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A Magna Carta for Strong Families

John Paul II Draws Attention to a 1983 Charter

ROME, JUNE 21, 2003 ( John Paul II made two strong pleas this month in defense of the family. During his trip in Croatia, his homily for Pentecost Sunday had a special greeting for the families present at the Mass. The Pope recalled the crucial role played by the family in many aspects of society, and the need to support families based on a stable marriage.

Then on June 13, in a speech to participants in a congress organized by the Pontifical Council for the Family, he warned of "dehumanizing threats" against the family.

John Paul II called upon politicians to "to fully assume their commitment in defense of the family and to favor the culture of life." As a guideline for their action he suggested they use the "Charter of the Rights of the Family," published by the Holy See in 1983.

Family breakdown costs society dearly, as numerous studies demonstrate. A 2002 British government report, for instance, found that family breakup is the main cause of children running away from home, the Telegraph reported Nov. 29. Youngsters living with a stepparent are three times more likely to flee than those living with two birth parents, the report found.

Downing Street's social exclusion unit estimates there are 129,000 cases of children running away each year, involving 77,000 children. "The separation of parents, the formation of a stepfamily, or the difficulties that some lone parents face following a separation are points of stress for young people," the government agency said.

Indeed, children growing up in single-parent families are twice as likely as their counterparts to develop serious psychiatric illnesses and addictions later in life, according to a study in The Lancet medical journal, the Associated Press reported Jan. 24.

Swedish evidence

The study is important because it tracked about 1 million children for a decade, into their mid-20s. The study used the Swedish national registries, which cover almost the entire population and contain extensive socioeconomic and health information.

About 60,000 children were living with their mother and about 5,500 with their father. There were 921,257 living with both parents. The children were aged 6 to 18 at the start of the study, with half already in their teens.

Researchers found that children with single parents were twice as likely as the others to develop a psychiatric illness such as severe depression or schizophrenia, to kill themselves or attempt suicide, and to develop an alcohol-related disease. Girls were three times more likely to become drug addicts if they lived with a sole parent, and boys were four times more likely.

On the positive side, studies show that religion can help families stay together, the Washington Times reported May 8. A report released by the National Study of Youth and Religion at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill showed that adolescents aged 12 to 14 who are brought up in religious households are more likely than peers from nonreligious families to admire Mom and Dad, to not run away from home, to eat dinner with the folks and to have parents involved in their social lives.

"There is a consistent association across a variety of measures that more religiously active families with early adolescents in the household exhibit signs of stronger family relationships," said Christian Smith, study director and report co-author.

The four-year project, funded by the Lilly Endowment, began in August 2001 to research the role of religion and spirituality in the lives of American adolescents. The latest publication in the project is titled "Family Religious Involvement and the Quality of Family Relationships for Early Adolescents."

"Community of love"

The 1983 "Charter of the Rights of the Family" consists of a preamble and 12 basic rights. The preamble observes that even though the rights of a person are expressed as individual rights, they "have a fundamental social dimension which finds an innate and vital expression in the family." It also clearly defines the family as being based on the marriage of a man and a woman united in an indissoluble bond of matrimony, open to the transmission of life.

The preamble also explains why the family should be considered as possessing special rights. The family is a natural society, existing prior to the state or any other community, explains the document. But it is more than just a sociological phenomenon. The family is "a community of love and solidarity, which is uniquely suited to teach and transmit cultural, ethical, social, spiritual and religious values, essential for the development and well-being of its own members and of society."

The rights listed in the charter commence with the affirmation that "All persons have the right ...

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