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 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.