Explainer: The story behind Pope Francis’ beef with EWTN

Pope Francis made headlines last week when he criticized those who attack his papacy in the media, calling the attacks “the work of the devil.” The comment was widely interpreted to be a reference to EWTN, the largest Catholic television network in the world, which has given a platform to some of the pope’s most vocal English-speaking critics.

This may come as a surprise to many people. As the hosts of America’s Jesuitical podcast put it last week, for many of their young adult listeners, EWTN is “where their grandma watches Mass” and prays the rosary.

So, how did a Catholic TV station known for its prayer programs get involved in broadcasting attacks on the pope that he felt compelled to publicly denounce as “the work of the devil”?

To understand this, we have to look back to the origins of the network.

“Your whole purpose is to destroy,” Mother Angelica said on “Mother Angelica Live” in 1993.

The ‘dominant image of the church on American television’

The Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN) was established by Mother Angelica, a Poor Clare sister who had founded a monastery in Alabama with the goal of “recruit[ing] Black sisters to the contemplative life.” According to her biographer, EWTN anchor Raymond Arroyo, the sisters kept their mission of ministering to the Black community secret so as not to attract the ire of the Ku Klux Klan, who attacked Catholics as well as African Americans. The mission is next mentioned in Arroyo’s biography when he writes of an incident two years later where the Klan killed four young Black women at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala. Arroyo writes, “For Mother Angelica, it was a distressing reminder of the early inspiration for her monastery that had failed to bear fruit. Somehow, the goal of establishing a foundation for black contemplatives got lost along the way.” The original charism of the community is not mentioned again in the biography.

By that point, Mother Angelica was already starting to develop a following for her recorded talks on spirituality. These would grow into spiritual books and appearances on Christian and local television stations until 1980, when Mother Angelica founded EWTN. The new network began broadcasting from a garage studio in Irondale, Ala. in 1981. The network’s four-hours-per-day programming included Mother Angelica’s talk show “Mother Angelica Live” and a Sunday Mass broadcast, along with reruns of Catholic content including Fulton Sheen’s “Life is Worth Living,” secular content like “The Bill Cosby Show” and Protestant shows that Mother Angelica approved. Its daily rosary broadcast did not begin until 1987; the network began broadcasting daily Mass in 1991.

As Mother Angelica’s network expanded, the U.S. bishops decided to try their hand at developing a competitor network. From 1982 to 1994, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (a precursor to today’s U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops) poured $30 million into the Catholic Telecommunications Network of America, according to a New York Times article from 1997. The bishops’ attempt to move into television broadcasting ultimately failed because it “was unable to adapt quickly to its environment.”

EWTN was a blessing for those stuck at home who wanted to pray along with televised Masses and rosaries. It also became a reliable place where anger at the “liberal church” was regularly broadcast.

Part of that changing environment was a decisive change in the direction of EWTN, sparked by a Stations of the Cross display at World Youth Day in Denver in 1993 when a young woman was chosen to portray Jesus. The next day, Mother Angelica took to the airwaves to denounce the display as “an abomination to the Eternal Father” and segued into a half-hour criticism of the “liberal church in America” and the reforms that had followed the Second Vatican Council.

“Your whole purpose is to destroy,” Mother Angelica said on “Mother Angelica Live.” “It’s time somebody said something about all these tiny little cracks that you have been putting for the last 30 years into the church.”

The next month, Mother Angelica and the sisters in her convent abandoned their modified post-Vatican II habits in favor of the pre-Vatican II style. Mother Angelica’s conflict with the bishops ramped up, too: Having beaten out the bishops’ broadcasting effort, Mother Angelica became more outspoken against the bishops in general, whom she saw as being too liberal. At one point she urged “zero obedience” to Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony after he issued a pastoral letter on the liturgy that Mother Angelica interpreted as insufficiently emphasizing the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

Daily Masses broadcast on EWTN also took a turn toward the more traditional, gradually eliminating contemporary music and incorporating more Latin. The network’s content, which initially included coverage of social justice initiatives and ecumenically-inspired programming, eventually became dominated by shows on Catholic doctrine.

As James Martin, S.J., wrote in a television column in America in 1995, while EWTN was a blessing for those stuck at home who wanted to pray along with televised Masses and rosaries, it also became a reliable place where anger at the “liberal church” was regularly broadcast. And while, as Father Martin pointed out, “everyone’s angry at something in the church,” Mother Angelica’s anger was particularly harmful because her image of the church—what Father Martin described as “bitter, intransigent, defensive”—became the “dominant image of the church on American television.” And it has continued that way.

Mr. Arroyo’s news commentary, like Mother Angelica’s, is critical of any “liberal” elements of the church and is often presented as the viewpoint of a “true” Catholic.

