By John Sanidopoulos
In early 2014 there circulated on various Greek websites an alleged recording of Elder Joseph of Vatopaidi (+ July 1, 2009), which scandalized many because he seems to support abortions of the fetus in the first trimester. Soon after the fathers of Vatopaidi Monastery issued a response to these accusations, saying that such teachings were never heard by them coming from Elder Joseph, and that in fact he spoke against abortion, supporting the possibility that the recording may be a fake. Thinking at the time that this response was sufficient, I translated and published it and put the issue to rest.
However, not long ago it came to my attention that this is an issue some Orthodox Christians are still scandalized by, so I decided to look into the matter further to give a proper evaluation. Back in 2014 I had never heard the recording myself, so now I listened to it and my own personal opinion as far as the recording goes is that it is indeed authentic and it is indeed a recording of Elder Joseph speaking with a certain pilgrim. In fact, the one who recorded it was a pilgrim from Cyprus, who did not appreciate being accused by the fathers of Vatopaidi Monastery for accusing him of faking the recording, so he issued a statement explaining how a group of pilgrims went to Mount Athos from Limassol, Cyprus (perhaps with Metropolitan Athanasios of Limassol) on 29 May 1998, and explained exactly how the conversation took place, and submitted his address for further inquiries. However, I also found that it has been misinterpreted by those who have been scandalized by his words. Here is a translation of the transcript from what could be made out clearly, though it is very laid back and conversational in tone:
Question of Pilgrim: "Regarding abortion, will the children who were aborted be of [mature] age?"
Response of Elder Joseph: Listen, if they have a soul, here is the difference. It is one thing to live and another to have a soul. As eggs and as.... It is one thing to live and another thing to have a soul. The Church has not spoken on this, but keeps the tradition of the Old Testament.
If it has taken on the image of God, at around the third month, at which time it takes form, and as I said before, prior to the man's sperm uniting with the woman, it lives from that moment. It is one thing to live and another thing to have a soul.
According to the Old Testament of Scripture, the taking on of the soul happens after it becomes the image of God, when it takes form. Do you understand?...
It takes place in the third month. That's when the heart operates, it beats, and the ... operates, that is, the brain has acquired personality. If it survives from that moment, it is alive. Beyond that, however, it is not certain, it does not have vision. This is what Scripture shows us. I don't know....
Now the priests protest, oh if you only heard what the priests say! And there is someone at Stavrovouni, ha ha ha, they speak dogmatically, ha ha ha, hey, it is done, it is murder, from God ... ha ha ha." (Source)
This is the controversial conversation, which many have interpreted as Elder Joseph supporting abortion within at least the first trimester. However, he never says this. The Old Testament passage he is referring to comes from the Septuagint version of Exodus 21:22, where it makes a distinction between the "formed" and "unformed" fetus (we might say, between the fetus and the embryo). Though it never gives a time period for this distinction, as the Elder does with three months, he does base his opinion on a valid scriptural precedent. This distinction is made in this passage to show that if a pregnant woman is accidentally struck and the child in the womb dies while it is yet unformed, then the one who accidentally killed the child in the womb would receive a lesser penalty than one who accidentally killed a child in the womb when the child has been formed (this was considered murder). There has long been controversy over this passage since ancient times, causing many to wonder if this could also be applied with abortion. But just as this passage is not about abortion, where the child is killed deliberately in the womb, so also are not Elder Joseph's remarks. The only thing he is pointing out is that there is biblical precedent for whether or not abortion in the first trimester can be considered murder, since the child is unformed. Just because he seems to disagree with the interpretation of the monks at Stavrovouni Monastery that abortion in the first trimester should be protested as murder, it does not mean he supported abortion, he just disagreed how the crime should be labeled if it is done in the first trimester. (See here, here, here and here for various interpretations of this text).
Obviously, no matter how this conversation is interpreted, it is controversial, and many will disagree with the Elder. One thing we know is that even though Jewish commentators have struggled with this passage, the representatives of the Church since the earliest of times spoke strongly against abortion. And this passage of Scripture is specifically referred to in the interpretation of Canon 2 of Basil the Great, which clarifies the Christian position as opposed to the Jewish position. We read:
Canon 2 of Saint Basil the Great
A woman that aborts deliberately is liable to trial as a murderess. This is not a precise assertion of some figurative and inexpressible conception that passes current among us. For here there is involved the question of providing justice for the infant to be born, but also for the woman who has plotted against her own self. For in most cases the women die in the course of such operations. But besides this there is to be noted the fact that the destruction of the embryo constitutes another murder, at least in the opinion of those who dare to do these things. It behooves us, however, not to extend their confession to the extreme limit of death, but to admit them at the end of the moderate period of ten years, without specifying a definite time, but adjusting the cure to the manner of repentance.
The present Canon decrees that any woman who deliberately puts to death the child wherewith she is pregnant, by means of herbs or poisonous drugs, or by lifting weights too heavy for her, or in any other ways, is a murderess. With us there is no difference as there used to be with the Jews. If, say, the child which the woman expels dead is still unformed, like a piece of meat, or is formed as a fetus having the features and members of a human being all entire, since in this manner not only does the embryo in the womb die, but most times also the woman pregnant with it also dies along with the embryo, so that those who do this are sentenced as murderers for the two murders, whether they be men or women. They are not sentenced, however, to abstain from the Mysteries throughout life, but for humaneness to only ten years, in accordance with the sentence, that is to say, which is imposed upon those who have killed anybody involuntarily (in accordance with Canon LVII of the said Basil); nevertheless, the repentance of such persons ought not to be restricted to a number of years, but ought to depend upon the manner of their repentance, so that if they repent more fervidly, the ten-year sentence may be reduced by the confessor, while if they are more negligent, it may be increased proportionately.
Commentary by Saint Nikodemos the Hagiorite
For in Chapter 21 of Exodus, Verse 22, it is written that if anyone should happen to strike a pregnant woman and cause her to miscarry, or to expel the embryo, in case the latter comes out unformed and imperfect, he is to pay as much money as the husband of the woman shall demand, seeing that it is not yet a perfect human being, and does not possess a rational soul, according to Theodoret and Theodore; but if it be formed and perfect, the one who killed it is to be put to death as a murderer of a perfect human being possessing both a perfect body and a rational soul.
But St. Basil the Great states that this observation is not in effect with us now as making one a murderer who kills an imperfect and unformed embryo, because this though not yet then a complete human being was nevertheless destined to be perfected in the future, according to the indispensable sequence of the laws of nature.
With this in mind, we can assume that Elder Joseph either was ignorant of this Canon of Basil the Great and its interpretation, or he disagreed with it. Most likely the former. What we do know however is that there is no basis to think that Elder Joseph ever supported abortion, rather he had issues with whether or not it should be considered murder in the first trimester before the child is fully formed. Furthermore, this recording is only an excerpt and unclear as to what his entire position is. For this reason it should not be interpreted beyond what it says. It also shows that we should not consider these holy elders, who are indeed filled with spiritual wisdom that help unite us with God, to be infallible in their every opinion on issues that do not have to do with our own striving towards spiritual perfection. Those who understand this will never be scandalized by a disagreeable opinion of an elder or spiritual father, but will either accept it if it is based on good evidence, reject it if it contradicts clear teachings built on a better foundation, or remain open minded to opposing opinions if one is ignorant of the matter altogether.