Reforming the German family.

Author:Root, Michael
Position:OPINIONS - Essay


Which is more important for the family: marriage or Sunday-closing laws? The answer is clear for the Protestant church in Germany: Marriage is not to be considered a "presupposition" for family, but Sunday-closing laws are "indispensable" for families. Such are the conclusions of Between Autonomy and Dependence: Strengthening Family as a Reliable Community, a study released in June by the Evangelische Kirche in Deutschland, the federation of regional Lutheran, Reformed, and United churches that includes almost all German Protestants.

The initial idea would appear to have been a primarily social policy study of how the Church can help families respond to contemporary pressures on family life: more families where both parents must work to provide the desired income, a growing number of single-parent households, shrinking time for family life. The EKD is one of the largest social-service providers in Germany and does much work with families under stress.

The commission was chaired by the former family minister in the federal government, an engaged layperson. The academic experts came from law, social work, and sociology faculties, with the exception of one junior theology professor with an interest in social questions. The study describes itself as "an aid to orientation." The precise status of the EKD is something of a mystery; its constitution says that it is "a communion of churches." Church teaching and order, however, is a matter for the member churches.

Much of the text is the sort of policy-oriented study one would expect, rather wonkish in its details and with chapter titles such as "Constitutional Assumptions and Models of Marriage and Family in Contemporary Family Law." The information and analysis are often to the point. The commission, however, thought it needed to do more. It sought to provide a theological account of what constitutes a family. And just there the train ran off the tracks, with disastrous and, one fears, all-too-revealing results.

Between Autonomy and Dependence understands the family functionally. Humanity is created with a need for an intimate, secure, dependable community that can be a framework for children and for the continuity of the generations. Families are ways of meeting these needs, but the family has "no fixed structure," neither historically nor biblically, as the text repeatedly asserts. It is, as the chair of the EKD's council put it upon presenting the report, "an...

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