Parsing the Archbishop’s Words

Abp. Elpidophoros, the controversial primate of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese, spoke and prayed at the March for Life in D.C. on January 21, 2022. His short comments reiterated the Church’s unequivocal dogma regarding the sacredness of human life. Given the setting, and given the moral Tradition of the Church, he could not have done otherwise. But one sentence from his comments stood out amongst the others. You might call it the proverbial “snake in the grass”. That is the innocent-sounding statement that appears to support the so-called right of expectant mothers to choose to snuff out the human life growing in their wombs. People today are pretty sensitive to remarks like it.

Let’s make an attempt to parse the venerable archbishop’s comments. (You can find them in their entirety under my own here.)

“We affirm the gift of sanctity of life – all life, born and unborn.” In the Bible we see the inverse etched in stone; i.e., the general commandment in Exodus 20 where God prohibits murder. Thou shalt not kill. If murder is forbidden by God, then surely life bears sanctity. It may sound like an extrapolation here, but Christ himself said, “Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me.” (Mt. 19:14) To paraphrase, our Lord is saying that we should allow children to have life and fellowship with God. Christ did not go on record regarding the specific issue of abortion.

The Church which is Christ’s body has always condemned the infanticide of abortion. Fr. John Peck has made a list of the concise statements of the early Church Fathers in this regard. Each of these sources, saints, and canons listed has clearly condemned abortion: Letter to Diognetus, Didache, Letter of Barnabas, St. Clement, St. Hippolytus, Tertullian, St. Cyprian, St. Basil, St. Augustine, St. Jerome, St. Ambrose, St. John Chrysostom, Canon XCI, Canon II, Canon XXI. So far in his comments, it would seem that Abp. Elpidophoros is performing the obvious duty of a bishop to guard the Faith handed down by his predecessors.

He goes on “…We confess that every human being is made in the image and likeness of God.” Some Orthodox Fathers go a step further and opine that we are surely made in God’s image, but that we must strive in our individual podvig to attain likeness unto him. Okay, let’s not wander too far into the weeds. Genesis 1:26 says, “Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness.” I’ll take that at face value.

Christ is the Son of God and the Son of Man. God incarnate. Some Western theologians have gone so far as to describe the crucifixion of Christ as deicide. At the moment of decision, the Jewish crowd eagerly exonerated Pontius Pilate by shouting, “Let his blood be upon us and upon our children.” (Mt. 27:25) You can’t help but shudder when you recall that their action seemed to invite the future antisemitic persecutions that pepper the history books.

If we apply this notion of deicide further, it’s worth considering that to take the life of a baby or an adult made so like unto God is to commit an act tantamount to deicide. If one kills a man, one is murdering a being created so much like God that he is perilously close to killing God himself. That is just my theological musing, but it makes me wonder. The Orthodox stance is that Christ’s human nature was indeed killed on Golgotha, but that his divinity remained intact. It was that divinity that raised his body to glorious resurrected life on the third day. Thanks be to God.

Let’s get back to the archbishop’s comments. “We are all responsible for the well-being of children. We are their “keepers,” and “cannot shirk from (sic) our accountability for their welfare.” That word “keepers” reminds one of the words of Cain when he inadvertently suggested that he was his brother’s keeper. Cain, let us remember, is Eve’s son.

And the Lord said unto Cain, Where is Abel thy brother? And he said, I know not: Am I my brother’s keeper? he said, What hast thou done? the voice of thy brother’s blood crieth unto me from the ground. And now art thou cursed from the earth, which hath opened her mouth to receive thy brother’s blood from thy hand;  When thou tillest the ground, it shall not henceforth yield unto thee her strength; a fugitive and a vagabond shalt thou be in the earth. (Gen. 4:9-12)

We can debate whether Cain was supposed to be Abel’s keeper, but he was certainly not supposed to murder him. Regardless, both of the brothers were adults, so their responsibility toward each other certainly didn’t rise to the level of a mother’s responsibility for her baby.

