ROME, JAN. 14, 2008 (Zenit.org).- Family issues were at the center of many heated debates last year in a number of countries. The coming year, in all likelihood, will see continued conflict over matters such as divorce laws, same-sex unions, and government support, or the lack of it, for married couples.
Marriage and the family has been a frequent topic for Benedict XVI since his election, and the Christmas period saw this pattern continue. During his Angelus message on Dec. 30, the liturgical feast of the Holy Family, the Pontiff recalled the words of Pope John Paul II, who said that the good of the person and of society is directly linked to the health of families.
The Church, Benedict XVI said, "is committed to defending and to fostering 'the dignity and supremely sacred value of the married state,'" he said, citing the Second Vatican Council document "Gaudium et Spes."
The Pope also took the unprecedented step of directly addressing participants in a rally being held that day in the Spanish capital of Madrid. In his Dec. 12 letter convoking the meeting, Madrid's archbishop, Cardinal Antonio Rouco Varela, warned that the family, both in Spain and in Europe as a whole, is under serious threat.
In his words, the Holy Father drew attention to the beauty of human love present in marriage and the family. "It is worthwhile working for the family and marriage because it is worthwhile working for the human being, God's most precious creature," he said.
The rally was planned as an event for those in the Archdiocese of Madrid, but also drew the participation of around 40 bishops from other parts of Spain along with large numbers of families from surrounding areas. Organizers claimed a cumulative total of around 2 million participants during the day's activities. Other estimates ranged from a million to a million and a half.
Spain has been at the center of bitter conflicts over family policy during the current term of the Socialist government. The decision to legalize same-sex unions, as well as speeding up the divorce process, led to strong protests by the Church and family organizations. With national elections scheduled in March, family policy will likely continue to be debated.
In his homily at the rally, Cardinal Rouco Varela accused the government's laws of being in conflict with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which in Article 16 states: "The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the state."
Another country where family issues are at the forefront is England. In his pastoral letter for the Holy Family feast day, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor commented that while we are all now aware of the need to preserve the natural ecosystem, a lot less attention is paid to preserving the ecosystem of the family, which is a vital support for society and humanity.
"The richest soil in any parish has to be in the home," said the archbishop of Westminster. He called upon parents to make a space for God in the home and to teach their children to pray. He also called for a partnership between family, school and the parish community.
In a clear reference to current debates, he said that most parents "do not want their children to be taught that marriage is no more than one life-style choice among many."
The Church's opposition to changes in family laws in a number of countries has led some to accuse bishops of undue meddling in politics. Nevertheless, ample evidence exists that the legislative initiatives in past years have notably weakened marriage and family life, thus moving the Church to become involved in the debate.
A study published last July by an American nonprofit organization, the Institute for Marriage and Public Policy, traced the relationship between the introduction of no-fault divorce and the rate of marriage breakup.
The paper, "Does Divorce Law Affect the Divorce Rate?: A Review of Empirical Research, 1995-2006," authored by Douglas W. Allen and Maggie Gallagher, said that 17 of 24 recent studies find that the introduction of no-fault divorce laws increased the divorce rate. The most common estimate is that no-fault divorce increased divorce rates by around 10%.
The paper is quick to point out that divorces are caused by many factors, so the legal changes are far from being the only cause of a higher number of divorces. At the same time, they argue, "The idea that family law has no independent effect on family behaviors is difficult to reconcile with either economic theory or existing empirical research."
Allen and Gallagher explain that now the law is no longer a positive force in enforcing marriage contracts, so some couples react by delaying marriage and sometimes even avoiding it altogether. Others are led into more hasty decisions in getting married, secure in the knowledge that if the marriage fails it is easy to break up.
The validity of Church concerns over the state of family life is also confirmed by recent data. The birthrate for unmarried girls and women increased in 2006 in the United States according to a report by the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
On Dec. 5 Reuters said that the report showed a 3% rise for births among females aged 15 to 19, thus ending a 14-year period which saw teen birthrates decline. Overall, unmarried girls and women accounted for 38.5% of all births in the United States during 2006, up from 36.9% the previous year.
Family life also faces difficulties in Germany, reported Deutsche Welle on Nov. 29. One problem is falling birthrate. According to data published by the Federal Statistics Office the number of families with at least one child under 18 dropped by 7% to 8.8 million between 1996 and 2006.
Another big change over the last 10 years has been a 30% increase in the number of single parents and non-married parents, rising to 2.3 million.
The number of children per family is also falling, with the trend to smaller families showing no sign of abating, reported Deutsche Welle. Just over half of families have one child, while 36% have two and only 11% have three children or more. The average German family now has 1.61 children.
Meanwhile, in Ireland the Irish Times reported on Nov. 28 that the number of lone parents has increased by almost 40% in just four years. The information comes from an analysis of census data published by the Central Statistics Office. Figures from the 2006 census show a total of 112,900 lone parent families, up from 81,600 in 2002. Single-parent families now account for about 12% of households in Ireland.
The family is "the primary living cell of society," said Benedict XVI in his Jan. 1 World Day of Peace message. Healthy family life contributes in multiple ways to promoting peace, the Pontiff maintained.
Family life teaches us about the role of justice and love between brothers and sisters, the role of authority by the parents love for those who are in need due to sickness or old age, and the importance of mutual help in providing for the necessities of life, he said. The family "is the first and indispensable teacher of peace," the message added (No. 3).
"Consequently, whoever, even unknowingly, circumvents the institution of the family undermines peace in the entire community, national and international, since he weakens what is in effect the primary agency of peace," the Pope warned (No. 5). A clear message that the Church will continue to place the family among its top priorities.
Copyright 2007, Innovative Media, Inc. Posted with permission from www.Zenit.com.