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From the Bible Belt, EWTN shapes world Catholic news

The control room of EWTN in Irondale, Ala., on Jan. 8, 2019. RNS photo by Jack Jenkins

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (RNS) — When Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò wants to get the attention of the pope or his fellow bishops, he sits down and writes a letter.

Then he sends it to Alabama.

At least that’s been the pattern since last summer, when Viganò made headlines worldwide after he called on Pope Francis to resign for allegedly covering up misconduct and abuse by Theodore McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington, D.C. and a former member of the College of Cardinals. It was the first in a series of letters published by the National Catholic Register, a conservative Catholic publication whose parent company is based near Birmingham.

Viganò’s latest letter, published today (Jan. 14) by the Register, calls on McCarrick to repent.

“Time is running out, but you can confess and repent of your sins, crimes and sacrileges, and do so publicly, since they have themselves become public,” wrote Viganò. “Your eternal salvation is at stake.”

Analysts argue Vigano’s controversial letters — and the international media firestorm they sparked — are a sign of the Register’s growing influence alongside its parent organization, the Eternal Word Television Network, which also owns the Catholic News Agency. EWTN leaders have spent the better part of four decades quietly building a Catholic media empire that spans the globe.

An angel statue at the entrance to the EWTN studios in Irondale, Ala., on Jan. 8, 2019. RNS photo by Jack Jenkins

But the conglomerate, which was founded by a nun, has also drawn waves of scrutiny from cardinals and commentators who argue EWTN uses its profound resources to shore up conservative political and theological positions and attack Pope Francis.

Not that you would know any of this if you pulled up to EWTN’s headquarters in Irondale, Ala.

The unassuming brick buildings that house the organization are tucked away in the small Bible Belt suburb outside Birmingham, where pale, weather-beaten statues of biblical figures dot EWTN’s grounds. The facilities include EWTN’s own in-house sanctuary, where masses are televised and broadcast worldwide every day. The Monastery of the Poor Clare Nuns of Perpetual Adoration and the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament are just a short jaunt away.

Mother Angelica, the nun who founded the Eternal Word Television Network in 1980, died on Easter Sunday (March 27) in 2016. Photo courtesy of Our Lady of the Angels Monastery

EWTN was founded in 1980 by Mother Angelica, an American Poor Clare nun who was inspired to create her own Catholic television network after visiting a Baptist television station in Chicago, according to a timeline of her life posted on EWTN’s website. Staffers say she also got a helping hand from televangelist Jim Bakker, who sent workers to Alabama to help build EWTN’s first studio.

Staffers are quick to recount the story of how she had only $200 in her pocket when she ordered her first $600,000 satellite dish (a communications staffer said a funder miraculously appeared the day it arrived), or how she would go on to become an international sensation after she began broadcasting her own show.

EWTN staffers say the nun — whose arrival in Alabama triggered attacks and attempted shootings from the anti-Catholic Ku Klux Klan — drew on her faith to dispel any fear of failure.

“One of the things that I learned from (Mother Angelica) was that if you remain faithful and if we execute our mission faithfully and trust in God and God’s providence, then he will provide and you don’t need to be afraid,” EWTN Chairman and CEO Michael Warsaw, whose window overlooks the network’s six white satellite dishes, told Religion News Service.

Warsaw, who joined the network in 1991 and knew Mother Angelica closely until she passed away in 2016, pointed to a ceramic sign on his desk as he spoke, noting he inherited it from Mother Angelica herself: “Be not afraid.”

Congregants receive Communion during Mass at the EWTN sanctuary in Irondale, Ala., in a Jan. 14, 2019, broadcast. Masses are broadcast daily. Video screenshot

EWTN staffers said reruns of Mother Angelica’s broadcasts are still popular, as are the network’s slate of faith-themed documentaries, talk shows and streams of Vatican events. As employees walked RNS through the compound’s labyrinth of studios and offices, footage of Mother Angelica could still be seen among the array of screens flickering in the station’s various control rooms.

In recent years, however, EWTN has expanded beyond primarily faith-focused lineup and into the news space, hiring television reporters and building studios in places like Washington, D.C. The network now claims one of the coveted stand-up tents next to the White House lawn for live television shots, standing alongside CNN, MSNBC and Fox News. It also acquired other Catholic news outlets, purchasing the National Catholic Register in 2011 and the Catholic News Agency in 2015.

The organization’s reach dwarfs that of almost every other faith-based media company in the United States, rivaling the evangelical Christian Broadcasting Network. Staffers say EWTN alone runs at least 11 around-the-clock networks that are available in 310 million television households across 145 countries, not to mention a sizable radio audience.

