Rev. John Hagee, the pastor of a San Antonio mega-church, has been a major Evangelical figure for many years. But since his endorsement of Sen. John McCain for president, the name Reverend Hagee has become synonymous with anti-Catholicism. A few days ago I met with Hagee and his wife, Diana, in New York City for a three-hour conversation.
The meeting came at the suggestion of a mutual friend who was concerned both for Hagee’s reputation and the relations between Evangelicals and Catholics. My friend, a national religious leader himself, told me, “John Hagee is my friend, and he is a good man. Also, it would be a pity if a wedge was driven between conservative Catholics and Evangelicals on the eve of the 2008 election.”
Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, is the man who first pointed out what he described as anti-Catholic elements in Hagee’s writings and videotaped lectures. Donohue initially brought attention to Hagee in December, when Gov. Mike Huckabee announced that he would be preaching in Hagee’s Cornerstone Church. The Hagee quotes Donohue collected were indeed disturbing. When Huckabee refused to cancel the speech or respond to Donohue’s criticism, he was tainted by the issue of anti-Catholicism for the remainder of his candidacy.
The publicity surrounding the Hagee-Huckabee controversy made Senator McCain’s enthusiastic embrace of Hagee’s endorsement even more surprising. Donohue immediately admonished Senator McCain, just as he had Huckabee. I had also been critical of Huckabee’s appearance at Hagee’s church, and I joined Donohue in asking McCain to repudiate the anti-Catholicism of Hagee’s writings.
The McCain campaign was slow to respond. Its first statement was weak, and its failure to satisfy Donohue was predictable. It was more than a week later when Senator McCain directly repudiated the anti-Catholicism attributed to Hagee, at which time Donohue announced “case closed.”
The issue had only begun to die down when the furor over Sen. Barack Obama’s pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, began to heat up. Comparisons were inevitable and Hagee was back in the headlines, with the likelihood that he would stay there through November. That was when I received the call asking me if I would meet with him.
Since I had been critical of Hagee myself, I thought it reasonable that I sit down with him and discuss the anti-Catholicism charge. As a young man I was also an Evangelical from Texas, and I knew I could find some common ground with him — and maybe find out more about what appeared to be an open-and-shut case. (I called Donohue to tell him that a meeting had been proposed, and Bill said he appreciated my letting him know.)
Next, I contacted Hagee. He seemed genuinely hurt that he was being seen by the nation as anti-Catholic. He said, “Deal, how can people think I am anti-Catholic when my wife is an ex-Catholic, and a third of my congregation are former Catholics?” I bit my tongue. We really needed to talk; there were some things about Catholics he truly didn’t understand.
When we met later, I told Hagee about “biting my tongue,” and he looked surprised. I explained that Catholics don’t like being reminded of all those who have left the Church. As he started to nod in agreement, his wife Diana said, “He’s right, John.” She would repeat that sentence several times during our long conversation, and each time her husband would acquiesce in agreement.
For example, she agreed when I told Hagee that his account of anti-Semitism seems aimed entirely at the Catholic Church. He explained that he had written extensively about the anti-Semitism of Martin Luther and other Protestants and had praised the statements of Pope John Paul II that were critical of anti-Semitism. When I asked him why so many of his examples were from the Catholic Church, he said his main source was the book The Anguish of the Jews
by Rev. Edward Flannery, which he had bought on his first trip to Israel in 1978. (Father Flannery was first director of Catholic-Jewish relations at the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and a pioneer in Jewish-Christian relations.)
Hagee not only recognized why his account could look one-sided, but he also admitted that he knew little about the heroic efforts of many Catholics to defend the Jews, especially during World War II. I gave him a copy of the encyclical read from the pulpit of every Catholic Church in Germany in 1937, Mit Brennender Sorge
, of Pius XI. I explained to him that the author was actually Eugenio Cardinal Pacelli, the future Pius XII, and how Jews welcomed his election because he was already known as their defender.
Rev. John Hagee is a powerful man. His ministry encompasses not only a congregation of over 19,000 but also a radio and television ministry on 160 television stations, 50 radio stations, and eight networks. His broadcasts are seen and heard in 99 million homes. He is one of the leading Evangelical supporters of Israel, and was leaving for the Holy Land with 1,000 people on the day after our meeting.
