“Keep the defense strong; step up offense.”

Pope Benedict and Italy’s World Cup soccer coach both gave the same advice last weekend.

The Holy Father delivered his at the World Meeting of Families in Spain when journalists wanted to draw him into a fight. Spain has been very rebellious on the marriage issue, one journalist pointed out. Was the Holy Father going to scold them? But the Pope insisted, “I only wish to offer a message of encouragement.”

Pope Benedict refused to allow the Church’s rich teaching on marriage to be reduced to talking points in a political fight.

“I would not like to begin immediately with the negative aspects, because I am thinking of families that love one another, that are happy. We want to encourage this reality, which is really the reality that gives hope for the future.”

At the same time, he kept his defense clear. “There are also problems, points where the Christian faith says ‘No,’ it is true,” he said, “and we want to make it understood that, precisely according to the nature of the human being, man and woman are ordered one for the other, and that they are also ordered to give a future to humanity.”

This is the same strategy he followed during the meeting.

In a series of addresses, the Pope carefully unfolded the Church’s teaching on the sacrament of matrimony without dwelling on — in fact, he hardly mentioned — the modern mistakes about marriage.

The response of the journalists? “Benedict Blasts Modern Spain,” said one headline. “‘God’s Rottweiller’ Chews at Gay Marriage” said another.

So far, the debate about marriage has much in common with other debates the Church is engaged in. On the one side, the Church offers detailed teaching, marked by its comprehensive approach, touching on a number of different fields and giving a positive alternative. The other side at best shrugs off the Church’s argument; at worst, it sneers at it.

Take abortion, for instance. Catholic scholars in every discipline have shown the reality and significance of human life. Geneticists have expounded on early human development, giving the Church a bioethics in the 1980s that addressed moral dilemmas that only became possible in the 21st century. Catholic philosophers, sociologists, theologians and psychologists have comprehensively researched and persuasively argued the importance of protecting life for decades.

But the answering argument isn’t nearly as complete. There’s no science explaining how embryos aren’t human, no theology that makes abortion a Godly practice, and no psychologist who can explain away the suffering of post-abortive women. The nations of the West have usually responded, simply, “But we want abortion,” and that is the argument that carried the day.

Likewise, the Church has explained in detail what marriage does for children, for parents, for families and for society at large. It has shown why it must be protected, why it must be defined carefully and what the consequences are when that definition is tampered with. The evidence is in that homosexual relationships are more likely to be transitory, that they are much more likely to be guilty of spousal abuse and that children don’t thrive in such families.

Still, “but we want it” has won the day.

That’s why Pope Benedict’s strategy is important.

At the World Meeting on Families, he said he wanted to do two things. First, as he said in his opening address, “I wish to set forth the central role, for the Church and for society, proper to the family based on marriage.” This he did.

But then he asked families to make the one argument that can win the marriage debate: the example of their own happiness.

“The best way to counter a widespread hedonism,” he said, is to show with our lives that marriage “does not stand in the way of fully experiencing the happiness that man and women encounter in their mutual love.”

The world wants happiness. If they see Catholic marriages that are happy, that’s what they’ll want. If they don’t, then no argument will convince them.

It’s the same with children. “If children see that their parents live life with joy and enthusiasm, despite all difficulties, they will themselves develop a profound ‘joy of life.’”

The next generation will be looking for the answers that can only be found in authentic love.

It can seem too late for marriage — like both the game and the overtime have passed and we still haven’t won. But it’s never too late. Just ask Italy’s World Cup team.