Perhaps last week’s news that EWTN had reshuffled its radio lineup, dismissing several longtime on-air voices including Gloria Purvis (who was outspoken this year about the US Church’s failure to address racism) and Fr. Larry Richards (who has been a staunch defender of Pope Francis), shouldn’t be surprising. After all, in recent months, the network’s political sycophancy and journalistic malpractice—which had already been quite egregious—only increased in the weeks following the presidential election. Still, for those of us who held out hope that there would be an intervention to bring the network more closely in line with the Magisterium and less blatant in its opposition to Pope Francis, this is a discouraging sign.
Back in March, I wrote about the appointment of Bishop Steven Raica to the Birmingham, Alabama diocese (home to EWTN) and the challenges he faced with a network that has become increasingly open in its support for right-wing political causes and candidates, and (especially on Raymond Arroyo’s weekly program The World Over) has regularly aligned itself with the positions of the Republican party over those of the Church when they are in conflict. At the time, I was hopeful. I wrote, “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.”
Sadly, the changes at EWTN Radio (see this post by Deacon Greg Kandra for a roundup of the coverage), along with the following day’s news of the departure of JD Flynn and Ed Condon, two top editors at the EWTN-owned Catholic News Agency (CNA), suggest that such a course reversal isn’t in the works any time soon. It is true that we’ve had serious disagreements with CNA’s ideologically-influenced reporting on the Church and this papacy. Examples include CNA’s coverage of issues ranging from the indigenous prayer service held before the Amazon Synod in 2019, to its portrayal of Archbishop Charles Chaput as a supporter of Pope Francis, to its coverage of the German “Synodal Way,” to its reliance on statements from anonymous bishops to claim that Pope Francis condemned the ministry of Fr. James Martin, to its handling of the drama surrounding Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò. Still, Flynn and Condon rarely showed the same open hostility towards the pope as others in the organization.
Meanwhile, figures who are openly hostile towards the pope, including Raymond Arroyo (and his “papal posse” sidekicks Fr. Gerald Murray and Robert Royal), Edward Pentin (who Michael Sean Winters once said “works part-time as the Vatican correspondent for the Register and part-time as a cheerleader for the opposition to Pope Francis”), remain affiliated with the network.
In his book The Outsider: Pope Francis and His Battle to Reform the Church, Vatican journalist Christopher Lamb wrote about the growing concern in the Vatican about the increasing dissent at the network. Regarding why EWTN’s management continues to allow the broadcast of Arroyo’s continued subversion of the pope, Lamb writes, “Warsaw and EWTN defend Arroyo by saying that he has a large following and is untouchable due to his close links to Mother Angelica” (p. 92).
In another passage in the book, Lamb relays an account of an exchange between Archbishop Christophe Pierre, the papal nuncio to the United States and EWTN CEO Michael Warsaw: “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. In December 2018, when EWTN asked the nuncio for an interview, he declined” (pp. 92-93).
I don’t have any inside information about why an ostensibly Catholic network has decided to shift into a hyper-political and anti-papal mouthpiece for alt-right Catholicism, but many journalists I’ve spoken to about this have echoed the old refrain, “Follow the money.” Is it possible that the network (in addition to the ideological commitments of its management) is beholden to satisfy its benefactors? Much has been said about EWTN board member Tim Busch and his influence over numerous Catholic organizations. But he’s not the only wealthy donor financing EWTN’s media output.
This week, in an investigative report on her personal blog, journalist-turned-theologian Dawn Eden Goldstein revealed the backstory of Frank J. Hanna III, who is a major EWTN donor and member of the network’s board of governors. Goldstein writes:
Frank J. Hanna, a member of the Legion of Christ’s lay arm Regnum Christi who is a close associate of Napa Institute founder Tim Busch (with whom he serves on several boards, including Napa’s) and a longtime friend and donor to Newt Gingrich, is one of the richest men in Atlanta. His fortune in 2005 was worth more than $500 million; today it is worth perhaps twice as much.
One can gain an idea of Hanna’s philanthropic interests by looking at the boards on which he has served. In addition to EWTN and the Napa Institute, Hanna’s current or recent board memberships include the Acton Institute, Catholic University of America, the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS), the Ethics and Public Policy Center, the Federalist Society, the Papal Foundation, the Pontifical North American College, and Sophia Institute Press (publisher of Taylor Marshall’s anti-Francis conspiracy screed Infiltration).
Hanna is not known for simply signing checks and letting his recipients call the shots. According to a 2007 profile in Philanthropy magazine, he has a strong reputation for hands-on involvement.
