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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 to the free choice of their state of life and thus to marry and establish a family or to remain single." The second right stipulates: "Marriage cannot be contracted except by free and full consent duly expressed by the spouses." And each partner in marriage enjoys an equal dignity and rights.

The next two rights deal with the theme of procreation. The spouses have an inalienable right "to decide on the spacing of births and the number of children to be born, taking into full consideration their duties towards themselves, their children already born, the family and society." This decision should be taken in accord with objective moral values, and exclude contraception, sterilization and abortion. The charter asks that public authorities and private organizations alike respect the freedom of couples in this matter.

The fifth article defends the right of parents to educate their children and to choose their schools for them. The charter expressly asks that children not be compelled to attend classes which are not in agreement with their own moral and religious convictions, particularly in the matter of sexual education.

Articles 6 and 7 of the charter deal with relations between the family and the state. Article 6 asks that public authorities "respect and foster the dignity, lawful independence, privacy, integrity and stability of every family." The charter not only criticizes divorce, but argues in favor of help for the extended family system.

Article 7 maintains the right of each family "to live freely its own domestic religious life under the guidance of the parents." This includes public worship and being able to freely choose programs of religious instruction, without discrimination.

The remaining articles deal with socioeconomic matters. Article 8 maintains that families have the right to be active in social and political functions, forming associations with other families and institutions. Article 9 calls upon governments to provide conditions that help families achieve a dignified standard of living. The matters mentioned range from the defense of property rights to social help in times of death or sickness, or help for children with special needs.

Article 10 calls for work to be organized in such a way that enables family members to live together. It also brings up the theme of a family wage, or some other means, such as family allowances, that will enable mothers not to be obliged to work outside the home, if they wish to dedicate themselves full time to family responsibilities.

Article 11 calls for families to have access to decent housing, "fitting for family life and commensurate to the number of the members." The last article asks that families of migrants be given the same rights and protection as other families.

Achieving these rights will likely take different forms around the world, but the ideals expressed in the charter remain a valuable guide for families, 20 years on.


Your Catholic Voice is a movement to promote faithful citizenship based on the fundamental truths of the Catholic Church relating to Life, Family, Freedom and Solidarity. For information go to Your Catholic Voice


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