EWTN today

Mother Angelica ceded control of EWTN to a board of lay people in 2000 in the midst of an apostolic visitation by San Juan Archbishop Roberto González Nieves, who was tasked by the Vatican with investigating the ownership of the station and its ties to Mother Angelica’s monastery, as well as Mother Angelica’s authority over both. His final report was never published. The next year, after suffering a stroke, Mother Angelica also ceased broadcasting her show, “Mother Angelica Live.” She spent the rest of her life in the cloistered monastery she had founded, and died in 2016.

Today, EWTN’s dominance on the airwaves is evident not only in the United States, but around the world—even among the U.S. bishops who had once clashed with the station. EWTN is the world’s largest religious media network, reaching a self-reported 250 million people in 140 countries. It has a staff of 30 covering the Vatican alone, far outnumbering other English-language media outlets, and owns other Catholic publications including the National Catholic Register newspaper and Catholic News Agency, which competes in the United States with the bishops-owned Catholic News Service.

The National Catholic Register is also the publication most commonly read by the U.S. bishops, according to a recent survey.

Mother Angelica’s legacy at EWTN has been ensured by a cadre of wealthy conservative donors, as National Catholic Reporter editor in chief Heidi Schlumpf documented in a 2019 investigative series about EWTN, but it continues most visibly through Mother Angelica’s protégé and biographer, EWTN anchor Raymond Arroyo, who hosts the weekly show “The World Over.He also appears regularly on Laura Ingraham’s Fox News show, occasionally filling in as host.

Mr. Arroyo’s news commentary, like Mother Angelica’s, is critical of any “liberal” elements of the church and is often presented as the viewpoint of a “true” Catholic, delivered with much of the same snark Mother Angelica was lauded for by her fans. In a pontificate focused on implementing the decisions of Vatican II and one that has often prioritized the pastoral and evangelical over the doctrinal, Mr. Arroyo’s antipathy has, unsurprisingly, centered on Pope Francis.

Mr. Arroyo’s recurring guests on the show have included prominent Francis critics, including Cardinal Raymond Burke, who co-signed a list of “dubia” about Pope Francis’ openness to allowing divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Communion in some cases, and Cardinal Gerhard Müller, the former head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, who was not renewed for another term by Pope Francis in 2017. Two years later, Cardinal Müller published a “manifesto of faith” in the EWTN-owned Catholic News Agency and other outlets that have been critical of the pope, arguing against Francis’ teaching on Communion for the divorced and remarried.

Michael P. Warsaw of EWTN: “We are united with the pope in accompanying and leading people to understand the beauty, truth, and goodness which is found in the Church.”

In 2018, the former apostolic nuncio to the United States, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, released a (since largely discredited) bombshell document, published by Catholic News Agency and other media outlets critical of Pope Francis, alleging that the pope had mishandled abuse by former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick and calling on the pope to resign. Soon after, Cardinal Müller appeared on Mr. Arroyo’s show, urging the pope to “reconcile” with Archbishop Viganò.

Other guests on Mr. Arroyo’s show have included Joseph Shaw, the president of the U.K. Latin Mass Society, who signed a “formal correction” of the pope concerning his teachings on Communion for the divorced and remarried, and Alexander Tschugguel, who stole indigenous Amazonian statues of pregnant women during the Amazon synod and threw them into the Tiber River, falsely alleging they were Andean idols.

Christopher Lamb, the Vatican correspondent for The Tablet, wrote in The Outsider, his book chronicling anti-Francis resistance, “In this battle, sections of the Catholic media have set themselves up as a parallel authority that judges, like a Roman emperor giving the thumbs up or thumbs down, whether Francis conforms to their understanding of Catholic ‘truth.’”

Mr. Lamb also interviewed Michael P. Warsaw, ​​the chairman and chief executive officer of EWTN, for The Outsider. “I believe it is unfair to suggest that ‘The World Over’ features only guests who are negative about Pope Francis,” Mr. Warsaw told Mr. Lamb. “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.”

Further, he told Mr. Lamb, “The World Over” is not necessarily representative of everything EWTN does, calling it “simply one weekly program in the midst of an entire network that consists of many different types of content.”

Mr. Warsaw also rejected suggestions that his network is opposed to the pope as “simply ludicrous,” telling Mr. Lamb that “we are united with the pope in accompanying and leading people to understand the beauty, truth, and goodness which is found in the Church.”

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.

Is there a difference between this and the healthy skepticism that journalists ought to have toward those in positions of authority? In Lamb’s view, the issue comes down to journalistic integrity. “If a news organization publishes the Archbishop Viganò dossier in full, as Lifesite News and the National Catholic Register did, they have a responsibility to inform readers why they are doing so and whether they have been able to verify any of the allegations,” he wrote.

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.

This reality suggests that the public snark and animus against Francis are of service to a larger agenda in place at EWTN, one still aligned with Mother Angelica’s distrust of Vatican II and those in the church of whom she said their “whole purpose is to destroy.”