Goldstein goes on to describe how Hanna made his fortune:
He and his brother David in 1996 founded CompuCredit, a financial company that offered subprime credit cards to consumers who had poor credit ratings. Those who sign up for subprime credit cards are often low-income and are disproportionately African-American.
In June 2008, the U.S. government charged CompuCredit with deceptive marketing practices. PBS journalist Bill Moyers reported that the company teamed up with a payday lenders’ lobbyist, the Community Financial Services Association, to “[co-opt] several prominent civil rights organizations to bolster their efforts to fend off stricter regulation”—see screenshot at right from a transcript of Moyers’s report.
Ultimately CompuCredit agreed to provide $114 million in restitution to consumers, without admitting wrongdoing.
Later, she explains that Hanna heads a philanthropic organization that doesn’t make its finances public:
The main philanthropic organ that Hanna uses to make his donations is the Solidarity Association. He founded it as an Association of the Christian Faithful by decree of Archbishop John Francis Donoghue in the early 2000s to fund the now-defunct Solidarity School. At its peak in the late 2000s, the Solidarity School gave an English-language immersion education to about ninety children from Spanish-speaking households whose parents “mostly [worked] in construction or fast food, as maids, or [as] day laborers.”
Today, the Solidarity Association’s website states that the nonprofit gives ongoing support to more than two dozen Catholic nonprofits, including not only EWTN and FOCUS but also the Catholic University of America’s Busch School of Business (to which Hanna gave $250,000 in 2015).
The Solidarity Association is highly unusual among U.S. Catholic foundations that give to multiple recipients (as opposed to supporting a single hospital or school), in that it does not make its financial information public. Apart from the list of donation recipients that it provides on its website, its activities are completely opaque.
The lack of transparency is made possible by virtue of the Solidarity Association’s status as an official Church entity, listed in the Official Catholic Directory (OCD), making it exempt from having to make its finances public. One of the projects financed by the Solidarity Association is an unaccredited online university:
He uses the Solidarity Association to fund the online-only Pontifex University, of which he is vice chancellor.
Pontifex University is unaccredited, a not-insignificant fact that its website buries under paragraphs boasting that it is approved by Atlanta’s (now-former) archbishop and recognized by a Georgia state commission (which has nothing to do with accreditation). It charges students $9,175 for a “Master of Sacred Arts” degree and, “depending on exemptions for prior credits or qualifications,” up to $16,800 for a “Th.D.” The university’s website also notes that its master’s program “may be audited for 30 monthly payments of $100.”
If visitors to Pontifex’s website are inspired to support the institution, the site accepts donations through the Solidarity Association, which it says it applies to “scholarships for prospective and existing students.” The donation page emphasizes that “Solidarity Association is recognized as having charitable status … by virtue of its inclusion in the Official Catholic Directory.”
Hanna is thus using the Solidarity Association’s listing in the Official Catholic Directory to legitimize what is effectively a diploma mill.
Goldstein goes on to reveal information that’s been something of an open secret in Church circles, but hasn’t been made public. Least of all by Hanna himself:
This brings me to the most curious part of his story—a strange secret that has remained hidden from the public eye until now.
Normally, Hanna openly publicizes his connections in the Catholic world. His press biography lists thirty organizations with which he is affiliated as a member or supporter. He started a YouTube channel to share a clip of him meeting Pope Benedict XVI. In 2014, however, Hanna, through lawyers, used a pair of shell companies, Honeycomb Ventures LLC and Treasured Works LLC, to acquire the most important data set in the American Catholic world—and he shielded the purchase from the public eye. Even more surprisingly, he has not to this day revealed his ownership of the data set.
He bought the Official Catholic Directory.
Goldstein goes on to explain the importance of the OCD and the unique advantage it gives Hanna over other Catholic organizations. This, of course, opens the door to more questions. I urge you to read her article in its entirety (LINK).
Although there certainly are other forces besides rich benefactors at work behind EWTN’s radical turn and the network’s disloyalty to the Roman Pontiff, it seems probable that the influence of figures like Hanna and Busch won’t make it any easier for EWTN to embrace an authentically Catholic approach. At this point, intervention by the local bishop or the Vatican doesn’t appear likely. The chances of EWTN self-correcting seem even more remote. Undoubtedly, many of EWTN’s decision-makers are sincere in their beliefs, even if they are misguided. For these reasons, and since the network’s leadership—including CEO and chair Michael Warsaw—have proven unwilling to initiate any of the necessary changes, faithful Catholics would be best served by avoiding EWTN at all costs.
Image: Adobe Stock.