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The Side Effects of the Pill: Why the Church Has So Much to Say about Contraception
Homiletic and Pastoral Review ^ | 3/21/2014 | DR. WILLIAM NEWTON

Posted on 03/22/2014 5:58:42 AM PDT by markomalley

There is an impression out there–in the world and even within the Church–that the Church is obsessed with the question of contraception, or at least gives too much attention to it in comparison to other issues.  So, for example, one modern moral theologian, reading Veritatis Splendor, sees in it nothing more than a Trojan horse for another attack on contraception.  He says:

It is not easy to avoid a sense of profound anti-climax, combined with a strong suspicion that what purported to be a critique of certain moral theories was, after all, only one more assault against the critics who found no real plausibility in certain official Catholic teachings about sex and, in particular, about contraception. 1

My contention in this essay is that the Church does, indeed, pay special attention to the issue of contraception, and with good reason.  This is because so many of the modern errors in moral theology converge in this particular question of conjugal morality.

The truth of this contention is made evident by a careful reading of the famous–one might say infamous–Majority Report of the Papal Commission on Birth Control.  For our purposes here, the significance of that report lies not so much in the fact that it advised a change in the Church’s teaching on contraception, as in the fact that it took to heart various systems of moral reasoning that are contrary to sound morality, and that are endemic in so much modern thought on moral issues.  The aim of this essay is to examine them, thereby demonstrating the significance of Humanae Vitae, and the Church’s teaching on contraception, as a bulwark against a tidal wave of erroneous moral thinking.  In short, these principles are: the principle of totality, the theory of proportionalism, the ideology of man’s unlimited control over nature, and a false notion of the sensus fidelium. 2

The principle of totality

Applied to the issue of contraception, the principle of totality claims that if a couple, on the whole, remain open to having children, then using contraception every once in a while, or for a certain period of their married life, is not wrong since these isolated acts are absorbed into the general orientation of the couple towards procreation.  The Majority Report says that contraceptive sex could be licit when “ordered to favoring fecundity in the totality of married life, and toward the realization of the authentic values of a fruitful matrimonial community.” 3  The principle is even more clearly expressed in a preparatory document of the papal commission.  There we read that “when a man intervenes in the procreative purpose of individual acts by contracepting, he does this with the intention of regulating, and not excluding, fertility . . . infertile conjugal acts constitute a totality with fertile acts, and have a single moral specification.” 4

The principle of totality seems to have first appeared in moral theology as a way of addressing the issue of amputation.  This is perhaps why it is most vigorously proposed and championed by the medical experts on the commission. 5  Correctly applied in the context of amputation, the principle of totality says that when one bodily member is diseased in such a way as to threaten the whole body–the total organism–then it might be removed by amputation. 6  In this case, the removal of a body part would not constitute illicit mutilation.

The main problem is that this principle cannot so easily be transferred from one realm of morality–surgical ethics – to another, namely conjugal morality.  Indeed, the principle of totality is not very portable.  It has been applied to social theory, in a sense, with disastrous consequences: it is better that one diseased part of the body politic be cut off–the Jews, the Gypsies, the unborn, and so on–so that the whole society might prosper.

Its application to conjugal morality is also strangely selective.  Could marital fidelity also be understood according to the principle of totality, for example?  This would mean that as long as spouses were generally faithful to each other, the odd infidelity here and there would be absorbed into a general attitude of fidelity.  Such an application of the theory is clearly intolerable. 7, 329-341).] 

At the end of the day, the principle of totality contains within itself its own refutation.  As we have seen, according to the principle of totality, the individual acts of contraception are justified on the basis of a general orientation to marital chastity and procreation.  But this implies first of all that chastity and openness to life in the conjugal act are recognized as the norm for morally upright intercourse.  Why would one say, “On the whole you should act like this,” unless acting like that was good, and acting in a contrary way was bad!  This being so, the very theory of totality contains within itself a criticism of contraception!  Furthermore, common sense tells us that a person is morally good because his individual acts are good; his individual acts do not become good just because he is generally a good person!


