What is Catholic Tradition?

Mark 7:1-13 RSV-CE

Now when the Pharisees gathered together to him, with some of the scribes, who had come from Jerusalem, they saw that some of his disciples ate with hands defiled, that is, unwashed. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they wash their hands, observing the tradition of the elders; and when they come from the market place, they do not eat unless they purify themselves; and there are many other traditions which they observe, the washing of cups and pots and vessels of bronze.) And the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with hands defiled?” And he said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written,

‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their heart is far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.’

You leave the commandment of God, and hold fast the tradition of men.”

And he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God, in order to keep your tradition! 10 For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘He who speaks evil of father or mother, let him surely die’; 11 but you say, ‘If a man tells his father or his mother, What you would have gained from me is Corban’ (that is, given to God)— 12 then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother, 13 thus making void the word of God through your tradition which you hand on. And many such things you do.”

angrybible-shutterstock-300x168[1].jpgThere is not much that Protestants, Fundamentalists and Evangelicals agree on, but if ever there was an ecumenical dogma which they could rally behind, it would be this condemnation of tradition by our Lord. Everything else is disputable, but this much is clear: Any tradition whatsoever is automatically suspect and heretical; all traditions must be renounced and discarded. The “word of God” must be the sole focus of our Christian reflection and piety.

So of course, when the faithful and thoughtful Catholic points out that tradition is unavoidable and it would therefore be a wise move to seek out the one, true, divine tradition that Jesus imparted to the apostles before his ascension; the venomous evangelicals spit and froth at the mouth, screaming “heresy” and obnoxiously accusing the polite and reserved Catholic of following “traditions of men”. Nowhere is Protestant ignorance and bigotry more manifest.

What these Protestants utterly fail to realise is that the traditions Jesus condemned were of an entirely different nature to the Tradition that Catholics proclaim. Unfortunately when Catholics are confronted by bloodthirsty Protestants on this point, and are put on the spot with a demand that they explain how the Catholic tradition is different; the Catholic often is unable to articulate clearly what exactly “Tradition” actually is. Catholics have an intuitive understanding of “Tradition”, however we seem to find it hard to articulate and convey in clear terms how it is that it should be understood.

The Apophatic Definition

The basic definition of what Catholics mean by “Tradition”, is that it is the continuing life of Christ in the church. Tradition is what you encounter when you immerse yourself in the Spirit. It is a direct encounter with Christ. The tradition is invisible and ineffable, it cannot be directly perceived, it must be experienced.

What Catholics tend to do when confronted about “Tradition”, is to offer this “apophatic” definition. This definition is not actually wrong, but it is incredibly vague and intangible. The Protestant listens to this definition – and not fully understanding it – they reject it and hold up their bible, waving it around for emphasis while saying “I can touch and hold this. I can read it. Why do I need your mystical, invisible, immaterial, ill-defined traditions?”

confirmation-bias[1].jpgAt this point, the Catholic might introduce a touch of psychology: Everyone has bias, bias is inescapable. Baptists have bias; Presbyterians have bias; Anglicans have bias; Lutherans have bias; Catholics have bias etc. When these people approach scripture, they bring their bias and preconceived notions with them, and this shapes how they read the bible. “Tradition” in this context is merely the correct bias – By hanging out with Catholics, you naturally soak up the biases of the group and bring these biases to scripture, reading it in a certain way. The Catholic claim is that we are biased, but our bias is inspired by the Holy Spirit. In this way a Catholic who reads the bible is better off, because they are immersed in an inspired tradition which guides them to a correct reading of scripture.

Again, this is not completely wrong, but in my experience it tends to fly directly over the Evangelicals heads. They will start rambling on about the “clarity” of scripture in a pathetic attempt to deny the fact that bias has anything to do with scriptural interpretation. Supposedly the bible is so “clear” that it can cut through our bias and present the unadulterated truth directly to us. This is obviously utter nonsense, and this is easily demonstrable by observing the violent doctrinal disagreements that Sola Scriptura Fundamentalists get tangled up in while trying to decide with each other what the bible oh so clearly says.

The Catechism’s Definition

It is helpful to examine what the Church officially teaches concerning tradition. The current official stance of the church has been distilled into the paragraphs of the Catechism. While these definitions and reflections are not infallible, they are a helpful starting point for someone investigating these issues surrounding tradition.

II. THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN TRADITION AND SACRED SCRIPTURE

One common source. . .

