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A Place to Stand

Todd Hartch
September 19, 2011 2 Comments

The liturgy at the Episcopal church in Greenwich, Connecticut, where I went every Sunday with my family as I was growing up in the 1970s was beautiful. But it confused me because most of the people there, including the ministers, did not seem to believe what they were saying.

We said the Nicene Creed every week, yet the sermons amounted to little more than “Be nice to each other.” When a friend of mine once asked our Sunday school teacher what happened when we died, the teacher responded that he was not sure. When the youth group went on a retreat, we had a lot of fun, but we learned little about God. It was almost as if the church were saying, “We love these ancient rituals, but we’re not sure what human beings can ever know about God.”

When it was time for me to get confirmed in 1982 as a fifteen-year-old, I knew that I didn’t believe what I was supposed to believe. But I stood up before the Episcopal bishop and said the words anyway.

Around that time, I read a book review of Graham Greene’s autobiography, in which his assertion that he was a “reluctant Catholic” stuck out. I decided that I did believe in God and was perhaps even a Christian, but a reluctant one. The heart of the matter was that I simply had not been taught what a Christian was or why anyone should believe in Christianity.

Nobody in my liberal theological environment was willing to assert much about God, and nobody had foundations other than reason — certainly not Scripture or Tradition — on which to make strong claims. There were people trying to live a good and holy life in that church, but they had no confidence about the most important issues.

I should mention that throughout my childhood and adolescence I knew many Catholics and took them for granted as part of the religious landscape. But it never occurred to me that the Catholic faith might be qualitatively different from the many Protestant denominations that I also knew.

Meanwhile, I’d been having a difficult time socially at my private boys’ school. By seventh grade, my friends were drinking, smoking marijuana, and generally running amuck. Although I lacked strong moral convictions, I feared the wrath of my father enough to decide that I couldn’t afford to get caught up in what my friends were doing. I did well in sports and academics, but I slowly fell out of touch with my friends and became a lonely and introverted boy.

When I was in ninth grade, my life changed, largely because of two new students, Bill and Steve. Bill would say, “Hi, Todd!” whenever he saw me, which took me aback. No one else in school acted friendly or displayed straightforward affection, because such actions were considered “gay.” I couldn’t understand why Bill behaved so strangely.

I was even more intrigued by Steve, who announced his intention of starting a Christian group on campus. During our lunch hour, he convened a group of interested boys and began presenting what I would now call apologetics. Unlike the people in my church, Steve seemed to believe that Christianity had a definite content. He made arguments based on reason, but he also used the Bible.

I didn’t quite know what to think. Steve’s ideas were strangely attractive, but could they be right? Was there more to Christianity? Could we really know if there was?

Bill and Steve, I discovered, were members of an Evangelical parachurch youth organization. (Parachurch organizations are those that engage in various sorts of Christian ministry but make no claim to constitute a local or denominational “church.”) This organization brought the Gospel to private schools and had a summer camp on Martha’s Vineyard, an island off the coast of Massachusetts. Soon staff workers began a Bible study on the Gospel of John at my school.

It was as if the scales fell from my eyes. On an intellectual level, I had doubts about why we should trust the Bible, but on a spiritual level, I was soaring. The words of Scripture explained by strong believers and simply taken seriously were giving me a whole new picture of Jesus and of what it meant to follow Him.

Peter, the leader of the study and actually the leader of the organization itself, gave me a strong intellectual defense of the authority of Scripture. Yet even more important was the Word of God itself. It came alive for me and pulled me into the mystery of Christ. At last, I had something I could stand on — the authoritative Word of God.

When I was sixteen, I attended a ski week sponsored by the youth organization and knew it was time to make a decision. I now believed those words that I’d been saying in the creeds all my life: Christ was God; He died for my sins; He rose from the dead; He was calling for my life.

I was afraid of what surrender to Christ might cost me, so I hiked the snow-covered trails around the upstate New York lodge, trying to imagine some way that I could maintain control of my life. But I had to admit that there was no such way. I needed to give my life to Christ, and that’s what I did.

