Theory of Change Podcast With Matthew Sheffield
EWTN, a TV channel founded by a cloistered nun, has quietly become a right-wing media juggernaut

EWTN, a TV channel founded by a cloistered nun, has quietly become a right-wing media juggernaut

Slate writer Molly Olmstead on a propaganda powerhouse that's mostly unknown

Episode Summary

Protestant televangelists have been infamous for decades for their lavish lifestyles and nefarious scandals. They’ve also been extremely successful at promoting far-right political viewpoints to unsuspecting Protestants who just want to watch some devotional preaching.

The radicalization of American evangelicalism has attracted some journalistic and scholarly attention, but it’s important to note that there is also something very similar happening among some Roman Catholics in this country.

And that’s primarily due to a TV channel called Eternal Word Television Network. Many people outside of EWTN’s elderly demographic have never heard of it, but the network’s influence on Catholicism in America and around the world is substantial.

By its own account, EWTN reaches 400 million households in more than 150 countries. It also owns a radio network with 380 affiliates, several news services, and the influential national Catholic Register newspaper.

At its founding in 1981 EWTN wasn’t about mixing far-right political agendas with religious services. But in the years since, it’s gone all in for Donald Trump and a host of extremist Catholic figures who are bent on canceling anyone with progressive views in the church, even Pope Francis himself.

Joining us in this episode to discuss is Molly Olmsted. She is a staff writer at Slate, and she recently wrote an extended article about EWTN that is definitely a must-read.

The video recording of our July 27, 2022 conversation is below. A transcript of the edited audio follows.


MATTHEW SHEFFIELD: We’re happy to have you here today, Molly. Thanks for being here.

MOLLY OLMSTEAD: Thank you for having me.

SHEFFIELD: All right. Well, so, I gave a little intro about what EWTN is but let’s maybe just go through a little bit of the history. So it started in 1981 and who was the founder of it? And how is it structured?

OLMSTEAD: Her name was actually– Rita Rizzo was the name she was born with, but most people know her as Mother Angelica.

She was this poor girl [00:04:00] who grew up in Ohio, in this neighborhood that was ruled by the Black Hand, this mob basically. And it was just this really violent, intense childhood that was governed by a lot of illness and death. And it was a bit of a horrific childhood actually. So she eventually just sort of sought comfort in religion, that she found to be compatible with her experience of suffering, which has really formed a lot of the shape of EWTN as it exists today.

It is one that really does expect a sort of intense form of the faith, one that’s slightly less forgiving. And so Mother Angelica, well before she was Mother Angelica, she became a nun. And she moved on down to start a monastery in Alabama. Initially her intent was actually to work with the black population in the South, which she never actually ended up doing, because she almost immediately, through her charisma and levels of charm, was able to start an entire media network.

It’s something that she got hooked on quickly. I think she realized she was really good at fundraising. Really good at being able to capture people’s attention. And she really wanted to proselytize and spread her version of the faith.

So when she became Mother Angelica, when she was head of the order, she actually was a woman who had a lot of people really devoted to her. And she amassed quite a bit of power through this charisma, despite the fact that she was technically a cloistered nun.

SHEFFIELD: And one of her inspirations for this, for what she was doing, was Pat Robertson, the Protestant televangelist. Talk about that a little bit as, as far as that went, if you could.

OLMSTEAD: Yeah. It is interesting to see how [00:06:00] Catholic media have sort of taken a lot of the lessons they learned from really influential Protestant televangelists, given that so much of the Catholic media branding is often to differentiate itself from Protestants.

But in this case, we found that Mother Angelica really learned from them the tricks of the trade in some ways, and actually ended up hiring a bunch of people who came from this Protestant televangelist world who were able to help her figure out how to run her network.

It’s funny, because I think there was also this charismatic Catholic movement that was happening at the time, which is very– it emphasizes speaking in tongues, that sort of dramatic thing, which we tend to think of as a Pentecostal thing now, but it, there is actually a history of this in the Catholic charismatic movement.

