That's what I did in a recent conversation with a bishop who had been told the Register was “conservative.”
“Bishop, the Register is not conservative,” I said.
“So,” he replied, “you're saying it has no agenda?”
“Not an agenda — a mission,” I explained. “The Register exists to promote the New Evangelization called for by Pope John Paul II. So, it reports on the vitality of the Church, on how the Church is changing the world with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
Imagine my dismay when, a few days later, I read a column written by a priest of the Archdiocese of Washington, practically giving the lie to what I had told the bishop. The column, which was syndicated by Catholic News Service and has appeared in numerous diocesan papers, is about the vocations shortage and how, for ideological reasons, “liberals” and “conservatives” cover the shortage from opposing angles.
For starters, the column labels this paper “the conservative National Catholic Register.” What could the term conservative mean in this context?
Catholic News Service's own Stylebook on Religion 2000 says: [T]his term often is used to signal contempt for sincerely held religious convictions. In general, do not apply it to an individual or group except in quoted matter or when someone uses it as a self-description.”
The syndicated column goes on to say that, if you read the Register, “you would think that there is no vocations problem at all.” The Register, you see, “is full of stories about overflowing seminaries and growing applications.”
In the writer's view, in the face of the priest shortage, “conservatives want to say, ‘What problem?’”
In the first place, the column misrepresents the Register's coverage. One article every few months on vocation successes hardly qualifies as making a weekly paper “full of” such stories.
In the second place, the column mis-represents self-described conservatives. They are the very ones who continually harp on the vocations shortage, because they predicted it. In their view, the vocations drain vindicates conservative criticism of inept catechetics, misguided pastoral programs, dissenting theology and defective seminary formation.
This is the true conservative approach, and the Register has never adopted it.
Why the double misrepresentation? Because such a caricature enables the writer to position himself “somewhere in the middle” — between the liberal press, which emphasizes the vocations shortage, and the conservative press, which supposedly refuses to acknowledge a vocations crisis.
“The difference in reporting,” he assures his readers, “is driven more by ideology than facts.”
He claims that the priest shortage will persist as long as “conservatives,” like the Register, fly in the face of reality and reject “any change in the priesthood that might be driven by necessity if they admit to a vocations crisis.”
Aha! So that's what “conservative” means.
Why choose to label the Register conservative? Because it promotes the Tridentine rite? Because it rejects Vatican II? Because it favors the death penalty? None of the above describes this paper. No, the Register gets the conservative label because it rejects change in the priesthood.
This enables the writer to call for “change in the priesthood” without being himself labeled liberal.
Clever, isn't it?
It's distressing to see people still stuck in the “spectrum model” of the Church. Especially since the '60s are over. Come to think of it, so are the '70s. So are the '80s. The '90s, too. This is the new millennium, the springtime of the New Evangelization.
Time magazine's secular-political interpretation of the Second Vatican Council as a struggle between good-guy liberals and bad-guy conservatives, which the good guys mostly won, was not true then, and was definitively and authoritatively rejected by bishops from the entire world in the Synod of 1985. That's a long time ago!
Be that as it may, there really is a priest shortage, and the writer quotes abundant statistics to prove it, as if they were needed. But the existence of the problem is not in question. What is in question is what to do about it.
One course of action would be to promote vocations. Other dioceses and groups could imitate the ones who are successfully attracting vocations — the ones the Register is reporting on.
That's not an option that the column writer wants his readers to think will work. So, he informs them that the Register is reporting only on “some few conservative dioceses and movements.”
This is simply inaccurate. What the Register is covering, when it occasionally covers a new flowering of priestly vocations, is not a handful of dioceses and movements fearful of genuinely needed change.
The Church recognizes the new ecclesial movements as a fruit of the Second Vatican Council, a living expression of the New Evangelization. They are active agents engaged in creating a civilization of justice and love, innovators of fresh approaches that build a culture of life. Those dioceses and religious communities that are experiencing a rebirth of vocations share the joyful spirit and enterprising attitudes that characterize ecclesial communities.
To brand them as “conservative” is either clueless or malicious. And when the branding is a smokescreen to cover an ideology promoting unspecified, necessity-driven “change in the priesthood,” then you have to wonder if it's merely clueless.
Why does the Register report occasionally on dioceses and groups that are successfully promoting vocations? Precisely because they could be imitated.
Other dioceses, communities and movements could promote a celibate, male priesthood that unabashedly calls for heroic sacrifice. They could foster prayer and eucharistic adoration, especially among young adults. They could find innovative ways to invite young men to discover and test their call.
They could provide a priestly formation that, at a minimum, respects a candidate's manliness, his Catholic faith and his desire for the priesthood as instituted by Jesus Christ and handed on by the Church — and reaffirmed time and again by the bishops of the world gathered in synod.
If they did, they would be successful. And for one simple reason: None of this is conservatism. It's New Evangelization. It's what the Spirit is asking of the churches. It's what God blesses.
But don't take it from me.
Take it from the bishop who heard the Register was “conservative.” Presented with the facts, he signed on for a three-year subscription.
Father Owen Kearns is the Register's publisher and editor-in-chief.