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Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Mortal Sin at EWTN

I recently sent my new book, Designed to Fail: Catholic Education in America, to EWTN for a possible inclusion on Doug Kecks' BookMarks program.

Now, in the interests of full disclosure, I should say that I've never actually watched any EWTN program, nor have I heard more than a literal handful of their radio shows. We don't own a television, and the radio - when it is on - is generally tuned to classical music. Still, many Catholics swear by EWTN, so it is a useful place to make a Catholic offering known.

Now, Designed to Fail has been very well-received by reviewers, so imagine my surprise when I discovered the book had been turned down for theological reasons.

"Hmmm..." thought I to myself, thought I, "I wonder what on earth the problem could be. Perhaps they felt I treated America's nineteenth-century bishops a bit too harshly. But that seems odd. The analysis of the Americanist heresy is drawn from a Magisterial document they carry on their own website. Similarly, the discussion of Edgardo Mortrara's situation is based on the testimony he gives about himself, testimony also available on the EWTN website. What on earth could it be?"

I e-mailed, asking around at EWTN. This is the conversation that ensued. Only names have been omitted so as to spare the EWTN participants in the conversatuion their much-deserved opprobrium:

EWTN: "Unfortunately, theology has turned this book down."

ME: "Where would I get the theology report so I can discover what the problems are?"

EWTN: "one of the concerns was advising people to through out their tv sets" (sic)

ME: " LOL! Well, they can still listen to EWTN on the radio... I assume you're not being serious, right? "

EWTN: "you assume wrong ... sorry"

ME: "I assume they interpret Vatican Council II as meaning that it is a mortal sin not to watch television?Oh, ... I'm afraid EWTN is going to get SKEWERED on the blogs for this one! I'll be working on a press release ASAP. Thanks for the information!"

EWTN: "So this is not a private communication?"

ME: "EWTN has turned down a book that I submitted to them. If someone were to call EWTN and ask for the EWTN opinion on the book, EWTN would reply that it has theological problems, right? If EWTN is willing to tell people what they think about a book, then why can't I tell people what EWTN thinks about the book?"

EWTN: silence....

Later that morning, I called EWTN to confirm the situation. I was actually laughing at the absurdity of the thing when they answered the phone.

This is the conversation we had:
EWTN: "Actually, we don't tell anyone what is wrong with a book. We just say we don't carry it."
ME: "Well, why on earth wouldn't you say what the problems were? Shouldn't people be told exactly where the difficulties lie, so they can identify similar problems in other works? Shouldn't the author know exactly where the difficulties lie, so he can correct the problems?"

EWTN: "We don't give out imprimaturs. We aren't the Church. There are a lot of reasons not to carry a book - tone, style, etc."

ME: "Yes, but in this instance, you found a 'theological' problem - you apparently think it is a violation of Vatican II's decree on communications, Inter Mirifica, for a family to throw out their television set or for anyone to tell a family to do so."

EWTN: "I don't know what the theology department meant by that. Perhaps it was a joke. Besides, none of your books have ever been carried by EWTN, have they?"

ME: "True. My first book, Scriptural Catholicism, now Bible Basics, was rejected by Deacon Steltemeier on the grounds that it was useless - no one would want such an apologetics text. In the same communication, he also asked if he could keep the review copy I sent him as he thought it would be marvelous assistance to him for composing his homilies. The next book I sent, Sex and the Sacred City, was turned down by EWTN but was subsequently picked up by Dr. Peter Kreeft, who wrote a rave review for it, called it one of the best books of 2005, and uses it in his classes at Boston College. Now this."

EWTN: "Well, Boston College is barely Catholic. Certainly something that is in use there would not necessarily be appropriate here."

ME: "Boston College does indeed have serious problems, but I've never heard anyone say that Peter Kreeft's classes were only nominally Catholic."

EWTN: "Peter is a personal friend of mine. I know Peter. I have the highest regard for Peter. But a college textbook is not necessarily the best thing for EWTN's audience."

We conversed for a few more minutes in this fashion, and then I said goodbye and gently cradled the phone, shaking my head.

I directed a letter to their theology department. This was the only reply I received:
"Thanks for your note. Sorry that I don't know the particulars of Theology's review. Don't know if you caught Fr. Groeschel's Sunday Night Live program last night, but he touched on this very same topic of Catholic education in America. Most interesting."

Nothing more has been communicated.

As far as I know, this is the offending section of the book, Chapter 14:
"So, get rid of your TV. Throw it out. What? Why yes, EWTN has quite a good set of programs. Oh, certainly I agree, the sports channel is mostly innocuous. Yes, it is absolutely wonderful that you have blocked MTV. I applaud the fact that you have restricted broadcast television viewing.
That’s great. I’m proud of you.
Now throw it out.
Television advertisements teach one thing: you don’t have enough. Whatever “enough” might be, you don’t have it and you won’t be happy until you get it, so you must go out and buy it. That is television’s only lesson, it is the lesson that runs through every other lesson. Just as the curriculum of the compulsory school is contraception, so the television curriculum is the curriculum of the needy, the incomplete, the whining child. You wouldn’t let a used car salesman live rent-free in the spare bedroom. Why let this thing live rent-free in your living room?
If you must have it, cut the cable, rip off the antennas and operate solely on the DVD and VCR players. Don’t permit your children to even be aware that broadcast or cable television exists until they have at least received the sacraments of Reconciliation, Confirmation and First Eucharist. They need grace to handle the stuff broadcast and cable have in store for them."

