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Orthodox Social Teaching

Personal and National Health

X. 1. The difference between the sexes is a special gift of the Creator to human beings He created. “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he man; male and female created he them” (Gen. 1:27). As equal bearers of the divine image and human dignity, man and woman are created to be completely united in love: “Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh” (Gen. 2:24). Fulfilling the Lord’s original will for the creation, the marital union becomes a means of continuing and multiplying the human race: “And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it” (Gen. 1:28). The sexual distinctions are not limited to the difference in constitution. Man and woman are two different modes of existence in one humanity. They need communication and complementation. However, in the fallen world, relationships between the sexes can be perverted, ceasing to be an expression of God-given love and degenerating into the sinful passion of the fallen man for his ego.

While appreciating deeply the feat of voluntary virginal celibacy assumed for the sake of Christ and the Gospel and recognising the special role of monasticism in the past and the present, the Church has never disparaged marriage, but denounced those who abased matrimonial relations out of wrongly understood purity.

St. Paul, who personally chose celibacy and called people to emulate him in it (1 Cor. 7:8), still denounces those who speak “lies in hypocrisy; having their conscience seared with a hot iron; forbidding to marry” (1 Tim. 4:2-3). Apostolic Canon 51 reads: “If any one abstains from marriage not by way of religious restraint, but as abhorring them, forgetting that God made all things very good, and that he made man male and female, and blaspheming the work of creation, let him be corrected, or else be deposed, and cast out of the Church”. This rule is developed in Canons 1, 9 and 10 of the Council of Gangra: “If any one shall condemn marriage, or abominate and condemn a woman who is a believer and devout, and sleeps with her own husband, as though she could not enter the Kingdom [of heaven], let him be anathema. If any one shall remain virgin, or observe continence, abstaining from marriage because he abhors it, and not on account of the beauty and holiness of virginity itself, let him be anathema. If any one of those who are living a virgin life for the Lord’s sake shall treat arrogantly the married, let him be anathema”. Referring to these Canons, the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church in its decision of December 28, 1998, pointed to “the inadmissibility of the negative or arrogant attitude to marriage”.

X. 2. According to the Roman law, which was put in the basis of the civil codes in most of the contemporary states, marriage is an agreement between two parties free in their choice. The Church has accepted this definition, interpreting it on the basis of testimonies found in Holy Scriptures.

The Roman jurist Modestinus gave this definition to marriage: “Marriage is the union of man and woman, communion of life, participation together in the divine and human law”. Almost unchanged, this definition was included in the canonical books of the Orthodox Church, such as the Nomocanon by Patriarch Photius (9th century), the Syntagma by Matthew Vlastar (14th century) and the Procheron by Basil the Macedonian (9th century) included in the Slavonic Kormchaya Kniga. The early Christian fathers and teachers of the Church also leaned on the Roman idea of marriage. Thus, Athenagoras in his Apology addressed to Emperor Marcus Aurelius (2nd century) writes: “Every one of us considers the woman he married by law to be his wife”. The Apostolic Constitutions, a monument of the 4th century, exhorts Christians to “to contract marriage by law”.

Christianity replenished the heathen and Old Testament ideas of marriage with the sublime union of Christ and the Church: “Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the Church: and he is the saviour of the body. Therefore, as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their husbands in every thing. Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the Church, and gave himself for it; that he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word, that he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing: but that it should be holy and without blemish. So ought men to love their wives as their own bodies. He that loveth his wife loveth himself. For no man ever yet hated his own flesh; but nourisheth and cherisheth it, even as the Lord the church: for we are members of his body, of his flesh, and of his bones. For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall be joined unto his wife, and they two shall be one flesh. This is a great mystery: but I speak concerning Christ and the church. Nevertheless let every one of you in particular so love his wife even as himself; and the wife see that she reverence her husband” (Eph. 5:22-33).

