U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Theology of Risk

What’s better than one post on Mother Angelica? TWO posts on Mother Angelica–and she does earn them.

Consider this post an extension of and, in some ways, a response to Tim Lacy’s questions and observations about the creator of EWTN, arguably the most powerful and lucrative religious media empire in the United States. I agree that Mother Angelica is part of the Culture Wars within the American Catholic Church. I write about her in that context in a recently completed (I think) book on Franciscan media.

But there is another angle on Mother Angelica that I find equally fascinating, under-studied, and also connected to her profile as a culture warrior. She had serious issues with money–in terms of debt, revenue, and investment. And at least early in the EWTN’s history, Mother Angelica received help from a relatively small group of benefactors and donors about whom I know little and who Raymond Arroyo (Mother Angelica’s most capable biographer to date) does not dig into too deeply. Mother Angelica operated within what she called a “theology of risk.” That idea is what I want to explore briefly below.

By the end of 1980, Mother Angelica and a surprisingly few associates had founded the Eternal World Television Network as a nonprofit civil corporation (with no formal association to the Catholic Church) and began its first year “more than a million dollars in debt and facing operating expenses of $1.5 million a year.” According to Raymond Arroyo, Mother Angelica characterized her financial gamble as part of a much larger project—“a theology of risk.” She admitted to the New York Times: “most people think we’re a little touched in the head.” But with this bold and risky move, the abbess of Our Lady of Angels had founded the first Roman Catholic cable television network with a mission that in many was a culmination of Franciscan media. “We’re after the man in the pew, the woman who is suffering from heartache, the child who is lonely,” Mother Angelica declared. “ I’m hoping we can teach without teaching, enlighten the heart and relax the body.”[1]

By the summer of 1983, EWTN made the strategically smart move of featuring their greatest asset—Mother Angelica—by producing her own live show. For the next twenty years, the format of the show would not change. Arroyo provides an apt description of the show’s appeal:

Slouching on the brown sofa each week, her braced legs crossed at the ankle, Mother was like no one else on television. She coughed when her Asthma acted up, chomped on lozenges, unleashed explosive sneezes that drew tears from her eyes, and regularly collapsed in fits of laughter. This purposively unvarnished approached endeared her to the audience. In the gaffes and imperfections they saw themselves.

The shows strength, like much of Franciscan media, came from an appeal of approachability, people felt comfortable relating the messiness of their lives to the spiritual guidance of, in this case, a grandmotherly nun. “Applying the spiritual balm to the wounds of the common man,” Arroyo observes, “her program tackled drug addition, alcoholism, the pain of divorce, and loneliness.” The litany of daily afflictions that Mother Angelica addressed hadn’t changed much from those answered in the pages of St. Anthony Messenger by Fr. Fulgence Meyer. With one major exception, when Mother Angelica spoke to a caller about marital problems, she was talking to an audience spread across 220 cable systems and in two million homes. In 1985, EWTN was rated as one of the fastest growing cable networks in the United States.[2]

The U.S. Catholic Bishops could not compete with Mother Angelica’s reach and popularity. Evidence of the imbalance grew more pronounced once EWTN moved to a 24-hour a day format and Pope John Paul II announced a visit to the United States in 1987. No other network could approach the kind of coverage that EWTN provided of this historic visit. CTNA acknowledged the power of Mother Angelica’s media empire by asking EWTN to partner with the Bishops for the Pope’s visit. During John Paul II’s 10-day trip through the U.S. an estimated seven hundred cable systems and 20 million homes picked up EWTN. The effect on Mother Angelica’s network was profound and long-lasting. In the years to come, Mother Angelica brokered and then ended a relationship with the Bishops, both on her terms; built a multi-million dollar radio network called WEWN with funding from a Dutch billionaire named Piet Derksen; and by 1998 claimed, according to the IRS, $49 million in assets and an annual income (contributions) for her media empire of $19 million.[3]

Building this media empire was impressive. Equally impressive were the people Mother Angelica enlisted and the money they gave her. Below is a cursory list of those Arroyo notes were significant to building the infrastructure of EWTN. What Arroyo does not do, though, is suggest why these people gave Mother Angelica money and what part these people have played and perhaps continue to play in the larger matrix of faith and giving that has shaped American religion through out U.S. history. For more on the study of faith and giving in the U.S. see my colleague David King at the Lake Center, IUPUI.

So, in the mid-1980s, when Mother Angelica was building a television studio and buying equipment to run it she received hundreds of thousands of dollars from Harry G. John, an heir to the Miller Brewing fortune, through the De Rance Foundation, something Harry John established to support Catholicism in America. When Mother Angelica had to pay off a debt from buying a satellite dish, “a guy on his yacht in the Bahamas” sent her $600,000. The Bombergers of Florida gave Mother Angelica at least $150,000. The Knights of Columbus provide money, as did the Cardinal Bernard Law Foundation ($25,000) before the clergy sexual abuse cases broke. Mother Angelica sold rebroadcasts of her shows and talks to Harry John’s ill-fated media enterprise, Santa Fe Communications, for $200/minute, generating so much income that whatever debt EWTN owed Harry John was forgiven. In 1984, Mother Angelica produced her first telethon, generating tens of thousands of dollars and, more importantly, a consistent base of viewer support for years to come. Peter Grace of the Grace Foundation, provided Mother Angelica with loans in excess of $750,000. A “lawyer and his wife” in Florida paid off most of those loans by giving the nun $700,000 in 1984. Piet Derksen, described in Arroyo’s book as a Dutch Catholic millionaire and philanthropist who made his money from a chain of sports stores and Center Parcs, funded EWTN ventures to an astonishing tune of around $35 million. Joseph Canizaro gave Mother Angelica $1 million; the German based Aid to the Church gave another million, and Joe and Lee Bruno provided EWTN with a mobile production facility worth well over $600,000.

My basic point is this: Mother Angelica had a vision, but without funding (her theology of risk) her voice would not have been heard above the din of many others like her. She did not operate on the same model as televangelists, though viewers have given money over the years. Rather, Mother Angelica told Arroyo: “You want to do something for the Lord…do it.” And when faced with debts in the millions of dollars, she faithfully concluded: “God will provide.” Well, others provided too. I have not dug into the web of funders that amplified Mother Angelica’s voice. But I want to now.

[1] Arroyo, 151, 153; Albin Krebs and Robert McG. Thomas, “Notes on People: A New Cable-TV Network with a Difference,” New York Times, (15 August 1981), 15.

[2] Arroyo, 192, 194.

[3] Arroyo, 281.

One Thought on this Post

  1. Ray: Thanks for this excellent addition to my admittedly introductory piece. I’m intrigued by Mother Angelica’s “theology of risk.” Where did she articulate that? Where did you see it? I ask because I want to know who or what informed that theology beyond the circumstances of the founding and continued existence of EWTN (which you outline adeptly above).

    Was it a inductive, pragmatic theology, or something inspired by sacred scripture or the theological work of another? The answers to these questions, I think, form the kernel from which an intellectual history of her work, or EWTN, might grow. – TL

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