Minister apologizes to Catholics; some question if politics behind it

WASHINGTON – After the Rev. John Hagee, a San Antonio televangelist, sent a letter to the head of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights apologizing for any comments he made “that Catholics have found hurtful,” the league’s president, William Donohue, said that “the case is closed.”

Other Catholic leaders said the gesture toward reconciliation should be graciously accepted but that there was a ring of partisan political maneuvering to the publicity about Rev. Hagee’s anti-Catholic rhetoric and the apology.

The words of the minister, the pastor of the Cornerstone Church in San Antonio, became an issue because of his endorsement of a presidential candidate.

Richard R. Gaillardetz, professor of Catholic studies at the University of Toledo in Ohio, said while Rev. Hagee’s May 12 letter “goes beyond the garden variety ‘I’m sorry if someone was offended’ apology,” the way the controversy has played out seems to have political motivations in addition to concern for decrying anti-Catholicism.

When presumptive Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain received a highly publicized endorsement by Rev. Hagee, Mr. Donohue blasted the Arizona senator for seeking the support of someone who “has waged an unrelenting war against the Catholic Church.”

“For example, he likes calling it ‘the great whore,’ an ‘apostate church,’ the ‘Antichrist,’ and a ‘false cult system,’“ said Mr. Donohue in a Feb. 28 press release. Video of Rev. Hagee using such terms in his televised preaching is available on several Internet sites.

Sen. McCain has said he does not agree with Rev. Hagee’s characterizations and has condemned remarks that were “anti-anything,” but he has continued to say he’s glad to have the endorsement of the founder of the 17,000-member megachurch.

Rev. Hagee’s letter to Mr. Donohue said he had engaged in “constructive dialogue with Catholic friends and leaders” and now had an improved understanding of the Catholic Church. Mr. Donohue was quick to declare that his concerns had been addressed.

“Now Catholics, along with Jews, can work with Pastor Hagee in making interfaith relations stronger than ever,” said Mr. Donohue’s statement, issued the next day. “Whatever problems we had before are now history. This case is closed.”

On May 15, Mr. Donohue and Rev. Hagee met at the league’s offices in Manhattan, according to news reports. The minister was in New York to speak at the United Nations.

Anthony M. Stevens-Arroyo, retired director of the religion studies program at Brooklyn (N.Y.) College, wrote May 16 in his “About Catholic America” blog on The Washington Post’s Web site that those “who are committed to their religion would not sell out as easily as did the league. I think the whole episode smells of what my grammar-school Irish nuns called ‘shenanigans’ – and for political effects, not for defense of Catholicism.”

He noted that Rev. Hagee had been making derisive comments about the church for two decades, but if the triggering factor for attention from the Catholic League was his endorsement of Sen. McCain, “why didn’t the Catholic League denounce McCain or demand the candidate reject a bigot’s support?”

“Why surrender and give absolution so meekly – especially when Hagee’s two-page apology used the mealy-mouthed expression of regret for ‘any comments that Catholics have found hurtful,’ rather than the complete recantation called for?” Dr. Stevens-Arroyo added.

Dr. Gaillardetz, who is on the Catholic advisory panel to Illinois Sen. Barack Obama’s campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, told Catholic News Service he thinks Rev. Hagee’s apology letter shows genuine new understanding of Catholicism and regret that he used terminology Catholics find offensive.

He said the discussion of whether Catholics should fault Sen. McCain for the rhetoric of Rev. Hagee is more troublesome, and that he also is bothered by the implication that Sen. Obama should be viewed in light of controversial preaching by his former pastor, the now-retired Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

“They both got more attention than they deserve,” Dr. Gaillardetz said. “We should be focusing on what the candidates say, what their positions are in relation to the whole range of Catholic teaching.”

Father Kevin Nadolski, director of vocations for the Wilmington-Philadelphia province of the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales and a member of the advisory council to Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, said the Christian approach is to be gracious in accepting Rev. Hagee’s apology.

“Accepting an apology is a good thing,” he said.

Catholic Review

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.