80 “Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture, then, are bound closely together, and communicate one with the other. For both of them, flowing out from the same divine well-spring, come together in some fashion to form one thing, and move towards the same goal.” Each of them makes present and fruitful in the Church the mystery of Christ, who promised to remain with his own “always, to the close of the age”.

. . . two distinct modes of transmission

81 “Sacred Scripture is the speech of God as it is put down in writing under the breath of the Holy Spirit.”

“And [Holy] Tradition transmits in its entirety the Word of God which has been entrusted to the apostles by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit. It transmits it to the successors of the apostles so that, enlightened by the Spirit of truth, they may faithfully preserve, expound and spread it abroad by their preaching.”

82 As a result the Church, to whom the transmission and interpretation of Revelation is entrusted, “does not derive her certainty about all revealed truths from the holy Scriptures alone. Both Scripture and Tradition must be accepted and honored with equal sentiments of devotion and reverence.”

 

The Magisterium of the Church

85 “The task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition, has been entrusted to the living teaching office of the Church alone. Its authority in this matter is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ.” This means that the task of interpretation has been entrusted to the bishops in communion with the successor of Peter, the Bishop of Rome.

86 “Yet this Magisterium is not superior to the Word of God, but is its servant. It teaches only what has been handed on to it. At the divine command and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it listens to this devotedly, guards it with dedication and expounds it faithfully. All that it proposes for belief as being divinely revealed is drawn from this single deposit of faith.”

87 Mindful of Christ’s words to his apostles: “He who hears you, hears me”, the faithful receive with docility the teachings and directives that their pastors give them in different forms.

The dogmas of the faith

88 The Church’s Magisterium exercises the authority it holds from Christ to the fullest extent when it defines dogmas, that is, when it proposes, in a form obliging the Christian people to an irrevocable adherence of faith, truths contained in divine Revelation or also when it proposes, in a definitive way, truths having a necessary connection with these.

89 There is an organic connection between our spiritual life and the dogmas. Dogmas are lights along the path of faith; they illuminate it and make it secure. Conversely, if our life is upright, our intellect and heart will be open to welcome the light shed by the dogmas of faith.

90 The mutual connections between dogmas, and their coherence, can be found in the whole of the Revelation of the mystery of Christ. “In Catholic doctrine there exists an order or hierarchy of truths, since they vary in their relation to the foundation of the Christian faith.”

The full page of the Catechism containing these extracts can be found here.

3-legged-stool[1]These extracts offer a decent, though incomplete picture of the relationship between Scripture, Tradition and the Magisterium. Often the situation is presented as a metaphorical “three legged stool”. Scripture, Tradition and Magisterium are described as the three legs of a stool which the church sits on. Take any of them away and the whole thing topples over.

I personally think this usual explanation is a little misleading. It seems to set up scripture against tradition as if they are two rival sources of revelation and Catholics just so happen to embrace them both, whereas Protestants only receive one of them as authoritative. This only gives ammunition to the Protestants who then quote these official church documents and go “See! These Catholics believe in scripture plus tradition. They are just like the Pharisees who Jesus condemned!” The same problem arises with the definition of Magisterium: The magisterium seems to be being presented as some sort of alternative authority over and above scripture and tradition, and of course the cheeky Protestants cry fowl and accuse us of usurping the authority of God in favour of the authority of men. In reality Catholics believe no such thing. The most accurate way to describe the situation is that Catholics believe in a single authoritative deposit of faith, the entirety of which is referred to as Tradition. However this is a deposit of faith which grows as history marches on, and scripture is only one component of this Tradition.

Visible Manifestations of the Invisible Tradition

Recall the Apophatic definition of tradition. Tradition is inspired, ineffable, invisible, intangible. This is a good starting point. We spiritually live within this invisible tradition. However the ineffable tradition manifests in three concrete ways, which roughly correspond to the three legs of the aforementioned “three legged stool”. The three manifestations are thus: The scriptural tradition, the liturgical tradition, and the dogmatic tradition. These three traditions reflect the intangible and invisible tradition in a way that people can directly perceive and interact with.

Scriptural Tradition

The Scriptural Tradition is larger and more multifaceted than most people would realise, Catholics and Protestants alike. It consists of all translations and editions of scripture that have been implicitly received by all the apostolic communities around the world, as well as any translations or editions which have been explicitly approved by the Magisterium. As such, the Scriptural Tradition contains the Vulgate, the Septuagint, the Peshitta, the Greek New Testament, the Douay-Rheims, the RSV-CE and so on. When a Catholic theologian is doing theology, he has to respect all of these translations and editions. Priority is not given to any particular edition or translation, not even the original languages. All of the translations within the scriptural tradition are considered equally inspired and authoritative.