And she got into that for a bit. She later sort of distanced herself from it as, so I think she thought of it as maybe something sort of silly she got into, but there’s so much of the sort of drama of Protestant televangelism that she was able to adopt and really speak directly to the listeners in a way that I think made her a lot more successful than maybe if the bishops, who are a bit stuffier, tried to do it on their own.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And for the longest time their programming, it was less dramatic than it is now. And it was not really political. I mean, it was primarily a lot of devotional stuff, so sermons and showing various ceremonies and speeches from various religious leaders.

But eventually that kind of started to change over time. When do you think that they started becoming political? What was the first step, if you will? Was it bringing on the more news content do you think?

OLMSTEAD: Yeah, there, it was a [00:08:00] bit of a slow shift in some ways, it’s one of those things where in retrospect, the broader context was also changing of how people thought about religion and politics, but there was a specific moment where she seemed to really snap, which is when there was a World Youth Day in the nineties. And the Pope was there, it was a big deal.

And it was this huge moment for EWTN, because they were carrying the whole thing live. So they were really the ones who were sort of spreading this big, massive moment in which Catholics were coming from all over the world to the United States. So this was a time when Mother Angelica herself had been slowly turning away from her earlier, more loosey goosey, hippie moments and was becoming more personally socially conservative, which seemed to be a general trend she’d been on for some years at that point.

But these stations of the cross which I’m sure is something that’s in every World Youth Day, it was being acted out by a troop of mimes, which is kind of funny. And then when the mime came out who was supposed to represent Jesus, it actually turned out that that mime was a woman, which I’m sure they did to sort of be really inclusive and a little bit different, reach out to all the young people.

But Mother Angelica was horrified and she pretty much snapped. And she, in her show soon afterwards, gave this really incensed diatribe in when she just poked her finger at the camera and was like ‘You evil, liberal American church.’

Because she really believed that the Catholic church, as it was represented by Rome, was true and good and doing the right, normal thing; that the Americans were derailing it to try and make it something really into gender politics [00:10:00] and just breaking all the rules. And so immediately she enacted all these strict rules for her own nuns.

She had them wear a more traditional habit. She sealed them back up in their cloister, tightened the rules, and then every show after that was increasingly political in nature, where she was really going on about these sort of conservative– not fully partisan, but largely partisan politics. That was a big turning point.

SHEFFIELD: Mm-hmm. And I guess one of the other stops along the way was their their creation of a weekly news show called The World Over with this guy named Raymond Arroyo. Talk a little bit about him and where he is in the Republican media landscape.

OLMSTEAD: Yeah. Raymond Arroyo was kind of Mother Angelica’s anointed son. She seemed to really love him. He wrote her biography actually. He is their most inflammatory host by far. His weekly shows, if you watch any of them, it’s consistent, it’s all partisan politics.

It is basically a Fox News segment that just has some Catholic elements sprinkled in, is how I would describe it. His guests come on are typically priests and other Catholic figures who are willing to talk about the same partisan politics.

And Raymond Arroyo, who again, he’s sort of the face of the network or at least on the news side, now that Mother Angelica has died. He’s like the big face that still is out there. He himself is frequently on Fox News. He goes on Lara Ingraham’s show regularly. They have a segment together and sometimes he even hosts for her.

So he is really keyed into the Fox News network. He’s just hyperpartisan to an extreme of the kind where he was downplaying the January 6th insurrection, of the kind where he’s always sort of [00:12:00] floating ideas about black violence, particularly when it comes to riots. It’s pretty extreme and it very rarely has anything significant to do with Catholic matters, as you would’ve expected from the early days of EWTN’s programs.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And, and the other thing about him as a media figure is the way that Fox has included him, is extremely different from how they regard other right wing television enterprises. So like they absolutely hate Newsmax. They absolutely hate OAN. They ban anyone who’s affiliated with those entities, but they see EWTN as a source of branding for them. And so that’s why they bring him on so extensively.

And I have to say just on a irrelevant personal sidenote, he kind of looks like Peewee Herman, I have to say.

OLMSTEAD: He does. And I think that’s part of the reason he hasn’t been more successful on Fox. I just think he doesn’t quite have those sort of tougher look. Yeah.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. But he’s, of course, not the only political person. They have several other ones, they’ve been expanding their news, quote unquote since his show came on the air, but EWTN has been just on, on a really expansionist impulse. They’ve been buying up these new services. And in the Catholic media, there traditionally had been really two kind of large enterprises that were kind of pushing and pulling against each other in a mostly friendly rivalry. But EWTN bought one of them. Can you talk about that dynamic a little bit?