For Christians, marriage has become not simply a legal contract, a means of reproduction and satisfaction of temporal natural needs, but, according to St. John Chrysostom, “a mystery of love”, an eternal union of spouses in Christ. From the beginning, Christians sealed marriage through the Church’s blessing and sharing in the Eucharist, which was the oldest form of the administration of the Sacrament of Matrimony.

“Those who marry should ally themselves with the consent of a bishop, so that the marriage might be in the Lord, not for lust”, wrote the Protomartyr Ignatius the God-Bearer. According to Tertullian, marriage “sealed by the Church and confirmed by sacrifice (the Eucharist) is stamped by blessing and recorded by the angels in heaven”. St. John Chrysostom said, “Priests should be urged to confirm spouses in common life by prayers and blessings, so that spouses may lead their life in joy, united by God’s help”. St. Ambrose of Milan pointed out that “marriage should be sanctified by the priestly intercession and blessing”.

In the period of the Christianisation of the Roman Empire, marriage continued to be validated by civil registration. Consecrating matrimonial unions by prayer and blessing, the Church still recognised a common-law marriage as valid in cases where the church marriage was impossible and did not subject the spouses thus married to canonical prohibitions. Today the Russian Orthodox Church upholds the same practice. In doing so, she cannot approve and bless the matrimonial unions which, while being concluded in accordance with the existing law, violate the canonical prescriptions, such as a fourth and subsequent marriages, marriages in the inadmissible degrees of blood or spiritual affinity.

According to the 74th Novella of Justinian (538), a lawful marriage could be sealed by either an ecdicus (a church notary) or a priest. This rule was included in the eclogue of Emperor Leo III and his son Constantine (740), and in the legislation of Basil I (879). Mutual agreement between man and woman, confirmed before witnesses, was an important condition of marriage. The Church did not protest against this practice. Only in 893, by Novella 89 of Emperor Leo VI, free citizens were obliged to marry in church. In 1095, Emperor Alexis Comninus extended this rule to slaves. The introduction of obligatory church marriage (9th-11th centuries) meant that the authority transferred the entire legal regulation of matrimonial relations to the jurisdiction of the Church. However, the universal introduction of this practice should not be seen as the institution of the Sacrament of Matrimony, which had existed in the Church from times immemorial.

The order established in Byzantium was also assimilated in Russia with regard to the people of Orthodox confession. By the Decree on the Separation of the Church from the State (1918), church marriage was rendered invalid; formally the faithful were given the right to accept a church blessing after registering a marriage with state. In fact, throughout the long period of the persecution of religion by the state, the celebration of marriage in church remained difficult and dangerous.

On December 28, 1998, the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church regretted to state that “some spiritual fathers tend to declar common-law marriage invalid or demand that spouses, who have lived together for many years but were not married in church for this or that reason, should divorce Some spiritual fathers do not allow persons who live in “unwed” marriage to communicate, identifying such a marriage with fornication”. The decision adopted by the Synod points out that “while insisting on the necessity of church marriage, the Synod reminds pastors that the Orthodox Church also respects common-law marriage”.

The common faith of spouses who are members of the body of Christ is an essential condition for truly Christian and church marriage. It is only the family that has one faith that can become “the church in the house” (Rom. 16:5; Phil. 1:2), in which husband and wife together with their children grow in spiritual perfection and knowledge of God. The lack of like-mindedness presents a serious threat to the integrity of a matrimonial union. That is why the Church considers it her duty to urge the faithful to marry “only in the Lord” (1 Cor. 7:39), that to marry only those who share their Christian convictions.

The above-mentioned resolution of the Holy Synod also speaks of the Church’s respect for “the marriage in which only one of the parties belongs to the Orthodox faith. For, according to St. Paul, “the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband” (1 Cor. 7:14)”. The fathers of the Council in Trullo also referred to this scriptural text when recognised as valid the union between those who “up to this time being unbelievers and not yet numbered in the flock of the orthodox have contracted lawful marriage”, if later one of the spouses embraced the faith. In the same canon, however, just as in other canonical decrees (IV Ecum. Council 14; Laodic. 10, 31), and works of early Christian authors and church fathers (Tertullian, St. Cyprian of Carthage, St. Theodoret and St. Augustine), it is prohibited to contract marriages with followers of other religious traditions.