It's a mortal sin not to watch television.
I am a sinner.
Go thou, and do likewise.


Jeff Miller said...

That is just plain bizarre. Just wait till they find out that Mark Shea tells people to throw out their tv on his blog.

Steve Kellmeyer said...

Well, there's the funny thing.

According to others who DO watch EWTN, Mother Angelica used to regularly tell people to throw out the television. Fr. Groeschel still does, apparently. There are several others on EWTN who have said the same thing either on or off the shows.

So, no, I doubt Mark Shea will be in any trouble.

Trying to work with EWTN is much like trying to work with Bartleby the Scrivener. You never know when he's suddenly going to say, "I prefer not, sir."

As an old professor of mine used to say, "To that, we give the Italian salute" - shrug the shoulders, hands in the air, palms up, and walk away so as to get on with life.

tom bonin said...

I appreciate your work for the Church and I appreciate EWTN's work and all of the orthodox and faithful Catholics are doing for the Church. I have purchased some of your publications and like them.

I agree that mainstream Catholic Secondary Education is failing the test of orthodoxy and homeschooling is a better way to go, but homeschoolers have to be on guard to maintain their humility.

I am disturbed by the fact good Catholics/Christians are taking shots at each other in print (ie, New Oxford Review, First Things,....) and on the internet (ie, renewamerica, blog postings, ....).

There are valid points that you make about not having cable/satellite TV, and other media that talks at us. I
know I have not cultivated my own personal spiritual life enough because I have "distracted myself" for countless hours in front of this screen, the TV, reading books on even the faith rather than practicing the faith.

We who are human and who consider ourselves to be educated thrive on making sure we are right in what we believe. We often let pride supplant the virtues of humility and especially charity.

I ask as a fellow brother in Christ. Does it build up the Body of Christ to "publicly" criticize other fellow brothers and sisters in Christ who are trying to faithfully spread the Gospel? Is it charitable and humble to state that "EWTN is going to here about this on the blogs."

The more we tear down each other. The less the Evil One has work at tearing done the Body of Christ.

AMDG. God bless you and your apostalate.

tom bonin said...

My last statement above needs to read:

The more we tear down each other; the less the Evil One has to work at tearing down the Body of Christ.

Sorry for the errors.


Steve Kellmeyer said...

While I understand your concern about tearing down fellow Christians, there is also something called "correcting the sinner" - a work of spiritual mercy.

Matthew 18 is quite clear that if you go to your brother with a complaint and he does not listen to you, you should go in the company of others.

My experience with EWTN is not unique. There are many, many people who have had similar experiences. Most don't talk about it because they don't want to get in EWTN's bad graces - they hope eventually to somehow get on the show somewhere.

While EWTN does much good, it lacks theological common sense. Its theological reviews are not made public, which prevents anyone who actually does provide problematic work from correcting their work. Further, it prevents anyone from seeing just how secular some of its "theological" objections are.

Mother Angelica no longer controls operations and it shows. As this example shows, EWTN has a reputation for orthodoxy which is not entirely deserved and, as a result, it may easily lead Catholics in a direction that should not be followed.

Worse, it effectively muzzles Catholics through the silent treatment of fear and intimidation. If shedding light on these practices is tearing down others, then of what use is the spiritual acts of mercy?

tom bonin said...

According to Matthew 18. It states that you need to take one or two others first before you go tell it to the church.

Do you think involving someone like Peter Kreeft as an intermediary to work out the issues of theological evaluation could have been the next step rather than blogging?

I sense the comments questioning EWTN's orthodoxy gets into the issues of who can be more orthodox. I think that get's into intellectual and "orthodoxical" pride.

EWTN is not perfect and there are problems with any organization of humans, but God has blessed their organization as He has blessed you with gifts, also. I know you love the Lord, the Blessed Mother, and the Church

I am one who appeals to the Body of Christ to use our collective gifts charitably.


Steve Kellmeyer said...

I asked the advice of several before I made this post. Peter Kreeft was not one of them because I am not a personal friend of Dr. Kreeft. He endorsed my book despite not knowing me from Adam. Indeed, I didn't even know he had been using the book for the last year - I only found out in November.

Of the people I asked, most did not want to get involved because they did not want to threaten their own relationship with EWTN. You may not realize it, but EWTN has a *HUGE* reputation for this kind of thing in the speaker's/writer's community.

It is a false charity to refuse to point out one another's failings. EWTN is not a person, it is a group of people, and this group of people has, on numerous occasions, claimed 'theology' to be their guide when, in fact, it is simply their personal preference.

