Population Ethics: III. Religious Traditions: E. Eastern Orthodox Christian Perspectives

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Population questions have not received a great deal of treatment in Orthodox theology or ethics. What little has been written comes out of other, related interests. Even in patristic times, population concerns usually appeared within the framework of discussion on Christian marriage and attendant issues, the most important of which was the place of procreation as a purpose, or even as the purpose, of marriage. The fourth-century writings of Saint John Chrysostom, for example, suggest that the purpose of marriage is in part determined by population considerations.

Recent Literature

The relevant Eastern Orthodox literature on the contemporary situation may be divided into two periods.

FIRST PERIOD: 1933–1969. During this time, Orthodox thinking discounted the threat of overpopulation, which was either ignored or seen as a dubious argument to support birth control. If it was taken seriously, it was perceived to be a false issue, unsupported by the evidence. This position aimed to undercut support for conception control, especially in regard to maintaining the strength of ethnic groups. Many traditionally Orthodox countries (e.g., Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia) were experiencing a reduced birth-rate, which was often perceived as putting them at a political and military disadvantage in relation to neighboring countries. Hence, their interest was in increasing rather than decreasing their populations.

The first important work of this period appeared in 1933: Seraphim G. Papakostas's To zetema tes teknogonias: To demographihon problema apo Christianikes apopseos (The question of the procreation of children: The demographic problem from a Christian viewpoint), which places birth control and population concerns within family ethics. The population issue appears under the rubric "The Arguments of the Supporters [of birth control]," where the author holds that arguments drawn from the threat of overpopulation, financial considerations, the improvement of conditions of life for both individual and nation, and other such positions are inadequate to justify the practice of birth control. After discussing the relationship between population and cultivated land, Papakostas concludes that "the means of support are increasing faster than the population" (p. 53). Numerous factors contribute to overpopulation, he argues, and all must be functioning in order for it to occur. His conclusion is that "the danger of overpopulation is non-existent" (p. 57).

In 1937 the Holy Synod of the Church of Greece, its highest governing body, issued an encyclical against the practice of birth control that reflected Papakostas's views. (Papakostas was very likely the author of the encyclical.) Although the document treats birth control almost without reference to the population issue, the encyclical does characterize birth control as an agent of "permanent harm to the Greek Nation because of the reduction of the population."

A similar treatment of the subject, written by the hegoumenos (abbot) of one of the monasteries of Athos, Gabriel Dionysiatou, was published in 1957. In this work, Malthousianismos: To englema tes genoktonias (Malthusianism: The crime of genocide), concern with overpopulation is believed to be unwarranted. The author, however, does not foresee the progress of technology and the resulting increase of agricultural productivity and distribution. The study is based on the view that the primary purpose of marriage is the procreation of children.

SECOND PERIOD: 1970 TO THE PRESENT. The second period of the treatment of the population issue, beginning in 1970, continues to deal with its relationship to birth control. A significant number of writers now feel that birth control is not the unmitigated evil described in the previous period. Most have adopted their view not because of population issues but through a rejection of Augustinian understandings of sin and "concupiscence" and a more Eastern patristic understanding of the purposes of marriage. While the Western patristic approach drew moral teaching primarily from natural law, the Eastern view was based on a Trinitarian approach that emphasized the interpersonal dimensions of marriage.

Of great importance is Alexander Stavropoulos's He ekklesia tes Hellados enanti tou problematos tes technogonias (The Church of Greece and the question of the procreation of children), published in 1977. Using textual analysis, Stavropoulos shows that both Papkostas's work and the encyclical of 1937 were based not on patristic sources but on Western prototypes. As a result of Stavropoulos's work, the encyclical ceased to be considered an authoritative text for Orthodox theological and ethical reflection. Efforts were made to include the issue of conception control in the themes of a forthcoming Great and Holy Council of the Orthodox church, but eventually it was dropped.