Meanwhile, the combined website views for the Register and CNA top out at around 40 million a year.

Their size has proven powerful: Warsaw credited EWTN’s coverage of the March for Life, a massive annual anti-abortion gathering, with helping to raise its profile both in the U.S. and abroad.

The EWTN logo. Courtesy image

Thomas Tweed, director of the Ansari Institute of Global Engagement with Religion at the University of Notre Dame, said the expansion of conservative Catholic media coincides with spikes in polarization.

“I think the same thing that has happened in American political life and media has happened to some extent to Catholics,” he said. “Progressive Catholics read Commonweal and the National Catholic Reporter, and traditionalist Catholics watch EWTN and read newsletters from the Blue Army.“

As EWTN’s journalistic voice grew louder, so too did its critics, particularly National Catholic Reporter columnist Michael Sean Winters. He has repeatedly accused EWTN of being conservative to the point of partisanship. He’s been especially critical of Raymond Arroyo’s EWTN show “The World Over” for, among other things, inviting guests who defended Trump’s proposed border wall — despite Pope Francis’ public rebuke of the idea (and Trump’s faith) in 2016.

Raymond Arroyo speaks at the 2018 Student Action Summit hosted by Turning Point USA at the Palm Beach County Convention Center in West Palm Beach, Fla., on Dec. 21, 2018. Photo by Gage Skidmore/Creative Commons

In an interview with RNS, Winters argued Arroyo’s show in particular is beginning to resemble Fox News. He noted Arroyo identifies as a Fox News contributor in his Twitter biography and guest-hosted Laura Ingraham’s Fox News show on Jan. 4. The host also tweeted that he was part of an elite group of television anchors invited to lunch with President Trump hours before a national address.

“If you’re a Catholic ministry and you have Raymond Arroyo on your programming, you are presenting a sectarian Catholicism that is unrecognizable as Catholic,” he said.

Other critics of Arroyo include South African Cardinal Wilfrid Napier, who accused him of fueling anti-Francis sentiment in December, tweeting, “I’ve still to hear a programme (of Arroyo’s show) that doesn’t report negatively on or attack Pope Francis!” And in February 2018, papal adviser Antonio Spadaro reportedly retweeted a call to “interdict” EWTN, or impose a censure prohibiting individuals from participating in certain religious rites.

EWTN Chairman and CEO Michael Warsaw in Irondale, Ala., on Jan. 8, 2019. RNS photo by Jack Jenkins

Arroyo did not reply to interview requests for this story.

Warsaw defended Arroyo’s show, saying it has an “orthodox Catholic perspective” that “tries to follow the traditional teachings of the church on the broad spectrum of issues and doctrine.” He speculated more people watch Pope Francis regularly on EWTN than anywhere else.

And when it comes to political issues, he said the Catholic Church allows for debate on many topics.

“You can be within the confines of the teaching of the church and have very different views as to how something like immigration policy should play out,” said Warsaw.

The Register’s handling of the Viganò letters has also raised questions.

Viganò reportedly “privately shared his plan to speak out” last year with EWTN board member Timothy Busch, according to the New York Times. The same report also stated that Busch, a wealthy Catholic donor, claimed EWTN’s leadership was personally assured that Pope Benedict XVI had confirmed Viganò’s account.

Busch has admitted that he spoke with Viganò before the letter was released but insists their conversations were not about “the contents” of the letter.

Warsaw echoed a similar position to RNS.

“No one from EWTN or any outlet with EWTN ever had any conversations with (Viganò) prior to that (and) never was involved in the drafting, conceptualizing or otherwise, of that letter,” Warsaw said. “What was reported by the (New York) Times was not what was expressed to Tim Busch, nor was it what Pope Benedict said.”

Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò listens to remarks at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ annual fall meeting on Nov. 16, 2015, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

The New York Times did not immediately respond to inquiries about Warsaw’s comments but told RNS in the past that it stands by its reporting on Viganò and Busch.

Warsaw said the decision to distribute the first Viganò letter — which he said was brought to the Register, where he is publisher, “based on longtime relationships” — was a purely journalistic one.

“Any journalist, regardless of what outlet they were at, was going to publish that letter,” he said. Warsaw said he hasn’t spoken to Viganò in “well over a year.”

Overall, Warsaw said his core concern is not EWTN’s size but whether its work reflects the brand of faith it claims.