The term proportionalism acts as an umbrella for a variety of theories of moral action, all of which are, at the end of the day, a form of consequentalism.  Consequentialism says that an action is to be judged good or bad on the basis of whether the outcome of acting one way produces a better set of consequences than acting another way.  The question of the goodness or badness of the actions involved is initially bracketed.  The actions receive their morality in hindsight, as it were, from the analysis of possible outcomes.  The goal is to pick that behaviour where more good (or less evil) is achieved at the end of the day.

So, the question of whether contraception is right or wrong is bracketed.  It might even be considered to be generally wrong, but it is held to be a “pre-moral” evil, an ‘evil’ with no moral significance.  Within this framework, the possible pathways of behaviour would be considered.  For example, one possible scenario is that a couple considering the use of contraception estimate that the sexual intercourse would bring about greater marital harmony or even preserve them from marital infidelity (perhaps the wife is worried that her husband shall seek sexual satisfaction elsewhere).  Proportionalism proposes that the couple weigh up, on the one hand, the goods and evils they expect to achieve by contracepting against, on the other hand, those they expect from abstaining or having sexual intercourse without contraception.  If they conclude the greater proportion of good comes from using contraception, then this becomes the right way of acting.  The fact that, in this case, they must use an evil means to attain their goal–they must contracept–is considered to be permissible because this is only a “pre-moral” evil, adjudged right in hindsight.

All this is explained in the following quote from a well-known advocate of proportionalism: 

Common to all so-called proportionalists . . . is the insistence that causing certain disvalues (nonmoral, premoral evils such as sterilization, deception in speech, wounding and violence) in our conduct does not by that very fact make the action morally wrong, as certain traditional formulations supposed.  The action becomes morally wrong when, all things considered, there is not a proportionate reason in the act justifying the disvalue.  Thus, just as not every killing is murder, not every falsehood is a lie, so not every artificial intervention preventing or promoting conception in marriage is necessarily an unchaste act. 8

The Majority Report displays clear symptoms of proportionalism.  In the preamble to the report, we read that contraceptive acts “take their morality from the totality of the human act into which they are integrated, without carrying an element of morality of themselves.” 9  Here we see the idea of contraception as a pre-moral evil.

The first hint of proportionalism in the Majority Report itself is found when the authors imply that by regulating birth through contraception, “the moral obligation of following the fundamental norms and fostering all the essential values in a balanced fashion is strengthened and not weakened.” 10  The sense here is of placing all the values at stake in a balance – in a scale – and weighing them.  More explicitly, elsewhere in the document, the authors discuss the criteria that must be considered when one chooses the means of avoiding procreation while engaging in sexual intercourse.  They say, “the means to be chosen, where several are possible, is that which carries with it the least possible negative element, according to the concrete situation of the couple.” 11

Of the four erroneous principles or systems of morality examined here, proportionalism is the most pernicious and for two reasons.  First, it is the most corrosive to morality.  Second, it seems the most plausible.

It is the most corrosive in the sense there is, ultimately, no evil action that could not be justified for the sake of “the greater good.”  Applying this principle is like tugging on a loose thread in a knitted jumper.  Slowly, but surely, the whole thing unravels.  Curran candidly admits this in the quote just given above.  What is so horrifying about that quote is that it makes abundantly clear that the same moral analysis that would justify contraception will justify abortion: “not every killing is murder,” because a woman may weigh the good of her baby’s life against the good of her mental health or career and judge that the latter can be saved by directly negating the former.  The killing of the child would be “premoral” and, therefore, permitted.

Proportionalism appears plausible for several reasons.  First, there are some decisions that we can make on the grounds of the consequences we expect from various possible scenarios.  So, for example, a mother might weight up the expected advantages and disadvantages of sending her son to a private rather than to a public school.  In this case, she can rightly decide on the basis of a cost-benefit analysis.  The problem is that this type of reasoning cannot be extended in the way proportionalists do extend it.  In the scenario concerning the school, there is no choice to achieve good by an evil means, as there is in the case of contraception or abortion.

