MEXICO CITY (AFP) — Thousands of Catholics opened the sixth World Meeting of Families, aimed at defending against what one Vatican official called "a post-modern culture sick with individualism."
The five-day meeting, the first without the pope's presence, is strongly anti-abortion and anti-contraceptive and takes place in a city that allows abortion, homosexual unions and cutting off medical treatment for the terminally ill.
In an opening salvo, Mexican Bishop Conference president Carlos Anguiar Retes said the traditional family was under siege by "civil laws that by favoring contraceptives and abortion are threatening the future of the people."
Pontifical Council for the Family president and Cardinal Ennio Antonelli warned that the traditional family must be given "decisive priority... for the future of society in a post-modern culture sick with individualism."
He told some 9,000 faithful, including 30 cardinals and 200 bishops, gathered at the International Convention Center Expo Bancomer that the Catholic family was facing "an education emergency and a generational fracture from the spread of (moral) relativism."
"The homosexual experience," Antonelli said, "must stay within the confines of a private relation, a relation between friends."
Tanzania Archbishop Polycarp Pengo said homosexual unions were unacceptable for the Roman Catholic Church because it goes against God' will.
As to abortion, he told reporters at the gathering, "it's sad because people decide to separate their sexual relation from true love."
Retes said married women should focus on raising their children and called for government policies that support traditional family values.
Mexican President Felipe Calderon, a self-described devout Catholic conscious of the fact that five million women head single-parent households in Mexico, said a compromise was needed.
"We must find a way to support those who are not part of traditional, nuclear families," he said.
Calderon's cautious approach was in stark contrast with the leftist city government in charge of the capital, first in Mexico to allow homosexual marriage, abortion up to 12 weeks of pregnancy and quick divorce.
Underscoring the local views, several hundred followers of the leftist Social Democratic Party demonstrated outside the meeting hall.
"We are different family-makers," read one banner unfurled next to the police cordon surrounding the expo center.
The meeting is the first to take place without the pope's presence since it was created in 1994 by the late John Paul II, who visited Mexico five times during his papacy, gathering massive crowds.
Current 81-year-old Pope Benedict XVI, who seldom travels abroad, was thought to have pulled out of the event due to the high altitude of the Mexican capital, at more than 2,200 meters (7,300 feet) above sea level.
"We miss him in Mexico," President Calderon said of the pope, "and we're still waiting for him."
Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, Vatican Secretary of State, will represent the pope and at the close of the meeting will hold a mass on Sunday before an expected 50,000 faithful at the Basilica of Guadalupe, a major Catholic symbol in Latin America.
The pope will address two video messages to participants: a recorded message at the opening and another to be transmitted live at the close, organizers said.
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