“Autonomy” comes from the root that means literally “self law”, or “having its own laws”. Oftentimes we hear that the Holy Theotokos and Virgin Mary answered in the affirmative when the Archangel Gabriel told her that she would conceive the Christ-child. “Behold thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and shalt bring forth a son; and thou shalt call his name Jesus.” (Luke 1:31) Frankly, when Gabriel says, “…thou shalt…and shalt…and thou shalt…” it sounds awfully much like fiat and very little like an offer. Basically Gabriel is telling Mary how things are going to go down. But Mary, being a devout young virgin given to prayer and full of grace, and in seamless alignment with the will of God, naturally responds with undoubting eagerness. “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it done to me according to thy word.” (Luke 1:38) Mary indicates her humble obedience to the God whom she adores with all her heart. There is no indication of a need for Mary to consider the offer and weigh her options. She does not hesitate. The conversation flows effortlessly from Gabriel’s pronouncement to Mary’s acceptance. It doesn’t seem to me to be a statement where Mary exerts her autonomy by answering in the affirmative, but rather more like a spontaneous release of her utter devotion.

The one archetypal woman that had had the sort of autonomy or “self law” that the archbishop may have been hinting at was Eve, Cain and Abel’s mother. The original woman. She was the one who listened to the siren call of the serpent in the garden, reasoned to herself, and partook of the fruit that was promised to make her like a god. Theosis in one bite! No need for the striving for holiness through penitence and askesis. With that one bite came the ancestral sin that became the proclivity of all flesh. However, Mary, the second Eve, overcame the curse brought on by the first Eve’s disobedience in her innocent response, “Be it done unto me according to thy word.” Cain could have benefitted from such humility and avoided the curse of wandering around like a homeless man.

The radical feminism that pursues unfettered autonomy for women has made a fatal mistake. In the 1970s they burned their bras and whined about the inconvenience of their own sexuality. They complained that they were trapped in a body that was too awkward to accept. They considered it a form of servitude to remain virgins until they married, and then to bear and raise children and keep a household. The sexual revolution unlocked the ancient chastity belt that used to prevent women from having unwarranted coitus and unwanted babies. “Recreational sex” became all the rage. The birth-control pill that came on the market in 1960 allowed “uninhibited” women to have sexual intercourse without the natural consequence of their actions. Droves of them pursued their dreams and became career women, often while married yet childless. Some of the barren ones came to themselves after menopause, but it was too late for them to have children, so they wept at the opportunity now and forever lost.

Contraceptives of The Pill’s caliber of effectiveness, and some other less-effective methods, didn’t prevent all pregnancies, of course. Untold millions of children have been conceived despite their parents’ prophylactics and too many of them have been subject to “dilation and extraction”. Women who claim an autonomy so thorough-going that they consider themselves to be the arbiters of their baby’s fate while in the womb can turn themselves into quiet killers. And, their doctors and nurses into guilty accomplices. The “sperm donor” men who nervously coax their now-pregnant women to have an abortion exhibit a callous irresponsibility. They shirk or shrink from their duty as fathers and share in the execution of the heinous plot. It is not just the expectant mother who is drawn into sin.

Orthodox teachers often state that God has created us with free will. We have choices. For example, Joshua challenged the Israelites at Shechem, “Choose you this day whom ye will serve.” (Joshua 24:15) There are few things that should be of greater cause for fear and trepidation as that doctrine of free will since it carries with it such grave consequences if the moral choices we make are the wrong ones. People who have no knowledge of the Scriptures or Tradition easily succumb to gross immorality. Even those who have that knowledge are prone to succumb.

Skip ahead to the New Testament. The primitive Galatian parish seemed to be anxious to return to the bondage of the circumcision even though Christ had set them free from the observation of the Jewish ordinances. Our liberty as Christians is a fragile thing, indeed, and the Galatians seemed to prove it. The never-ending pandemic restrictions have reminded us of that, too. St. Paul exhorts us, “For, brethren, ye have been called unto liberty; only use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh, but by love serve one another. For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this; Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” (Galatians 5:13,14)

Certainly, a young pregnant woman can grasp at her autonomy to determine the fate of her child, but God help her if she makes the wrong choice! Is her baby not her closest neighbor? Flesh of her flesh and bone of her bone? Countless women have later rent their hearts in grief over the loss of their children at their own hands. That is a remorse that is never fully overcome, even once the sin is forgiven. The early Church’s penalty for committing the grave sin of abortion or infanticide was not the death penalty. Two wrongs don’t make a right. Canon XXI actually reduces the prior and stricter penance for the act of abortion to ten years of excommunication. A decade of separation from the life-giving body and blood of our Lord is still a long time. The archbishop was not wise to even utter the few words that, given the moral authority of his high office, merely suggested the freedom of a woman to choose such a fateful option – one that used to come with such an onerous penance.

