By Keith Soko
Every day, people switching through their cable and dish TV channels encounter the Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN). The station is Mother Angelica’s, and I give her credit for doing what no one else has done, operate a Catholic cable network.
Many Catholics have chosen to operate within the mainstream media, such as actor Martin Sheen and producer Father Ellwood Kieser. But Mother Angelica persevered in taking a small television station and making it a national offering. At best, it offers coverage of the Vatican and the U.S. bishops’ conferences.
The problem is it is seen by many as “the Catholic channel.” Unfortunately, it is Mother Angelica’s version of the Catholic Church, and it is an outdated view of what “church” is.
EWTN is a complex blend of high technology and outdated theology, promoting a version of Catholicism that no longer actually exists. That previous model of the church — hierarchical, clerical, absolute, unchanging — where the laity “pray, pay, and obey,” was abandoned when Vatican II (1962-1965) ushered in a greater role for the laity, male and female, married and single.
Those changes brought Mass in the language of the people, the priest facing the congregation, churches built in a semi-circle with the congregation gathered around the eucharistic table and greater participation by the laity including as eucharistic ministers and readers. Later developments brought back the role of the deacon and females were allowed to be altar servers. It’s a model that sees the Catholic Church as the “people of God,” a “community of believers,” a “pilgrim people.”
The changes of Vatican II responded to the “signs of the times,” but also looked to the scriptural foundations of the church, with the focus on Jesus, and purged excesses that had developed over history.
The late Cardinal Avery Dulles offered five models of what the church is and should be: institution (its organization and structure); sacrament (the church being a visible sign of Christ in the world); a herald proclaiming the good news; a servant (especially to the poor and vulnerable), and a mystical communion (the Body of Christ) or community of believers (disciples). Vatican II emphasized the co-responsibility and collaboration of all Catholics in being church. EWTN focuses only on the first model, the institution, and primarily on the pope, cardinals and bishops. It largely ignores the role of most female religious orders and the laity.
Of course, there is debate today whether the church has actually gone far enough in implementing the vision of Vatican II, or if it is retreating to its pre-Vatican II mode. That mode was insular, removed from the world rather than engaged with it, unresponsive to historical developments and unchanging.
EWTN operates as a high-tech machine advocating a pre-Vatican II theology. If you have a question, ask Father. Need some advice, ask Father, or Sister, in full habit. Answers are absolute, easily memorized. It waxes nostalgia for the time of Father O’Malley, when priests and nuns filled the Catholic landscape. You wouldn’t know, for example, that most Catholic parishes, grade schools, high schools, colleges and universities, publishers and health care institutions are run by lay Catholics. You wouldn’t know that theologians exist, certainly not lay theologians — men and women. You wouldn’t know of intelligent discussion, and some dissent, by Catholics on a number of issues.
You would get the impression that answers to complex questions are black and white, with no nuance or qualification. EWTN comes dangerously close to making an idol of “the church” itself, rather than seeing it as a vehicle that leads people to God. The church is seen as something on a pedestal, “out there,” rather than being all of us. That idolatry is a hazard of any religion, and can easily become fundamentalism.
Catholic theology today consists of four sources: Scripture, tradition (including church teaching), reason (our intellect), and our own human experience. Unfortunately, EWTN promotes a view of church and theology that focuses almost exclusively on tradition with a capital “T.” What’s ironic, though, is that it promotes this top-heavy, clerical model in a time when priestly vocations are dwindling, when educated Catholics are leaving the church, and when more lay men and women, motivated by the spirit of Vatican II and the Gospels, feel called to ministry.
God love Mother Angelica for her endeavor. I’m sure that many find some spiritual fulfillment in its offerings. But don’t call it “the Catholic channel.” Far from it, it’s a version of the Catholic Church that has long since passed on. And, it is an oppressive model, to lay men and women, as well as to the clergy themselves. My advice? If you want nostalgia, watch an old Bing Crosby movie. But don’t call it theology, and don’t call it the Catholic Church today.
(Keith Soko, Ph.D. is an associate professor of moral theology and chair of the theology department at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.)
Editor’s note: Comment period for this article has ended.