Pope Benedict XVI appealed Sunday for governments to protect the traditional family structure, in remarks before a visit to Spain to attend a Roman Catholic Church conference on families.

"I ask your prayer for all families, that they will live in accordance with their God-given vocation and benefit from just governmental policies that safeguard their fundamental role in society," Benedict said in his traditional Sunday blessing.

Benedict did not expand on that comment, but the church has consistently criticized movements in Italy and other countries that call for legal rights for unmarried couples.

The Vatican's ties with Spain have been strained since the Socialists took office in 2004, with an agenda that has included legalizing gay marriage and making it easier for Spaniards to divorce.

Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero government also has scrapped plans by the previous conservative government to make religion classes mandatory in schools.

The overwhelmingly Catholic country is hosting the World Meeting of Families in the eastern coastal city of Valencia.

Benedict is scheduled to travel to Valencia July 8 and is scheduled to meet with Zapatero the next day, after a meeting with members of the Spanish royal family.

The Netherlands, Belgium, Spain and Canada have legalized same-sex marriage in recent years. Britain and several other European nations now give such couples the right to form partnerships that entitle them to most of the same tax and pension rights as married couples.