“She freely chose to bring Him into the world, and God respected her freedom. ” What is the archbishop trying to say here? That Mary could have made the opposite choice to not allow the Holy Spirit to hover over her, and God would have respected that freedom, too, for the sake of her purported autonomy? Is he suggesting that either choice was available to Mary and either choice would have been as valid as the other? Might she have answered Gabriel and said, “Let me sleep on it. I’ll get back to you when I’ve made my decision.” Is that it? Is the archbishop implying that women’s autonomy derives from Mary’s free response and therefore they are free to choose to have an abortion? Will God respect that? The bishop is fudging. I wish he would clarify what he said and dispel all doubt.

The moral relativism that the archbishop’s words imply is certainly not in sync with the teachings of the Church. The choice that Mary made, if we insist that it was indeed a choice, she made while Gabriel was speaking in the future tense. The Holy Spirit would come upon her and she would conceive. Pregnant women, by contrast, are already with child, so the choice that the archbishop implies that they make after the fact of conception to exert their autonomy is not one that can be compared to the timing of Mary’s choice. The logic doesn’t pass muster. To sacrifice an unborn child on the altar of radical feminism is an abomination, and subtle arguments to make an impossible comparison between the Virgin Mary’s so-called choice with the choice of a woman who aborts the child in her womb is an insult to our intelligence. Worse, it smacks of blasphemy.

That begs the question: Is the archbishop truly Orthodox? Or is Abp. Elpidophoros so enthralled by the secular humanist agenda that he felt it necessary to use such a momentous occasion to betray the Faith and give a sup to the zeitgeist? This will sound sarcastic, but after witnessing the controversial actions that he took last year, we must admit that at least the archbishop has been consistent.

Dear Sisters and Brothers,

Today, we come together in solidarity with our Brother Bishops of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and of the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of the United States of America.

We affirm the gift and sanctity of life – all life, born and unborn. As Christians we confess that every human being is made in the image and likeness of God.  Every life is worthy of our prayer and our protection, whether in the womb, or in the world. We are all responsible for the well-being of children. We are their “keepers,” and cannot shirk from our accountability for their welfare.

At the same time, we also affirm our respect for the autonomy of women.  It is they who bring forth life into the world.  By His incarnation, our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ assumed human nature, through His conception in the womb of the Virgin Mary. She freely chose to bring Him into the world, and God respected her freedom. We can and must make the case for life, both born and unborn, by our own example of unconditional love.

We march not for coercion.

We march with compassion,

With empathy,

With love.

And with our arms extended to embrace all.

Let us pray to the Lord. Lord, have mercy.

Lord, You have granted us the opportunity to offer these common prayers in unison and have promised that when two or three gather in Your name, You are there also. Fulfill now, O Lord, who was conceived in the womb of the Virgin Mary by the power of Your All-Holy Spirit, the petitions of Your servants. Remember, Lord, the people here present and those who are absent with good cause. Have mercy on them and on us according to the multitude of Your mercy. Remember, O God, all those whom we are not able to commemorate by forgetfulness or because of their multitude since You know the name and age of each, even from their mother’s womb. For You, Lord, are the helper of the helpless, the hope of the hopeless, the savior of the afflicted, the haven of the voyager, and the physician of the sick, the protector of the voiceless. Be all things to all, You who know all people, their requests, their households, and their needs. For You are the Giver of Life, bringing each person from non-being into being, sealing each person with love and sanctity. May we come to the light of Your Truth and glorify You, the Giver of Life, together with Your Father, and Your All-Holy and Life-giving Spirit, now and ever and unto the ages of ages. Amen.
1/21/22

Author: Lawrence B. Wheeler

B.A., M.Div. Former Anglican priest, convert to Orthodoxy.

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