EWTN: The legacy of Mother Angelica

If you have not read Raymond Schroth’s highly intelligent essay about EWTN and the legacy of Mother Angelica, you should do so. Finally, having allowed an appropriate amount of time to lapse since Mother Angelica’s death, Schroth has summoned the courage to ask the most relevant question: Can Catholic TV do better?

Let me stipulate that EWTN provides programming for which I am truly grateful. My father turns 88 next week, and he enjoys tuning in for the Mass on snowy winter days when he can’t make it to Mass on his own. But, I have also found myself having to explain some of the things he hears on other programs the network hosts and need to reassure him that Fr. Gerald Murray, a frequent guest on Raymond Arroyo's "The World Over" does not know what he is talking about and his hostility to the pope is as regrettable as it is remarkable.

Schroth's penultimate paragraph asks this question which has been running through my head since Mother died: "Couldn't the bishops, the Catholic universities with strong media, theology and social justice programs, and foundations put their heads together and come up with programming that deals with the challenges Pope Francis has offered on the environment, justice and peace and appeals to the mind and soul rather than to nostalgia and intellectual isolation?" And, the conclusion I have reached is: "No, they couldn’t."

The reason the bishops and the universities could not pull off a network that offered more substantive, and more truly Catholic, programming, is alluded to elsewhere in Schroth’s essay, when he observes: "Whether EWTN wants to be considered real journalism or the mouthpiece of the National Catholic Register -- which it owns -- and the Knights of Columbus who support them, a sort of Catholic FOX News, remains to be seen." The secret to EWTN’s success is that it is sectarian, not Catholic, and partisan not disinterested.

In 1980, Ted Turner founded CNN and since that time, they have owned the lane marked "disinterested cable news channel." (Of course, sometimes they also own the lane labeled "ambulance chasers on steroids," but that is a different story.)  But, the two other reasonably successful cable news channels could not jump into that lane. Fox works because it plays to a right-wing audience that is looking for confirmation of its views. MSNBC similarly directs its appeal to a liberal audience. As I have noted before, you could hear on both channels the exact same arguments being used for different ideological purposes, when Fox would denounce the Affordable Care Act because we can’t have "government coming between you and your doctor," and MSNBC would run a segment on government regulation of abortion clinics, which it opposed, because, as we all know, we can't have "government coming between you and your doctor." The intellectual inconsistencies do not matter to the audience because it is the ideological consistency that they seek.

There is something, indeed a lot, to be said for these more partisan channels. One of the challenges facing purportedly unbiased news channels is how to cover politics at a time when we can only wistfully recall Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan's famous quip: "You are entitled to your own opinion but you are not entitled to your own facts." Many today do think they are entitled to their own facts and, regrettably, the press, in an effort to appear unbiased, ends up presenting true facts and false ones as "on the one hand and on the other." Rare is the journalist who will confront an interviewee who has just said something patently false, such as denying the validity of the president's birth certificate or the reliability of the science surrounding climate change. I prefer a "biased" and partisan account to this faux fairness doctrine in which obviously false claims are given credence in the name of balance.

The bishops could not successfully build a network and Mother Angelica could because she was happy to create an ideologically driven network. The bishops were then, as now, divided amongst themselves and could not have agreed on the editorial direction of a network modeled to be a Catholic CNN. What could work, and what Mother Angelica undertook, was to create a Catholic Fox News. They would not be Catholic in the broad sense of the word, embracing all, but would be sectarian, embracing a particular narrative of the church at this moment in history. It did not hurt them that some other powerful players in the church were content with such a project. As Todd Scribner showed in his book A Partisan Church: American Catholicism & the Rise of Neo-Conservative Catholics, the founding of EWTN coincided with the rising prominence of Catholic thinkers like Fr. Richard Neuhaus, George Weigel and Michael Novak, who rendered an interpretation of Catholicism that nestled it comfortably within the assumptions of the Republican Party. In the year 2000, Carl Anderson, who formerly worked for Sen. Jesse Helms and President Ronald Reagan, was chosen to lead the Knights of Columbus. The staff at the USCCB was increasingly drawn exclusively from among veterans of Republican Party, and other conservative, politics. EWTN was the popular version of First Things, the Republican Party at prayer. No wonder my dad gets confused sometimes.

Now, in the reign of Pope Francis, bishops are being asked to reexamine some of their presuppositions about what engagement in the public square should look like, and not just public engagement, but evangelization and catechesis and pastoral practice. Lord knows they are not willing to challenge Mr. Anderson: They never know when they will need him to cut them a check. The USCCB is used to serve the objectives of about half the conference. And EWTN? Will any bishop stand up and challenge them to be less sectarian and partisan? I am not counting on it. The tributes from the hierarchy at the time of her death were excessive, at least if you compared them to the tributes to countless other women religious who have gone to God after having given their lives to the church, women religious who have thoroughly lived out Pope Francis’ vision of “a poor church for the poor.” Most importantly, if you tune in to many EWTN programs, it is clear that they have decided to represent the opposition to Francis. Why do the bishops tolerate this? Some because they share the distaste for Francis. Others because they do not realize how far to the right they have been dragged these many years.

There is a cabal afoot with Pope Francis cast as the Earl of Clarendon. I have my inclinations about who is playing the part of Buckingham, the central figure in the original, and who else is filling out the acronym: Clifford, Ashley, Buckingham, Arlington and Lauderdale. But, I have no doubt that the cabal’s network is EWTN. And, it is time for the bishops of the United States to decide if they want to be a part of that. 

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