“At the end of the day, the legacy of EWTN is not how big it is, not all the satellites or the affiliates or the stations,” he said. “The legacy and the witness of EWTN to the world is how we’ve done what we’ve done, which is by relying completely and totally on God’s providence.”

About the author

Jack Jenkins

Jack Jenkins is a national reporter for RNS based in Washington, covering U.S. Catholics and the intersection of religion and politics.

38 Comments

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  • 1) The Bible Belt is the appropriate place for EWTN. There is no significant difference between the preaching of the EWTN crowd and that of bible belt evangelical Christians. The FOX News of Catholicism.

    2) EWTN has become a business behemoth. Making money is now its main purpose. The message spewed is simply the means to earn that money; playing to their base.

  • “The FOX News of Catholicism.” That’s exactly what I was going to say, You beat me to the punch.

  • 1) There is no significant difference between the preaching at EWTN and the teaching of the Catholic Church. The “Bible Belt” is not known for genuflecting to the Magisterium.

    2) EWTN has become a significant success in presenting orthodox Catholicism by the means of modern media. The Gospel promoted is simply the means to assist the Church in making the means to salvation available to modern humanity.

  • Its interesting how nearly indistinguishable conservative Catholicism has become from Evangelical Protestant beliefs, practices and politics.

    Both groups have spent the last generation marginalizing and demonizing their more socially conscious and progressive elements within their sects.Conservative Catholics going so far as second guessing the Pope on matters of dogma.

  • The National Catholic Reporter has been a mouthpiece for liberal and often far-left politics for years. For one of their spokespeople to say that EWTN presents a ‘sectarian Catholicism that is unrecognizable as Catholic’ is flat-out laughable. NCR recognizes abortion and gay marriage as acceptably Catholic, just not the doctrines and dogmas the Church has proclaimed for over two-thousand years.

  • Catholicism and Evangelical Protestantism are only indistinguishable if you know nothing about either.

    That, of course, includes you.

  • Yes, the National Catholic Reporter started this “Let’s all attack EWTN” spiel that the article being discussed picks up a couple of months ago.

    And, yes, the National Catholic Reporter makes it clear that it has separated from Catholicism by endorsing abortion, same sex physical congress, and much more.

    Also National Catholic Reporter is in severe financial straits, which illustrates the fact that as the “Spirit of Vatican II” crowd becomes elderly and passes on, they are leaving nothing behind.

  • It is a good thing that only a very limited number of people see this network and take it seriously . Otherwise, the Thirty Year War would start up again.

  • They have certainly found much common ground in the last four decades despite their considerable theological differences that have a way of getting de-emphasized when approaching common goals. With these two groups it’s very much a case of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Sort of the way Republicans are now acting towards Russia after generations of believing that Russia was the “evil empire,” to quote St. Ronaldus Magnus.

  • Remind me, where in the Gospels does Jesus say anything about abortion or homosexuality? Take your time.

  • Indeed. Who in the church are going to fill the shoes of Joan Chittister, Roy Bourgeois, Robert Drinan, the Berrigan Brothers, Hans Kung, Charles Curran, and the like?

  • The National Catholic “Distorter” has been at it since the 1960s. Its influence has come primarily from who reads it rather than how many. It has been the voice of many theologians and people within the lay bureaucracy of the American church who have had an outsized influence over the decades.

  • Joan Chittister, Roy Bourgeois, Robert Drinan, Hans Kung, and Charles Curran are “in the church” in name only.

  • Michael Sean Winters is quoted in the article: “If you’re a Catholic ministry and you have Raymond Arroyo on your programming, you are presenting a sectarian Catholicism that is unrecognizable as Catholic.”

    Amen to that. EWTN may represent many Catholics on some issues but definitely not most Catholics on a lot of issues. They have a following on the fringes, sort of like Trump. And they are as divisive within the Catholic community as Trump is within the U.S. citizenry.

  • Jesus doesn’t say anything about pedophilia or bestiality either, so if you insist on using the “Jesus didn’t say” yardstick, then to be consistent you must condone both.

  • Prepare yourself to address me henceforth as “Your Majesty”, because if “EWTN is mainline Catholicism,” then I’m the King of England.

  • I wouldn’t be surprised if Mother Angelica founded EWTN in part to counter the National Catholic Distorter’s propaganda. Plus, there were other “faithfully dissenting” publications. The comments that receive the most upvotes telll me who reads this website the most.

  • We’ve already been saved. The name ‘Jesus” means “God saves”, not “God saves if…”

  • Yes, I remember when the former President of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, said something similar to an audience at Columbia University. They laughed at him.

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