End Notes: Date with an Angel

In Brian Moore’s Catholic, set in a future when modernists have taken over the Church, Father Kinsella is sent from Rome to investigate an Irish abbey where the old religion flourishes and is attracting the devout from around the world. It is the Latin Mass and the devotion with which it is said that draws worshippers. Father Kinsella observes the monks with fascinated horror. These men actually believe all these discarded doctrines, the Mass, the Real Presence. . . .

I was reminded of this in reading Father Raymond Schroth, S.J.’s account of his two-week monitoring of Mother Angelica’s EWTN that appeared in the National Catholic Reporter in July.

Father Schroth’s first reaction is one of embarrassment. “For a generation, American Catholicism has striven to present itself as socially concerned, ecumenical and intellectually competent.” And here is this dreadful nun in Alabama inviting the ridicule of National Public Radio! There go all those decades of currying the favor of Ms. Nina Totenberg and the like.

Mother Angelica and the others who appear on EWTN smile a lot, but Father Schroth is not deceived. They are “mad as hell at what has happened to their world in the past 30 years.” Oddly enough, this notetaking Jesuit acknowledges the collapse of “traditional structures, grammar schools and high schools run by religious orders that once taught basic Catholic doctrine.” Some collapse. And Mother Angelica attempts to fill “that hole with the Baltimore Catechism.” As if aware that this is false, he adds that a series on the Catechism of the Catholic Church featuring Bishop Christoph Schonborn was scheduled to begin on EWTN.

Schroth neglects mentioning the role Bishop Schonborn played in the composition of the new catechism. If he had been paying attention, he would have known that the catechism featured on EWTN ever since it became available is the very one put together by the committee on which Schonborn served. What seems to bother Father Schroth is not the anachronism of EWTN but the fact that it is promoting the same Catholic faith to be found in that new catechism. It seems to be somewhat different from Father Schroth’s.

What are some of his complaints? Watching EWTN one could get the idea that the Catholic faith includes belief in the apocalypse, the efficacious intercession of the Blessed Virgin, miracles, apparitions, evil spirits, and the Eucharist. It is on the last point that Father Schroth most puts one in mind of Brian Moore’s Father Kinsella. He is particularly offended by the televised Mass.

“The Mass, except for the parts that are read in English, has been unaffected by Vatican II.” It is difficult to know how to take this. Does he mean an illicit liturgy is used? “At communion, no one but the priests receives from the cup, all the nuns receive the host on the tongue, as do 95 percent of the congregation. Do they feel somehow unworthy to ‘touch Jesus’? Is a eucharistic spirituality that emphasizes the aloofness, the remoteness of Jesus somehow more Catholic than that which sees a family sharing a meal in which the Lord has truly promised to be present?”

Is it less Catholic? Schroth makes a crack about Fulton Sheen in the course of mocking Father George Rutler. Bishop Sheen, one remembers reading, made a eucharistic holy hour every day of his life after ordination. Schroth seems not to grasp Mary Rousseau’s point about the matter of the sacrament of Holy Orders. One gets the impression that what bothers Father Schroth in EWTN will bother him when he gets around to reading the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Mother Angelica may not be everybody’s cup of tea. It would be odd if she were. But there is something churlish in this mean-spirited appraisal of her work. Father Schroth wishes there was competition for EWTN. He ought to look into what happened to the efforts of our bishops to get established on television. And there have been many other casualties. And there is VISN.

There are, of course, disanalogies between Father Schroth’s screed and Brian Moore’s marvelous novella. The fictional Rome is one Schroth would apparently find congenial. But in the real world, it is Mother Angelica’s link with Rome that makes these criticisms odd. The faith of the Church has not changed. One reviewing Father Schroth might also draw conclusions. One might think that the Church no longer believes in miracles or the eventual end of this world or the intercession of Mary and now regards the Mass as a community get-together where reverence is out of order.

But there is no need to parse and analyze Father Schroth’s equivocal substitutes for the Catholicism he found on EWTN. They are not original with him. One has heard them all too often before. But not from the teaching Church, not from Vatican II, not from the new catechism. Is it the recognition of what he is really criticizing that explains Father Schroth’s anger?

He leaves us with cutting-edge advice. He invokes the sacred shade of St. Edward R. Murrow, imagining this affected chain-smoking reporter at the microphone once more, saying “something intelligent for God.” Edward R. Murrow! He lived way back before Vatican II. Our suggested mentors on NPR are unlikely even to know his name.

Perhaps Father Schroth ought to start his own channel and follow the advice he rather gratuitously offers a holy woman who is doing more good for the Church than several Jesuit provinces combined. The Catholic television he imagines wouldn’t last a week.

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Ralph McInerny was a popular writer, philosopher, and teacher, as well as the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He passed away on January 29, 2010.

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