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Echoes of Mahony-Angelica rift in Denver

NCR Staff

Though neither of the principals in the dispute between Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles and Mother Angelica was in Denver -- Mahony appeared only in video form and an EWTN official brought greetings from Angelica to the bishops -- the rift between the cardinal and the TV nun still managed to lend subtext to the gathering.

If Angelica’s criticism of Mahony has hurt her standing among church leadership, little of that damage was visible in Denver. Michael Warsaw, senior vice president at EWTN, was accorded a speaking slot on Thursday and drew warm applause when he concluded with an anecdote about Angelica.

“I asked Mother how history would look back on EWTN,” he told the bishops. “She told me that our greatest witness would not be what we did, but how we did it, by daring to take risks to do the will of God, and by relying totally on his divine providence.” Warsaw also called EWTN “the best example of how a Catholic entity can employ cutting-edge technologies for evangelization.”

Mahony’s speech, meanwhile -- presented in an abbreviated video version because the cardinal had to remain in Los Angeles to officiate at a funeral -- referred to people who use the media to pronounce on Catholic matters without proper training or credentials. “The term Catholic has become a catchword for the self-ordained,” Mahony said. The cardinal called on local bishops’ conferences to “regulate” the use of the term Catholic in the media.

Angelica had earlier rapped Mahony for his pastoral letter on the Sunday liturgy, which she felt lacked clarity in its presentation of teaching about the Eucharist.

Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver, who sits on EWTN’s board of governors, spoke to NCR about the dispute between Mahony and Angelica. “I think it is problematic, but it’s common,” he said of Angelica’s criticism of the cardinal. “People in my own diocese debate with me. If the network was owned or operated or managed by someone with a more liberal point of view than Mother Angelica, I imagine the conservatives would have concerns and the liberals would be happy, so in some ways it’s a question of being critical of people with other opinions than we have.

“I know Mother Angelica apologized to the cardinal, and appropriately so. I know because he’s told me personally that he didn’t think her apology was adequate, because she went on to be continually critical. He certainly has a right to that point of view, and I understand that. I think there is a strong disagreement between the two of them. I think the cardinal has taken steps to get that corrected from his point of view, and he has the freedom to do that.

“I don’t want to attack the cardinal; I think he’s absolutely within his rights,” Chaput said. “I don’t want to attack Mother Angelica, because she has the freedom of expression. I think truly liberal people are liberal in the sense that they let people, within bounds, express themselves freely.

“I think that Mother Angelica’s comments were harsh and unfortunate. I think that in some ways, that has become the issue ... their debate has become the issue, rather than the content of their debate. I don’t want to contribute to that part of the debate.”

Chaput said he didn’t read Mahony’s comments on use of the term Catholic as a reference to EWTN or Angelica. “I would hardly think that was what the cardinal was speaking about, because that’s a personal debate that he’s having with a small part of the communications community. ... I think it’s a much broader issue.”

Archbishop John Foley heads the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, one of two Vatican offices Mahony has written asking for intervention in his complaints with Angelica. “Since that has come to our office and to the Congregation for Religious, which has a certain amount of jurisdiction in the matter, I would rather not speak on something which is pending,” Foley told NCR.

“I would hope always that people would follow always what St. Augustine said -- ‘in necessary things, unity; in doubtful things, freedom; and in all things, charity.’ And not only charity but justice. One should never make accusations which are unfair or unfounded. If that should tragically be the case, [one should] be reconciled immediately and apologize sincerely.”

Foley said he had no sense of when his office or the Congregation for Religious might make any decisions in the matter.

National Catholic Reporter, April 17, 1998