ROME, AUG. 28, 2004 ( As part of the International Year of the Family the European Symposium for University Teachers in late June examined the situation of the family in the continent. In his introduction to the gathering Cesare Mirabelli, former president of Italy's Constitutional Court, noted that the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: "The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State" (Article 16).

The family, Mirabelli said, is at the center of many personal and social issues, such as the concept of the person, human rights, paternity, education, transmitting the faith and culture, and relations between the generations.

In her presentation Janne Haaland Matlary of Oslo University observed that the political debate about the family is based on two classes of arguments.

The first is founded on constructivism, which conceives gender roles as being socially constructed. Consequently, supporters of this concept maintain that the family can be freely redefined. The second stems from the natural-law argument that assumes a fixed human nature and, while acknowledging the social roles of sexes, sees motherhood and fatherhood and marriage between a man and a woman as constants.

According to the first viewpoint everything is reduced to politics, "and what we call human rights today, can be changed tomorrow." The natural-law position, in contrast, considers human rights "apolitical and prepolitical," and seeks political protection so that the family can carry out its fundamental role.

The family, Matlary contended, has long been weakened in the Western world, afflicted by high divorce rates, cohabitation and secularization. The latest threat is an attempt to redefine the very nature of the family and marriage. In many cases this is done incrementally -- for example, when homosexual groups seek certain rights. She warned, however, that the homosexual movement will settle for nothing less than full family rights, including adoption.

Matlary argued that if the concept of the family is to be protected it needs to be based on an understanding of a "lived reality." Observation and experience of what motherhood and fatherhood are, she maintained, is essential before passing on to legal, philosophical and theological considerations.

After a detailed analysis describing how the United Nations and nongovernmental organizations have worked to redefine the family in recent years, Matlary concluded that the natural-law argument is now very weak. A general relativism prevails, she said. Moreover, the increasing internationalization of politics means that countries that still protect families based on a natural-law orientation are under threat from international institutions that seek to impose their norms at the national level.

Matlary suggested that a possible strategy to defend the family from these challenges is to focus on children and their needs for care and stability within a family based on a father and mother.

Spanish shift

An overview of the laws governing marriage and the family was given by Rafael Navarro Valls, professor at Madrid's Complutense University. In terms of the juridical situation he noted that many of the legal processes affecting the family have been downgraded to the administrative level. In Spain the newly elected Socialist government's promise to introduce speedy no-fault divorce without the need for a prior period of separation is set to continue this trend.

Parallel to the downgrading of the legal status of the family is an ever-greater status given to cohabitating couples. This is particularly notable at the regional level in Spain, where a number of the local authorities have given de facto couples prerogatives very similar to those enjoyed by married couples. In some cases the privileges have been extended to homosexual couples -- even including adoption in the case of the community of Navarre -- even though this last case is being challenged in the courts.

Behind these changes, Navarro Valls explained, there has been a fundamental change in the concept governing the juridical model of marriage and the family. Where previously the law presented a clear model of marriage and the family, it is now increasingly governed by a sociological concept that places all the possible combinations -- cohabitation, marriage, heterosexuality, homosexuality -- on the same level.

After Communism

A look at the situation in Central and Eastern Europe came from Alicja Grzeskowiak, professor at the Catholic University of Lublin. Marriage and the family have been weakened in these countries due to three causes, she explained.

First, during the Communist era, governments systematically weakened the family and took upon themselves its functions. In this way families lost a large part of their autonomy and were weakened. Families in Poland, however, were able to defend themselves in large part and maintain their strength, Grzeskowiak said. In fact, the Polish Constitution contains a number of provisions protecting the family and maternity.

Second, the economic problems in the transition period after the fall of Communism have brought poverty for many families, she said. Such problems provoked family disintegration in some cases due to the need to leave home in search of work. The economic pressures, Grzeskowiak noted, have been particularly strong in Russia and the territories formerly part of the Soviet Union.

Third, another factor threatening marriage and the family in Central Europe is the increasing influence of Western concepts based on moral relativism and liberalism. The model of life proposed is no longer that of a society based on the family, but a rights-based individualism. This has brought with it pressure to liberalize laws in areas such as abortion, divorce, homosexuality, contraceptives and a type of sexual education that does not respect the role of parents in transmitting their religious convictions.

Some countries have a number of constitutional and legal provisions favoring families, Grzeskowiak noted. But in practice family life is suffering. She took as an example the situation in Russia. Divorce levels are high, and, since 1999, the number of marriages has been in constant decline. Pressures on family life have led to a decline in the birthrate, and Russia's population is diminishing. Abortion is very prevalent, with two abortions for every child born. A similar situation exists in countries such as Ukraine, Lithuania and Estonia, she noted.

Cultural crisis

In his address to the participants in the symposium on June 25, John Paul II noted that "Europe's future is staked on the family." The family mirrors society, he said, and in this sense it is a work "under construction."

"The development of families is and will be the most important indicator of cultural and institutional development on the Continent," the Pope said. Thus it is appropriate that "universities, and especially Christian teachers, follow attentively the dynamics of families, fostering a responsible and conscious outlook in young people."

The Holy Father commented that during the first millennium the combination of Roman law and the Christian message led to "the European model of the family that subsequently spread on a wide scale in the Americas and in Oceania."

The problems this model is now undergoing coincide with the state of Western civilization, he added. The origin of this crisis is cultural and has now reached a point where even though the family continues to be an attractive aspiration, many of the younger generations "are almost incapable of assuming responsibility for it in the right way."

The Pope asked if it still made sense to speak of a family model today. He replied: "The Church is convinced that in the context of our time it is more necessary than ever to reassert the instit utions of marriage and the family as realities that derive from the wisdom of God's will and reveal their full significance and value in his creative and saving plan."