Second, proportionalism can also seem plausible because another system of moral analysis, namely the principle of double effect, is partially based on the idea of a proportionate good.  This seems to be similar to proportionalism, though in fact it is quite distinct.  However, the mere appearance of similarity might lead some to accept proportionalism.  The important difference is that the principle of double effect does not try to attain a good end by choosing a bad means.  Rather, something evil is foreseen and tolerated, but not chosen as a means to the goal intended.  The evil is more like a side-effect.  So, for example, a woman takes a contraceptive pill in order to regulate endometriosis, and the necessary side effect of this is that she is rendered sterile.  In this scenario, while part of the moral analysis includes the judgement that the woman has a proportionate reason to tolerate sterility, nevertheless, the sterility is not chosen as the means to the goal of dealing with her medical condition.  She does not intend the sterility.  Her situation differs greatly from the couple mentioned above who directly choose sterility as a necessary stepping stone to their final goal of marital harmony.  The difference between these two principles of morality is neatly summed up (and with shocking candour) in the title of a book by Richard McCormick, another famous proponent of proportionalism.  His book on proportionalism is entitled: “Doing Evil to Achieve Good.” 12

Unlimited domination of nature

The third principle of morality operative in the Majority Report is what might be called the unlimited domination of nature.  The idea here is that the procreative power in mankind –  the man’s power to become a father and woman’s power to become a mother – is purely a biological power and it, like other aspects of the created world, needs to be dominated by man.  In this sense, the procreative power is viewed as sub-human, like the rest of creation, and needs to be humanized by man through the use of contraception.

There are two steps in this process: first the body is estranged from the person, second it is dominated as if it was sub-personal. 13

At least a hint of this estrangement can be found in the preamble to the Majority Report where we read that the procreative power is “given to man so that, as a good administrator of his body and of his organic functions . . . it might serve the good of the whole person.” 14  By speaking of the body as being administered by the person, the idea is conveyed that it is something separate from the person.  Implicit in this statement, then, is an exaggerated dualism.

The idea of domination can be seen in the words of the Majority Report that contraception is not necessarily illicit because “it is natural to man to use his skill in order to put under human control what is given by physical nature.” 15  Here, the procreative power is conceived of as essentially sub-personal–merely part of “physical nature”–and so to be “put under human control.”  In fact, this idea of dominating the procreative power and humanizing it is said to be the main reason for affirming the licitness of contraception.  After listing various reasons in favor of a change in the Church’s teaching, the authors say there is, “most of all, a better grasp of the duty of man to humanize and to bring to greater perfection for the life of man what is given in nature.” 16

Now, of course, it is true that man was given from the beginning the command to “fill the earth and subdue it” (Gen 1:28).  On account of this, it is also true that harnessing the power of creation can be a very good thing, such as when man turns the resources of the world into things like houses, hospitals, and cars; or when he turns the power of wind or sun-light into electricity.  So, what exactly is wrong with the sentiment expressed in the Majority Report concerning the domination of nature?

The answer is that man is the one who is meant to subdue nature; he is not meant to be the one subdued, but this is exactly what happens in contraception. 17

This difference – that in using contraception it is man himself who is dominated – was recognized more than two decades before the publication of the Majority Report and Humanae Vitae by no less of a figure than C. S. Lewis.  For him, contraception was part of the end game of man’s domination of nature, in which the domination turned against man himself and led to what he called “The Abolition of Man.” 18  In that immensely important essay, Lewis relates how the final stage of man’s quest for mastery over creation is a conquest of man himself:

As long as the process stops short of the final stage we may well hold that the gain outweighs the loss.  But as soon as we take the final step of reducing our species to the level of mere Nature, the whole process is stultified, for this time the being who stood to gain and the being who has been sacrificed are one and the same. 19

Lewis goes further and points out how in this case, the moment of seeming victory over nature turns out to be the moment of final defeat.  He says:

Man’s conquest of Nature turns out, in the moment of its consummation, to be Nature’s conquest of Man.  Every victory we seemed to win has led us, step by step, to this conclusion.  All Nature’s apparent reverses have been but tactical withdrawals.  We thought we were beating her back when she was luring us on.  What looked like hands held up in surrender was really the opening of arms to enfold us for ever. 20

This is a keen insight from Lewis, and applied to contraception it works like this: by contraception, mankind thinks he has finally achieved a domination of nature worthy of man.  The generative power of his body is finally brought under control.  And yet, at that very moment, far from establishing himself as master, because this subjection is itself a pandering to his disordered sexual desires, he enslaves himself to the very nature he professes to conquer.

