A pontifical conciliar embarrassment

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 forty-six 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’s 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 forty 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.

COMING UP: Q&A: USCCB clarifies intent behind bishops’ Eucharist document

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Last week, the U.S. bishop concluded their annual Spring meeting, during which much about the Church in the U.S was discussed. In particular, the bishops voted to draft a document on the meaning of Eucharistic life in the Church, which was approved by an overwhelming majority.

Since then, speculation about the nature of the document has run rampant, the chief of which is that it was drafted specifically to instigate a policy aimed directly at Catholic politicians and public figures whose outward political expressions and policy enactment do not align with Church teaching.

The USCCB has issued a brief Q&A clarifying the intent of the document, and they have emphasized that “the question of whether or not to deny any individual or groups Holy Communion was not on the ballot.”

“The Eucharist is the source and summit of Christian life,” the USCCB said. “The importance of nurturing an ever
deeper understanding of the beauty and mystery of the Eucharist in our lives is not a new topic for the bishops. The document being drafted is not meant to be disciplinary in nature, nor is it targeted at any one individual or class of persons. It will include a section on the Church’s teaching on the responsibility of every Catholic, including bishops, to live in accordance with the truth, goodness and beauty of the Eucharist we celebrate.”

Below are a few commonly asked questions about last week’s meeting and the document on the Eucharist.

Why are the bishops doing this now?

For some time now, a major concern of the bishops has been the declining belief and understanding of the Eucharist among the Catholic faithful. This was a deep enough concern that the theme of the bishops’ strategic plan for 2021-2024 is Created Anew by the Body and Blood of Christ: Source of Our Healing and Hope. This important document on the Eucharist will serve as a foundation for the multi-year Eucharistic Revival Project, a major national effort to reignite Eucharistic faith in our country. It was clear from the intensity and passion expressed in the individual interventions made by the bishops during last week’s meeting that each bishop deeply loves the Eucharist.

Did the bishops vote to ban politicians from receiving Holy Communion?

No, this was not up for vote or debate. The bishops made no decision about barring anyone from receiving Holy Communion. Each Catholic — regardless of whether they hold public office or not — is called to continual conversion, and the U.S. bishops have repeatedly emphasized the obligation of all Catholics to support human life and dignity and other fundamental principles of Catholic moral and social teaching.

Are the bishops going to issue a national policy on withholding Communion from politicians?

No. There will be no national policy on withholding Communion from politicians. The intent is to present a clear understanding of the Church’s teachings to bring heightened awareness among the faithful of how the Eucharist can transform our lives and bring us closer to our creator and the life he wants for us.

Did the Vatican tell the bishops not to move forward on drafting the document?

No. The Holy See did encourage the bishops to engage in dialogue and broad consultation. Last week’s meeting was the first part of that process. It is important to note that collaboration and consultation among the bishops will be key in the drafting of this document.


Featured photo by Eric Mok on Unsplash