The Roman Catholic bishops of Illinois are condemning the best-selling, Christian-themed Left Behind books as "anti-Catholic."
They cite story lines they say are offensive--including one that involves an American cardinal who becomes the right-hand man of the Antichrist.
The Illinois bishops plan to issue a statement to Catholics next week calling the series of novels by fundamentalist Christian authors Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins anti-Catholic.
They also plan to urge Catholics not to confuse the apocalyptic stories in the Left Behind books with Catholic teaching about the Second Coming of Christ.
"Our main point . . . is to make sure people who are teaching the Catholic faith are not relying on Left Behind books," said Zach Wichmann, associate director of the Catholic Conference of Illinois, which represents all 16 Roman Catholic bishops in the state.
"The books are actually anti-Catholic," Wichmann said.
In response, LaHaye defended the books, which tell of the tumultuous world after the Rapture, described in the book as the moment when, in the blink of an eye, true Christian believers are taken to heaven all at once, leaving chaos behind for seven years before Christ returns to earth in the Second Coming.
"Our books are not anti-Catholic--actually, we have thousands of Catholic readers, many of whom correspond with us and love the books," LaHaye said in an interview Thursday.
"These books are fiction. They entertain and intrigue people on a high moral level," he said.
"Instead of being critical of what we're doing, [the bishops] should face the fact that, for once, there's a best-selling series of books that doesn't shock their sense of moral values, doesn't use profanity and doesn't denigrate Jesus Christ."
Since the first of 11 Left Behind books was published in 1995, the series has sold more than 57 million copies of the novels and also related children's, audio and non-fiction books, said Dan Balow, spokesman for publisher Tyndale House in west suburban Carol Stream.
The latest installment, Armageddon, debuted at No. 1 on the New York Times' best-seller list in April. Balow said an estimated 11 percent of Left Behind readers are Roman Catholic.
In the series' second book, Tribulation Force, the fictional Cardinal Peter Matthews of Cincinnati emerges as a leading religious force after the newly installed pope, who had become a born-again Christian espousing Protestant doctrines, disappears in the rapture.
The malevolent Matthews, a moral reprobate, befriends Nicolae Jetty Carpathia, the Antichrist character.
Together, they build a one-world religion, which Matthews, as pontiff, eventually leads from "New Babylon" (in old Rome), while persecuting Christians "left behind" on earth during the seven-year period known as the tribulation.
"We don't believe in the Rapture," Wichmann said.
Catholicism teaches that the Rapture actually happens at Christ's Second Coming, and not seven years before, as LaHaye and Jenkins describe and many other Christians believe.
It's a subtle difference, but one hotly debated by Christians since the 1880s, when the idea of a pre-tribulation Rapture was popularized by theologians including evangelist Dwight L. Moody, founder of Chicago's Moody Bible Institute.
"The bishops' main worry is, if they don't say anything, there could be Catholics of good will reading this stuff, and it sounds biblical and sounds like it's based on Scripture, and they may start believing it," Wichmann said.
"We want to make it clear that that shouldn't be happening," he said.
LaHaye said the Matthews character wasn't meant to be anti-Catholic, but merely a representation of any religion turned bad, pointing out that the "good" pope is raptured, along with true believers from many different Christian traditions.
"What [the bishops] don't seem to realize is that every church has some renegade people in it, and we just picked one out of theirs," LaHaye said.
"What would happen after the Rapture, all religions would fall into the hands of renegade leadership," he said.
The Illinois bishops also are upset about statements LaHaye has made in some of his nonfiction books that have been harshly critical of Catholicism, calling it "Babylonian mysticism," Wichmann said.
"He's a rabid anti-Catholic," said Carl Olson, author of the new book Will Catholics Be 'Left Behind'?: A Catholic Critique of the Rapture and Today's Prophecy Preachers (Ignatius Press), and a self-described convert from fundamentalism to Catholicism.
"He is convinced, and he teaches very clearly in his nonfiction books, that the Catholic church is apostate, it is false, and it is not Christian."
LaHaye said his comments have been misunderstood.
"The Bible clearly speaks against the 'mystery of Babylon, mother of harlots,' " he said.
"It's a religious system that has invaded many religions, not just Roman Catholicism," LaHaye said. "Many Protestant religions have this mystery, Babylonish teaching that has people worshipping idols instead of the living God. It's not an attack on the Catholic church."