In accordance with ancient canonical prescriptions, today, too, the Church does not sanctifies marriages contracted between the Orthodox and non-Christians, while recognising them as lawful and not regarding those who live in such a marriage as living in sinful co-habitation. Proceeding from considerations of pastoral oikonomia, the Russian Orthodox Church has deemed it possible, both in the past and present, to celebrate marriages between Orthodox Christians and Catholics, members of the Oriental Churches and Protestants who confess the faith in the Triune God, provided the marriage is blessed in the Orthodox Church and the children are raised in the Orthodox faith. Most of the Orthodox Churches have followed the same practice for the past centuries.

By its decree of June 23, 1721, the Sacred Synod permitted to celebrate marriages on the above-mentioned conditions between Swedish captives held in Siberia and Orthodox brides. On August 18 of the same year, this Synodal decision was give a thorough biblical and theological substantiation in a special Synodal Letter. This Letter was also used as reference subsequently when the Holy Synod had to make a decision on mixed marriages in provinces annexed from Poland and Finland (the Holy Synod Decrees of 1803 and 1811). In these provinces, however, it was permitted to choose freely the confessional affiliation of children (this practice was applied for some time in the Baltic provinces as well). Finally, the rules concerning mixed marriages for the whole Russian Empire were sealed in the Statute of the Religious Consistories (1883). Many dynastic marriages were mixed, and for their celebration it was not required of the non-Orthodox party to embrace Orthodoxy (with the exception of the marriage of an heir to the Russian throne). Thus, the Protomartyr Grand Duchess Elizabeth, a member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, was married to Prince Sergiy Alexandrovich and only later embraced Orthodox by her own will.

X. 3. The Church insists that spouses should remain faithful for life and that Orthodox marriage is indissoluble on the basis of the words of the Lord Jesus Christ: “What God hath joined together, let not man put asunder Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it for fornication, and shall marry another, commitieth adultery” (Mt. 19:6, 9). Divorce is denounced by the Church as sin, for it brings great spiritual suffering to spouses (at least to one of them), especially to children. Today’s situation in which a considerable number of marriages are dissolved, especially among young people, causes an extreme concern. This situation has become a real tragedy both for the individual and the people.

The Lord pointed to adultery as the only permissible ground for divorce, for it defiles the sanctity of marriage and breaks the bond of matrimonial faithfulness. In cases where spouses suffer from all kinds of conflict, the Church sees it as her pastoral task to use all the means appropriate for her, (such as exhortation, prayer, participation in the Sacraments) to safeguard the integrity of a marriage and to prevent divorce. The clergy are also called to talk to those who wish to marry, explaining to them the importance of the intended step.

Unfortunately, sometimes spouses prove unable to preserve the gift of grace they received in the Sacrament of Matrimony and to keep the unity of the family because of their sinful imperfection. In her desire to save the sinners, the Church gives them an opportunity to reform and is ready to re-admit them to the Sacraments after they make repentance.

The Byzantine laws, which were established by Christian emperors and met with no objection of the Church, admitted of various grounds for divorce. In the Russian Empire, the dissolution of lawful marriages was effected in the ecclesiastical court.

In 1918, in its Decision on the Grounds for the Dissolution of the Marriage Sanctified by the Church, the Local Council of the Russian Orthodox Church, recognised as valid, besides adultery and a new marriage of one of the party, such grounds as a spouse’s falling away from Orthodoxy, perversion, impotence which had set in before marriage or was self-inflicted, contraction of leper or syphilis, prolonged disappearance, conviction with disfranchisement, encroachment on the life or health of the spouse, love affair with a daughter in law, profiting from marriage, profiting by the spouse’s indecencies, incurable mental disease and malevolent abandonment of the spouse. At present, added to this list of the grounds for divorce are chronic alcoholism or drug-addiction and abortion without the husband’s consent.