OLMSTEAD: Yeah. I mean, they really are eating up everything else, and you haven’t mentioned this, maybe we’ll get to it later, but huge international expansion as well. But there’s two, there were two major Catholic sort of news wire services. One that was a little bit– it wasn’t fully, it wasn’t progressive, but it was centrist, at least. Whereas there is a conservative one that is actually [00:14:00] free to the public and free for all dioceses who want to print news to be able to use.

And part of the reason that it was free is because it really wanted to be able to sort of expand its perspective throughout the Catholic church. So I’m talking about Catholic News Service.

SHEFFIELD: Well then of course there’s the National Catholic Register as well, and then not a news service, but yeah. Yes, those are some similar things.

OLMSTEAD: Also have the National Catholic Register, whereas there is the progressive National Catholic Reporter, and those have that pull and push situation going on.

But the rest of Catholic media is pretty much being gutted. And so what you have found yourself in a situation is where EWTN essentially dominates the entire Catholic media market, along with the properties that it owns.


OLMSTEAD: So now there’s virtually, I mean you have America magazine, which I think is largely for sort of the liberal intellectual types. And then Commonweal, which is also pretty progressive, but virtually–

SHEFFIELD: Small circulation though.

OLMSTEAD: Yeah. Small circulation. And then you have the National Catholic Reporter, which a lot of what it has was based, I mean it ran a lot of things pulled from the news wire service that is now being gutted. So we are ending up in a situation in which the vast majority of Catholic media is owned by EWTN and is conservative in nature.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. One of the things that I’ve always found interesting about Catholic media is that it gets dramatically less scrutiny compared to– I mean the mainstream media doesn’t really pay attention to religion generally, unfortunately. But at least every once in a while, they’ll run a report from someone, saying, oh my God, look at what these televangelists are doing. What is Jerry Falwell doing? What is Pat Robertson doing? Franklin Graham, et cetera.

They might run those once in a while, but there’s literally no coverage of what’s happening in Catholic media.

This [00:16:00] is a serious issue, because you quoted from some of the the viewers of EWTN. And they’re just, they’re so devoted to it, and it is warping their minds. So I’m going to quote from somebody that you quoted, it’s a 95 year old viewer of EWTN.

She said: “I have trouble falling asleep since my husband passed away two years ago. In January of 2021, I scrolled through the television at midnight, I came across your channel and daily mass. I am so thankful to have EWTN in my home. It is so hard being alone. You have become my family.”

And that’s, I’m sure, not a dissimilar perspective to a lot of their viewers. These are people that they just are looking for comfort, or religious devotion, or just something to speak to things that they care about, and it’s radicalizing them and, they don’t even know it.

OLMSTEAD: Yeah. There was some, I don’t think I included all of this, but I heard that a lot of people were alienated from their parents because of QAnon, people who were alienated from their parents, because they got sucked into this sort of EWTN world. Because a lot of people watch it in retirement homes, or just in general it is attractive to a lot of older Catholics.

And then you also have, I talked to one professor who told me he teaches at a Catholic university. And he told me a lot of his students, EWTN had been sort of their big Catholic media source as well. So you’re seeing it not just with the older people, but with a huge number of these intensely fanatic young Catholics as well. And it’s quite influential.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. They’ve been having some conflicts with the pope recently. How does the church take their recent radicalization? It’s not, it’s not owned by the church.

OLMSTEAD: Right. Yeah. It is not owned by the church. Actually, this is another thing I think I couldn’t get into, but Mother Angelica– EWTN was about to undergo a visitation from the church, which essentially means [00:18:00] they were they were going to investigate the problematic things about it.

And she was worried the bishops were going to then take it over because technically, as a religious sister, she could not directly disobey the–

SHEFFIELD: She’s an employee of the church.

OLMSTEAD: She’s an employee of the church, exactly. So what she did is, right before that visitation came to happen, she was like, I need to get, I need to make sure that this is a lay run institution so that they can’t take this away from us. So she signed off her ownership of it. So that it was run by a lay board that then the church had no ownership over. So this happened decades ago.

