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Opinion: Rediscovering the family

As Catholic bishops conclude a synod on marriage and family, DW's John Berwick says we need to reset our priorities. He maintains that a society that puts economic growth above family values has lost its soul.

It would be easy to give up on the whole idea of family life and try to redefine the basic building block of society. The steep rise in the number of broken marriages and the tendency of many young people to reject marriage altogether point in that direction. Perhaps, however, the problem lies not in the marriage ideal itself but in our false priorities.

"It is impossible to escape the impression that people commonly use false standards of measurement," wrote Sigmund Freud in the last century. "That they seek power, success and wealth for themselves and admire them in others, and that they underestimate what is of true value in life." Things haven't changed, it seems.

From the Moldovan mother who migrates to Western Europe to work as a cleaner and is forced to leave her children behind to fend for themselves, to the American tycoon who struggles to fit a few "quality hours" with his family into a monstrous work schedule, we are all more or less slaves to an economic system that is intrinsically hostile to family life. Surely one of the saddest stories of our times is the emblematic decision of Steve Jobs to get his autobiography ghost-written before he died so that, as he said, his children would get to know him.

DW Religionskorrespondent John Berwick

DW's John Berwick

Badly prepared for marriage

Of course, it's not just a matter of time management or reforming an economic system - it's also about individuals adopting a mature approach to marriage and parenthood. With all the educational resources at our disposal, it's extraordinary how badly we prepare young people for the most important decision of their lives. As Pope Francis pointed out, "Most people spend more time preparing for an exam than they do for marriage." No wonder, then, that intimate relationships are often managed like a computer game. At the first sight of failure, you exit the program and start afresh.

It is therefore timely and appropriate that Catholic bishops from around the world have been discussing these difficult issues in Rome for the past three weeks. Pope Francis asked them to identify the problems confronting families, and suggest ways in which the church could help parents better connect with their children.

Contrary to all the media hype that emphasized bitter divisions within the synod, the final document that emerged Saturday evening is surprisingly positive. It doesn't merely dwell on the problems, but offers comfort and encouragement. One of its most valuable insights is the crucial role that the bishops assign to individual conscience. They explicitly acknowledge the need for caution in universally applying abstract ethical principles.

That is precisely the kind of distinction that Pope Francis likes to make when speaking of the need for mercy and compassion. If embraced by the church, it will open the door for many who currently feel excluded. This is not a question of relativizing Christian values, and it falls far short of a general acceptance of remarried divorcees and homosexual couples into the fullness of church life. But it is a start. It is an important shift. It acknowledges that we are all in a process of becoming and that none of us is perfect. We need to be patient and compassionate toward each other as we struggle toward improving.

John Berwick is religious affairs editor of DW's English program.