I was surprised to see, in the midst of summer vacation time, a four-part series from the National Catholic Reporter about the Eternal Word TV Network, a media empire started in 1981 by a feisty nun and her religious order in the Deep South.
EWTN has become so much a part of the fabric of the Catholic Church, that it’s the broadcaster for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops meetings and the gorilla in the room when it comes to any Catholic news media.
But it’s a gorilla with a political agenda, according to the first part of the series, which I guess is bad, judging from the story’s tone. After some opening paragraphs describing groveling interviews by EWTN anchor Lauren Ashburn with Vice President Mike Pence and former White House press secretary Sarah Sanders, the story adds:
The segment was clear evidence of how a television outlet once devoted to expressions of Catholic piety and conservative catechesis and apologetics has grown into a truly influential media empire, well connected to Republican politicians and the Trump White House. EWTN, where the "Catholic perspective" is unabashedly partisan, has also become the media star in a web of connections including wealthy conservative Catholic donors and some of the most public anti-Pope Francis forces in the Catholic world. Those connections, traceable through a maze of non-profit organizations, helped fuel EWTN's development. It is a complex tale involving the matchup of a peculiar brand of U.S. style conservative Catholicism with conservative political ideology and economic theory.
One red flag jumped out high up in the story:
NCR made repeated requests over nearly a week for comment from EWTN, but the network said it was unable to produce anyone to answer questions before publication.
The reporter behind the story has probably been working on this series for several months and she only gives EWTN one week to respond? That doesn’t seem fair to me, especially if the response window was during the summer school break, which starts early in southern states.
I wondered why NCR is running this story now, but the reason became clear with the following paragraphs about EWTN’s Raymond Arroyo’s sit-down with President Donald Donald Trump less than two weeks before the 2016 election.
During the 15-minute interview, Trump refused to talk about his prayer life and rambled about the Affordable Care Act being a "disaster" and religious liberty being "in tremendous trouble," but he gave clear, succinct answers when it came to an issue that is a central concern to the EWTN audience.
"You weren't always pro-life, but you now are determinedly and decidedly pro-life," said Arroyo, not exactly asking a question.
"Yes, I am pro-life," Trump affirmed.
"You said you are going to appoint judges who are pro-life," Arroyo said, again in statement form.
"Right," said Trump.
Eleven days later Trump was elected in a surprise victory, helped along, according to the Pew Research Center, by strong support from white Catholics, especially those who are regular Mass-goers — a typical EWTN viewer.
Since the election, NCR reports, some broadcasts on EWTN have gotten more and more politically partisan. I can’t hope to sum up all four parts of this series about EWTN but I can reflect on a few parts of it here and there. Yes, many of the shows on EWTN have gone from “piety to partisanship” in the course of several decades, but who hasn’t, in the American media marketplace?
But here is the big question: Is NCR a newsroom that can judge EWTN? Is this news, or is NCR just preaching to its own choir?
While secular alternatives to Fox News exist — from its counterpart on the left, MSNBC, to more centrist major network broadcasts — no alternatives are available to EWTN in the Catholic world. Once it overtook an early and flawed attempt by the U.S. bishops to form their own network, EWTN quickly became the only major Catholic voice on the television landscape in the United States — and that voice has gone global.
So tell us why the establishment alternative flopped.
The bottom line: I’m not getting a cogent explanation for just why millions of Catholics tune into the traditional faith vibe of EWTN. I’m talking coverage of Fatima, the rosary, the Daily Mass broadcasts. That’s what is missing from the entire series. Could it be that EWTN is supplying a vital part of the faith that’s not available in your typical American Catholic parish?
In the second part, about how EWTN has aligned itself with anti-Pope Francis elements, including Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò. The story finds fault with EWTN’s links to Viganò, even though what he revealed about former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick a year ago has turned out to be largely true.
