Pope visits Spain to hail traditional family values
VALENCIA, Spain, July 6 (Reuters) Pope Benedict makes a lightning trip to Spain this weekend to glorify traditional family values in a country whose government has been sharply criticised by the Catholic Church for legalising gay marriage.
The 79-year-old Pope, making his third trip outside Italy since his election in April 2005, will be in Spain for little more than 26 hours from Saturday morning to Sunday afternoon.
But the trip, his first to Spain, is nonetheless expected to pack a punch.
The question of what constitutes a family has consumed much of the Church's energy as governments around the world consider giving gays more rights.
Last month a hard-hitting Vatican document branded gay marriage, abortion, lesbians wanting to bear children and a host of other practices it sees threatening the traditional family as signs of ''the eclipse of God'' in today's society.
Traditional values will take centre stage at the Church's Fifth World Meeting of Families when the Pope closes the gathering with an outdoor mass for up to a million people.
The trip was planned by his predecessor, John Paul, who died in April 2005 and who made championing family values one of the hallmarks of his long papacy.
Family values are also likely to be a hot topic when the Pope meets Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, who oversaw the gay marriage bill and whose Socialist government is pushing to cut Church funding and religious education in schools.
''ANARCHIC FREEDOM'' Spain, once ruled by the Catholic Kings, was the fourth country in the world to allow gay marriage -- a union the Pope has called an expression of ''anarchic freedom''.
The law giving gays the same rights as heterosexual couples in areas like tax, adoption and inheritance, was passed almost exactly a year ago. Since then one in 10 marriages in Madrid has been celebrated between people of the same sex.
In Spain, as in other traditionally Catholic countries, the local Church has sparred with the government over family issues.
''Marriage as an institution and an asset to humanity is not comparable to other forms of unions,'' Bishop Ricardo Blazquez, the chairman of the Spanish bishops conference, wrote in a blog to welcome pilgrims to the family meeting.
''We denounce the damage it has suffered and the attempts to change its nature ... There is a gaping divide between what family means to people and society and the treatment it gets from society and the State,'' he added.
Polls show that around two thirds of Spaniards support gay marriage, a sea change from the dictatorship of 1939-1975, when Francisco Franco banned homosexuality and divorce.
Surveys also show that while 80 percent of Spaniards say they are Catholic, less than a fifth regularly attend church.
The fiesta atmosphere as families arrived in Valencia was dampened on Monday when an underground train crash in the seaside city killed 41 people.
During his visit the Pope will also meet King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia.
REUTERS SK RN1338