27 September 2021

The Pope vs. EWTN: Too Hot To Handle?

Following on from his discussion of censorship, Mr Lawler looks at Francis's anger with EWTN for pointing out his flaws and errors.

From Catholic Culture

By Phil Lawler

Last week I wrote about censorship, and how “discerning readers need to find their own trusted sources of news.” This week I’ll be a bit more specific, and say that Catholic readers (or non-Catholics interested in developments within the Church) need to find their own trusted sources for Catholic news.

To present my case, let me introduce Exhibit A: our headline story from yesterday: Pope rips EWTN ‘work of the devil’. That story is unique, in several different ways.

As I write, on Wednesday afternoon, that headline—posted a bit more than 24 hours ago—has been downloaded from our site almost 65,000 times. To put that figure in context, it is highly unusual for any of our news stories to attract more than 5,000 readers, and only a handful of our stories have ever reached the 10,000 mark. The 65,000 figure is unprecedented, and since the story is still attracting readers at a dizzying rate (35 more since I started this paragraph), it is headed much higher.

Why so much interest in this headline? First because it is an important story; more about that later. Second because nobody else is telling the story.

Pope Francis made an extraordinary charge against an important American Catholic media outlet. The secular media aren’t particularly excited about it, because they see this as “inside ball,” of interest only to Catholics. But most Catholic media outlets are also studiously downplaying the story—or handling it ever-so gently, diplomatically downplaying the clear implications of the Pope’s remarks—because they are anxious to avoid controversy. With a few exceptions, the important Catholic outlets are controlled by bishops, by major donors, or both; they are leery of any story that might upset their patrons. So the stories go uncovered.

Among the outlets that handle Catholic news, then, only a few are willing to plunge into a controversial story. EWTN is one of them. And—forgive me for tooting my own horn—Catholic World News is another. We avoid sensationalism, but when the story itself is sensational, we won’t shrink from it.

And this story is sensational. Has any other Roman Pontiff ever complained about negative media coverage? A politician might fret over unfriendly editorials; the Vicar of Christ should not. During his exchange with Jesuits in Slovakia the Pope not only showed an extraordinary sensitivity to criticism, but picked a fight with what is probably the most powerful and influential Catholic media presence in the world.

EWTN owes its spectacular success to the evangelical zeal of its founder, Mother Angelica, but also to her independent spirit. Under her guidance, EWTN flourished because it gave viewers and listeners what they wanted: not prepackaged “safe” news and views, but lively reporting and commentary.

Pope Francis charged that the “large Catholic television channel” (which he does not name) “has no hesitation in continually speaking ill of the Pope.” It is true that many analysts appearing on the network—myself among them—have criticized the Pope’s actions and statements. But I have always done my best to express my concerns respectfully, showing due deference both to the man and to his Petrine office. I have no doubt that every regular ETWN host and guest would say the same thing.

It should be possible to express disagreement with the words of a Roman Pontiff—especially one as talkative as Francis—without being charged with doing the work of the devil. There is a particular irony when that charge comes from a Pontiff who has said that he encourages free debate, who has encouraged young Catholics to hagan lio, who urges creative thought and the decentralization of authority.

To compound the irony, as he expanded his focus to encompass unnamed clerics as well as the unnamed television channel, Pope Francis lamented that his critics “make judgments without entering into a real dialogue.” Has Pope Francis entered into dialogue with Cardinal Burke about the dubia? Did he engage in dialogue with Cardinal Müller before unceremoniously dumping him from the prefecture of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith? Did he invite dialogue with traditionalist Catholics before condemning what he, in this same exchange in Slovakia—characterized as “the automatism of the ancient rite?”

A Roman Pontiff should not fear honest critiques from loyal Catholics. And Catholic media outlets should not fear exploring controversy. “The truth is like a lion,” St. Augustine said. “You don’t have to defend it. Let it loose; it will defend itself.”

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