And the result has been, there is no oversight. They can’t do anything about it, but Pope Francis has said, he didn’t say it was EWTN, but he was like a conservative television network in the United States. That’s the only one. He was like, ‘they are the work of the devil.’

He was very direct about ‘these people are corrupting the church by selling division.’

And the way that a lot of the people who defend EWTN are able to sort of deal with that is by saying that– I mean, Pope Francis doesn’t watch EWTN, I’m assuming or read any of it. So they’re just assuming someone was whispering that in his ear, who was maybe sort of a liberal advisor who had it out for them kind of thing.

That’s how they tend to react to that. But the one and only thing that I have heard sort of speculation about them trying to intervene is like a little bit of backdoor, backdoor like discussions especially over Raymond Arroyo’s show, which seems to be the main issue. So there was a little bit of talking to– having these discussions about, can you get him to pipe down and just sort of voicing that they were not a big fan of it.

And then also, they’re trying to keep a close eye on [00:20:00] them by– they appointed the CEO to this Vatican board essentially for communications. It is an advisory position.

And then they also might be keeping an eye on the local bishop in Alabama, but still there’s nothing they can do. It’s totally a lay-run organization, which I do think a lot of people agree is for the best. The Pope shouldn’t be able to just take control over things, willy-nilly take control over media, but it is a situation where they’re also pretty reliant on EWTN, because there’s so few Catholic media networks that they do need EWTN to broadcast things for them to get their appearances out there. And so there’s also a little bit of dependency issue there as well.

SHEFFIELD: You mentioned the international presence of EWTN, and I mean, that’s not just a source of viewers. It’s the great source of revenue for them. But it seems like also that they are kind of in many ways, kind of serving as a center for building out opposition to Pope Francis across the globe for different cardinals who don’t like him or archbishops who want to criticize him.

They say they have household reach of 400 million people. And it’s, I just find it incredible that the American press really doesn’t cover EWTN at all. I mean, why, why do you think the mainstream media doesn’t pay attention to religion as much?

OLMSTEAD: Well, first off. I will say that. I don’t know how much we can trust that number because there’s no.

SHEFFIELD: Oh, sure. Yeah.

OLMSTEAD: Journal thing to check that.

SHEFFIELD: That’s just, but it’s 400 million available.

OLMSTEAD: Right. Right.

SHEFFIELD: Is my guess.

OLMSTEAD: I mean, with Catholic media, I will say, the thing about EWTN is if you, if you ever watch it, it does look like it has a pretty low production value. Like if you watch these shows, they are not particularly glamorous. Even their shinier news shows, they do just look like sort of [00:22:00] the, the, the offbrand Fox news vibe. Right. And something about that, I think can make you underestimate them. Because you forget that a lot of the older viewers that they have don’t care that it looks like it’s from the 1960s.

SHEFFIELD: It might be an advantage for them.

OLMSTEAD: Right, exactly. Where like, with the big flashy, evangelical televangelists, there’s that obvious pizazz there. Whereas this can look pretty sleepy which makes it boring, which makes it not interesting.

So you might just not be paying attention to the fact that they’re saying these pretty radical things, and at times hateful things, and it just goes under the radar, because it just looks like the least intimidating thing in the world.

You also have an assumption when you’re dealing with Catholics that because you’re working with a hierarchy, it’s easy to just sort of focus on what’s coming from the top, without remembering that Catholicism is being lived, not in a top down way, but in the same way religion is being lived everywhere.

So even though you do have these, these rules, people choose to ignore them. They choose to have their own version of the faith. It operates culturally, just like everything else. And it’s just a easy thing, I think, to forget.

And also, Catholics are not a, they’re not a political bloc. They don’t operate in the way that white evangelicals do, where they’re quite the same political force.

But experts have been saying a lot that we are underestimating conservative Catholics. Because they are pretty influential. Just they don’t do it in quite the bold and inflammatory way that white evangelicals often do.