I would have no problem with EWTN saying, "Sorry, this book isn't our style." That's their right. But to say "theology turned it down"?


Theology turned down the idea that we should throw out our televisions?!?

I don't think I'm the one claiming superior orthodoxy. I didn't begin the conversation by invoking theological privilege. I'm pointing out that this invocation is, to put it bluntly, damned weird.

KaleJ said...

Bizarre to say the least. I for one, appreciate Steve's candor on this. I have heard very little criticism of EWTN.

I haven't read your book (yet), but I mostly agree about the teli. We still have one, 90% for movies. It isn't in our living room and isn't on unless we are all sitting down for a movie. I still indulge in football, but keep inching away year by year.

When we was regular TV off the antennae, I use the occasion to instruct my children on why the commercials are wrong.

I am not sure throwing it out will entirely solve the issue. We didn't have one growing up. When I got out of the house, I became an addict to it.

In regards to EWTN, as the Curt Jester reminds us, pray for them.

Steve Kellmeyer said...

Individual parents have the right to solve the problem of television as they choose, and I think judicious instruction in commercials is certainly a good choice.

I likewise agree that simply throwing out the television will not magically make the problem posed by the culture go away. It is instructive to note that Madonna, the aging pop idol, was raised in a house without a television and won't allow her own children to watch it.

So, ymmcv - your mileage may certainly vary.

nhs said...

For the love of Mike, let it go. The TV comment was probably a joke - in fact, I have no doubt it was, as others have said the same thing on the air. And "Theology" is simply the name of the department that reads these books and turns them down for a variety of reasons, not merely "theological" ones.

Remember that recent huge best seller? Take the title to heart. Maybe they are "just not that into you."

Steve Kellmeyer said...

"Theology" may well just be the name of the department that turns down books and speakers. This just highlights the problem.

After all, isn't it odd that the department which quibbles over the phrasing in books and speakers is so inappropriately named? Why is the the department that turns down on the basis of style named in such a stylistically poor way?

No, there's no way to make an apology for EWTN on this one - either their theology department has a poor grasp of theology or it has an exceedingly poor name, but the horns of the dilemma are unavoidable.

And if it was a joke, it was a joke at the expense of my family's income and well-being. I find jokes that threaten my family to be in exceedingly poor taste.

If I were in the wrong, I would have no basis for complaint. As it is, I am not. Why are you wroth at the idea that EWTN might have theological problems of its own?

Michael Kreidler said...

Many people have a belief (even a faith) in all that EWTN does, carries or speaks. EWTN has a very specific (narrow?) definition of Catholicism. They can do what they like since they are a private organization. They are free to reject any book they like (or dislike). The issue is that most people do not recognize that EWTN makes errors. Not all they speak is necessarily in accordance with Church teaching. I am not saying any of it is purposeful, but not every utterance coming from EWTN TV or radio can be vetted by the theology dept. Even if it could, the EWTN theologians are not infallible.

In short, we need to see EWTN for what it is. They have done a great work for the Church. They continue to bring countless people to faith in the True Church. They have assisted many media outlets via free radio feeds. That being said, their 'brand' of Catholicism is not the voice of the One True Church. They do not speak infallibly. Their audience needs to recognize this.

Steve Kellmeyer said...


NHS03 said...

All I meant was, maybe they just didn't like the book. I don't see how this "threatens" your well-being; they have no obligation to feature it. That would be like saying that my not getting into Harvard threatens my well-being (well, OK, I got into Yale, but you see the point).

I just think attacking EWTN is the wrong way to go about this.

I am, however, baffled by dwm blog's comment. EWTN has never claimed to speak "infallibly," since only the Pope can do that; no one passed a fallible/infallible judgment on your book; they merely passed on your book (apparently, we don't REALLY know what they objected to, so I can't comment on the Theology department's view).

DWMBlog just set up a straw man. The Pope may speak infallibly when spekaing "ex cathedra" on matters of faith and morals, but EWTN is not the Pope.

I would also be interested in a few examples where DWM feels EWTN taught things that were NOT Church teaching!

Ted Timmis said...

Sorry to say this but you sound like a whining child. I have not read your book but it sounds like you spoke with one programming director for one program who didn't like your book. I don't know why this person rejected your bid but your complaints certainly wouldn't get me to buy the book. You complain about EWTN and yet you don't even watch the network. The truth is that the EWTN network is the most vibrant, evangelical movement within the church. Perhaps you should tune in.

Steve Kellmeyer said...

Well, Ted, if it is whining to point out that EWTN has a duty to tell me where it perceives problems in my theology (spiritual work of mercy: correct sinners), then most of Christianity have historically been whiners.

As a former RCIA director, I am fully aware that EWTN has brought people into the Church. But that fact doesn't mean they are infallible, as they themselves admit. Indeed, when they are criticized, they insist on the point.

If EWTN truly "is the most vibrant, evangelical movement within the church," then they should welcome correction when they fall into error and you should welcome it as well.

Somehow, though, you don't seem to be welcoming it. Why is that?