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Right and righteous who run with Ralph Reed

If, indeed, we are known by the company we keep, Ralph Reed has some serious explaining to do to the Catholics he so ardently courted last election season.

One of Reed's most recent endeavors as self-appointed arbiter of society's morals was an endorsement of a screwy and, in places, vicious anti-Catholic tract called Earth's Two-Minute Warning.

Even more in need of accounting for themselves are the Catholics -- cardinals included -- who shared the same podium with Reed and advanced a treasured invitation to his boss, the televangelist Pat Robertson. By rather high-profile and enthusiastic association, they, too, might give the appearance of endorsing the wackiest teachings of the extreme, fundamentalist Christian right.

Earth's Two Minute Warning, subtitled "Today's Bible-Predicted Signs of the End Times," was written by John Wheeler Jr., founding editor of Christian American, the flagship publication of the Christian Coalition. Reed is head of the coalition, which is the political arm of Robertson's 700 Club. Wheeler also helped found several other publications and is currently listed as "contributing writer and editor" on the magazine's masthead, according to Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a group that tracks activities of the religious right.

The messy web of association grows, but first a few notes about Wheeler's book. On page 58, in a chapter headed "False Religion in the Last Days," is a subheading, "The Vatican Connection."

Wheeler starts by repeating the belief of some that the Vatican and the World Council of Churches eventually will merge. Those who are concerned "cite the famous statement by Pope John Paul II that the Protestant 'wayward children will come back to the fold.' Thus the WCC will be controlled by the papacy at the time of the Tribulation, when the false religious system they represent will be revealed as the 'Great Whore.'

"Some Bible scholars ... do not endorse this identification of the Vatican as part of the 'Great Whore,' " he writes, "although this interpretation remains common in Fundamentalist, Pentecostal and Seventh-day Adventist doctrine, as well as in some evangelical theology. The identification of the pope with the Antichrist has been a recurring theme for Protestants since the Reformation."

Wheeler concedes that there are some Roman Catholics who might qualify as good Christians and that the church does "affirm vital biblical doctrines."

But he still worries, because "there is legitimate cause for concern that the Vatican may one day run amuck, and this possibility has been articulated by the pope himself [no mention of where] and chronicled by a faithful Jesuit, Malachi Martin." How intriguing: the pope worrying that the Vatican will lose its way. And all the time we thought it was the Vatican worrying that the rest of the church would run amuck.

All this insight is gleaned from the illustrious Malachi Martin, who may once have been a faithful Jesuit but no longer belongs to the order and whose scholarship is, at best, suspect.

In normal circumstances, it would be reasonable to dismiss Wheeler's views as fundamentalist evangelical Protestantism at its worst, a relatively self-contained fraternity that feeds on medieval conceptions of Catholicism and every classic error one could read into apocalyptic literature.

What makes this different, however, are the overtures that have been made toward the Catholic constituency by Reed in his political pursuits and the credibility that he and Robertson have garnered through their contacts with Catholic leaders.

Last November, Reed was one of the principal speakers at a national meeting of the Catholic Campaign for America, a group that numbered on its board of directors Cardinals John O'Connor of New York and James Hickey of Washington. Hickey, in fact, opened the Washington conference and was shortly followed at the podium by Reed.

O'Connor, meanwhile, made sure Robertson received an invitation to a reception with national religious leaders who met Pope John Paul II during his visit to New York in 1995. The cardinal earlier had invited Reed's Christian Coalition into the archdiocese to distribute political materials during a local school board election.

Other bishops, to their credit, have denounced Reed and his Catholic Alliance's attempt to appropriate the name Catholic and attach it to a very narrow political agenda.

The next time high-profile members of the hierarchy are tempted to align the U.S. church with the likes of Ralph Reed for some short-term political benefit, they should sit for a few minutes with Wheeler's analysis. On the back cover they'll find among the blurbs the one by Reed, who calls the book "a compelling look at the controversial subject of the end times ... an important contribution to this vital discussion."

The blurb is just below a list of questions that includes, "Was the 1989 World Series earthquake in San Francisco just a chance calamity or a divine warning to America? ... Is there a diabolical plot by 'space aliens' in UFOs to infiltrate the human race? ... Will the touted 'Republican Revolution' renew our decadent American civilization, as Newt Gingrich believes?"

Beneath the respectable Washington sheen of Reed and the group he runs with are characters who ought to inspire deep skepticism. They should not be invested with trust and introduced as someone Catholic voters should heed.

National Catholic Reporter, December 27, 1996/January 3, 1997