One obvious objection to all this is that it seems to be a condemnation of medical science, since it seems to imply that scientific procedures can never be licitly applied to the human body.

Here we need to make a distinction between medical procedures that seek to promote the health of a person by restoring the proper function of organs (removing cataracts, for example) and those which seek to destroy the healthy functioning of a part of the body, as is the case with contraception and sterilization.  In the first case, science serves to enhance the integral good of man, so man is not subjected to science.  In the latter case, the application of science is clearly destructive and amounts to a real subjugation.

We can apply the same distinction in the area of bioethics, an area of science where the ideology of unrestrained power over nature is pervasive.  Here, for example, there is an important difference between, on the one hand, a given gene therapy where science seeks to enhance health and, on the other hand, cloning and embryo experimentation where despotic power is sought over the beginning of human life itself.

To sum up, let us remind ourselves of the important lesson that another English convert, G. K. Chesterton, draws from the story of Jack the Giant Killer (perhaps more commonly known as Jack and the Bean Stalk).  What mattered to Jack when he faced the giant was not how big the giant was but whether or not he was a good giant: “Jack was quite unimpressed by the question of whether the giant was a particularly gigantic giant.  All he wished to know was whether the giant as a good giant . . . was he fond of children – or fond of them in a dark and sinister sense?” 21  The point is this: progress can get bigger and bigger, but it is to be judged as real progress based on whether it is good for man, else it deserves the same fate as Jack’s giant.

The sense of the faithful

The fourth and final principle used in the Majority Report to counsel for a change in the Church’s teaching on contraception is the idea of “the sense of the faithful.”  Of course, this principle is in itself legitimate.  Its basic outline is given to us in Lumen Gentium, where we read:

The entire body of the faithful, anointed as they are by the Holy One, cannot err in matters of belief.  They manifest this special property by means of the whole people’s supernatural discernment in matters of faith (supernaturali sensu fidei) when “from the Bishops down to the last of the lay faithful” they show universal agreement in matters of faith and morals.22

Presumably with the idea of the sense of the faithful in mind, the authors of the Majority Report, remind Paul VI (in the preamble to the report) that “in the commission there are numerous laity most of whom are married and who nearly all, because of their profession and Christian work, are in a position to know the opinion [on contraception] of many other couples.” 23  It then goes on to state that the great majority of these lay members wanted a change in the Church’s teaching on contraception.

In the main part of the report itself, the authors do acknowledge the difficulty in weighting the value of the “sense of the faithful” but, undeterred, they proceed to give it quite some weight.  We find the following: “Then must be considered the sense of the faithful: according to it, condemnation of a couple to a long and often heroic abstinence as the means to regulate conception, cannot be founded on the truth.” 24

Now, leaving aside whether it is really true that the faithful think like this, the statement as it stands is the death knell for marital chastity.  The reason is that to a priori exclude living a virtue to a heroic degree amounts to rejecting the virtue itself.  If I were to say, I shall be just as long as I am not called upon to suffer too much, I would be rejecting the very notion of justice.  In this case, if I am in fact acting justly now, this would be because at present I find it convenient and that is all.  But this is not the virtue of justice!  A married couple may not as yet be perfect in chastity, but the notion of virtue includes a readiness to be perfect, and this must include the possibility to being heroic in the practice of that virtue.

A second criticism can also be mounted against this false application of the sense of the faithful.  It claims that heroic virtue is not the goal of the Christian life; but this is simply false!  In effect, it pits one principle of Lumen Gentium against another, since it draws a conclusion from the sense of the faithful that contradicts what Lumen Gentium says about the universal call to holiness.  To be called to holiness is to be called to become a saint, and heroic virtue is the first step – the prerequisite – for sainthood, as we see from the processes of beatification. 

The use of the term “sense of the faithful” by the Majority Report also demonstrates a facile democratization of the faith.  It argues from the premise that the majority of modern Catholics think like this to the conclusion that this is true.  Thus for example, the modern Catholic thinks homosexual sex is fine, and so it is.  The modern Catholic thinks Sunday Mass is optional, and so it is.  This is unsound on various counts.