For the spiritual education of those contracting a marriage and consolidation of marital bonds, the clergy are urged before celebrating a Marriage to explain in detail to the bridegroom and bride that a marital union concluded in church is indissoluble. They should emphasise that divorce as the last resort can be sought only if spouses committed actions defined by the Church as causes for divorce. Consent to the dissolution of a marriage cannot be given to satisfy a whim or to “confirm” a common-law divorce. However, if a divorce is an accomplished fact, especially when spouses live separately, the restoration of the family is considered impossible and a church divorce may be given if the pastor deigns to concede the request. The Church does not at all approve of a second marriage. Nevertheless, according to the canon law, after a legitimate church divorce, a second marriage is allowed to the innocent spouse. Those whose first marriage was dissolved through their own fault a second marriage is allowed only after repentance and penance imposed in accordance with the canons. According to the rules of St. Basil the Great, in exceptional cases where a third marriage is allowed, the duration of the penance shall be prolonged.

In its Decision of December 28, 1998, the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church denounced the actions of those spiritual fathers who “prohibit their spiritual children from contracting a second marriage on the grounds that second marriage is allegedly denounced by the Church and who prohibit married couples from divorce if their family life becomes impossible for this or that reason”. At the same time, the Holy Synod resolved that “pastors should be reminded that in her attitude to the second marriage the Orthodox Church is guided by the words of St. Paul: ‘Art thou bound unto a wife? Seek not to be loosed. Art thou loosed from a wife? Seek not a wife. But and if thou marry, thou hast not sinned; and if a virgin marry, she hath not sinned the wife is bound by the law as long as her husband liveth; but if her husband be dead, she is at liberty to be married to whom she will; only in the Lord’ (1 Cor. 7:27-28, 39)”.

X. 6. A special inner closeness between the family and the Church is evident already from the fact that in Holy Scriptures Christ describes Himself as a bridegroom (Mt. 9:15; 25:1-13; Lk. 12:35-36), while the Church is presented as His wife and bride (Eph. 5:24; Rev. 21:9). Similarly, St. Clement of Alexandria describes the family as a church and a house of God, while St. John Chrysostom calls the family “a lesser church”. “I shall also say”, writes the holy father, “that marriage is a mysterious transformation of the Church”. A man and a woman who love each other, united in marriage and aspiring for Christ form a domestic church. Children become fruits of their love and communion, and their birth and upbringing belong, according to the Orthodox teaching, to one of the most important goals of marriage.

“Lo, children are an heritage of the Lord: and the fruit of the womb is his reward”, exclaims the Psalmist (Ps. 127:3). St. Paul taught the saving nature of childbirth (1 Tim. 2:13). He also urged fathers: “Provoke not your children to wrath: but bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4). “Children are not an occasional acquirement; we are responsible for their salvation The negligence of children is the greatest of all sins as it leads to extreme impiety There is no excuse for us if our children are corrupt”, St. John Chrysostom exhorts. St. Ephrem the Syrian teaches: “Blessed are those who bring up their children in piety”. “A true father is not the one who has begotten children but the one who has brought them up and taught them well”, writes St. Tikhon Zadonsky. “Parents are responsible first of all for the upbringing of their children and cannot ascribe blame for their bad education to anyone but themselves”, preached the Holy Martyr Vladimir, Metropolitan of Kiev. “Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land”, reads the fifth commandment (Ex. 20:12). In the Old Testament, disrespect for parents is regarded as the greatest transgression (Ex. 21:15, 17; Prov. 20:20; 30:17). The New Testament teaches children to obey their parents with love: “Children, obey your parents in all things: for this is well pleasing unto the Lord” (Col. 3:20).