The change in my life was dramatic. I went from being sad and introverted to happy and, well, still introverted, but much more engaged with the people around me. That summer someone called me “Smiley,” and at first, I thought he was making fun of me. Then I realized that I was, in fact, smiling all the time.

During my senior year in high school, I met weekly with the leader, Peter, to study 1 Corinthians and some devotional material. When I arrived at Yale University as a freshman in the fall of 1985, I was therefore well prepared for the secular and often anti-Christian environment. I dove into the campus InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and actually found Yale quite conducive to my spiritual life.

As an active member of the fellowship, I spent thirty to forty hours per week leading Bible studies, going to various meetings and training sessions, and socializing with other members of the fellowship. We went deep into Scripture, especially on retreats and in InterVarsity’s distinctive “manuscript study,” in which books of the Bible are printed double-spaced with wide margins and studied intensively for hours at a time. The Bible, I understood more and more, was incredibly deep and entirely trustworthy.

I did have a problem in those days, though, with the issue of leadership. Our campus minister had a strong personality and strong opinions about how ministry should be done. At the same time, he insisted that the executive committee of the fellowship should operate on the principle of consensus and that he was just one member of the committee.

The result of his approach was that the executive committee had very long meetings. After all, we had to agree about every single decision we made, and the Bible that we all took as our rule of faith is not exactly explicit about what night to hold meetings or how to plan the fall retreat. In the end, I noticed, we almost always ended up doing what the campus minister wanted in the first place.

I, for one, didn’t agree with all his ideas, but I usually let myself be convinced for the sake of ending a meeting. Why couldn’t each of us, I wondered, have responsibility for various aspects of the fellowship, subject to approval of the campus minister? Why did we have to pretend that our organization was a perfect democracy? Wouldn’t it be more efficient and truer to what we were actually doing to have a more hierarchical system?

Despite technically being an English major, in reality I spent most of my time as an undergraduate doing ministry. After graduation, I worked for four years as an InterVarsity campus minister at Yale because it was what I was best prepared to do after devoting more of my college career to InterVarsity than to academics. I had a decent time as a campus minister, but I decided to move on for reasons closely connected to my attendance at the local Vineyard Christian Fellowship (a charismatic denomination).

Our pastor took everyone’s opinion seriously and spent a lot of time with his board of elders. But it was clear that, in the end, the big decisions about the direction of our church were his to make. On the other hand, small group leaders had flexibility in how they ran their groups.

To me, this was like a breath of fresh air after the endless discussions in InterVarsity. At last I could just relax and do my job in the church without feeling that I had to make or even approve of every decision in the church. I was challenged, though, by the pastor’s high view of the local church, which to him was much more important than other Christian organizations.

Organizations such as InterVarsity had their place, he believed. But the real action in God’s Kingdom took place in the local church. Missions, for instance, were in his view primarily a matter of church planting.

I was challenged also by the Vineyard’s emphasis on the power of the Holy Spirit. In the Vineyard, healing, prophecy, speaking in tongues, dreams, and visions were everyday occurrences. God was active in people’s lives, not just in some interior way, but in powerful physical ways.

Ultimately, I accepted what the pastor and the Vineyard were teaching: Christ had come to start churches, not parachurch organizations. Churches ran best under a clear leader and lines of authority. And the Holy Spirit longed to work today as He did in the Book of Acts.

The more I internalized these lessons, the less comfortable I felt, not just with InterVarsity, but with the whole parachurch model. The Catholic Church was still hardly on my radar screen. But I was more and more committed to the idea of “the church,” which was hierarchical and powerfully infused with the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

In 1993, I married Kathline Richardson, whom I had met in the Vineyard, and entered Yale Divinity School (YDS). Marriage to Kathline was and continues to be a nonstop source of blessing, but YDS was more of a challenge than I expected.

