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Children in Crisis

The Fruits of Weaker Marriages and Families

By Father John Flynn

ROME, FEB. 26, 2007 (Zenit) - A report card on the well-being of children, released Feb. 14 by the UNICEF Innocenti Research Center, sparked off a round of soul-searching. The "Innocenti Report Card 7" is the latest in a series of reports from the United Nations Children's Fund designed to monitor and compare the performance of developed countries in securing the rights of their children.

Six dimensions were used to measure the state of happiness of children: material well-being, health and safety, education, peer and family relationships, behaviors and risks, and young people's own subjective sense of well-being.

A UNICEF press release explained that small northern European countries dominated the top rankings. Nevertheless, there wasn't a consistent relationship between the wealth of a country and the child's well-being. The rankings were also far from being clear-cut, as no country features in the top third of the rankings for all six dimensions.

Britain placed at the bottom in three of the six categories, and near the bottom in another two, a result that led to many anguished press reports on the state of British children. The United States placed second to last in the overall average ranking position.

Some commentators, however, pointed to serious defects in the report's methods. "There are too many sweeping assertions based on tendentious evidence," declared Steve Richards in the pages of the British newspaper The Independent on Feb. 15. He pointed out that the data from the report came from the years 2000-2003, and that since then the situation for children has improved in Britain.

Christopher Caldwell, writing in Financial Times on Feb. 17, observed that the report's section on poverty was misleading. According to the tables, countries such as the United States and Britain suffer more from child poverty than nations such as Greece. In fact, what the report measured was inequality, and not poverty, with results favoring countries with more generous welfare systems and lower levels of immigration.

Domestic breakdown

Other commentaries soon argued that if British children are badly off, one of the main causes is the disintegration of family life, something not remedied by more government spending. Both Britain and the United States have in common a higher level of family breakdown than the other countries surveyed, according to Philip Johnston in London's Telegraph newspaper on Feb. 15.

Johnston observed that the study found substantial evidence that children in single-parent and stepfamilies tend to be worse off than those living with both biological parents.

In an accompanying article, Lesley Garner opined that improving child welfare in Britain doesn't mean spending more money, but rather putting children first. This means that parents should spend more time with their kids and build stronger family relationships. Other measures, ranging from more family meals together, teaching good manners and encouraging more sporting activities are also needed, argued Garner.

Author Oliver James, writing in the London-based Times on Feb. 15, blamed the Labor government for pursuing "policies that encouraged more parents of young children to enter the workplace and put the demands of their careers before the needs of their children."

Also on Feb 15, Daily Mail commentator Stephen Glover called upon the government to change the tax system and stop penalizing married couples. In past years, he noted, successive British governments have taken away from families most of the legal and fiscal protections that they once enjoyed.

Minette Marrin, writing in the Sunday Times on Feb. 18, also criticized the government for fiscal policies that oblige women to work instead of spending more time with their children, as many would prefer.

She also recommended a cultural change, and called for "moral disapprobation" toward single parents and men who abandon their children. Instead of being afraid of being "judgmental," she said, society should disapprove such actions, due to the social problems they cause.

Conflict in Italy

The need to defend the family is also a hot topic in Italy. Earlier this month, the government unveiled a bill that would give legal recognition, and a series of benefits, to cohabiting couples, including those of the same sex.

The move sparked off a fierce debate with many Catholic bishops and organizations arguing that the proposed law will undermine family life.

Carlo Casini, director of the Italian pro-life group Movimento per la Vita, wrote a book on issues related to family life just prior to the presentation of the current proposal. The book is entitled "Unioni di fatto, matrimonio, figli: tra ideologia e realtŕ" (De facto Unions, Marriage, Children: Between Ideology and Facts), and is published by Societŕ Editrice Fiorentina.

Casini observes in his book how many people seek legal recognition of same-sex relationships on the grounds of a need to avoid unjust discrimination against homosexuals. Others argue that a man and a woman living in a de facto relationship, and who love each other, are no different from a married couple.

Casini comments that answering this challenge to the traditional status of marriage and the family means reflecting on the nature of these institutions. When the Catholic Church, Christians, or political groups defend marriage between a man and a woman, and the resulting family they form, it is not discrimination, or the imposition of religious principles on a modern secular society, according to the pro-life leader.

Casini points out that the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights defends the family: "The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the state" (Article 16).

In addition, the constitutions of a number of European states specifically mention the family as playing a vital role in society.

Protecting marriage and the family falls within the role of the state in promoting the general public good of society, Casini also maintains. If family life fails, then in turn this has a detrimental effect on society and the state.

Defending an institution

The Pope has also spoken out repeatedly in past weeks to defend marriage and the family. Marriage has a truth of its own, based on the "the sexually different reality of the man and of the woman with their profound needs for complementarity, definitive self-giving and exclusivity," he told the members of the Roman Rota on Jan. 27.

"We are well aware that the family founded on marriage is the natural environment in which to bear and raise children and thereby guarantee the future of all of humanity," stated Benedict XVI in his Feb. 4 Angelus message.

The Pontiff noted that the institution of marriage is in crisis, and that it faces many challenges. "It is consequently necessary to defend, help, safeguard and value it in its unrepeatable uniqueness," he insisted.

On Feb. 12, addressing the participants in the International Congress on Natural Law sponsored by the Pontifical Lateran University, the Pope spoke even more clearly about the need to reject legislative moves that weaken marriage and the family.

If a human law goes against what is written in our hearts and nature regarding marriage, Benedict XVI stated, then this will "dramatically wound" what should be the very foundation of society.

Just five days later, speaking to papal representatives gathered in Rome to prepare the 5th General Conference of the Episcopate of Latin America and the Caribbean, the Holy Father said it was necessary to give priority to the family. Marriage and the family are based on an intimate truth about the human person, the Pontiff said.

Unfortunately, he noted, the legal status of the family is under attack from many pressure groups. Attacks carried out successfully in many countries, and now arriving to Italy itself, are setting the stage for a fierce battle.


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Children, Family, UNICEF, Marriage

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