SHEFFIELD: Mm-hmm. And I think a, a way where that’s demonstrated is that when you look at the way that right wing Republican policy is effected, it’s almost overwhelmingly Catholics who are doing it. So [almost] every single Republican Supreme Court Justice on the court is a Catholic, if I’m not mistaken.

And then you had people like former [00:24:00] attorney general Bill Barr, and there’s a lot of people in Republican politics who are part of this hardcore faction. But what’s, I guess even more concerning is that that faction, which has been around for decades, is actually under attack from an even further-right faction among Catholics.

So you had this outlet, internet outlet, church Militant, it’s run by a very flamboyant, supposedly “ex-gay” guy. And they’re openly aligning themselves with white nationalist groups and, doing things with them and going to events, promoting each other. I mean, this is some serious stuff that’s happening and it seems like it deserves a lot more attention. .

OLMSTEAD: Yeah. I mean the, the Church Militant guys, they kind of, they represent this inflammatory version. There’s also the, there’s these sort of snooty academic versions that are sort of represented by the legal scholars that’s just as, or even more dangerous, but also coming from a very extreme right position.

You have all these different factions. You have the people who want to take us back to this sort of medieval times, before a lot of reforms were made. The Catholic right is not a unified bloc. There’s about four different factions, I would say. There’s crossover between them.

But I would say that what we think of is sort of this traditional EWTN style leading a lot of things in the Supreme Court or even in the judiciary or the Trump administration or whatever, those people are relatively centrist compared to some of the figures we’re seeing out there.

SHEFFIELD: And what’s your sense about EWTN’s perspective on some of these extreme right-wing Catholics or do they talk about them?

OLMSTEAD: Yeah, I asked people about it, and I think they see it as competition more than they– I mean, they’re not worried about it in terms of the worldview. They’re worried about them in terms of audiences that can be taken away from them.

So [00:26:00] you mentioned Church Militant, but we also have this group out of Canada called Life Site News. These two pages have both gotten in trouble for spreading fake news and misinformation.

They’re pretty extreme. And I think a lot of people worry that they’re sort of able to whip people up a little bit more. Able to get them more worked up. And so I think EWTN sees them as this sort of rightward flank. As a potential audience, more than they see them as anything dangerous.

SHEFFIELD: Mm-hmm. And now what about the Catholic center to left? In the United States and elsewhere, do they, are they aware of just how influential EWTN has become over their own parishioners? I mean, does this concern them at all?

OLMSTEAD: So I do think the concern is EWTN’s participation in this broader network. So when we are talking about the Catholic right, we are talking about this sort of behemoth that is several institutions working together.

One of them is people in these fundraising type groups that also operate as ways for people, wealthy Catholics to network with people who are high up in the administration or people who are in the judiciary or whatever it is.

So you’ve got this sort of clique that also has deep ties to people in academia, that also has deep ties to people in media. And then also ties to a number of prominent bishops who are sort of the Francis opposition. And so you have this little network that is actually, if you look at who the power players are, you, you see them in every single institution, they’re just popping up over and over again.

And they’re deeply connected. But the media is the part of it that is the way that this really grows and is most threatening. So when they see EWTN’s [00:28:00] influence, I think it worries them as it represents this whole network of people.

SHEFFIELD: It’s kind of fascinating to me, this dynamic though, of the Catholic right. They allegedly are believing in authority and top down obedience. But they don’t behave in that way at all with regard to Pope Francis. And what they’re doing essentially is trying to force this kind of rightwing American– because I mean when you look at maps of political parties around the globe where they are on the left or right, the United States Republican party is way off to the right compared to most political parties in Western countries. And so among Catholics globally, the perspective that these people have is just totally out of step.

And the viewpoints of Pope Francis are– that’s the mainstream basically. And I don’t know if they’re aware that they’re out of the mainstream, or they don’t care, but it, it’s just fascinating that as much as they pretend to, claim to believe in following the magisterium of the church, well, the main thing of that is obeying the pope.

OLMSTEAD: Yeah. This is a thing that I have come to understand a little bit better as I spent more time talking to these people. There is like the fringe that believes that the pope is like the “anti-pope” or whatever it is. This is not the sort of position that the EWTN people take.

They see the magisterium, the church, its teachings, its leadership, but the leadership that they sort of choose to draw their inspiration from are those is past popes.

