Today the Vatican announced that Pope Francis has accepted the resignation of Bishop Robert Baker of Birmingham, Alabama, and has appointed Bishop Steven Raica, bishop of the diocese of Gaylord, Michigan, to replace him. Typically, the transfer of a bishop from a tiny diocese in Northern Michigan (46,000 Catholics) to another small diocese (where only about 3.4 percent of the population is Catholic) wouldn’t draw much attention, but Church-watchers have had their eyes on this post for the last several years because it is home to the Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN), the largest Catholic media network in the world.
Launched in 1981 as a basic cable network by the feisty and determined Poor Clare nun, Mother Angelica, the operation has grown into a global multimedia network through television, radio, and the internet. The organization now owns the Catholic News Agency (CNA) and the National Catholic Register, in addition to its own news department. EWTN has reigned as the only nationwide Catholic broadcast network in the US since the demise of the bishops’ own effort, the Catholic Telecommunications Network of America (CTNA), in the early 1990s.
During her nearly 20 years at the helm of the network, Mother Angelica was no stranger to controversy. She often butted heads with US bishops, most notoriously in the late 1990s with the former archbishop of Los Angeles, Cardinal Roger Mahony. On her program, she railed against a pastoral letter he wrote, interpreting it to say that he denied the Real Presence in the Eucharist. She told her television audience, “the cardinal of California is teaching that it is bread and wine before the Eucharist and after the Eucharist. I am afraid my obedience in that diocese would be absolutely zero. And I hope everybody else’s in that diocese is zero.” Cardinal Mahoney objected, and even appealed to Rome. Mother Angelica offered an on-air “apology” that was widely interpreted as tongue-in-cheek, but the network survived the incident relatively unscathed.
Mother Angelica was concerned about the future of EWTN, and was afraid of the possibility of the network eventually falling under the control of the US bishops. In a 2005 interview, EWTN anchor Raymond Arroyo recounted,
“This priest called her from the [bishops’] Conference and said, ‘Who are you to decide which bishops should be on air?’ She said, ‘I happen to own the network.’ He said, ‘Well, you won’t be there forever.’ And she said, ‘I’ll blow the damn thing up before you get your hands on it. I’ve chosen my Magisterium, you choose yours.’ And hung up the phone.”
In 2000, Mother Angelica made good on this promise, handing over control of the network to a lay board of trustees and out of the reach of episcopal oversight. As a consecrated religious sister and founder of a religious order bound by a vow of obedience, there was always the possibility of the local bishop or even the Vatican interfering with the operation of EWTN. By relinquishing control of the network to a group of lay Catholics, the capacity of the hierarchy to impose direct oversight becomes much more remote.
During the Mother Angelica era and continuing after her 2001 resignation as director of the network—through the Papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI—EWTN’s programming was often critical of US bishops and questioned their orthodoxy. But in a way similar to 19th-century European ultramontanists, their disdain for the hierarchy did not extend to the pope. The network presented itself as the voice of uncompromising and true Catholicism, devoted to the pope and faithful to the Magisterium. Clearly, this accounts for much of EWTN’s success. After enduring years of liturgical experimentation and doctrinal dissent following the second Vatican Council, many Catholics found themselves disoriented and disillusioned by the institutional Church. EWTN offered them the stability and firm emphasis on doctrine that they craved.
Since the election of Pope Francis in 2013, however, the network has continued its regular criticism of members of the hierarchy, but the pope is no longer exempt. In The Outsider, veteran Vatican journalist Christopher Lamb’s new book investigating the campaign by members of the hierarchy and media to undermine and derail Francis’s papacy, he describes the ideological framework the network employs in its portrayal of the pope. He writes,
“EWTN has built itself as the institutional Catholic media power base in the battle for the narrative of the Francis pontificate. It is less focused on reporting and analyzing the events of this pontificate as it is on passing judgment on it. It is Fox News under a Catholic cover.”
Lamb’s book details the numerous times opponents of Francis’s papacy have used EWTN and its affiliates to ambush Pope Francis, including the Viganò testimony and the public release of the dubia — in which four retired cardinals challenged the orthodoxy of Amoris Laetitia, Francis’s teaching on the family — in the National Catholic Register.
The book also reveals that the Vatican is aware of the problematic content on EWTN, particularly the weekly program The World Over Live, hosted by Raymond Arroyo. (We have addressed some of the problematic and misleading content on this program here, here, here, and here.) Lamb reveals in the book that Archbishop Christoph Pierre, papal nuncio to the US, has admonished current EWTN chief executive Michael Warsaw about the show’s regular attacks on Francis and his papacy:
“Warsaw has been privately challenged about Arroyo by the papal ambassador to the United States, Archbishop Christoph Pierre, generally seen as one of the Holy See’s surest-footed diplomats. Warsaw and EWTN defend Arroyo by saying that he has a large following and is untouchable due to his close links to Mother Angelica.
