John Garvey

John Garvey

My wife and I drove across Pennsylvania yesterday after a weekend visit to my hometown. It’s about a six-hour trip, so we did the usual things to pass the time. We talked about work and the children and called several of them. We prayed the rosary. We played the alphabet game. When my wife dozed off, I listened to some music on my earphones.

Four years ago, the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission posted signs (“quit txtng on trnpk!”) reminding drivers not to text or talk on hand-held cellphones. Pennsylvania doesn’t want distracted drivers passing one another at 65 miles per hour.

I don’t text, but the signs got me thinking about things I do that I shouldn’t. I set the speedometer at 70 m.p.h. When we said the rosary, I unbuckled my seat belt to fish mine out of my pocket. When we played the alphabet game, I looked for letters on passing trucks. (It’s hard to find the letter “X,” but US Xpress trucks are a good source.) To listen to music, I had to push about five buttons on my phone.

All innocuous actions, considered separately. But together they might not be very different from driving after a couple of drinks. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that 3,154 people were killed in 2013 by distracted drivers — people talking, texting, tuning the radio, eating lunch.

In our case, nothing happened. But is there a morally significant difference between me and Stephanie Kanoff, who was texting on her phone while she plowed her minivan into a young man at low speed while driving home from work in Madison, Wisconsin? She was sentenced to prison for vehicular homicide.

Some philosophers would describe the difference between us as “moral luck.” What if, when I took my eyes off the road, a hitchhiker or a car merging from an on-ramp suddenly appeared in front of me, too late to avoid? It’s no credit to me that I didn’t kill someone during my moments of inattention.

Catholics usually feel they’re in the clear if their intentions are good, but some forms of negligence produce grave consequences despite little willfulness or actual malice. Perhaps I act wrongly in diverting my attention from driving just to get my rosary out. On the other hand, it seems excessively scrupulous to categorize this as a potential subtle offense against the Fifth Commandment: Thou shall not kill.

Perhaps we should instead approach this question as driver’s education instructors do, and say simply that good driving habits are the surest defense against negligence or distraction.

If I am otherwise fastidious about minding the road — hands on the wheel, eyes up, checking the mirror, minding my blind spot, keeping the speed limit — then I will instinctively resist the urge to reach in my pockets for other distractions.

A broad recognition of the seriousness of driving helps keep my attention where it belongs. If possible, others can tune radios and count beads for me.

In the moral life, virtues are good habits. Maybe we should focus on cultivating virtue, rather than on doing or avoiding particular acts, because the former makes the latter possible.

The beatitudes teach us not so much what to do but what to be: meek, merciful, pure of heart, peacemakers, hungry for what is right. As with the driving example, the virtues we cultivate in life will create in us a recognition of its seriousness.

This is how we can avoid not only obvious sins of commission but also negligence in how we deal with God and treat others.


Garvey is president of The Catholic University of America in Washington.