Unlike any pope in recent history, the Catholic right has become truly alarmed over many of Francis’ decisions and many people are in full battle array against him. I’m curious why NCR finds their advocacy alarming, but not that of Catholic left groups at the opposite end of the pole.
Why is the activism of the right always dangerous and bordering on fascism while the activism of the left is always justified and above board? Example:
The rhetoric against Francis is unprecedented in the past two centuries, said Jesuit Fr. Mark Massa, director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College, who studies religion and history.
"This is stirring up a pot, which if it boils over, may very well be guilty of schism," he said.
"They're really afraid of Francis' reform efforts and are willing to do almost anything, or align themselves with anyone, to stop him," Massa added. "They're complaining about division in the church, but quite honestly they're the people sowing division."
And … where’s the balancing quote that should follow this blatant assertion? It’s not there. Is the series basically a four-part pity party by the Catholic left? Feels like it.
The series follows EWTN’s finances in part three , in a lengthy list of the network’s donors, assets and related organizations. No fireworks here but it’s worth scanning to see which Catholic names align themselves with the network.
Right in the middle of the series, NCR ran a short story on the sudden departure of Ashburn, EWTN’s lead anchor. It’s clear something is up there and I’m curious why NCR doesn’t have the sources to ferret out why she left.
The fourth and (apparently) final part of the series is about the foundress herself. The story assumes we’ve all read the many bios about Mother Angelica, as there’s not a ton of details about the early years. Until the early 1990s, the station served up a kind of white bread style of Catholicism. Then:
But in 1993, during World Youth Day in Denver — in which EWTN's live coverage of the event had already raised its national profile — Mother Angelica exploded over a living Stations of the Cross that featured a female actor for Jesus. In a half-hour tongue-lashing, she excoriated the "liberal church" for this "abomination," and vowed to help take the church back.
"I'm so tired of you, liberal church in America," she said, using the second person to talk directly to those she saw as destroyers of the church over the past 30 years.
"I don't like your church. You have nothing to offer. You do nothing but destroy," she said, adding that "you've been strong too long."
In short, this is a story about a nun who was a nobody who somehow built a multimillion-dollar network perched on a hill in a Birmingham, Ala., suburb, hardly the U.S. center for Catholicism. I would have liked NCR to at least fawn on her a little for doing the impossible, whether it was through gumption, grace or God.
Early on, EWTN received funding from wealthy Catholics anxious to see Catholicism catch up with Protestant evangelical success on TV, according to the Arroyo biography. In 1993 — after a vision of Michael the archangel, Mother Angelica said — EWTN launched its short-wave radio station, WEWN, which transmits to the Caribbean, Central and South America, and Africa. An angel may have pointed out the hilltop where Mother Angelica should build the facility, but it was Piet Derksen, a Dutch leisure-industry billionaire who gave her the money to do it, according to a profile of Mother Angelica in Crisis magazine.
This is where the reporter’s lack of inside sources really hurts. It’s embarrassing to have to crib from something that appeared in Crisis 18 years ago.
There is a lot of good material in this quartet of stories. What’s missing is some credit to Mother Angelica for having figured out the pulse of the Catholics who lean more conservative than the McCarricks of this world, the Nuns on the Bus folks and, well, NCR itself. What these folks did right; how they have helped stem the dash toward the church exits among many U.S. Catholics and how the EWTN-owned National Catholic Register has finally come into its own as a publication that actually breaks stories –- none of that really gets any credit.
It would not have taken much to have given a more even-handed assessment of EWTN’s success, conservative and money-laden as it may be. Remember, a lot of conservative media showed up as a reaction to liberal outlets, as was the case with my old employer, The Washington Times, which took on The Washington Post when no one else would. Opposition doesn’t rise out of nowhere. There must be a liberal swing that produces a conservative reaction.
I’m not asking for NCR to like the EWTN folks. But if the latter has helped U.S. Catholicism keep at least some of the pews filled for another decade despite the never-ending clergy sex abuse crisis, some credit is due.