First, it ignores what the Council actually said about the sense of the faithful.  Above, I have quoted the first part of the pertinent paragraph from Lumen Gentium.  The rest of the paragraph runs as follows:

That discernment in matters of faith is aroused and sustained by the Spirit of truth.  It is exercised under the guidance of the sacred teaching authority, in faithful and respectful obedience to which the people of God accepts that which is not just the word of men but truly the word of God.

From this it is abundantly clear that there can be no contradiction between what the Magisterium teaches and what is part of the sense of the faithful.  Nor is it possible to conceive of the sense of the faithful as an independent organ of infallibility in the Church.

This is the understanding of the relationship between the Magisterium and the sense of the faithful carefully articulated by Blessed John Henry Newman in his famous article in The Rambler, “On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine” (July 1859).  Considering what he says is useful, since it seems some of the proponents of the Majority Report appealed, at least tacitly, to Newman to support their position.

In that article, Newman clearly states that he does not believe “that infallibility is in the ‘consensus fidelium,’ but that that ‘consensus’ is an indicium or instrumentum to us of the judgment of that Church which is infallible.”

Here, he means that the sense of the faithful is a witness to the truth of those dogmas defined by the Magisterium or in the mind to the Magisterium to be defined.  Newman illustrates this with the example of the Arian heresy.  The point is that when the Arian heresy infested the Church, it was the laity that held more firmly to the divinity of Christ than the episcopacy.  Newman says that “the episcopate was unfaithful to its commission, while the body of the laity was faithful to its baptism.” However, in this the laity were not defining doctrine, but were holding fast to the sure faith of the Church.  Newman concludes that “unless they [the laity] had been catechised . . . in the orthodox faith from the time of their baptism, they never could have had that horror, which they show, of the heterodox Arian doctrine.”   The conclusion he makes is that “their voice, then, is the voice of tradition.”   Of course, if we transpose this to the question of contraception, the tradition would firmly speak against any change in teaching. 

The second reason to reject an understanding of the sense of the faithful as a democratization of the faith comes from noting that Lumen Gentium only indirectly speaks about the “sense of faithful” (sensus fidelium).  It actually uses the term “sense of the faith” (sensus fidei).  What that might be is explained more fully by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Donum Veritatis.  There we read that the “sense of the faith is a property of theological faith” and that, “as God’s gift . . . [it] enables one to adhere personally to the Truth.”  This sounds very much like what theology calls the “gifts of the Holy Spirit,” especially the gifts of wisdom, understanding, knowledge, and counsel.  These four gifts come to the aid of the theological virtue of faith, since by them the Holy Spirit strengthens the believer, helping him to adhere to the truths of faith despite the difficulties involved: difficulties such as the absence of rational comprehension, opposition from others, the negative influence of society, and so on.  These gifts of the Holy Spirit help the believer to think with the Church (sentire cum Ecclesia), not to think besides the Church, much less against Her.

Chesterton gives us a third reason for rejecting an understanding of the sense of the faithful as a democratization of the faith or, more precisely, he gives us a necessary refinement to this position if it is going to be advanced.  This is his observation that democracy can never be set against tradition.  He points out that “all democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death.”  The point is that the sense of the faithful must necessarily include all the faithful throughout history and not just those living at a particular moment.  Taken like this, the sense of the faithful would be the bulwark of tradition and of orthodoxy.  It would certainly bear witness against contraception and other modern moral innovations.


The question of contraception has received significant attention from the Magisterium over the last eighty years, starting with Casti Connubii.  The reason for this is clearly pastoral: the Church is aware the majority of the faithful will attain, or fail to attain, holiness within the state of marriage.  This alone is sufficient motive to speak often about the question of contraception.  In this essay, however, I have suggested another reason why the Church has spoken so often on this issue.  I have argued that four errors in modern moral theology meet in a tight knot in the question of contraception.  This makes it a key battleground in the fight against revisionist systems of moral analysis.

It has been suggested that there is a connection between the use of the hormonal contraceptive pill and cancer.  This is disputed, but there can be no doubt that the principles imbedded in the arguments put forward in favour of contraception (enshrined as they are in the Majority Report) act like a cancer in the realm of moral theology.  One might say that these cancerous arguments developed first with regard to contraception, but since then ‘secondaries’ have appeared elsewhere, especially in bioethics.

