Back in the early Fifties, a papal allocution to an assemblage of ENT specialists might deploy a phrase like “the divinely ordained harmony among ear, nose and throat.”
They were a kind of language-game, those baroque trills on Just About Everything; and, to be generous, they reflected the core Catholic conviction that the world fits together intelligibly because the world was created through the Word, the reason, of God. Still, it was no loss when that particular language-game, which was open to gentle (and sometimes not-so-gentle) ridicule, was abandoned by the Holy See.
Until June: which brought us “Guidelines for the Pastoral Care of the Road,” an effusion from the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant Peoples that generated a tsunami of (generally good-natured) mockery when it was released.
The 46-page document is, in fact, a satirist’s delight, as it veers from the obvious (“…traffic has increased…”) to psychobabble (“When driving a car some people start up the engine to join a race, in order to escape from the troubling pace of everyday life.”), and from pop-anthropology (“Cars tend to bring out the ‘primitive’ side of human beings, thereby producing unpleasant results.”) to — well, to assertions that probably didn’t sit well in Maserati-crazed Italy (“Cars particularly lend themselves to being used by owners to show off, and as a means for outshining other people and arousing a feeling of envy.”).
Waxing phenomenological in lame imitation of John Paul II, the document informs us that “Driving…means co-existing” — a line that could only have been written by someone utterly unfamiliar with Massachusetts Route 128 or the Capitol Beltway. Back in 1956, we are reminded, “Pope Pius XII exhorted motorists, ‘Do not forget to respect other road users, be courteous and fair with other drivers and show them your obliging nature.'” (Let’s hope that other aspects of Pius’ magisterium were more fervently embraced by his fellow-Romans.)
Then, having enlightened us phenomenologically and instructed us morally, the Pontifical Council proposes for our reflection “Ten Commandments for Driving,” which begin with an oldie-but-goodie (“I. You shall not kill.”) and include lessons in parenting (“VI. Charitably convince the young…not to drive when they are not in a fitting condition to do so.”). The opening adverb in the latter is, I fear, an implicit criticism of the reminder my wife and I gave each of our children when they first began to drive by themselves: “Remember: we don’t do bail.”
Why on earth is the Vatican concocting such stuff? At a Roman press conference, a reporter noted the “Fifth Commandment” (“Cars shall not be for you an expression of power and domination, and an occasion of sin.”) and asked when a car became an occasion of sin. “When a car is used as a place for sin,” replied the President of the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant Peoples, Cardinal Renato Martino, who may or not have been referring to certain scenes in American Graffiti, George Lucas’s classic tribute to the drive-in.
To make matters worse, and before the section rather brusquely titled “The Pastoral Care of the Homeless (Tramps),” “Guidelines for the Pastoral Care of the Road” does address two urgent problems: sex-trafficking and prostitution (which are modern forms of slavery), and the growing crisis of street children (which lends itself to other forms of slavery, in addition to the sexual variety). But who was paying attention, after all that blather about cars and driving?
Pontifical councils like “Migrants and Itinerant Peoples” were created after Vatican II as in-house think-tanks, intended to initiate serious studies for the benefit of the pope, the Roman Curia, and the world’s bishops. Over the past 40 years, however, too many of these councils have become typical international bureaucracies, churning out paper because churning out paper is what international bureaucracies do, no matter how few people read what’s churned out.
An evangelically-minded pope like Benedict XVI (a BMW man, by the way) might consider whether all this faux-theological blah-blah isn’t an embarrassment to the Holy See and an impediment to the Church’s evangelical mission.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.