I was prepared intellectually for the liberal theology for which YDS is famous. Peter, InterVarsity, and my long immersion in the Bible had insulated me from the classic temptation of Protestant liberalism: the elevation of human reason over and even against the Bible. I was not ready, however, for the spiritual desolation that results when the Bible is cast aside and the most “progressive” nostrums are presented as the agenda of the Church.

When seminary professors, for example, support homosexual behavior, they are not just expressing a personal opinion; they are leading their students and those students’ future parishioners into untold depths of misery. My YDS years, therefore, confirmed to me that human reason could not be the ultimate authority. Without the aid of Scripture and Tradition, we are simply too weak to recognize or hold fast to the truth.

YDS was not all negative, however. It was there that I developed a great interest in Church history, especially in the classes taught by Lamin Sanneh, a convert from Islam to Christianity. Sanneh’s brilliant work on missions and culture opened my eyes to the great importance of Bible translation — it often leads to cultural renewal — and to the amazing phenomenon of world Christianity.

As he made clear, most Christians now live outside Europe and North America. The “average Christian” of today is not a European male, but rather an African woman. During my undergraduate days, I had become interested in Latin American Protestantism, which was growing by leaps and bounds; I decided to continue this interest by pursuing a doctorate in Latin American history and by applying Sanneh’s ideas to Latin American Protestantism.

I didn’t know it at the time, but Sanneh would soon be received into the Catholic Church. He is now a member of the Pontifical Council on the Historical Sciences and the Pontifical Council on Relations with Muslims.

The boisterous paganism of Yale’s graduate school of arts and sciences was a relief to me after the solemn theological liberalism of YDS. Although none of my new classmates were Christians of any type, and most of them had a decidedly negative view of Christianity, I felt much more at home among them than I ever had at YDS because our identities were clear. I was a Christian; they were not Christians. I disagreed with their deepest beliefs; they disagreed with mine. We knew these basic facts about each other, but we could still relate to each other and develop friendships.

For my dissertation, I chose to apply Sanneh’s ideas to the work of the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL, also known as the Wycliffe Bible Translators) in Mexico. The SIL had started in Mexico in the 1930s and gone on to become the largest independent Protestant missionary organization in the world, with thousands of Bible translators working in Latin America, Asia, and Africa. So my wife and young son, Trevor, moved with me to Oaxaca, Mexico, for eighteen months of research, starting in 1998.

Living in another culture has its challenges, but we had wonderful neighbors, a friendly charismatic church, and a beautiful city to live in. I spent time in the archives of Oaxaca and Mexico City and in the indigenous villages of Mixtec, Otomí, and Huave. I also got to know some impressive SIL translators.

A typical Bible translation project, I learned, could take twenty years: six or seven years to learn a new language, a few more years to create a grammar and orthography (alphabet) from scratch, then as much as a decade to translate every book of the New Testament. Since most indigenous villages are located in the most remote parts of Mexico, these translators, some with children, spend much of their lives without electricity, running water, and the other common aids to modern life.

I couldn’t help, at this point, thinking seriously about the Catholic Church. I was surrounded by Catholics and Catholic churches wherever I went. Although the Protestant movement in Mexico was vibrant, I had to admit that it was constantly defining itself against the Catholic Church.

I don’t think our pastor in Oaxaca, for example, could give a sermon without criticizing some aspect of Catholic faith. Up to that point, Protestant faith had not been for me a protest; it was simply the biblical form of Christianity. In Latin America, however, this ahistorical notion simply did not make sense.

Almost all Protestants there are either converts from the Catholic faith or the children of converts. They all have their stories of the pain and even persecution occasioned by their choice to become Protestants.

Also, the history I was writing was the story of indigenous Mexicans leaving the Catholic Church as they encountered the Word of God in their own languages. Without in any way condoning the violence that many early Protestant converts encountered, I recognized that the violence was a sign of how seriously Indian communities objected to the destruction of their Catholic or Catholic/syncretistic way of life when community members became Protestants.