Some Orthodox writers treat the issue on the basis of theological grounds without reference to population concerns (Meyendorff; Constantelos, 1975; Zapheiris, 1974, 1991; Harakas, 1982). During this period a revival of patristic thought and method in theology, emphasizing the importance of the interpersonal dimensions of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, has been instrumental in changing the attitude toward ethical issues as well. These theological developments focus on the human dimensions of Orthodox Trinitarian theological perspectives, since the doctrine of the Holy Trinity as "three persons in unity" is seen as paradigmatic for human beings, in that the goal of human life is growth toward Godlikeness.

Several new treatments of birth control in relation to population issues have appeared in this period. The debate now focuses on the actual (or the mistakenly perceived) danger of overpopulation. In The Sacrament of Love, Paul Evdokimov (1985) makes explicit reference to the danger of overpopulation as an argument for the use of birth control.

Similarly, Nicon Patrinacos (1975) deals with ethnic demographic implications, placing the population issue in historical perspective. Explaining the traditional emphasis on the procreative dimension of marriage, he notes: "As with all societies and nations of [the Byzantine] era, numbers were extremely important to the survival of the country and nation" (p. 3). He comments that many factors explain Orthodox emphasis on population increase: high infant mortality; population depletion resulting from frequent wars; and lack of adequate sanitary conditions, medical care, and food. Unlike the writers of the pre-1970 period, Patrinacos is convinced of the reality and dangers of the population explosion. Rather than discounting it, he takes it as one of the chief elements of his moral reasoning. He condemns as evasive and morally irresponsible those positions that ignore the issues created by overpopulation. He is convinced that "unlimited reproduction of our own kind has reached the point of impoverishing rather than enriching humanity" (p. 46).

Patrinacos holds that the command God gave to Adam and Eve to multiply and populate the Earth has been realized. The church must now provide new guidance: "Birth control is, in more than half of today's world, as important and as urgent as feeding the millions of starving. More births would mean more hunger, more pain, more deaths" (p. 48).

The revival of the patristic mind-set in Orthodox theology, with its emphasis on both divine and human relationality, makes untenable the older argument that the only or primary purpose of marriage is procreation. The theology of marriage has come to focus on the interpersonal unity and relationship of spouses. Studies by Megas Farantos (1983), Paul Evdokimov (1985), Haralambos Hatzopoulos(1990), Chrysostom Zapheiris (1991), W. Basil Zion (1992), and Stanley Harakas (1992), among others, reject the previous approach as not reflective of authentic Eastern Orthodox perspectives, and approve conception control within marriage. Some of these writers connect conception control to population issues.

Nicholas Bougatsos's 1994 work, He rhythmise tes teknogonias: Orthodoxos kai Hellenike apopse (The regulation of childbearing: Orthodox and Hellenic view), discounts the issue of overpopulation for Greece and Europe in general (it does not deal with population issues in the Third World). Nevertheless, Bougatsos argues that for theological reasons, different approaches to the issue of conception control are ethically possible. These may include the practice of birth control by spouses for a number of reasons, among them the enhancement of interpersonal relations and growth in the unity of Christian marriage.

A Population Agenda for Orthodox Christian Ethics

The crucial differences between the earlier and later aspects of this discussion are traceable both to theological outlooks and to concern with issues of population. The foundations now exist for the development of an Orthodox population ethic, which might include a number of elements.

THEOLOGICAL APPROPRIATENESS OF POPULATION CONCERNS. It is true that "the Fathers of the Church were … uninterested in the economic implications of population growth … and early Christian writers can, indeed, hardly be considered to have had a population policy" (Callahan, p.187). However, contemporary Orthodox ethics is concerned with population as both an imperative of present existential realities and a demand of the implications of the faith. Orthodox ethics cannot ignore the implications of the fact that there has been an enormous increase in the rate of world population growth, especially in the Third World. It cannot limit its teachings on conception control to the geographical areas where its members reside. Humanity must "maintain some balance between [its] numbers and the finite dimensions of this planet" (Freedman, p. 18).

