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Eastern Orthodoxy And End Of Life Care

The Theotokos of Vladimir, one of the most venerated of Orthodox Christian icons of the Virgin Mary. Courtesy WikiMedia Commons.
The Theotokos of Vladimir, one of the most venerated icons of the Virgin Mary. Courtesy WikiMedia Commons

The Orthodox Church views death as evil, symbolic of all forces opposing God-given life and its fulfillment.

The Church categorically rejects euthanasia and the belief that humans have the right to hasten their own death. Adherents see such behavior as a form of suicide on the part of the individual and a form of murder on the part of doctors who assist them (Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America).

However, the Church does not expect for excessive and heroic means to be used at all costs to prolong dying. As current Orthodox theology expresses it:

“The Church distinguishes between euthanasia and the withholding of extraordinary means to prolong life. It affirms the sanctity of human life and man’s God-given responsibility to preserve life. But it rejects an attitude which disregards the inevitability of physical death” (Archdiocese of America).

It should be the goal of both family and designated caregivers, according to the Orthodox Church in America, to ensure that the final days of a terminally ill person are spent reasonably free of anxiety, tranquil and aware. Integral to maintaining this type of condition is the administration of proper pain medications.


The Eastern Orthodox Church, also known as the Orthodox Catholic Church, is the second largest Christian church, with an estimated 250 million adherents. Most Orthodox Catholics live in Eastern Europe, the Caucuses and Russia.

The Orthodox Church identifies itself as the continuation of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, which adherents believe was established by Jesus Christ in his Great Commission to the apostles (Matthew 28). The word “Orthodox” takes its meaning from the Greek words “orthos” (right) and “doxa” (belief).

The Church traces its history to the early church established by Saint Paul and the apostles, and regards itself as the original Church founded by Christ (An Introduction to Christian Orthodox Churches, John Binns).

Cathedral of Saint Sava, Belgrade, Serbia, the world's largest Orthodox Church. Courtesy WikiMedia Commons.
Cathedral of Saint Sava, Belgrade, Serbia, the world’s largest Orthodox Church. Courtesy WikiMedia Commons

Initially, Eastern and Western Christians shared the same faith, but the two traditions began to divide after the seventh Ecumenical Council (787 CE). They finally split over a conflict with Rome in the so-called Great Schism (1054 CE)– a dispute over the papal claim to supreme authority and the doctrine of the Holy Spirit.

Today, Church administration is composed of self-governing ecclesial bodies, each geographically distinct but unified in theology, including the four ancient patriarchates (Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem) and eleven “autocephalous churches.”

Each self-governing body has a Holy Synod to administer its jurisdiction and lead the church in the teaching of apostolic traditions (The Orthodox Church: An Introduction to its History, Doctrine, and Spiritual Culture, John Anthony McGuckin). The theoretical head of the Eastern Orthodox Church is the Patriarch of Constantinople. However, he is only first among equals and has no authority over Churches other than his own.

The Bible of the Orthodox Church is the same as that used by most Western Churches, except that its Old Testament (Hebrew Bible) is based not on the Hebrew version, but on the ancient Jewish translation into Greek called the Septuagint (Encyclopedia Brittanica).

The Church recognizes seven sacraments (anointing of the sick, baptism, chrismation, communion, holy orders, marriage, penance). The purpose of Christian life is thought to be the attainment of theosis, the mystical union of mankind with God (Athanasius of Alexandria).