It wasn’t as if I were thinking about Catholic faith as a personal spiritual matter. I simply felt that I had to take the Catholic Church more seriously as a professional issue. I had investigated the minority phenomenon of Latin American Protestants; perhaps it was time to do some research on the mainstream religion in Latin America.

My first full-time teaching position at Teikyo Post University in Waterbury, Connecticut, seemed like a dream job since it allowed Kathline and me to stay involved in the Vineyard Fellowship and allowed us to see my family and hers on a regular basis. But I soon found out that the college was being sold to a for-profit company that probably would not see history as a profit center. Eastern Kentucky University (EKU) offered me a job, so Kathline and I, now with sons Trevor and Peter, moved to Richmond, Kentucky, in 2003.

At EKU, I began my next research project, an investigation of radical priest Ivan Illich and his think tank in Cuernavaca, Mexico. Looking back, I cannot help but see the hand of God in my choice of research topic.

Initially, Illich had appealed to me because the center he ran in Mexico during the 1960s and 1970s was frequented by a wide range of secular “progressives” and leftists. My field of Latin American history tends to attract mostly secular progressives and leftists as professors and students. Though I’m politically conservative, I thought I could cater to the heart of the field by writing about people popular with my colleagues.

My plan was to focus on radical politics, with the Catholic faith as a secondary issue. But once I started my research, I found that I was actually in the familiar territory of missions, this time of the Catholic variety. Illich, an Austrian who had become an American citizen, pioneered New York City’s Catholic outreach to Puerto Rican migrants in the 1950s, with great support from Cardinal Francis Joseph Spellman.

This period, the 1950s, was also a time when the Vatican became increasingly worried about Latin America. There simply were not enough priests to minister to the rapidly growing population. To make matters worse, the Protestant and Marxist movements were pulling more and more Catholics from the fold.

A solution, Pope John XXIII became convinced, was to send thousands of priests and religious sisters from the wealthy Church in the United States to help the struggling Church in Latin America. Because of his success working with Puerto Ricans, Ivan Illich was named as the director of one of the main training centers for these American missionaries to Latin America.

Illich, I discovered, hated the idea of sending thousands of Americans to Latin America because he believed that they would preach “the American way of life” rather than the Gospel and would do more harm than good. So he turned his missionary training center into a sort of deprogramming center that would convince the missionaries to go home. By the time the American bishops and the Vatican figured out what Illich was doing, it was too late.

Illich almost singlehandedly derailed the American Catholic missionary initiative in Latin America. The radical secular think tank that had initially brought me into the project, I eventually realized, was just the program he developed to continue spreading his radical ideas when the American bishops and the Vatican were no longer sending him American missionaries.

The entire story about Illich took me years of research to piece together. During that time, I grew increasingly familiar with Catholic thought, partially through reading Illich and his critics, and partially through First Things magazine, a journal on faith and politics founded by the late Father Richard John Neuhaus, a Lutheran convert to the Catholic faith. Through Neuhaus and other Catholic writers such as George Weigel, I gained a great appreciation for the Catholic mind.

Over and over again, Catholic writers would present Christian views of contemporary issues such as abortion, marriage, and the public square that resonated with my deepest sense of what was right and true. These writers used reason and the Bible, but they also referred to the teaching of the Church’s Magisterium, which I came to respect.

Illich’s impact on me was more complex because his writing sometimes resonated with me and sometimes infuriated me. But I could see something of the same deep truth in his work as well. That Illich could reach me was startling, since I disagreed with both his political views and his underhanded sabotage of the missionary initiative.

Telling myself it was still a strictly academic endeavor, I began investigating the Catholic faith in a more general sense. I had read a lot of history, but now I was interested in doctrine and practice. Every night as I did the dishes, I found myself, for instance, listening to a podcast by a Catholic who liked to ask converts to the Catholic Church why they had made the jump.

Then I started listening to The Journey Home on EWTN and to the Catholic Answers broadcast. Pretty soon, I had to admit to myself that my interest was personal. I still didn’t think that the Catholic faith was true, but I began to wish that it was.