The family as a domestic church is a single organism whose members live and build their relations on the basis of the law of love. The experience of family relations teaches a person to overcome sinful egoism and lays the foundations for his sense of civil duty. It is in the family as a school of devotion that the right attitude to one’s neighbours and therefore to one’s people and society as a whole is formed. The living continuity of generations, beginning in family, is continued in the love of the forefathers and fatherland, in the feeling of participation in history. This is why it is so dangerous to distort the traditional parents-child relationship, which, unfortunately, have been in many ways endangered by the contemporary way of life. The diminished social significance of motherhood and fatherhood compared to the progress made by men and women in the professional field leads to the treatment of children as an unnecessary burden, contributing also to the development of alienation and antagonism between generations. The role of family in the formation of the personality is exceptional; no other social institution can replace it. The erosion of family relations inevitably entails the deformation of the normal development of children and leaves a long, and to a certain extent indelible trace in them for life.

Children who have parents who have abandoned them have become a lamentable disaster of society today. Thousands of abandoned children who fill orphanages and sometimes find themselves in streets point to a profound illness of society. Giving these children spiritual and material help and seeing to it that they are involved in religious and social life, the Church at the same time considers it one of her most important duties to raise parents’ awareness of their calling, which would exclude the tragedy of the abandoned child.

X. 5. In the pre-Christian world, it was common to think of woman as inferior to man. The Church of Christ has revealed the dignity and calling of woman in all its fullness, giving them solid religious grounds the ultimate of which is the veneration of the Most Holy Mother of God. According to Orthodox teaching, most favoured Mary, who was blessed among women (Lk. 1:21), showed the highest degree of moral purity, spiritual perfection and holiness to which humanity could raise and which surpasses the virtue of the angelic ranks. In Her face, motherhood is sanctified and the significance of the female principle is asserted. The mystery of the Incarnation is accomplished with the participation of the Mother of God, thus making Her a participant in the cause of the human salvation and re-birth. The Church deeply venerates the myrrh-bearing women and numerous communities of Christian women glorified by the feats of martyrdom, confession and righteousness. From the very beginning of the church community, woman has taken an active part in its building, liturgical life, mission, preaching, education and charity.

While appreciating the social role of women and welcoming their political, cultural and social equality with men, the Church opposes the tendency to diminish the role of woman as wife and mother. The fundamental equality of the sexes does not annihilate the natural distinction between them, nor does it imply the identity of their callings in family and society. In particular, the Church cannot misconstrue the words of St. Paul about the special responsibility of husband who is called to be “the head of the wife” who loves her as Christ loves His Church, and about the calling of the wife to obey the husband as the Church obeys Christ (Eph. 5:22-23; Col. 3:18). These words are not of course about the despotism of husband or the slavery of wife, but about supremacy in responsibility, care and love. It should not be forgotten either that all Christians are called to “submit themselves to one another in the fear of God” (Eph. 5:21). Therefore, “neither is the man without the woman, neither the woman without the man, in the Lord. For as the woman is of the man, even so is the man also by the woman; but all things of God” (1 Cor. 11:11-12).

Representatives of some social movements tend to diminish and sometimes even deny the importance of marriage and the institution of family, focusing primarily on the socially significant activities of women including those incompatible or little compatible with the woman’s nature (such as hard manual labour). Demands are often heard that men and women should be made artificially equal in every field of human activity. The Church, however, sees the calling of woman not in the mere emulation of man or competition with him, but in the development of all her God-given abilities, including those peculiar only to her nature. Without focusing on the distribution of social functions alone, Christian anthropology appropriates to woman a higher place than she is given in the contemporary irreligious beliefs. The desire to remove or minimise the natural differences in social field is alien to the church mind. Sexual, just as social and ethnic, distinctions do not obstruct the way to salvation given by Christ to all people. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). This soteriological assertion, however, does not imply an attempt to water down the human diversity artificially, nor should it be mechanically extended to any social relations.

