The Sanctity of Human Life
A major and overarching concern of the Church arises with its commitment to the God-given sanctity of human life. Some of the developments of the biological manipulation of human life, though promising amazing therapeutic achievements, may also be understood as undermining respect for the integrity of human existence. Others may be seen as providing a new means of healing human illness. Discerning the difference is the challenge the Church faces in developing it’s teaching on these newly appearing issues.
The Church’s teaching about human life is based on Holy Tradition, including the Scriptures as a primary resource and the ongoing teaching and interpretation of the Orthodox Faith. Life is a gift of God in the formation of the created world. All life is precious, but human life is uniquely created by God in the “image and likeness of God.” Human life as such is deserving of deep respect and individual human beings are to be treated in accordance to their inherent human dignity.
Thus, racism, unjust prejudicial treatment of men and women, genocide, forms of sexual exploitation, domestic violence, child abuse, rape, theft or destruction of legitimately owned property, deceptions and deceit, environmental plunder and other such manipulative behaviors violate the human dignity of others. Human life as a gift of God should be respected. Some specific issues are the following.
It is known that Jews and Moslems practice circumcision for religious reasons. Some doctors deem circumcision necessary for reasons of health and cleanliness. The Orthodox Church does not prohibit circumcision as long as it is not practiced for religious reasons and is performed by a physician.
Since no one is permitted to take the life of another, no one is permitted to take his or her own life, that is, to commit suicide. Suicide is self-murder and consequently a grave sin.
Committing suicide signifies loss of patience, hope, and faith in our loving, forgiving, and sustaining God. A person of faith does not lose hope, no matter the difficulties he or she faces. If a person has committed suicide as a result of a belief that: such an action is rationally or ethically defensible, the Orthodox Church denies that person a Church funeral, because such beliefs and actions separate a person from the community of faith. The Church shows compassion, however, on those who have taken their own life as a result of mental illness or severe emotional stress, when a condition or impaired rationality can be verified by a physician.
When the causes of illness have not been diagnosed before a person’s death, doctors with the permission of the next of kin, may perform an autopsy. Often an autopsy leads to enlightening observations. Because of this the Orthodox Church does not prohibit autopsies, although a body may not be given strictly for medical research or experimentation. Because the human body is the Temple of the Holy Spirit, the Orthodox Church insists that those who perform the autopsies accord the utmost respect to the body.
Various Christian groups, instead of burial, prefer the cremation of the dead, which was customary among many ancient peoples. The Orthodox Church, however, mindful of the fact that the human body is the Temple of the Holy Spirit, and inspired by the affection toward her departed children, refuses to deliberately destroy the body, and has adopted the burial of the dead, in imitation of our Lord Jesus Christ Himself as it appears in the Catacombs, and in the graves of the Martyrs and Saints. Cremation, therefore, is contrary to the faith and tradition of our Church and is forbidden to Orthodox Christians. The Church instead insists that the body be buried so that the natural physical process of decomposition may take place. The Church does not grant funerals, either in the sanctuary or at the funeral home, or at any other place, to persons who have chosen to be cremated. Additionally, memorial services with Kolyva (boiled wheat) are not allowed in such instances, inasmuch as the similarity between the “kernel of wheat” and the “body” has been intentionally destroyed.
The Church from the very beginning of existence has sought to protect “the life in the womb” and has considered abortion as a form of murder in its theology and canons. Orthodox Christians are admonished not to encourage women to have abortions, nor assist in the committing of abortion. Those who perform abortions and those who have sought it are doing an immoral deed, and are called to repentance thru the sacrament of confession with the parish priest or spiritual father.
Donation of Organs
“No greater love has a person than he lay down his life for a friend.” The Orthodox Church encourages Orthodox Christians to donate their organs. The organ(s) donated gives life to a fellow human being and provides more time on earth for repentance. Even in death, we can ease the pain of some and grant life to others. Again, it is important to note that organs be donated for therapeutic purposes to those requiring healing and not for otherwise experimental reasons. Organ transplants should never be commercialized nor coerced nor take place without proper consent, nor place in jeopardy the identity of the donor or recipient, such as the use of animal organs. Nor should the death of the donor be hastened in order to harvest organs for transplantation to another person. In all cases, respect for the body of the donor should be maintained.
The Orthodox Church recognizes marriage as the only moral and spiritually appropriate context for sexual relations. Thus, all other forms of sexual activity such as fornication, adultery, homosexuality, lesbianism, pornography, all forms of prostitution, and similar forms of behavior are sins that are inappropriate for the Orthodox Christian. Marriage is only conducted and recognized in the Orthodox Church as taking place between a man and a woman. Same-sex marriages are a contradiction in terms. The Orthodox Church with the Holy Scriptures does not allow for same-sex marriages.