Archbishop Pierre, according to my sources, was not pleased with Warsaw’s response during their conversation and felt that the EWTN boss was showing a distinct lack of courage. ‘You’re a coward,’ the nuncio told him.”
Warsaw, however, objects to the charge that the program opposes Pope Francis. Responding to the claim, he said,
“I believe it is unfair to suggest that The World Over features only guests who are negative about Pope Francis. … The nature of that program is to critically examine events both inside and outside the Church in a format that is similar to secular news outlets with a number of guests who offer their own opinions and personal perspectives on the issues of the day.”
Still, these attempts at damage control are unconvincing, especially given the network’s coverage of October’s Amazon synod, including a program where Father Mitch Pacwa, host of another weekly program, promoted the false narrative that the ceremony in the Vatican Gardens on October 4 was “a major scandal” and the worship of “other gods.” On another occasion, Father Matthew Mary Bartow, a member of the religious order founded by Mother Angelica, delivered a nationally televised homily that was essentially a litany of the most overused anti-Francis reactionary talking points.
I asked Lamb for his assessment of the relationship between EWTN and the Church, and particularly about their treatment of the current pontificate. He told me,
“Offering healthy and robust criticism of Church leaders — including Popes — is the job of Catholic journalists. But some parts of EWTN and its publications appear to be doing something else. What we have seen is a concerted effort to undermine the Francis papacy through a consistent stream of hostile coverage. One could understand it coming from a secular outlet, but the fact it originates in the biggest Catholic media outlet in the world raises serious questions. Why have they decided to set themselves against the Successor of St Peter? Given that ordinary Catholics overwhelmingly support Francis, whose interests are they serving?”
These are extremely important questions. As I have emphasized repeatedly, it is impossible for a Catholic to reject the magisterial and ecclesial authority of the Church while also remaining faithful to the Church. EWTN is apparently trying to have it both ways, claiming loyalty to the pope while regularly attacking the foundation of his papacy.
What is extremely difficult to understand is why they are doing this. It would be less serious if their criticism was of Francis’s prudential decisions, his pastoral approach, or his prioritization of issues. What their uncritical promotion of the message of figures such as Cardinal Burke and Archbishop Viganò reveals, however, is that their objections to Francis’s teachings are doctrinal in nature. In other words, they are suggesting that obedience to the Vicar of Christ would be sinful, and accepting his magisterial teachings is tantamount to embracing doctrinal error.
Given EWTN’s independence and their evident intention to continue to defy the Holy Father, what role can the bishop of Birmingham play in leading them back towards fidelity to the Church and the pope? As I mentioned above, the independence of the network limits the extent to which the bishop can exercise authority over it. If the CEO of EWTN was a diocesan priest, the bishop could simply give him a special assignment as assistant chaplain of the local community college’s badminton team, hand-pick his replacement, and there wouldn’t be much anyone could do about it.
A lay apostolate is different. Certainly, support from the local bishop is welcome, but it’s not necessarily required. In the case of EWTN, however, there are many ways in which the network relies on the institutional and local Church. First, the bishop has oversight over the celebration of the liturgy within his diocese. EWTN’s daily televised Mass is public and takes place within the diocese of Birmingham. In the case of the Mass where the priest attacked the pope, the bishop has the right to suspend the priest from celebrating such Masses, or even prohibiting Mass from being filmed in the diocese.
Additionally, EWTN relies on the access granted by Church entities throughout the world, including the Vatican, to televise Vatican ceremonies, events such as the annual Mass held at the DC basilica on the eve of the March for Life, and papal pilgrimages and Masses. In some ways, the uneasy relationship between the US bishops and EWTN has been sustained because the network has, for decades, been the only game in town. With the growth of social media and internet television, the Church’s dependence on EWTN has significantly decreased.
Ideally, EWTN’s trustees will recognize the dangerous adversarial path they’ve pursued and make the editorial and personnel decisions necessary to reverse course. It would benefit the entire Church if they resolved to bring themselves back into alignment with the Church of their own accord.
It would be wise for their new bishop to initiate a dialogue with EWTN leadership to look at some of these questions. He’ll want to emphasise the good work they’ve done, but he can’t avoid addressing the tough questions. While Bishop Raica won’t want to infringe on freedom of the press, it is important that he points out the problem with running content that undermines the papacy and the official teachings of the pope while claiming to be completely orthodox.
Hopefully, the fruit of this dialogue will be a resolution to steer the network in a direction that is both faithful to the Church and beneficial for the Catholics they serve. If the network continues its opposition to the pope and the bishops, however, Bishop Raica has a tough job on his hands and some uncomfortable decisions to make. He, the diocese, and all those involved with EWTN need our prayers.
Work cited: Christopher Lamb, The Outsider: Pope Francis and His Battle to Reform the Church (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2020)
Image: Interior of the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Hanceville, Alabama. By Fr James Bradley from Washington, DC – IMG_7218, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48352032