And the conservative bishops. So they don’t so much see the current pope, Pope Francis is part of that. And again, it’s something that there is a tradition of, in that the U.S. has always been rebellious when it comes to the Catholic church. It used to be flipped the other way around where in the [00:30:00] sixties, you had a really conservative Vatican and then the bishops in the U.S. were more liberal. But now it’s extremely the other way.

And we have this very different church here, but yeah, they just, it’s so funny. Because this is the irony is– they used to be all about obeying Rome. And now they have just chosen to believe that that’s what they’re doing, but they’re doing it in a way that is longer term than the missteps of the current pope.

They see it as something that it’s like, ‘we exhibit the true nature of the church, even if the pope who’s leading it right now has strayed from that.’

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Really, this is the old phrase, ‘more Catholic than the pope.’


SHEFFIELD: That’s what it is. And it is an interesting little contrast, because you do kind of see this also with regard to Republicans and law enforcement. So ‘back the blue,’ et cetera, they talk about that all the time, support police. But then at the same time, they also don’t want to prosecute anyone who was invading the capital on January 6th, and was injuring police and attacking them with poles and knives and whatever.

They don’t talk about that stuff. It does kind of point to a larger sort of dynamic in the, the right wing sensibility, which is more that there are no principles, there are only people. That’s who is believed in. So as long as the right people are in power, then they can basically do anything that they want. And it’s, so it’s more about people than it is about principles. That’s that’s my take on it. What do you think ?

OLMSTEAD: I mean, I really think, just looking at this, is it all comes back to the culture wars. I mean, it’s all about finding your tribe in the culture wars.

And if your tribe is the kind that says gay marriage is evil, you’re going to do whatever you can [00:32:00] to buttress it, stay with it. Even if it takes you down these extremes, your identity is so tied up in that, that there’s just no letting go of it. The culture war–

SHEFFIELD: You’re God’s servant, yeah.

OLMSTEAD: Yeah. I mean the culture wars are just, they’re like no other. Here in the U.S., it’s just not like any other country in the way that it’s taken over politics. It’s very much taken over the Catholic church in a way that doesn’t neatly fit the culture wars on paper. I mean the Catholic church just doesn’t fit with it. If you look at the actual policies coming out of Rome, you got some things that are on the left, some things that are on the right.

There’s just– it doesn’t work in the way that it does with Democratic and Republican parties here when we’re talking about partisan politics, but they just try and jam it in there to make it work, because it’s tribal identity above all else.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Yeah. Well, alright, well last question before we wrap up here is what kind of response did you get to your article?

OLMSTEAD: I didn’t get anything from EWTN itself. They never responded to me. They never talked to me. Just a lot, I will say for legal reasons, there were a bunch of things I couldn’t publish.

And a lot of people wished that I could have aired more dirty laundry. And I understand that. So there were some people who are really out there hoping that Catholic media are going to be able to pick up the things that I wasn’t able to run with. And so if there’s any Catholic reporters out there who ever see this, hit me up, I have stuff.

But I think for the most part, people felt relieved to see people talking about this, because there’s just been virtually no discussion of it. Otherwise, I got the people you would expect who said I was evil and all that, but mostly I was happy to see that there were people who were like, I’m so glad we’re talking about this.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Okay. All right. Well, I hope people can follow you on Twitter. So you’re at Molly stead that’s O L M S T E a D. And then of course, people can find you over on slate.com as well. Thanks for being here, Molly.

OLMSTEAD: Thank you.[00:34:00]

SHEFFIELD: So that is our show for today. Thanks for joining and I appreciate you being here. Please do visit us at flux.community. You can also go directly to the Theory of Change archives at theoryofchange.show. And then if you’d like what we’re doing here, we can use your support. And I appreciate everybody who is supporting us right now. Thanks very much. And if you would like to support us, please go to patreon.com/discoverflux.

I hope to see you on the next show, and that will do it for today. Thanks. I’m Matthew Sheffield.

Theory of Change Podcast With Matthew Sheffield
Lots of people want to change the world. But how does change happen? Join Matthew Sheffield and his guests as they explore larger trends and intersections in politics, religion, technology, and media.