THEOLOGY OF HUMAN DOMINION OVER THE EARTH. Theological anthropology has ecological and population implications. Traditionally, political implications have been discerned in humanity's creation in the image of God by finding parallels between the kingship of God and that of political leaders. The same doctrine requires human responsibility for creation, including ecological and population dimensions. Further, the dominion of humanity over the environment is an appropriate aspect of the Orthodox doctrine of divine providence in conjunction with the doctrine of "synergy," which calls for the cooperation of the human with the divine. Orthodox ethicists (e.g., Demetropoulos) have expressed some renewed interest in this approach.

ETHICAL DOCTRINE OF PHILANTHROPY. One of the chief theological and ethical categories of Eastern Christianity is philanthropia, a concept that transcends mere charity and includes the heartfelt identification of God, the church, and the individual Christian with all of humanity. Philanthropia, long a fruitful concept for Eastern Orthodox thought and life (Constantelos, 1968), has implications for population issues.

FERTILITY GUIDELINES. Orthodox personal ethics and the ethics of marriage and family have not adequately elucidated the implications of population realities. Both church leaders and scholars tend to leave such issues to "private conscience" or the "guidance of father confessors," although public teaching on the matter is now more widespread than it was earlier (Harakas, 1982; Meyendorff).

JUSTICE AND DISTRIBUTION POLICIES. The Orthodox churches tend to focus on national cultures and heritages. This is a result of their strong "incarnational" emphasis, based on the theological teaching in regard to the second person of the Holy Trinity, the Son, who took on full human nature and lived on Earth. The divine, as fully present in the created human reality of the one person Jesus Christ, becomes a model for all creation and relationships. Sacraments, icons, and church architecture are religious examples of this modeling in that in and through them the divine is made significant. Relationships, both formal and informal, are also imbued with the divine. Among these, marriage and marital relationships are thus understood incarnationally.

Global perspectives focusing on structural injustices, especially as they relate to population concerns, are equally incarnational concerns. The Orthodox Christian conscience has always had a universal dimension. Orthodox anthropology does not permit the view that equitable food distribution policies are utopian, nor that population concerns are limited to a single nation or region (Patrinacos).

AN ECUMENICAL APPROACH. Concern for population problems must be a shared endeavor. This may come closest to the original intent of Orthodox involvement in the ecumenical movement, the original justification of which was based on interchurch cooperation toward the solution of social problems. The ecumenical approach, however, must go beyond church cooperation and include collaboration with local and international agencies concerned with hunger and population problems.

POLICY AND PRACTICE. The recent direction in Orthodox thought has been to become more deeply involved in social issues. If this increased social involvement is to be put into practice seriously, Orthodox leaders will seek practical policy changes. For example, if birth control is to be considered by the Orthodox to be "one of the more effective means by which a balancing between eaters and food to be eaten, consumers and goods, and services and labor" can occur (Patrinacos, p. 48), this implies a commitment to a positive emphasis on conception control, coupled with sex education founded on a deeply considered theology of marriage. In addition, the Orthodox church must develop acceptable practices to influence national and international policymaking, legislation, corporate decision making, and public opinion. Serious concern with population issues necessarily requires what has been called "eco-tactics" (De Bell)—what used to be called in Orthodox history "whispering in the ear of the Emperor in the name of Christ."

In conclusion, both the imperatives and the potentials for involvement by the Orthodox church in population concerns are found within its tradition.

stanley s. harakas (1995)

SEE ALSO: Abortion; Adoption; Christianity, Bioethics in; Coercion; Eastern Orthodox Christianity, Bioethics in; Embryo and Fetus: Religious Perspectives; Eugenics and Religious Law; Feminism; Fertility Control; Freedom and Free Will; Genetic Testing and Screening; Harm; Infanticide; Informed Consent; Justice; Life; Natural Law; Race and Racism; Rights, Human; Sexism;Women, Historical and Cross-Cultural Perspectives; and other Population Ethics subentries


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