X. 6. The virtue of chastity preached by the Church is the basis of the inner unity of the human personality, which should always be in the state of harmony between its mental and bodily powers. Fornication inevitably ruins the harmony and integrity of one’s life, damaging heavily one’s spiritual health. Libertinism dulls the spiritual vision and hardens the heart, making it incapable of true love. The happiness of full-blooded family life becomes unattainable for the fornicator. Sins against chastity also lead to negative social consequences. In the situation of a spiritual crisis of the human society, the mass media and the products of the so-called mass culture sometimes become instruments of moral corruption by praising sexual laxity, all kinds of sexual perversion and other sinful passions. Pornography, which is the exploitation of the sexual drive for commercial, political or ideological purposes, contributes to the suppression of the spiritual and moral principles, thus reducing man to an animal motivated by instinct alone.

The propaganda of vice is especially harmful for the still infirm souls of children and youth. Through books, films and other video products, as well as the mass media and some educational curricula, teenagers are often taught an idea of sexual relations extremely humiliating for the human dignity, since it gives no room to such notions as chastity, marital faithfulness and selfless love. Intimate relations between man and woman are not only exposed for show, offending the natural feeling of prudence, but also presented as an act of purely corporal gratification without any association with inner communion or any moral obligations. The Church urges the faithful to struggle, in co-operation with all morally healthy forces, against the propagation of this diabolical temptation, which, by destroying the family, undermines the foundations of society.

“Whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath commiteth adultery with her already in his heart”, the Lord Jesus Christ says in his Sermon on the Mount (Mt. 5:28). “When lust hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin: and sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death” St. James warns (Jam. 1:15). “Neither fornicators shall inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor. 9-10). These words can be fully applied to the consumers and even more so the manufacturers of pornographic production. The latter can also fall under these words of Christ: “Whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him, that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea Woe to that man by whom the offence cometh” (Mt. 18:6-7). “Fornication is poison mortifying the soul Whoever fornicates rejects Christ”, St. Tikhon Zadonsky wrote. St. Dimitry of Rostov wrote that “the body of each Christian is not his, but Christ’s, according to the words of Scripture: ‘Ye are the body of Christ, and members in particular’ (1 Cor. 12-27). And it does not behove you to defile the body of Christ by carnal and voluptuous actions, except lawful conjugality. For you are a house of Christ, according to the word of the Apostle: ‘for the temple of God is holy, which temple ye are’ (1 Cor. 3:17)”. The Early Church, in the writings of her fathers and doctors, such as Clement of Alexandria, St. Gregory of Nyssa and St. John Chrysostom, invariably renounced obscene drama scenes and presentations. Under the threat of excommunication, the 100th Canon of the Council in Trullo prohibits making “representations corrupting the mind and provoking inflammations of impure pleasures”.

The human body is a wondrous creation of God and is ordained to become the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6:19-20). Condemning pornography and fornication, the Church does not at all call to abhor the body or sexual intimacy as such. For the physical relations between man and woman are blessed by God in marriage in which they express chaste love, complete communion and the “harmony of the minds and bodies” of the spouses, for which the Church prays in the celebration of wedding. What actually should be denounced is the tendency to turn these chaste and appropriate relations as God has designed them and the human body itself into an object of humiliating exploitation and trade to derive egoistic, impersonal, loveless and perverted pleasure. For this reason, the Church invariably denounces prostitution and the preaching of the so-called free love in which physical intimacy is completely divorced from personal and spiritual communion, selflessness and all-round responsibility for each other, which are possible only in the lifetime conjugal faithfulness.

Aware of the need for the school, along with the family, to give children and adolescents the knowledge of sexuality and the physical human nature, the Church cannot support those programs of “sexual education” in which premarital intercourse and, all the more so, various perversions are recognised as the norm. It is absolutely unacceptable to impose such programs upon schoolchildren. School is called to oppose vice which erodes the integrity of the personality, to educate children for chastity and prepare them for creating solid families based on faithfulness and purity.

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