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Pastoral Care of the Road: Martino’s Folly?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Jun 22, 2007

It is difficult to know what to make of Guidelines for Pastoral Care of the Road, a document recently issued by the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant Peoples. It is like a lengthy and uninspiring sermon, systematically covering what we already know about basic human topics which appear to require no very deep reflection. It is one of those things from which you can benefit if you try.

This, of course, is how I prefer to view any Vatican document. In the present case, I was intrigued by the document’s unusual title and could see at a glance that it covered important topics, and so I called positive attention to it in one of our regular emails. One sharp-eyed reader suggested that I had, in effect, made a “valiant attempt to save Cardinal Renato Martino from his latest folly.” On reflection, there is probably a grain of truth in that assessment, but it is not the whole truth.

Of the document’s four sections, the last three are at least universally regarded as significant topics. Section two covers street women (prostitution), section three covers street children, and section four covers the homeless. The first section covers all those who use roadways or railways, as if this phenomenon is somehow in need of special Christian notice. That’s the section which raises eyebrows, prompting the question of whether the Vatican has anything better to do. I’ll return to it in a moment.

The document as a whole is unobjectionable and, as I said, uninspiring. It takes its four topics, which seem relatively simple and straightforward morally and spiritually, and simply applies a template of standard things to say about how we should understand and address them. The document makes no effort to present comprehensive or incisive data on these problems, and it contains neither significant insights nor remarkable strategies. At the same time, it does properly call attention to profound and endemic social difficulties which Christians should stop taking for granted and try to do something about.

The eyebrow-raising first section, however, gives the impression of straining gnats, precisely because it takes a commonplace of daily life and tries, in effect, to turn it into a catechism lesson. Ten commandments for drivers, indeed! It is almost inevitable that this section will strike many readers as either amusing, or shallow, or simply platitudinous, if I may be excused the word. It is this quality of the document which lends force to the “valiant attempt” theory cited above.

And yet, and yet. In this business of critiquing our use of the “road”, the document makes a first effort to call our attention to something significant about the spatial mobility which lies at the heart of modern culture. If we step outside ourselves, as if we are from another planet or another era, we might begin to see a deeper significance in how we move around, how we purchase and use automobiles, how we view the freedom and independence of travel, how we behave when we leave home, and how all this shapes our identity as persons. We might begin to think about rootlessness, evasion of responsibility, and spiritual vacuity.

Does the document say anything particularly deep about this problem? Well, perhaps not, at least not at first reading. But it is a problem worth thinking about, and I suspect there are profound insights to be gained from a deeper reflection. In this process, Guidelines for the Pastoral Care of the Road may lead to insights which go beyond the letter of its text.

Martino’s folly? Perhaps. But, in the end, it is really about our own folly, isn’t it? It is always about the will to benefit from what we are given.

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