Highway to Heaven


The Catholic Church offers some rules for the road.

Defying years of fusty precedent, the Vatican this week issued a document customized for speedy entry onto the information superhighway, if not prominent mention in late-night monologues: A "Ten Commandments" for the road, as church officials called it with Letterman-esque whimsy, the document offers guidance for drivers so that "the road also becomes a path to holiness" rather than a flashpoint for road rage.

In reality, the Driver's Decalogue was just one section in a 36-page document titled "Guidelines for the Pastoral Care of the Road" (which makes it sound as if the pavement itself may be on the path to perdition) issued by the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Migrants and Travelers. The document's other three sections dealt with the critical issues of ministry to "street women" and pastoral care for street children and the homeless.

Naturally, it was the section on "The Pastoral Care of Road Users" that drew all the attention and created as much buzz as anything else the Roman Curia has done under the aegis of Pope Benedict XVI. Indeed, it is not often that a single church document prompts references to popular movies ("I don't care if it rains or freezes, Long as I got my plastic Jesus, Sitting on the dashboard of my car," sings Paul Newman's character in Cool Hand Luke), pop rockers (Jon Bon Jovi and his Lost Highway) and overly suggestive anthems (Meat Loaf's Paradise by the Dashboard Light), to cite just a few examples from the blogosphere and beyond.

Beneath the drollery, however, was widespread puzzlement as to why the Vatican would be devoting time and resources to such a mundane topic. Doesn't the Holy See have more serious worries, such as war and famine, and of course the salvation of souls? One explanation is that the document was generated by the Vatican agency headed by Cardinal Renato Martino, a longtime curialist whose flair for the juicy soundbite has periodically irritated his higher-ups.

Yet not only has he switched jobs, from theological "bad cop" to pastoral "good cop," but his role as pope has also revealed his nature as a classic conservative—a spiritual son of Augustine who stresses the cultivation of personal holiness, through the grace of God, as the remedy for society's ills, rather than structural "big government" solutions.

Yet if this week's document was not exactly Benedict's doing, it does reflect a concern the pope has expressed several times. And, as the extensive footnotes in the document show, every pontiff from Pius XII to Pope John Paul II has voiced reservations about the world's burgeoning car culture. Indeed, it is not much of a leap to see the Vatican's "Highway Code" as an important amplification of the church's ethic of life.

According to Steve Koepke, director of the Mississippi-based Sacred Heart Auto League—yes, such a thing exists—vehicle accidents are the leading cause of death among Americans from 3 to 33 years old. "I think this document fits quite well within the church's teachings on the respect for life." Vatican officials also noted that across the globe vehicular accidents result in 1.2 million deaths and 50 million injuries each year.

Moreover, as Mr. Koepke rightly notes, there is no small virtue in the church addressing itself to matters of everyday life, in the trenches where the battle between faith and fear plays out. "Driving and its dangers and frustrations are something that everyone can relate to," Mr. Koepke said. In fact, people everywhere, but especially in the U.S., are driving more than ever before, and usually under pressure to arrive ahead of the growing number of other drivers whose very presence makes the longer commute even longer and the likelihood of crashes ever higher. As the Vatican document notes, driving can bring out the "primitive" side of modern man, encouraging a "domination instinct" and reducing interpersonal communication to an exchange of obscene gestures.

The Vatican is careful to preface its comments by highlighting the positive aspects of mobility, which are not only "expressions of human nature and of our cultural development" but also have a scriptural lineage, from the wanderings of the Israelites to the parables of Jesus, including the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan. And modern transportation has facilitated interactions between cultures, as well as pilgrimages. But the document also warns that in the contemporary world, "Our lives are conditioned by the car, as mobility has become an idol, which the car symbolises."

And here is the heart of the document, and the influence of Benedict himself. When Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was elected pope in April 2005, many expected his papacy to be an extension of the doctrinal border patrol that he led during his years as head of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Yet not only has he switched jobs, from theological "bad cop" to pastoral "good cop," but his role as pope has also revealed his nature as a classic conservative—a spiritual son of Augustine who stresses the cultivation of personal holiness, through the grace of God, as the remedy for society's ills, rather than structural "big government" solutions.

Yes, Benedict has frequently evinced a "crunchy con's" solicitude for the environment—the Vatican recently announced it would install solar panels on the main audience hall—and the document states that the toll excessive driving exacts on the earth's resources is a chief concern.

Yet the new Ten Commandments are above all consistent with Benedict's thinking in that they do not demand a greater reliance on mass transit, nor do they push controversial proposals for congestion pricing or stricter fuel standards. Rather, the document stresses the primacy of the relatively low-profile virtues of prudence, humility and Christian holiness. "Those who know Jesus Christ are careful on the roads," the document says. "They don't only think about themselves, and are not always worried about getting to their destination in a great hurry." In a culture that produces shows like Pimp My Ride and exalts the use of military vehicles as family cars, that may not be such bad advice.

So before dismissing the Vatican's latest pronouncement as a waste of time that one could better spend sniffing out a prime parking space, it may be worth everyone's effort to sit down and read the document closely.

Just pull over to the side of the road first.



David Gibson. "Highway to Heaven." The Wall Street Journal (June 22, 2007).

Reprinted by permission of the Wall Street Journal and the author, David Gibson.


David Gibson is the author of The Rule of Benedict: Pope Benedict XVI and His Battle With the Modern World. He worked in Rome and traveled with Pope John Paul II for Vatican Radio, produces television documentaries on Christianity for CNN, and writes frequently for various newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times, Fortune, Boston Magazine, Commonweal and America.

Copyright © 2007 Wall Street Journal

Subscribe to CERC's Weekly E-Letter



Not all articles published on CERC are the objects of official Church teaching, but these are supplied to provide supplementary information.