Most American Catholics, even those who never watch the Eternal Word Television Network, have been affected by the Alabama-based channel’s three-decade existence. EWTN is an outpost of mainstream, middle American Catholicism—much of it traditionalist. The channel’s founder and figurehead, Mother Angelica, has been the televisual heir to Fulton Sheen.
She is still with the living, but her days as a television fixture are over. Now 88, Mother Angelica, who broadcast her first show in August 1981 from a garage, has retired to an Alabama convent after an incapacitating series of strokes. To this day, however, the network airs reruns of her program, as it does “Life Is Worth Living” by Archbishop Sheen. Legends never go out of style.
But the Eternal Word Television Network extends far beyond Mother Angelica classics. EWTN is a global enterprise—seen in almost 150 countries, broadcasting in most of the world’s major languages. It provides a voice for contemporary Catholics analogous to that provided by the “700 Club” to Pentecostal communities.
Robertson’s empire peaked years ago, but EWTN has flourished since the late 1980s, a period in which the network vanquished more liberal, ecumenically-minded rivals that sought to become the Catholic channel offered by cable companies. As early as 1988, EWTN had 12 million subscribers. With the market locked up, EWTN was empowered to represent the spiritual concerns of that great Silent Majority of traditionalist Catholics and moved to privilege discussions of doctrinal values and advancement of Catechism over the “social justice” fare liberals in the Church preferred.
The liberals took notice. Foremost among them was the controversial dissident Archbishop Rembert Weakland of Milwaukee, who had a running feud with EWTN and Mother Angelica. Weakland, a staunch anti-traditionalist, attempted to savage the network and its viwers by claiming that their “loyalty to the pope” was false and had no concern for papal mandates on “social issues”—curious posturing, given Weakland’s own heated relationship with John Paul II and checkered reputation.
“They are aggressively combative, and now, sensing victory, ever more judgmental and vicious. They seem to observe no boundaries between truth and hearsay, fact and rumor. Some of these groups are not always clearly religious in scope but seem to have at the same time a political agenda, mostly support for conservative political candidates like Pat Buchanan,” wrote Weakland in 1998 in one of his many attacks on EWTN.
The contemporary U.S. Catholic church, as many churches have been throughout history, is riddled with schisms. And for every figure like Weakland on the left casting aspersions, there are folks on the other side of the spectrum who are just as dubious. Some of EWTN’s harshest critics over the years have seen the network not as a monolith of Catholic traditionalism, but as a force of moral relativism and even apostasy.
Christopher Ferrara, author of the blistering EWTN: A Network Gone Wrong, has made the most pointed case on this subject, alleging that the network “has become in many respects utterly modernist by every objective historical standard of Roman Catholicism.” He accuses the network of privileging ecumenism over doctrine and of arguing that one can be saved via doing good works rather than only through the Church.
Ferrara finds this worrisome because “for millions of Catholics EWTN is the Catholic Faith. This network has more influence today than the Vatican itself. And that is a serious problem in the Church.”
EWTN, strictly speaking, is not in the Church—years ago, the company moved outside of the structure after the Church acted to sanction the network for being out of sync with Vatican guidelines. In that sense, there is no institutional control that the Vatican can assert over the network. And that in turn invests this cable television perennial with power unique in the American Catholic Church.
It is accountable to no one, save the people it serves, acting as an ombudsman on Church issues with an alacrity and a connection to the laity that the Vatican structure cannot hope to match. Whatever qualms one may have with its perspective, the network is a world removed from the squalor of “Jersey Shore” and its ilk, opening a dialogue on the finer points of catechism and dogma where it otherwise would not exist. For that, even critics might give a prayer of thanks.