of the Church, who far from avoiding or tiptoeing around this issue, write about it very frankly and at length; and, finally, this teaching is mirrored in the lives of many of the saints (the parents of Saint Sergius of Radonezh come to mind).
Does anyone know what this last reference is to?
The specific subject of birth control is less readily accessible; one cannot simply look it up in a concordance or index. It can, however, be extrapolated from the very clear teachings of the Church on abortion, on marriage, and on asceticism. Before plunging into a discussion on the subject, we should point out that the Orthodox Church is not as dogmatic here as the Roman Catholic Church, and it is very much a pastoral issue where there may be multiple considerations. Nevertheless, liberty should not be used for license, and we would all do well to keep before us the age-old standard given us by the Church.
Having said all this, what exactly is the Church's teaching concerning birth control?
The practice of artificial birth control - by which is meant "the pill," condoms, or any other kind of device - is actually condemned by the Orthodox Church. The Church of Greece, for example, in 1937 issued a special encyclical just for this purpose, to condemn birth control.
Anyone have the particulars of this 1937 encyclical?
Likewise, the Romanian and Russian Churches, to name just two others among many - have more than once, in former times, spoken out against this practice. It is only in recent times, only in the generation since World War II, that some local Churches (the Greek Archdiocese in this country, for example) have begun to teach that it "might" be all right to practice birth control in certain circumstances, as long as this is discussed with the priest beforehand and has his agreement.
This teaching of our Church, however, should not be construed as being the same kind of teaching as is found in the Roman Catholic Church. The consistent teaching of the Church of Rome has been and is that having children is the primary function of marriage. This is not the teaching of the Orthodox Church. Orthodoxy, by contrast, gives the first place to the spiritual purpose of marriage - which is the mutual salvation of the husband and wife. Each is to help and encourage the other in save his or her soul. Each exists for the other, as a companion, a helper, a friend.
But secondarily, children are the natural result of a marriage, and, until relatively recent times, they were the expected and much-desired result of a marriage. Children were sought as a fruit of the marriage union, a proof that a man and a woman had become one flesh, and this was always seen as a very great blessing on a marriage. It was considered a great tragedy, a great sorrow, if the marriage was childless; so much so that, although the Church always permitted a childless couple to continue to live together as man and wife, if a wife was barren or a husband was impotent, it was accepted by the Church as grounds for divorce, so that either would be free to enter into a marriage relationship with another, in the hope of having children.
This last part I find interesting, but not for the reason that the father brings it up.
Nowadays, of course, our society considers children more of a nuisance than a blessing, and many couples wait one, two, three, or even more years before they have a child. Indeed, some decide never to have children. And so, although in the Orthodox Church the first purpose of marriage is not merely to have children, the desire of most young marrieds today to wait before having children is considered sinful. As a priest, I must say to any couple that approaches me for marriage that, if they are not prepared and willing to conceive and bear a child, without interfering with the will of God by means of artificial birth control, then they are not ready to be married. If they are not prepared to accept the natural and blessed fruit of their union - that is, a child - then it is clear that their primary purpose in marrying is to have legalized fornication. This is a very serious problem today, possibly the most serious and the most difficult a priest has to deal with when counselling a young couple.
My position has always been that if you wait until you are ready to have kids, you will never have them, but I don't think this translates into postponing marriage until you want to have children right away.
I've used the term "artificial" birth control because I want to point out that the Church does permit the use of certain natural methods for avoiding conception, but these methods may not be used without the knowledge and blessing of the priest, and only if the physical and moral well-being of the family demands it. These methods are acceptable to the Church under the right circumstances and can be used by a couple without burdening their consciences, because they are "ascetical" methods; that is, they have to do with self-denial, self-control. Those methods are three:
1. Total abstinence. In very pious families this is not at all as uncommon, either today or yesterday, as one might think. It often happens that after an Orthodox husband and wife have brought a number of children into this world, they agree to abstain from one another, both for spiritual and worldly reasons, living the rest of their lives in peace and harmony as brother and sister. This has happened in the lives of saints - most notably in the life of Saint John of Kronstadt.
I'm afraid his praise of this aspect of St. John's life, particularly suggesting it as a model of emulation, calls into question everything else he says here
As a Church which very much cherishes and protects monastic life, we Orthodox have no fear of celibacy, and no silly ideas about how we will not be fulfilled or happy if we cease to have sexual activity with our spouse.
2. A limitation on sexual relations. This of course already happens with the Orthodox couple that sincerely tries to observe fully all of the fast days and fasting periods of the year.
3. Finally, the Church allows the use of the so-called "rhythm" or the more recently developed Natural Family Planning method, about which ample information is available today.
In former times, when poor parents knew nothing about contraceptions, they relied exclusively on God's will - and this should in fact be an example for us today. Children were born and they accepted the last one just as they had the first, saying, "God gave the child; He will also give what we need for the child." Such was their faith, and it often happened that the last child proved to be the greatest blessing of all.
Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.
The dear Father also seems to forget that in such former times poor parents had 12 children, hoping that at least one or two would survive into adulthood. Not an insignificant detail as to the circumstances. My favorite example was a family who named all 8 sons after the father, hoping one would live to carry on the name. They were blessed in that all 8 survived to marry and raise families of their own, leading to quite some confusion at family gatherings
This circumstance is not exactly the same as the one change he does mention:
Now, what about the size of a family? Well, one thing that has a tremendous affect on how we view this is the fact that over the last one hundred years we have changed from a mostly agrarian or agricultural society, to a mostly urban and industrial society. This means that whereas in previous times large families were actually needed in order to run the farm or ranch - and there was always enough food and work to go around - today we have the opposite problem, and it is sometimes very difficult to support a very large family, although there are people who manage to do it. From a strictly spiritual point of view, one should try to have a large family so that the family will be strong and durable and full of love, with all of its members bearing the burdens of life together. A large family accustoms children to being concerned about others, makes them more sensitive, etc. And while a small family might be able to provide more of this world's goods for each child, a small family does not at all guarantee a good upbringing. Single children are sometimes the most difficult of all, for they often grow up spoiled and self-centered. No general rule can be given about this here, but we should be prepared and expect to have as many children as God will send and the moral and physical health of the mother and the family as a whole will allow, always staying in close touch with one's priest on these matters. http://www.roca.org/OA/155-156/155h.htm
We must be careful, however, not to over-emphasize this whole business of having children, having a certain number, etc. Saint John Chrysostom says, "Giving birth to children is a matter of nature. Far more important is the parents' task of educating their children's hearts in virtue and piety." Indeed, this puts the emphasis back where it belongs, rather than on negative things about birth control and family size. For what the Church wants us to understand and remember is that the children we bring into the world do not belong to us; they belong to God. We did not give them life; rather, God, using us as His instruments, called them into existence. In a certain way, we parents are really only babysitters for God's children. And so our greatest responsibility as parents is to bring up our children "in the Lord," so that they come to know, love, and serve their Heavenly Father.
Eternal salvation is the whole goal of our earthly life. It is a goal that requires a constant striving, for it is not easy to be a Christian. The influence of our society make it extremely hard. The parish church and the home are the only bastions where God can be praised in spirit and in truth. Our lives, our marriages, and our homes will remain as inferior, poor wine, however, like the wine that was served first at the wedding feast at Cana, if we do not actively seek to be mature men and women, mature husbands and wives, and mature Orthodox Christians, willing to accept the responsibilities of the position in life to which we have been called. And it is only after we work - hard - at preparing ourselves, as individuals, and our families and home in order to receive Christ, that our lives, our marriages, and our homes will become like the good wine which Christ miraculously made from water at that joyous wedding. Amen.