The central role of marriage and family has been a constant theme in Benedict XVI's speeches in recent months. In May, in his address to participants in the plenary assembly of the Pontifical Council for the Family, the Pope termed the family based on marriage as a basic building block for society.
The state, he continued, needed to recognise the importance of the family and to help it carry out its functions and he called upon families to place God at the centre of their lives. God would help married couples in their task of bringing up their children, he said.
Family life is particularly at risk in today's world, and to safeguard it couples often must overcome the prevailing cultural forces. This required patience, effort, sacrifice and an incessant search for mutual understanding. In spite of these difficulties today's couples could still to be faithful to their vocation, with God's help.
Following this plenary assembly, the Pontifical Council for the Family issued a new document titled Family and Human Procreation, which sets out Church teachings on a range of key areas including abortion, contraception, homosexuality, genetic manipulation and divorce.
The document was signed at the conclusion of the plenary assembly which ratified its contents. The release of Family and Human Procreation came a month before the 5th World Congress of Families, due be held in Valencia in early July.
Benedict XVI will travel to Spain to join in the meeting on 8-9 July. Both the meeting and the papal visit are seen as important opportunities for re-stating Catholic teachings in a predominantly Catholic country whose government has advanced a series of policies sharply at odds with Church teachings on abortion, same- sex unions and genetic research.
The 60-page Vatican document, released on 6 June, provides a synthesis of Church teachings on sexuality and reproduction, being described in an explanatory note as "an introduction to the theme of the relationship between the family and procreation."
The document argues that "responsible procreation" always occurs within the context of marriage and family life while deploring the growing acceptance of single-parent households and homosexual unions, and in particular the demands for government recognition of same-sex "marriage" and the right of homosexuals to adopt children.
Family and Human Procreation reiterates the Church's teaching that abortion is "an abominable crime," which can never be justified, and should never be legally accepted. It also condemns the legal recognition of same-sex marriage, experiments on fetal tissues, in vitro fertilisation, and no-fault divorce.
New laws and political trends, it says, have created a "crisis of the family" and a severely unstable situation for the institution of marriage. This is evident in today's tendency to delay marriage, the social acceptance of extra-marital relationships, and the frequency of divorce. These problems have arisen alongside several new trends in bioethics that have the same tendency to "separate sexualty from love."
When the process of transmitting human life is viewed as a question of technology, the document argues, married couples are "alienated from the true intimacy of their sexual relations". The arrival of "procreation without human love" has been strongly influenced by ideological trends that are hostile to family life.
Another negative development noted is the tendency to view human sexuality as purely recreational, so that "acts linked to procreation are subordinated to the search for pleasure and the utility of individuals." In this context the Vatican document renews the traditional Christian condemnation of contraception.
Political threats to family life include a Malthusian attitude toward population, with many governments placing steadily increasing pressure on families to limit the number of children, including forced sterilisation, especially in poor countries.
The fundamental problem with modern ideological approaches to sexuality has been the absence of reference to a loving God, a Creator who calls mankind to choose life, and whose plan is etched on the human heart. The natural law requires a responsible approach to sexuality and sets "objective points of moral reference".
Among the points fixed by human nature are the complementary roles of the sexes. But feminist ideology has "exacerbated the relations between the sexes and accentuated the polemical character" of male-female ties.
The document concludes that a breakdown in family life has caused a "demographic winter" in many countries, which it says bears testimony to the "lack of solidarity between the generations".
Family under threat
This "demographic winter" - especially in Europe - has been highlighted in a recent study released by the Madrid-based Institute for Family Policies which is titled, Report on the Evolution of the Family in Europe 2006. The report noted a growing awareness of the need to protect the family and family life.
The first sections of the report look at the problem of a declining birthrate and an ageing population. It then considers how marriage is faring.
During 1980-2004, the number of marriages in the 25-member countries of the European Union dropped by more than 663,600, even as the population grew by 31.1 million.
Another trend is the increasing numbers of children being born outside of marriage. In the 15 older EU member countries, in 1980, only 9.6 percent of children were born to single women or unmarried couples. By 2004 this had risen to 32.8 percent. The 2004 figure for all 25 EU countries was 31.6 percent.
Divorce rates, meanwhile, increased by about half over the last couple of decades. From 1990 to 2004, more than ten million marriages broke up in the 15 EU nations, affecting more than 16 million children.