In this essay, I have critiqued these four theories one by one.  What unites them all is that they are utterly demoralizing.  They are demoralizing in the popular sense of the word, in the sense that they undermine the splendor and the grandeur of moral action; they deflate it.  These four theories – totality, proportionalism, the desire for unlimited power over nature, and the sense of the faithful – communicate a certain vision of human life.  They turn life into an examination where as long as the pass mark is reached then everything is okay.  The notion of moral excellence is simply done away with, and we are left with an ethic of mediocrity.  But this is emphatically not what morality is.  Human moral action is about transfiguration.  What we need is not a principle of totality that resigns itself to accepting occasional or periodic deviations from what is good and upright, but a principle of totality that proclaims the goal of life is to make a total gift of oneself to others.

As has been pointed out elsewhere, it is no accident that Veritatis Splendor was promulgated on the Feast of the Transfiguration.  In that encyclical, John Paul II quotes St. Gregory of Nyssa, who says “we are in a certain way our own parents, creating ourselves as we will, by our decisions.  The point is this: morality is not about scrapping through, it is about becoming – with God’s help but also truly by our own actions – more and more recreated into the image of God (2 Pet. 1:4).

(references at the original)

TOPICS: Catholic; Religion & Culture; Theology

1 posted on 03/22/2014 5:58:42 AM PDT by markomalley
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To: markomalley
Why is the government involved in this issue at all. Everyone is absolutely capable of procuring contraception devices on their own.

So this isn't about that at's about killing babies and double dipping for the butchers of Planned Parenthood.

The idea that the state does not see it as murder is absurd.

2 posted on 03/22/2014 6:42:12 AM PDT by Sacajaweau
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To: markomalley

Great article. Thanks for posting.

3 posted on 03/22/2014 6:52:32 AM PDT by Not gonna take it anymore (If Obama were twice as smart as he is, he would be a wit)
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To: markomalley

The Church has always been correct on contraception and the demoralization which will happen (and the objectification) if they embrace it.

The slippery slope (trojan horse) for Protestant churches was in 1930, when the Anglican Church caved. England and the family unit was/is devastated with promiscuity, abortions, out of wedlock births which are endemic. Morality is erased from the sex act, making it a meaningless animal act. It is always dehumanizing.

Catholics need to be taught the profound theology which was developed over thousands of years. It is remarkable....and points toward the Truth. The Baltimore Catechism needs to be resurrected.

I am always completely stunned at the ignorance of most so-called Catholics. Their superficial understanding of “truths” is really warped. It started with the dropping of the Baltimore Catechism in the 60s. There has to be memorization in young children, when it is natural and of little effort. Memorization is exercise for the brain. High expectations have to be put back into our schools. Once children reach the abstract “thinking” age, they will have some meaningful words to contemplate on, instead of an empty head full of mush.

G.K. Chesterton stated: “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.”

Catholicism is especially hard to “practice” especially when people do not understand the profound theology behind the sacraments and “rules”, which is just Common Sense (Natural Law) in the end. God’s Design is perfect....and to mess with his Design and Laws is always dehumanizing.

4 posted on 03/22/2014 7:06:33 AM PDT by savagesusie (Right Reason According to Nature = Just Law)
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To: savagesusie

So God’s Truth is that human sex without the possibility of pregnancy is immorally animalistic and devoid of sacredness?

Yeah, I’d call that a hard sell.

5 posted on 03/22/2014 8:43:16 AM PDT by Talisker (One who commands, must obey.)
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To: Talisker


I am just talking about the “perfect” use of sex....which is not possible with man/sinners. The woman or man should never be an “object” of “lust”. Lust is a Vice. It is just the slippery slope. Jesus would never look at another with Lust....because Love is always don’t “use” another for one’s simple pleasures/lusts.

Married people will be “animalistic” at times-—simply because of the nature of is an animal. That they should aim for “perfect” is proper, but it can’t happen. I am just saying that the aim is always for the target (Love, not Lust)——not that it will be hit 100% of the time/impossible because you are not God.

I do admit....the sexes are not equal at all....and their natures are entirely different. That is why it is essential that the woman must submit to her husband—but that is true selfless Love. The needs of a man must be met by the wife.

6 posted on 03/22/2014 9:23:40 PM PDT by savagesusie (Right Reason According to Nature = Just Law)
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