A nun in full

Three years ago, when Raymond Arroyo told me that he was going to write the biography of Mother Angelica, the formidable foundress of EWTN, I had to admit to some skepticism. Was there enough of a story there to warrant a full-scale biography? Could an EWTN employee tell the story frankly, fairly, and without premature hagiography?

This past April, in Rome, Raymond gave me a copy of the proofs of his book. Five nights of reading later, my initial skepticism had completely abated. Mother Angelica: The Remarkable Story of a Nun, Her Nerve, and a Network of Miracles, just published by Doubleday, is a rattling good tale of fear and faith, courage and bulldog tenacity. It’s also high drama from start to finish.

No one in their right mind would have expected Rita Rizzo, whom the world would later know as “Mother Angelica,” to build the first global Catholic media empire. Not to put too fine a point on it, clan Rizzo’s misadventures give the words “dysfunctional family” new depths of meaning.  A cruel father and an endlessly neurotic mother weave in and out of a story that, while set in the same period of time, certainly isn’t Going My Way. Nor are her early days in the convent easy for Angelica, as she’s beset by unimaginative superiors, not always sympathetic colleagues, and serious health problems.

None of this suggests capacities that would eventually parallel those of a Rupert Murdoch or Ted Turner — yet that is what Mother Angelica became. How she imagined a global Catholic television empire, the faith with which she built it (coming within an ace of bankruptcy at times), and how she successfully fought off attempts to seize what she had built: it’s quite a compelling story, full of plot twists and turns, and not without its moments of failure. And to his credit, Raymond Arroyo gives us Mother Angelica in full. This is no plaster saint; this is a woman whose shrewd judgment is sometimes blunted by the fierce temper that once led her to pitch a knife at her uncle when she was seventeen.

Still, at the end, what the reader takes away from this book is a deep respect for Mother Angelica’s faith and courage. EWTN’s style of Catholic piety may not be universally appreciated. But no one who cares about the new evangelization should gainsay the accomplishment of this dumpling of a nun who pulled off something the institutional Church in the United States spectacularly failed to manage — the creation of a 24/7 Catholic presence on television.

Raymond Arroyo doesn’t put it quite this way, but one can read the Mother Angelica story as a metaphor for the Catholic situation in the U.S. these past forty years. As in all great periods of reform — and the Second Vatican Council was intended by John XXIII as a reforming Council, a Council to give the Church a new burst of evangelical energy — the post-conciliar period following Vatican II has been filled with tension between the institutional and charismatic elements in the Church: between expanding Church bureaucracies and various forms of spiritual entrepreneurship. Sometimes those tensions can be creative; sometimes they get nasty. It would be difficult to describe the tensions between EWTN and the U.S. bishops’ conference as “creative;” but those tensions, which Arroyo describes without rancor, are, at the very least, instructive — although one can wonder how well the conference has learned the lessons of its expensive failure to create a Catholic presence on television.

There’s also food for thought here as Catholics of both sexes ponder the meaning of John Paul the Great’s Catholic feminism. The most beloved figure in contemporary Catholicism was a woman — Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta. The most powerful and successful Catholic media mogul of our time is a woman — Mother Angelica. What does it mean for the future that neither Mother Teresa no Mother Angelica had much use for “Catholic feminism” as it’s usually defined, and that both were completely devoted to John Paul II’s understanding of the unique dignity and vocation of women?

Stay tuned.

COMING UP: Banned books: Pushing back against the new ideology

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How would you know if you were being brainwashed? When something plainly false — contrary to common sense and right reason — is so constantly forced on you and you are not allowed to question it, it’s a good indication. This is the nature of ideology: imposing a position without truly establishing it or allowing it to be criticized. We have seen that something clearly opposed to the basics of scientific fact, such as the nature of sex as male and female, can be forced quickly upon American society through the influence of media and public education. And, perhaps not too surprisingly, even something as clear as 2+2=4 has been called into question by progressive educators, such as Dr. Rochelle Gutierrez, turning it into a sign of alleged oppression.  

In our time, dystopian novels have become reality. George Orwell best described the use of ideology in modern political regimes through doublethink, newspeak, and thoughtcrime. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, the main character, Winston Smith, is coerced to accept that 2+2=5, showing his allegiance to ideology over reality. Orwell speaks of the way ideology gains power over the mind: “The Party is not interested in the overt act: the thought is all we care about. We do not merely destroy our enemies, we change them.” This domination does not broker any opposition: “It is intolerable . . .  that an erroneous thought should exist anywhere in the world, however secret and powerless it may be.” If the truth can circulate freely, then ideology will fail.  

You might ask how the acceptance of ideology differs from accepting the mystery of faith, which requires our obedience to God. A key difference is that God’s revelation makes sense even while beyond reason. God does not shut down our thinking but wants us to ask questions and continue to come to know him and his creation throughout our lives. Faith cannot contradict reason because they both come from God, from his gifts of revelation and creation. You know you are facing ideology, however, when it refuses any discussion of contrary views. Catholics have been accused of hate for refusing to go along with the new ideology of human sexuality. This ideology claims to speak truly of the reality of human life, although it doesn’t add up, contradicting itself and the clear facts of science. The fight for the future focuses on speaking the truth. Without the ability to think, discuss, and read freely, it will be hard to respond to the ideological wave overwhelming us. 

