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Faith not found in fear-driven radio station


Recently, we acquired a new car. This time, we’re leasing. (I’m only halfway through my chemo treatments. So, I’m not even buying green bananas.) The car has all the bells and whistles one could want, including a radio that has more speakers than the Burning Bush, which explains why I tuned in to Chicago’s WYPA-AM. The station carries Catholic Family Radio, a relatively new venture begun last January, and now in eight cities with six more scheduled for this fall. The all-talk network, which will be within reach of nearly 15 percent of America’s 61.5 million Catholics, who form 23 percent of the American population, proclaims that it is “talk radio you can feel good about.”

I didn’t feel very good about Catholic Family Radio. In fact, I took the car to be washed and vacuumed ASAP lest the talk keep echoing in my car.

Catholic Family Radio is a Rush Limbaugh sound-alike. It is a vestige of the pre-Vatican II church and an extension of George W. Bush’s Republican party. Its compassionate conservatism is as rigid as the creed of the National Rifle Association.

Catholic Family Radio is funded by a small group of wealthy Catholic businessmen, including Thomas Monaghan, who made zillions in pizza, David Weyrich, former owner of Martin media, a huge billboard company, and Peter Lynch, well-known money manager. They’ve budgeted some $50 million to get the venture off the ground. Thus far, they’ve spent about $35 million. Their goal is 35 to 50 stations in key markets across the country.

The format is very different from Mother Angelica’s heavily devotional Eternal Word Television Network -- EWTN -- but the ultra-conservative nun always gets good words when Catholic Family Radio takes her name in vain. Catholic Family Radio is faster paced, much slicker, heavy on ads and as compassionately conservative as George W. would want it to be. Indeed, those who are awaiting word on any planks in George W.’s still vague platform need only tune in to CFR.

The idea for the chain of stations allegedly came from Jesuit Fr. Joseph Fessio of the University of San Francisco and the St. Ignatius Press. Fessio got help from Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Denver and Nicolas Healy, former vice-president of Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio. These three men -- all carved from petrified wood -- monitor all programming. Theologically, nothing is beamed unless these three men have vetted it. It’s all slightly to the right of the blue-covered Baltimore Catechism III.

Politically, it is an echo chamber for the Republican Party. Its primary targets are Bill and Hillary and any member of the Kennedy family as well as any misguided liberal. The paranoid style is more evident in the frightened words of the call-in Catholics than in the measured words of its articulate talk show hosts. Catholic Family Radio listeners are good people but they appear to be frightened beyond belief. It appears that only one of the old Fruits of the Holy Ghost has taken root in their souls: fear of the Lord.

According to The New York Times, the network’s founders intended to provide some Catholic competition for the 1,616 Evangelical Christian stations across the country. Catholic Family Radio has joined only six existing Catholic stations. It has been over 30 years since the late Bishop Fulton J. Sheen and his “Catholic Hour” was edging out Milton Berle. But when a jealous Cardinal Francis Spellman sent him off to Rochester, Catholic radio started to sink. While professing to recognize the impact of the media, bishops have been slow to fund radio or television efforts, in part because they cannot turn off their beams at the borders of each diocese, thus posing a threat to a neighboring don.

Some bishops are contributing two-minute booster shots to CFR, although I haven’t heard any. Only one prelate, Archbishop Rembert Weakland of Milwaukee has criticized CFR publicly, pointing out that CFR does not represent the Catholic faith. He made it plain that it was not welcome in his archdiocese. (But he’d best be prudent. CFR backers could buy his archdiocese.)

CFR broadcasts over Milwaukee, together with Denver, Kansas City, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Philadelphia. The additional six stations will be in the New England area, beaming CFR’s message to an estimated 9 million Catholics.

Commenting on the general climate, one archbishop remarked that liberals are angry at the church because it is too conservative, while conservatives are angry because it’s too liberal. He had a point, but it’s interesting to note that bishops often break out in chicken skin over conservative efforts, while turning a cold crosier toward those viewed as liberal. The episcopal reactions are simply not balanced.

