A Conversion Observed — and Followed
BY Edward Pentin
February 24-March 1, 2008 Issue | Posted 2/19/08 at 2:25 PM
Kimberly Hahn is a Catholic apologist who has written three books and regularly gives talks on Catholicism at home and abroad. She is also the wife of the well-known Catholic theologian and author Scott Hahn.
The daughter of a Presbyterian minister, she was received into the Church in 1990 after her husband converted in 1986. It was a difficult period in her life, but also a very fruitful one.
Hahn, a mother of six, recalled those testing years in a recent conversation with Register correspondent Edward Pentin.
Tell us about your conversion into the Catholic Church.
My father was a Presbyterian pastor, and growing up I really wanted to be like him, to be a pastor and a brilliant pastor. I had a very vital relationship with the Lord.
I intended to go to seminary. But one of the challenges I met at college was having several friends challenge me from Scripture whether or not women could be ordained. And I came away from that experience at odds with the [Presbyterian] church, really believing that Scripture does not teach women to be ordained. But I still wanted to be married to a pastor and to be very active in ministry.
Scott recruited me for a ministry, an outreach to teens, and we would go to a high school, be friends with teens and then share Christ with them. In the process of doing that ministry alongside him, and falling in love with him, I just really believed that God was bringing us together to be able to do ministry together long term.
But at the time Scott wasn’t yet ordained a Presbyterian minister?
No, we graduated from college. He was an economics, philosophy and theology major at Grove City College and was accepted at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary to do a Master’s in Divinity, which would be the degree you’d get if you wanted to be ordained.
At that point, Scott was very anti-Catholic. He believed in the Westminster Confession. He believed the pope was the anti-Christ. He didn’t proclaim it but he wasn’t shy in speaking to other Calvinists about it.
Some would ask: “Do you really believe that still?” And he’d say: “Sure, it’s in the Confession.”
I was more conciliatory towards Catholics. I thought Catholics could be Christians but why would you want to be a Catholic? That kind of thing.
His antagonism toward the Catholic Church really set him up for a quicker fall, I think. So, after he’d studied for a year at seminary the opportunity came up for me to study there, as well, for a Master of Arts in theological studies. So in our second and third years, we were both full-time students.
A number of issues came up, in particular sola fide and whether you really could say or not that Scripture teaches we’re saved by faith alone when you’ve got James 2:24 that says, frankly, you’re not. And also becoming more familiar with Martin Luther’s interjecting his interpretation of say, Romans 3:28, because his interpretation was that you’re saved by faith alone. He inserted the word “alone” in the German translation but it’s not there in the Greek.
So, probably by the time we left seminary, neither of us thought that was a tenable solution. But faith in fact never is working alone but it’s always faith and love. On the one hand, faith is a gift, but on the other hand you must respond, so there has to be faith and obedience.
For him, that was much more life-altering to have one of the two basic tenets of the Reformation in a sense removed. He thought of himself in terms of the Reformation. For me, I was more of an evangelical Protestant, and so it wasn’t quite as shaky for me because I didn’t realize how foundational it really was. So, we went to Virginia, where he was ordained and had a position as a pastor. He also taught at a high school related to the church.
In that year, he did a lot of study as well as teach seminarians at a fledgling Protestant seminary. The more he studied, the more he really began to feel challenged on a number of theological issues, especially on theological Scripture.
At the end of that year he really told me he couldn’t continue to teach right now. He said: “I’ve got to have some intensive study to figure out what’s the truth.” So, we headed back to our college town. He had a position in the administration, working for the president. In the evenings, he would study for hours.
At this point I had one little boy, expecting our second. My master’s was done, and I did not want these doors opened. It seemed to me we’d accomplished what he’d set out to do. I was not really a part of his journey. He would go into his office and shut the door and I didn’t want him to come out. And he would come and say, “Can you guess what this is?” And it would be some little section of something, it sounded like a sermon he would preach. It was beautiful typology and he’d say: “It’s Vatican II.” It was a huge crisis of faith for me.
So you didn’t in any way feel pulled along in the same direction?
Oh no, I felt like he was going off the deep end and I was going to stay the course and catch him on the rebound.
That he’d snap out of it?
Yes, and part of that was pride because I had my master’s in theology.
You had your own path?
Yes, I remember one time he came out and said, “Do you know how many sacraments there are? There might be seven. And the two you think you understand, you don’t!” Aggh! So at the end of those two years in Grove City, he began one doctoral program at a Catholic university in Pittsburgh. He’d come home from class sometimes and say, “I’m the only one defending the Catholic Church, and yet there are priests in this class, there are priests who teach. I don’t know what to do.”
I’d say, “Maybe the Church you’re reading about doesn’t exist. It’s an ideal and you just incorporate what’s true into what we teach here.”
So at the end of the three years, he said, “This is not the doctorate for me, I do need to know if this Church exists.”