In the summer of 2008, I started to investigate the Catholic Church seriously. I emailed a former Methodist pastor and convert whom I had heard on The Journey Home, and then met with him a few times. He answered my questions and gave me some good books to read.

I bought the Catechism of the Catholic Church and read the sections on all the difficult issues for Protestants. Hardest of all, I told Kathline about my interest in the Catholic faith. She was surprised and made me promise that I would not convert for at least a year.

I began RCIA in the fall and continued to investigate issues such as justification, Mary, infant Baptism, and the sacraments. My conclusion on each issue was the same. After researching an issue, I would decide that the Catholic position was a legitimate interpretation of Scripture, but that it was not the only possible such interpretation.

I liked the Catholic faith enough at this point to be encouraged by this development, but I was also somewhat frustrated. How could I tell what was right? Catholic doctrines were not obviously against the Bible, but how could I finally decide what the Bible really meant?

The key issue, I came to see, was authority. If the pope was who Catholic teaching said he was, and if the Magisterium really did have authority, the Catholic faith is the true form of Christianity. If Peter is not the Rock on which Christ built the Church, and if the Petrine ministry does not continue to this day, then the Catholic Church is just one church among many.

The Coming Home Network’s Deep in History conference in October 2009, which focused on the issue of authority, seemed designed specifically for me. I entered with anxiety and left with peace in my soul. Talks by two former Baptist converts especially made clear to me that Jesus established the papacy as an ongoing office.

From that point on, I knew that the Catholic Church was the true Church of Christ. I had believed before that Christ had established local churches with hierarchical structures and the powerful ministry of the Holy Spirit. Now I knew that Christ had established one Church, with the Holy Father at the top of a hierarchical structure that is more filled with the Holy Spirit than I ever could have imagined.

The first semester of 2010 was a glorious time for me. I was on sabbatical to finish up my Illich project, which involved thinking about the Catholic faith all day, every day. I especially enjoyed reading the Vatican II documents and the papal encyclicals of Paul VI that applied to Illich’s work.

For instance, in Ad Gentes, the council document on missions, and Evangelii Nuntiandi, Paul VI’s letter on missions, I found clear and obvious truth that spoke to the depths of my soul. As I immersed myself in the documents of the Church’s Magisterium, I came to a new vision of the beauty of truth. I felt that the Catholic Church gave me a place to stand, a way of viewing the world that was not just one way among many, but the true and right way to look at all of life.

An economics professor at EKU was a Catholic economics professor, and we began to study the Vatican II documents together. It became apparent to both of us that these documents were not the minutes of a sort of ecclesiastical committee meeting; rather, they were the key to understanding today’s world. In them, the Church has spoken on her own nature, on her relationship to the world, and on the most important issues of the day, and her words give us both the proper perspective on reality and a plan of action.

In the summer of 2010, the year that I had promised my wife was up. I met with an outstanding priest in Berea, Kentucky, to go over some of my final questions. On September 12, I was received into the Catholic Church.

I am very much a work in progress. There is so much that I have to learn and so much that I need to do. I have great joy, though, because I have a place to stand.

My search for the proper divine authority, which led me from liberal Protestant faith to Evangelical Protestant faith and then to charismatic Protestant faith, has finally led me home to the Catholic Church. For my Confirmation name, I took Peter, in honor of the papacy that I honor with all my being. I see my vocation now as bringing truth to the university campus: simple historical truth about Latin America; truth about the human person and human society; and most importantly, truth about our Lord Jesus Christ and His one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic Church.

Todd Hartch

Todd Hartch, Ph.D., teaches Latin American history at Eastern Kentucky University. He is the author of Missionaries of the State: The Summer Institute of Linguistics, State Formation, and Indigenous Mexico, 1935–1985 (University of Alabama Press, 2006) and The Rebirth of Latin American Christianity (Oxford University Press, 2014).

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