By: Fr Jonathan Cholcher, Rector of St. John the Baptist Orthodox Church in Warren, OH.
The topic of ministering to unwed mothers and their children assumes that the Church will deal with this situation if and when it arises. Such ministering presents an opportunity not only for correction of a wrong, but especially for re-direction in what is right: for the mother, for the child, and also for the father of the child, their families, and the entire Church community.
The first thing to relate to this situation is the positive teaching of the Church concerning sexual purity and childbearing. Marriage is honorable among all, and the bed undefiled; but fornicators and adulterers God will judge (Heb. 13:4). Sexual contact and sexual intercourse are the prerogatives of married couples by God’s design (Matt. 19:4-6; 1 Cor. 7:1-9). Similarly, children are to be conceived and born within God’s blessing of marriage, the foundation of the godly family and Church (Eph. 5:21-6:4; 1 Tim. 2:15). This positive teaching needs to be reiterated unapologetically at the Divine Liturgy, in Sunday Schools, in conversations between Priest and parishioners, and – crucially – in family discussions in their homes. Sexual purity and godly childbearing are goals to be attained by the faithful and recovered if lost or discarded.
Pregnancy out of wedlock means that this design of God has been broken. This must be recognized that a wrong has taken place. Not only have two people engaged in sex outside of marriage (i.e., fornication), but this immorality cannot be hidden because another person has resulted who subsequently must be nurtured in conjunction with the ongoing plans of both mother and father (abortion is not an option).
Here the presence of the child is actually advantageous from a moral and spiritual viewpoint. Whatever the circumstances of the pregnancy, this child is created by God and intended for His eternal kingdom, that is, to be brought for Baptism and new life in the Church. Acceptance of this truth compels the decisions of the mother and father of the child to take a certain trajectory of repentance, faith, and godly living, whether they eventually get married or not. In our age of casual sex, disdain of marriage, and easy co-habitation, the realities of God’s design may seem like truths too hard to practice. However, when it comes to the life of an innocent and helpless child, these choices become very clear: either be reconciled to God in communion with the Church or not, either raise the child in the Faith or not.
The guiding principles when ministering to unwed mothers and their children are expressed best by our Lord when confronted with the woman caught in adultery. On the one hand, there should be no rush to condemnation of the mother: “He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first” (Jn. 8:7). A wrong has been committed. The situation can be rectified without shaming, shunning, and eliminating the person. Rather, embrace the person in mercy for salvation. On the other hand, honesty of salvation requires genuine repentance: And Jesus said to her, “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more” (Jn. 8:11). Life and living conditions are to go forward healing the wounds in the re-establishment of God’s design opposite the perpetuation of sinful behaviors.
The circumstances of the pregnancy call for pastoral discretion and wisdom going forward. I recently learned of the Baptism of a child in our parish born almost 90 years ago to his 13 year-old unwed mother who had been raped by a man almost 10 years her senior. These circumstances are very different than a careless teenager getting pregnant after an evening of drugs, alcohol, and casual sex; or, a woman purposely getting pregnant with her live-in boyfriend just because she wants a child with no regard for being married. The moral and spiritual circumstances pertaining to the unwed mother can range from innocent victim, to ignorance, neglect, and recklessness, to willful disobedience.
“Speaking the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15) requires addressing any and all of these situations with the commensurate compassion, strictness, and/or leniency of grace. Normally, the unwed mother (and father, if Orthodox) is suspended temporarily from Holy Communion upon discovery of immorality (unless an innocent victim as in the case of rape above), permanently if living together until time of separation or marriage (see St. Basil the Great to Amphilochius [Letters 199 and 217], Canons 26 and 59; Canonical Epistle of St. Gregory of Nyssa, Canon 4). The situation is dealt with in Confession and by demonstration of repentance, the mother maintaining chastity, self-control, and care of her child with the consistent material and spiritual support of her family and entire Church community.
In our age of individualized private morality with its encouragement of sexual experimentation and fragmentation of the family based on Christian marriage, the need is greater than ever for the truthful support of both family and Church community in ministering to unwed mothers and their children. The Priest often appears alone insisting on standards of sexual purity which the people under his care are increasingly tempted to dismiss as outdated, too strict, or arbitrary rules of his own opinion. By definition, though, unwed mothers and their children are public issues involving the entire Church of which the Priest is the leader emulating the Good Shepherd of the flock. By striving to practice the life of Christ in righteousness, courage, maturity, and perseverance, the Church family becomes the organic model of eventual renewal for all of its members who wish to learn and grow in forgiveness and love.