Many of the delegates to the recent Second Pan-American Conference on Family and Education were struck not only by the quality of speakers and the information presented, but by the number of babies frolicking in the plenary halls and workshop rooms. This after all was a celebration of family life, and the presence of the little ones was a visual reminder of the vital nurturing role found in a healthy home life.

The theme for the conference—Building a Civilization of Love—was taken from Pope John Paul II’s 1994 address to families. In his message, the pope called on pro-family elements “to bear witness to love for life, and sow that love abundantly. Be builders of life and the civilization of love. In the Church and in society, now is the hour of the family.”

The pope’s reference to the hour of the family—and the conference inspired by it—could not have come at a better time. Who among us would not agree that today’s family faces assault from a variety of sources? Abortion, euthanasia and the contraceptive mentality have led to diminished respect for the sanctity of human life. Meanwhile, marriage breakup, one-parent households and the push for same-sex relationships have blurred the traditional understanding of what family life is all about.

It has been well established that anything disrupting family life has serious implications not only for individuals, but for society as a whole. Indeed as conference keynote speaker Professor Janine Langan of the University of Toronto noted, “Human life is a mind-boggling miracle, which took millions of years to achieve. The family is entrusted to carrying it forward into eternity. No family, no man alive. Poor parenting, and man degenerates.”

Nonetheless social and economic pressures are taking their toll. Governments seem intent on weakening the family through a combination of trendy legislation, pandering to special interest groups and emphasizing individual “rights” over responsibilities.

Families choosing to have one parent stay at home to raise children, for example, are at a distinct disadvantage at tax time.

The mass media, for its part, bears a major responsibility for the diminished respect for marriage and family in North America. Conference delegates were reminded of the anti-family, anti-marriage messages in the majority of films and television programs. Parents were urged to make more time for their children and not to surrender the task of imparting positive values to a cynical, materialistic media.

As conference delegates heard repeatedly, the family is the most basic human community. It is within the family that we learn our social skills, where faith values are passed on, and where we receive the unconditional love and support that contributes to the formation of healthy, caring individuals. Obviously not all families are equipped to provide the optimal environment for such nurturing. To those who are struggling, we must reach out with care and support, in effect extending the concept of family to the local community.

The conference provided a much needed boost for anyone concerned with the traditional family on this continent. Despite ample evidence of dysfunction and disintegration, there are still forces out there who believe passionately in marriage and family. And while no family or marriage is destined for perfection, there is no denying the many benefits they bestow generation after generation.

As divinely bestowed gifts, these institutions are keys to a caring, compassionate community. A renewed emphasis on the “civilization of love”—beginning with the family—can be a formidable weapon against the creeping culture of death.