UNITED NATIONS (CNS) — Despite threats on many sides and prophesies of its extinction, the traditional family remains a vital resource for society, according to speakers at a U.N. event Feb. 15.

The panel was held in conjunction with the 51st session of the U.N. Commission for Social Development. It was sponsored by the Holy See’s Permanent Observer Mission to the United Nations and the Pontifical Council for the Family.

Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, council president, said the family is “the fundamental unit of human society. It is where the generations meet, love, educate, support each other and pass on life from age to age.”

The family is “the source of social capital and the birthright of all humanity,” he said, adding that the stability of any society in fact depends on the “stability of the families from which it springs.”

“Family is the school of society, the way to learn to be together with others,” he continued. “If you don’t learn to experience solidarity there, it’s really difficult to have a city or a society.”

He said the “natural family” is comprised of mother, father and children. Notwithstanding the many attacks against it, the natural family “comes first in the hearts of the world’s peoples … and the great majority of young people look forward happily to marriage as a lifelong faithful union with their husband or wife.”

Cultural currents undermine the concept of lifelong love between two individuals, he said, wondering with a smile how a man can profess undying love for his favorite sports team, but not for his wife.

Archbishop Paglia said marriage between a man and woman and intact two-parent families are decisive factors for the successful socialization of children and contribute to their physical and psychological health. He said government policies should support family life and not try to provide a substitute for it.

Family is critical to society’s success, he said. “Free and democratic political and economic processes are possible only where there is a strong social fabric, where the public and civil sphere requires and rewards basic human values, promotes the common good and ensures circumstances in which families can be created and thrive.”

Some contend the family has changed over the centuries, Archbishop Paglia said, but “the family’s constitutional genome does not cease to be the source and origin of society.” He called the family “a living organism, the fundamental cell which, rather than being a burden on society, constitutes the primary vehicle for the humanization of persons and social life.”

He concluded “humanity is best and most surely realized” in the “natural family progression — marriage, mother, father, children” — which he said society should hold in high regard. At the same time, he said, “no one in other circumstances is to be marginalized or denied solidarity.”

Ambassador Nassir Abdulaziz al-Nasser of Qatar, high representative of the U.N. Alliance of Civilizations, said families are essential to the twin objectives of the U.N. — the maintenance of peace and the promotion of international development.

The ambassador said investing in the family promotes greater understanding between cultures and is a vital resource for achieving the Millennium Development Goals. The eight goals, established in 2000 and intended to be reached by 2015, address hunger, education, inequality, child and maternal health, HIV/AIDS, the environment and global development.

“If we are to make serious progress on our international development goals, we must be willing to invest in and protect the family so that we can use this human capital in a way that fosters a better life for all,” al-Nasser said.

“Governments need to adopt policies that provide social protection for the family, provide access to childcare and flexible working arrangements that allow parents to ensure financial and social protection for their families,” he said.

Helen Alvare, associate law professor at George Mason University School of Law in Arlington, Va., said there is a clear link between families and the good of society. The gaps between classes, races and populations are caused by the failures of families to form or to thrive, she said.

In contemporary times, it is “undesirable to speak about putting families back together,” Alvare said. People argue that families don’t have a significant impact, that broken families cannot be fixed or that privacy concerns prevent government intervention, she said.

Alvare said families founded on marriage “tend to preserve” and provide the best outcomes for children, and difficulties persist in nonmarital households.

There is a “genuine academic unwillingness” to pursue scholarly research into the importance of the family, because of fear of what the research will show, she said. Those who promote such research “are not against anyone; there is no intent to marginalize, but we could learn how we might assist people and make sure the legal system and policies don’t mitigate against the family,” Alvare said.

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen, of the Persian Jewish Community of Manhattan, said the Bible does not define family, but includes it as the essential building block of the tribe and the people. Moreover, “parents are the agents of God in disseminating values to their children and society,” he said.

Introducing the panel, Archbishop Francis A. Chullikatt, papal nuncio to the United Nations, said it was timely to focus on the contributions of the family and its importance as “the basic societal unit for education, care, and spiritual and cultural instruction.”

He noted the U.N. will observe the 20th anniversary of the International Year of the Family in 2014.