During our conversation Hagee never became defensive — he seemed genuinely perplexed by the label he had acquired and wanted to understand what he was missing. There is not enough space here to relate the entire conversation. (I will be speaking to Hagee again and with his permission, will put more of our dialogue into print.) We thoroughly discussed not only his quotes concerning Catholic violence against Jews but also the “Great Whore” of the Book of Revelation. I told him that when I Googled “Great Whore” and Revelation, the first six hits were explicitly anti-Catholic Web sites. He then explained why, in his interpretation of the Book of Revelation, the “Great Whore” cannot refer to the Catholic Church: In Hagee’s eschatology, the end times begin with the Rapture, when all those who are truly in Christ will be taken up to heaven. Hagee says, “Since both Catholics and Protestants are taken up to Heaven, how could the ‘Great Whore’ be the Catholic Church? The apostate church is left on earth during the seven years of tribulation — that is the ‘Great Whore.'”
I asked him, “Are you saying the Catholic Church cannot be the ‘Great Whore’ because the ‘Great Whore’ exists only during the period of tribulation?” Hagee answered, “Yes, anyone who is a real Christian, Catholic or Protestant, has been taken to heaven, only those without faith, including Catholics and Protestants, are left behind.”
Hagee teaches that the tribulation is followed by the 1,000-year rule of Christ, who brings perfect peace. After 1,000 years, eternity begins and time is no more. All of this Hagee diagramed for me, at my request, on two small sheets of notebook paper.
He told me several personal stories, as well, about his relationship with Catholics over the years. This one, in particular, provides a starting point for seeing another side of the man who has now become a symbol of anti-Catholicism:
The Ursuline Sisters founded the Ursuline Academy in San Antonio in 1851 — it was the first girls’ school in the city, originally located on the San Antonio River before moving to the northwest part of the city in 1965. By the early 1990s there were too few sisters, and those too old to run the Academy. The eight remaining sisters ranged in age from 63 to 94.
Consequently, they put their 40 acres of prime real estate and 90,000 square feet of buildings up for sale. The sisters tried to make a deal with the archdiocese, but it fell through several times. Having heard that Hagee was looking for property to build a school, the sisters called him. Hagee went to see the school and was met by a sister who had come from the Vatican to oversee the sale. “It was in perfect condition, there wasn’t a hairline crack,” he told me.
“I was shocked when I was told the price and asked why it was so low.” Hagee was then told that the delay in selling the property had meant the sisters had to draw on their retirement accounts to live. Hagee then said, “I want to buy this school by the close of business tomorrow.”
Hagee, the sisters, and their attorneys met the next morning. The Ursulines’ attorney said, “Shall we tell Reverend Hagee the real problem?” At that point Hagee thought the whole deal would go down the drain because of some monstrous problem he hadn’t been informed of.
The attorney for the sisters explained that the archdiocese had expected them to move out of the convent immediately after it was sold and asked what Hagee wanted the sisters to do.
“My plan would be to give them a five year lease to the convent, and I will charge them ten dollars a year. We will pay all utilities and up-keep.” Hagee then took a 50-dollar bill from his pocket and paid the lease himself. One sister looked at the attorney and said, “Let’s get this thing done.”
The following Sunday, Hagee sent his church bus to the Ursuline convent, picked up the sisters, brought them to his church, and seated them in the front row for both services (5,000 attend each service). “I thanked them publicly for their lives of sacrifice and devotion to Jesus Christ. The congregation gave them standing ovations because the campus we bought was the fruit of their labor, a testimonial of their commitment to Christ.”
The Ursuline sisters stayed in the convent for twelve years, free of any cost. “We were glad to bear the cost to express our appreciation for what they had done for the Kingdom of God.” During that time, those sisters who were able walked around the campus and through the halls of Cornerstone Christian School.
“Our children hugged them; they would reach out and grab them by the hands. They were very precious to us for what they had done with their whole lives which had been invested in building this wonderful school. We were glad to honor them as long as they walked on this earth.”
The intent of my meeting with John Hagee was to help him understand why he was considered anti-Catholic. He listened and agreed with much I had to say. In turn, I listened to him explain how he thought he was being misunderstood. We agreed to meet again after his trip to Israel, to continue our conversation about anti-Semitism in the Catholic Church and his interpretation of the Book of Revelation.
Until then, I look forward to learning more about this man who took such good care of the Ursuline Sisters of San Antonio.