The wealthy entrepreneurs who are backing this for-profit effort seek to put a conservative spin on politics, religion, news -- even spiritual and personal problems. Raymond L. Flynn, former mayor of Boston and former ambassador to the Vatican, hosts the morning hours. Flynn is likable and cautious but professes to be proud of the fact that he is a loyal part of the 12 percent of Catholics who agree with the pope on everything. The station is fierce in its opposition to abortion but tends not to get involved in related issues such as birth control. It has little to say about divorce and remarriage, annulments, a married priesthood or the ordination of women. Issues such as the priest shortage are routinely introduced as the “so-called” priest shortage.

One geezer-voiced caller stated that it’s no wonder that Catholics are dropping out of the church “when they sell that awful paper, the National Catholic Reporter, in the back of the church.” He added: “Why, they even make fun of the Holy Father.” Flynn politely cut him off.

Flynn is followed by family psychologist Ray Guarendi, broadcasting from Ohio. Dr. Ray talks too much for a psychologist. On balance, his advice is good, although he’s painfully directive in the manner of Judge Judy. He often prefaces his remarks by slinging arrows at his marshmallow-minded liberal colleagues who are ruining today’s children. Like Judge Judy’s decisions, much of his advice would not stand up long-term. It somehow reminds me of the garlic extracts, purgatives and Y2K shelter food and other potions that CFR advertises. The poor pope often gets linked with snake oil remedies and fear-driven solutions to life’s problems.

The network’s devotion to John Paul II borders on a cult. His ordinary musings, while often filled with insights, are raised to the level of the First Commandment. I think he’d be embarrassed by the adulation, especially when it is combined with “let them be anathema” statements regarding the great-unwashed majority who do not always agree with him.

Poor Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago, in his grave since November 1996, keeps getting hammered for his Seamless Garment idea and peace teachings or his pleas for establishing a Common Ground. If CFR’s frightened callers savage Bernardin, they are never corrected. Only opinions that do not resonate with Council of Trent thinking are fine-tuned. No bishops call in to clobber them.

Dan Lungren, former attorney general of California and once a candidate for governor of the state, takes the afternoon hours. Lungren is an articulate, friendly lawyer. He tends to deal with political and economic issues. Dan regards capitalism as a sacrament and such issues as pollution and pesticides as small problems. Capital punishment. Gun control. Foreign aid. “Intrinsically evil” and “objectively disordered” gays. Abortion. Well, you know. Just consult your local Republican platform or fundamentalist pulpit.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the new Catholic radio is the fear so evident in the voices of the call-in Catholics who, for example, jammed the wires with questions about John F. Kennedy Jr.’s ashes. Although Catholics are reminded each Ash Wednesday that they will return to ashes, the news that the ashes of JFK, Jr., his wife and sister-in-law were dumped from the rear of a ship was more than callers could fit into their undersized moral canisters. What had the old church done to give these callers such narrow views? Why do they see sin if it casts only a shadow? Why is their theology so hell-centered? John Kennedy’s salvation appeared to be tied to the manner in which he was buried, not the state of his soul.

Catholic Family Radio has homogenized Republicanism and Catholicism. What has emerged is a kind of Puritan Protestantism or Opus Dei Catholicism. It is not my faith. I suspect it is only the creed of a small group of privileged Republicans and a troubled group of good but brittle Catholics.

Though professing fierce loyalty to John Paul II, the network does not appear to subscribe to his emphasis on the common good -- in his words, “the good of all and of each individual.” John Paul pleads that we reach out “across the boundaries of diverse communities” and actually lead to the development of larger and more inclusive communities.

Perhaps JP II would be banned from Catholic Family Radio.

Tim Unsworth writes from Chicago, where he is feeling fine.

National Catholic Reporter, October 1, 1999