U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Mother Angelica, the Culture Wars, and the Catholic Church

One of the most famous nuns in recent history, both in the United States and world, passed away this past Sunday. Because of Mother Mary Angelica‘s creation of the Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN) and her twenty years of regular appearances on the same, her fame seems to have rivaled that of Mother Teresa of Calcutta.

Both lived long lives—Mother Teresa dying at 87 (1910-1997) and Mother Angelica at 92 (1923-2016)—and both inspired people around the world in different ways. Mother Teresa’s fame derived from her personal war on poverty in slums of India, but Mother Angelica’s notoriety derived from her televised defense of traditionalist Catholicism, beamed into living rooms during the Western world’s culture wars.

Background

Mother Angelica was born Rita Antoinette Rizzo in Canton Ohio. Her parents divorced when she was six years old—at a time, the late 1920s, when divorce was frowned upon and single mothers with children frowned upon even more. In the 1930s, as a teenager living in the midst of the Great Depression, Rita experienced what she saw as a miraculous healing after a stomach ailment. Some years later, near the end of World War II, according to the National Catholic Reporter, her fate was sealed:

On Aug. 15, 1944, at the age of 21, Rita entered the Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration in Cleveland and took the name by which the world would come to know her — Sister Mary Angelica of the Annunciation.

The Poor Clares are a contemplative order of Franciscan nuns.

A few years later, in 1946, she was chosen to help found a new monastery in Canton. After some trials and tribulations there, in 1961, the NCR obituary notes that “Rome granted Sister Mary Angelica permission for the Alabama foundation, Our Lady of the Angels Monastery in Irondale, Alabama.”

It is worth noting that she asked for this to occur in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement. She sought to do Catholic missionary work in a Protestant South in the midst of a revolution in race relations. That said, I could not find in the obituaries how the Irondale monastery interacted with its local neighbors, or why in particular the city of Irondale, which is near Birmingham, was chosen (geography? demographics? cheap land?).

Mother Angelica founded EWTN in 1981. She was inspired to use mass broadcast media after a positive work on the radio in 1970s. She had begun recording audio talks in the late 1960s, and gave her first radio broadcast in 1971. Her first television appearance occurred in 1978, during “half-hour programs called Our Hermitage.” Complaints about other “blasphemous” programming by station inspired her to dream of building a television studio at the monastery. This was completed 1981, and the first EWTN broadcast occurred in August of that year.

Today EWTN broadcasts 24 hours a day to, purportedly, 144 countries, with a viewership estimated anywhere from 100-264 million homes. EWTN has approximately 400 employees.

According to her NYT obituary, Mother Angelica used EWTN “unstintingly to criticize liberalizing trends in the Catholic Church.”

The National Catholic Reporter characterized her time at EWTN somewhat different. Here’s along excerpt:

Some have asserted that she helped to safeguard the Church in the United States.

“Mother Angelica has been compared to a powerful medieval abbess. But the mass-media instrument she created has extended her influence for the Gospel far beyond that of any medieval abbess, and even beyond that of many of the last century’s most prominent American bishops,” said Mark Brumley, president of Ignatius Press. “Her long-term contribution is hard to assess, of course, but there is no doubt that Mother Angelica has helped root the Church in America more deeply in the Catholic Tradition; and at the same time, she has helped make the Church more innovative in how she communicates that tradition. All Catholics in America should thank God for Mother Angelica.”

“Mother Angelica has two important legacies,” said [Raymond] Arroyo. “To the wider world, she’s the first woman in the history of broadcast to found and lead a network for over 20 years. No one else has ever done that.”

“She was such a great support to Pope John Paul II and his successor,” added Arroyo. “Her active ministry ran parallel to Pope John Paul II’s, and she backed him up at a time when so many people were undermining Church authority, distorting the history and nature of the liturgy and popular devotion and confusing Catholic teaching. She showed that the commonsense approach of Catholics was right. She normalized the truth of the faith at a time when it was up for grabs.”

And here’s another assessment from Archbishop Charles Chaput—known as a conservative and fearless controversialist:

“Mother Angelica succeeded at a task the nation’s bishops themselves couldn’t achieve,” said Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, who has served on EWTN’s board of governors since 1995. “She founded and grew a network that appealed to everyday Catholics, understood their needs and fed their spirits. She had a lot of help, obviously, but that was part of her genius.”

Questions and Musings

I have not read Arroyo’s biography of Mother Angelica. I’d like to. I’m intrigued to know how Arroyo parses Mother Angelica’s intellectual influences.

What were her favorite novels and authors? Who were her favored theologians? What era of her youth stood out in her memories? Did she look up to any political figures? Who were her favorite saints? What did she think of JFK? And Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, the Clintons, and the Bushes? Because of her admiration for Pope John Paul II, was she a fervent Cold Warrior? It seems likely. What were her voting patterns?

What did Mother Angelica think of Mother Teresa? What of the world’s poor? What did Mother Angelica think of NAFTA and “free trade”?

I never watched a complete broadcast from Mother Angelica on EWTN. She left her show during a period when my subscription to cable was spotty. And I don’t think my cable providers included EWTN. My contact with her thought, then, was, more minimal than I’d like to admit.

My impression, however, was that she was more a critic of liberal trends in Catholicism than she was a defender of the Church. Her legacy is probably larger in the Church’s internal culture wars than was her importance to the Culture Wars that existed in America generally. But, with the growth of Catholicism in intellectual, political, and legal circles, maybe that distinction is too fine. And maybe Mother Angelica discussed controversial cultural and intellectual figures more than I know?

What say you? – TL

5 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Addendum on my Culture Wars thesis regarding Mother Angelica: For a woman who lived much her life, and experienced some of her most formative events, before the 1960s it appears that Vatican Council II changed her sense of vocation as much as her religious vows did. – TL

  2. Mother Angelica was more than a critic of modernism. She founded religious orders and a media network dedicated to Jesus as the Eternal Word and the Eucharist as the Bread of Life and God Himself. If the Resurrection is true, then all the philosophies and intellectual histories are “like straw.”

    • Tell that to Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Kierkegaard, and a host of others. And why then are you monitoring this post? 🙂 – TL

  3. her fame seems to have rivaled that of Mother Teresa of Calcutta.

    Really? I’m fairly sure I’d never heard of Mother Angelica. But perhaps that’s only a reflection on my range of reference and not on her fame.

    • At this point it feels possible to me. Obviously I don’t have hard proof about Mother Teresa’s notoriety, but we know something about the reach of EWTN’s broadcast numbers. – TL

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