At that point, we went to Milwaukee and enrolled at Marquette in their Ph.D. program. He had said to me when we lived in Virginia that he was very drawn to a higher liturgical church. He was thinking about the Episcopalian church and at that point he was ordained a Presbyterian pastor, as was my father, and one of my brothers was already preparing for the Presbyterian ministry. I also had an uncle as a minister.
That was very, very upsetting to me, to even imagine leaving the Presbyterian church. But in Grove City, he said we may be heading toward the Catholic Church at which point I thanked him to consider Episcopalianism.
A sort of halfway house?
Yes, and he checked with a couple of people who were Episcopalians who said if you’re heading toward Rome, don’t stop off at Episcopalianism, keep searching until you know where you’re supposed to be. So his promise to me as we left Grove City was: “I’m sure I wouldn’t convert for at least four years because I wouldn’t want to think I’d just gone ahead and dropped into Catholicism. I want it to be a respectable conversion.”
It was really pretty much a promise to me. That was not something that inspired me to come alongside him and study. It was really for me just a way of putting off any conversation about it. It gave me a four-year reprieve anyway before I had to deal with it. That came in the fall of 1985, and 10 days before Easter in 1986, he came to me and said he had begun to go into a little basement chapel to a daily Mass, observing it. He’d read extensively about the Catholic Church but he’d never attended Mass before, and he really fell in love with the Eucharist.
He really came to a very, very deep personal conviction about the Church.
Without receiving holy Communion?
Right, no reception at all. Ten days before Easter and less than a year after he promised to me that it would be four, he said to me he really needed to pray about that, about rescinding what he’d said, and for me to give him the opportunity to become a Catholic because if he didn’t become a Catholic, he said he’d really believe he was sinning against the light that he had. So I agreed with an extremely heavy heart. I really felt abandoned.
As much as he had tried to come alongside me and encourage me to consider these things along with him, I felt I was not the one who had moved and yet I couldn’t find the conscience to stop him. He felt it was a matter of obedience, so I gave him the go-ahead.
And I remember when he walked out the door, he picked up his rosary beads, which he never discussed, and I wrote down in my prayer journal, “Lord, who can I go to? And don’t tell me Mary and the saints!”
It was very hard — very hard — to be the woman in his life competing in a sense with the Virgin Mary because I knew she would be in his mind, kind and loving and welcoming as he took this long Rosary walk while I walk back through the door to deal with me.
There was a lot of pride, a lot of unwillingness initially to look at these things because I was very comfortable with what we believed and were initially heading into.
By becoming a Catholic, it meant the death of a lot of things for me: being the pastor’s wife, and all that would mean for our children. The Catholics we knew at that time — now we know thousands of faith-filled Catholics — but the Catholics we knew then had secular jobs in our neighborhood. They went to public high school and were anything but paragons of virtue — they had no interest in Scripture, no vital faith that they ever talked about. So I grieved for the potential loss of faith in our children.
So his conversion was, in many ways, as much of a leap of faith for you as for him?
I wouldn’t even know how to compare it because it was a horrifying thing for him to even consider becoming Catholic. It was a loss of so much, and yet he was just drawn by the richness of the truth of the Church, and he had the agony of my not coming alongside. But he had the joy of the reception of the sacraments where I did not, so we were in very, very different places.
One of the few issues that we had really worked through in our seminary days was the issue of contraception and he, at that point, really hadn’t thought it was an issue. He thought it was absurd that I was spending time looking into the issue. But when I had shared with him the thoughts that were making me against contraception, he began to realize, and he engaged me and talked to me about it. And so we changed our mind about that in seminary as Protestants.
We changed our practice. So that was one of those really pivotal issues when I believe the Lord brought a great deal of grace into our lives and into this whole process of conversion because we really did respond in obedience when we came to that conviction.
At first, when he became a Catholic, it was so heart-rending because talking about Lord was an everyday part of our lives. We were on so much the same page and now every theological discussion was different and painful. We were not seeing eye-to-eye on these things. He would want to share areas that were difficult like Mary and I just couldn’t — I didn’t even know how to open my heart to have a conversation about it.
When did your relationship begin to improve?
Probably in the first year of him being Catholic, there wasn’t a lot of forward progress. There was a lot of tension, anger and frustration between us and not much meeting of the minds. But in that year we conceived our daughter, and her baptism ended up really being a turning point on my part.
I walked out of her baptism and said to God, “I don’t know what you did for her theologically in terms of her baptism, but something profound has changed in my heart, and I believe I am open to reading, to thinking, to praying about these things.”
It wasn’t a promise, but a willingness.
It still took three years; it was not a quick kind of conversion. My mother would say, “Oh just become Catholic and get it over with.” But no, I didn’t believe it was right just to bring peace to the family. I thought, “No, God wouldn’t have asked me to do that just for the sake of unity, and he definitely wouldn’t have required it.”
But God, in his superabundance, just broke through in a pivotal way, opened up the faith, the beauty of the teaching of the Eucharist. It was the grace of God.
Edward Pentin writes from Rome.
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