It has now been more than ten days since the release of the transcript of Pope Francis’s September 12 encounter with 53 Slovak Jesuits in Bratislava, and we have finally had a response from a representative of the EWTN network. Until today, EWTN had refrained from responding to the pope’s assertion that their attacks on him are “the work of the devil.” As the tension has mounted, various commentators have weighed in on both sides of the dispute. Many of EWTN’s critics have focused their attention on presenter Raymond Arroyo, who has provided a weekly platform for some of Pope Francis’s most hostile critics on his program The World Over.

Today, Arroyo finally responded with a subtweet including a gif and a rough approximation of a quote from a Church Father:

While the quoted text seems to be a loose paraphrase of what Chrysostom actually said (“The evil speaker eats the flesh of his brother, and bites the body of his neighbour”), and we can’t be 100% certain about what or whom he was tweeting, it was perhaps the first acknowledgement that EWTN noticed the pope’s statement.

Last week, I shared my own thoughts on my substack site:

The responsibility that EWTN, their contributors, and their affiliates (including Catholic News Agency, the National Catholic Register, and EWTN radio) bear for driving well-meaning and trusting Catholics against the pope and the Magisterium is incalculable.

And to what end? To topple the papacy? To reelect Trump? (That didn’t work.)

What motivates an ostensibly Catholic television network to lie, distort, and confuse everyday Catholics about the faith? What motivates them to constantly paint the pope in the worst light imaginable?

The smoke of Satan.

No sane Catholic could watch the unhinged interview with a clearly disturbed Damian Thompson the other week and not see something sinister or diabolical at work.

Admittedly, I was a bit worked up. Read it all.

Christopher Lamb had a good writeup this week for The Tablet. In it, he analyzed the words of Pope Francis and their significance:

The Pope was careful to distinguish between attacks on him personally and the office of the papacy and the Church in general. Nor was he talking about EWTN as a whole, but parts of its coverage. Francis has publicly admitted his mistakes, made space for criticism and given his full support to press freedom. But, as Fr Antonio Spadaro, La Civiltá Cattolica’s direct­or, tweeted a few days later: “Never confuse freedom of information and disinformation.”

In his reference to the devil the Pope was bringing out the ori­ginal meaning of the Greek word diabolos, which can be translated as “to divide”.

He then described EWTN’s lack of response to the statement:

So far, EWTN has not responded to Francis’ remarks; Michael Warsaw, chairman and CEO of the network, did not reply to my request for a comment. In his first show since the Pope’s rebuke, Arroyo spent 20 minutes interviewing Chad Pecknold, a theology professor at the Catholic University of America. Egged on by Arroyo, Dr Pecknold scoffed at various Francis reforms, and dismissed the synod process as a “political technique”. Although they discussed the Pope’s remarks to his fellow Jesuits, his bracing criticism of EWTN didn’t come up. It looks as though EWTN’s strategy is to keep shtum, double down and wait out this pontificate.

Since Lamb’s report, another episode of The World Over was aired, and once again Arroyo avoided the topic. Instead he focused on obscuring the Church’s positions on immigration and vaccination. Among his guests was Janet Smith, a former professor at Detroit’s Sacred Heart Seminary, who argued against Covid vaccine mandates, and suggested that the efficacy and safety of the vaccine was in question, and both of them challenged the scientific conventional wisdom. This was after Smith penned a column in Crisis and argued that “the unvaccinated believe they are loving their neighbor by being willing to be called selfish and egocentric and unloving in order to resist what they see to be a foolish reliance upon government officials and certain representatives of the healthcare industry.”

Colleen Dulle provided a good explainer of the roots of the tension and division between EWTN and Church authorities for America magazine. She wrote about the network’s evolution, from founder Mother Angelica’s increasing hostility towards Catholics she deemed too liberal to its outright hostility to the pope on Arroyo’s program today. This is how she describes Arroyo’s program:

Mr. Arroyo is also regularly joined on air by a group that calls itself “The Papal Posse”—New York priest the Rev. Gerald Murray, a former U.S. Navy chaplain and canon lawyer, and Robert Royal, a Catholic author who founded the D.C. think tank the Faith and Reason Institute and the blog “The Catholic Thing”—that riffs on one another’s criticisms of the pope and has given uncritical interviews to anti-Francis guests like Steve Bannon, who argued on air that his own populist politics better represent Catholic social teaching than Pope Francis does.

She also describes Francis’s reasoning for criticizing the network:

Pope Francis said in his recent comments that his primary concern is not that he is being personally attacked, but that people who set themselves up as such parallel authorities to him or to the Vatican are dividing the church as a whole: “I personally deserve attacks and insults because I am a sinner, but the Church does not deserve them.” In that sense, it is notable that many of the attacks on Francis have come from individuals and organizations, including Mr. Arroyo and his compatriots at EWTN, who were enthusiastic supporters of the papacies of Pope Benedict XVI and St. John Paul II—and who were, in fact, very careful to avoid criticizing previous popes at all.

In the National Catholic Reporter, Michael Sean Winters addressed the long-term dangers posed by EWTN, as well as the US bishops’ hesitation to address the problem:

The pope’s comments about EWTN call for some serious discernment by the leadership of the network, and the leaders of the church should consider what leverage they have to encourage reform at the channel. Archbishop José Gomez, president of the U.S. bishops’ conference and archbishop of Los Angeles, should ask himself if it is appropriate to remain on the EWTN board. Bishop Steven Raica of Birmingham, Alabama, where EWTN is based, should consider whether or not to sign the certification for EWTN to be included in the National Catholic Directory. Raica is a gentle soul, so hoping he would place the network under interdict is a bridge too far.

More than three years ago, I asked “Has the EWTN schism begun?” It is a proto-schism to be sure, but the bishops need to figure out how to keep the network and the millions of people who follow it from lapsing into a full-blown schism. And the Holy See, mindful of the network’s global reach, needs to encourage the U.S. bishops to bestir themselves. Lance the boil. Only then can the healing begin.

All of this is quite disturbing. I think we may be entering into a new chapter of this papacy, and—as we’ve seen in the backlash against Traditionis Custodes—those who have chosen to set themselves against the pope will not surrender quietly. As Villanova professor Massimo Faggioli put it:

anti-Francis vicious propaganda is a disease that cannot be cured with pro- Francis propaganda alone

— Massimo Faggioli (@MassimoFaggioli) October 1, 2021

I’m not certain that he has a solution in mind. I certainly don’t. I do know that the Church, particularly in the US, is eating itself alive. Was Traditionis a harbinger of more disciplinary action? Will the US bishops wake up and do something about the schism they’ve ignored thus far? Will the bulk of the cleanup be left to the next pope? Only time will tell, and prayer and fasting are in order.

Image: By Gage Skidmore from Peoria, AZ, United States of America – Raymond Arroyo, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=75603492

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Mike Lewis is the founding managing editor of Where Peter Is. He and Jeannie Gaffigan co-host Field Hospital, a U.S. Catholic podcast.

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