Liturgical Tradition

Similar to the Scriptural Tradition, the Liturgical Tradition consists of all liturgies which have been implicitly received by apostolic communities around the world, as well as all liturgies which have been explicitly approved by the Magisterium. Liturgies which have been implicitly received would include the Coptic, Armenian and Ethiopian liturgies, whereas liturgies which have been explicitly approved would include those of the Anglican Ordinariate, the Novus Ordo, the Neo-Catechumenal Use and the Tridentine Liturgy. A Catholic theologian must draw on the prayers, movements and symbolisms of all these different liturgies whilst formulating his theology. The maxim “lex orandi lex credendi” applies here: the Church believes as she prays. As such it is important to pay close attention to the many and varied liturgical rituals of the Church.

Dogmatic Tradition

This is the “Divine Clarification” aspect of the tradition. When the bishops of the church meet together in an ecumenical council approved by the Pope and come up with a list of canons or anathemas, these statements are considered divinely inspired and a crucial component of the Holy Tradition. The Pope can also define canons and anathemas outside of council. This list of infallible, inspired dogmatic statements grows as time marches on. New Dogmas can be established, but old ones can never be repealed. Once a dogma is defined it is set in stone for all time. Old dogmas can be “annulled” only if there is conclusive proof that they were never actually officially promulgated.

Dogmas are intended to clarify the tradition, making it’s boundaries more clear and defined. For example the biblical canon is a dogma which establishes the boundaries and limits of scripture.

All three of these components of the tradition may grow with time. New translations may be introduced to the Scriptural Tradition. New Liturgies may be approved, or existing liturgies may evolve, thus adding to the Liturgical Tradition. The list of dogmas grows as time goes by, thus expanding the Dogmatic tradition. Tradition is dynamic, not static. As language evolves, so does the scripture. As heresies rise and fall, the dogmas grow. As the spirit moves the church, new liturgies are introduced and old liturgies are altered.

prayer-and-meditation[1].jpgRemember, tradition is fundamentally invisible, and ineffable. It is something which you experience, something which you must live and breath, something that you must pray through. It is not primarily something which you “study”. It is only by praying your way into the tradition that you will truly encounter Christ. As such, merely studying the bible will not draw you into this sacred tradition or introduce you to Jesus: you must pray your way through the sacred words of holy writ. Incidentally this is why Catholics do not have “bible studies”, we instead have lectio divina – prayerful reading. Similarly, merely being present during a liturgy is not enough, you must unite yourself to the divine drama unfolding before you through deep, fervent and meditative prayer. Similarly with the dogmas, it is not enough to know them as some sort of check list of propositions to be believed, instead they are to be prayerfully received and trusted as lights along the path that leads to the fullness of the truth – Christ himself. They should be prayerfully wrestled with just as you would wrestle with scripture.

The magisterium has the task of defining the boundaries of these three things. The magisterium sets the canon of scripture, and approves new editions/translations. It also recognises certain liturgies as inspired, and has the authority to make additions and alterations to existing liturgies or introduce entirely new ones. And of course it is the task of the magisterium to receive divine clarification in the form of dogmas via Pope or council.

An important final note: it is not the task of the magisterium to provide an infallible interpretation of scripture, or the deposit of faith more broadly. The magisterium does indeed provide an interpretation for the sake of the common man who wants to be a faithful catholic and does not have the time to formulate his own unique position, but this interpretation is entirely fallible and disputable, merely representing the distilled sensus fidelium at the current point in history. Theologians are free to dispute almost anything the magisterium says. Theologians are only forced to respect the infallibility and inspiration of the three components of the Tradition defined in the post. Beyond that they are free to speculate until the cows come home.

Conclusion

Next time you’re in a discussion with a Protestant about Tradition, try to keep in mind the three-fold definition presented in this post. Tradition is indeed invisible, ineffable and intangible, however it manifests in exactly three ways: Liturgy, Scripture and Dogma. These three ways are visible, effable and tangible manifestations of the Tradition, similarly to how Christ visibly manifests the invisible, ineffable, intangible God. All three of these manifestations are inspired and authoritative, and Protestants are doing themselves a disservice by only receiving the scriptural tradition while rejecting the liturgical and dogmatic traditions. Scripture is not separate to tradition, scripture IS tradition.

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