Throughout the country, however, great books and humanities programs are being shut down for their emphasis on the Western tradition. Cornell West, an African American philosopher at Harvard, writing with Jeremy Tate, speaks of the spiritual tragedy of one American university closing down its classics department: “Yet today, one of America’s greatest Black institutions, Howard University, is diminishing the light of wisdom and truth that inspired [Frederick] Douglass, [Martin Luther] King and countless other freedom fighters. . . . Academia’s continual campaign to disregard or neglect the classics is a sign of spiritual decay, moral decline and a deep intellectual narrowness running amok in American culture.” For West and Tate, cancelling the Western canon shuts down the central conversation of the pursuit of wisdom that touches every culture.  

Canceling the pursuit of wisdom hits at the integrity of our culture itself, as Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, another dystopian novel, focused on saving books from the fire set on wiping them out, explains: “If you don’t want a man unhappy politically, don’t give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one. Better yet, give him none.” Books proved hostile in this all-too-real futuristic American society portrayed by Bradbury, undermining the state of contended distraction provided by an omnipresent virtual reality. The fight for truth necessarily entails the books we read and teach.  

In our current cancel culture, Catholics too are being silenced for speaking about reality. Amazon recently cancelled Ryan T. Anderson, who studied at Princeton and Notre Dame and now directs the Ethics and Public Policy Center, blocking the sale of its book on its platform for questioning transgender ideology. The book, When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Movement (Encounter Books, 2018), provides a well-researched and thought-out response to the movement overturning common sense and millennia of acquired wisdom. Even more than that, Anderson shows how we are experimenting on our children, subjecting them to practices of hormone therapy and surgery that have not been proven safe or effective. Anderson provides evidence of ideology at work, through its coercive attempt to force us to accept what contradicts clear scientific evidence: “At the heart of the transgender moment are radical ideas about the human person — in particular, that people are what they claim to be regardless of contrary evidence” (29).  

Anderson does not deny the need to help those who suffer from gender dysphoria, although the heart of the books focuses on whether or not we are willing to accept reality and to help others to do so. As Anderson explains, “determining reality is the heart of the matter, and here too we find contradictions … Is our gender biologically determined and immutable or self-created and changeable? … At the core of the ideology is the radical claim that feelings determine reality. From this idea come extreme demands for society to play along with subjective reality claims. Trans ideologues ignore contrary evidence and competing interests; they disparage alternative practices; and they aim to muffle skeptical voices and shut down disagreement. The movement has to keep patching and shoring up its beliefs, policing the faithful, coercing the heretics and punishing apostates, because as soon as its furious efforts flag for a moment or someone successfully stands up to it, the whole charade is exposed. That’s what happens when your dogmas are so contrary to obvious, basic, everyday truths” (47-48). Not only philosophers like Anderson, but many educators, doctors, scientists, and politicians have been cancelled for standing up to the blatant falsehoods of this ideology. 

Does 2+2=5? Is a man a man and a woman a woman? No matter the effect of hormones and surgeries, every cell in the body points to the biological reality of sex, along with a myriad of other physical and emotional traits. Shutting down study and debate does not get to the heart of the matter, the truth of reality and the way to help those who suffer. The ideology does not truly focus on tolerance of others or creating reasonable accommodations, as it seeks to impose itself and coerce us. The reinterpretation of Title IX manifests an “Orwellian fiat” by which sex discrimination, meant to protect women, now becomes a means to discriminate against them: “The Women’s Liberation Front highlights the strange transformation of Title IX into a means to deny privacy, safety, education opportunity, and equality to women” (190). Anderson’s book provides an essential overview of the goals of the transgender movement and how to respond to it from a philosophical and scientific perspective. We should not allow the book to be cancelled! 

The goal of this new ideology is not simply to accept and tolerate a particular position, but, as Orwell recognized, to change us. It constitutes an attempt to redefine what it means to be a human being and to change the way we think about reality. Anything standing in the way will be cancelled or even burned. The quick success of this movement, and other ideologies as well, should make us pause. Do we want our children to think freely and wisely or simply to conform to what is imposed on them without question?  

As Catholics, we are called to think in conformity with faith and reason, upholding the truth, even when inconvenient. We are called to continue to form our own minds and accept the reality of how God made us and how he calls us into relationship with him, as the true source of overcoming suffering and difficulty. If you are uninformed and unable to judge rightly and logically, you are more likely to become prey to the new ideology, especially as enforced by government control and big business. We need Catholic freedom fighters, those willing, with charity, to stop the burning of the great ideas and the cancelling of our own faith.  

Photo by Fred Kearney on Unsplash