What Is Sacred Tradition?

A reader writes:

I am almost finished reading your book By What Authority, and wanted to express my extreme gratitude to you for writing this book. I was raised as an evangelical and, like you and so many others, have been mulling over questions that seem to have no satisfactory answers inside the evangelical world. I recently picked up the aforementioned book and have not been able to put it down. I have been on an exploratory mission the last couple of years, researching and praying about the Catholic Church, and if there were a lynch pin in my story, reading this book might just be it. I have a question though that was not addressed in the book, or maybe I just didn’t pick up on it.

My question is this ... If the Church relies on Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture as you explain, both written and unwritten, what exactly does that Sacred Tradition look like? What is it right now, two thousand years later?

I assume that it is all written down, perhaps comprised of the writings of the early Church Fathers ... Right? Or does it reside in the living successors to the apostles? And if it is written down, what is the difference between that and the Scriptures if both are equal and necessary?

Or is some written in history, such as veneration of Mary and the saints, and some of it unwritten as of yet, such as prohibition of doctor assisted suicide?

Gawrsh!  Thanks for your kind words!

In answer to your question: Sacred Tradition is the common life, worship and teaching of the Catholic faith. You can read about the basics of what it is and how it relates to Scripture (which is the written aspect of the Tradition) by starting here and going down to paragraph 100 of the Catechism. 

Beyond this, though, asking “exactly” what Tradition looks like and where it can be found is rather like asking “exactly” what Western Civilization is and where it can be found. Is it in Beethoven? Or the Beatles? Dante or Mark Twain? The architecture of St. Peter’s or the Empire State Building? The monarchy of Louis IX or the presidency of Thomas Jefferson? The Simpsons or the Mona Lisa? Well, all of these things are expressions of Western Civilization. And the thought of Fathers of the Church who sometimes quarreled or disagreed with each other on certain points still falls within the Catholic tradition, too.

Or, to vary the metaphor, it’s like asking just where the exact location of Jazz is and what the precise boundaries and borders there are between it and, say, Rock and Pop. That sort of mathematical precision won’t get you anywhere. In short, I suspect you need to rethink your paradigm.

Strictly speaking, the Tradition is Jesus. It is he who is being handed down by the Church in her life, worship, and teaching. The Church hands him down in the sacraments, for instance. She hands him down in her doctrines, which teach us to think with the mind of Christ. She hands him down in her moral and devotional life, wherein we learn to worship the Father as he does. She hands him down in her people, both lay and ordained as they gather to worship and express him through our various gifts and offices. She hands him down in Scripture, which is his living word in writing. She hands him down in the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. She hands him down in the ordained office. In all this, the Tradition is much more like a living organism than a mathematically precise body of doctrines.

That doesn’t mean it’s impossible to know the doctrines of the faith. That’s what the Catechism is for: to teach us that doctrinal content. Similarly, if you want, you can get down to the bare bones of Catholic dogma by looking at such works as Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma by Ludwig Ott. But I would urge a more “maximalist” approach. That is, instead of training yourself to think in terms of “What’s the skeleton of the body of Christ look like?” instead look for what the body of the body of Christ looks like in all its tremendous and rich diversity. What is remarkable about the faith is not merely the remarkable integrity of its dogmatic bones, but the fantastic diversity of life and the richness of its members in gifts, culture, devotions, prayers, practices and custom. The great thing about it is the sheer freedom of the Tradition that the dogma protects. The essentials of the faith (articulated in things like the dogmas and creeds of the faith and expressed in her liturgical life) exist in order to make human beings as free as we can be. This is why, not to put too fine a point on it, the Catholic tradition has always reveled in oddballs and eccentrics (just read the lives of the saints!).

In answer to your specific questions:

1. If you are looking for the authentic summary of the Church’s tradition, look for it in the ordinary places: namely, the Mass (since “the way we worship is the way we believe”), the Catechism (because it is the “new, authoritative exposition of the one and perennial apostolic faith, and it will serve as a “valid and legitimate instrument for ecclesial communion” and as a “sure norm for teaching the faith,” according to Pope John Paul II). Finally, though it may feel weird for an Evangelical, I would also pay attention to ancient practices like the Rosary since it too is essentially a pious summary of the essentials of the Gospel, given in the form of a meditation on important moments in the life of Jesus Christ as seen through the eyes of his greatest disciple, Mary.

2.  No. The tradition is by no means all written down and indeed some of it cannot be written since it consists, not so much of words, as of a particular way of seeing the world: what has been called the sacramental/liturgical way. This way of seeing is not so much learned as caught. It is not a matter of secret knowledge (the Church, in fact, despises the notion that the Gospel is some Gnostic secret knowable only to the initiate and insists that the Gospel is, in fact, completely public information). But it is a way of seeing the world that is not communicated simply via the written word. It is also communicated via gesture (especially the gestures of the liturgy) and via the assumption that the world is a giant sacramental by which God communicates his grace not merely through word, but through creation and especially those creations we call “sacraments.”

3. The Fathers of the Church are invaluable guides (particularly when they broadly agree) about what the core teachings of the faith are. They are to Scripture something like what the Federalist Papers are to the Constitution because they give us insights into how those who shared the language, culture, table and trials of the apostles thought about what the apostles taught them. Consensus among them about a particular idea is an *awfully* strong indication that this is what the apostles taught them to think, rather than the preposterous notion that they all went mad in exactly the same way and, say, all accidentally concluded that the Eucharist was the body and blood of Christ when the apostle actually taught it was just a symbolic reminder. The reasonable conclusion is that they all took it to be the body and blood of Christ because that what the apostles told them it was.

4. The bishops are the ordained conservators *and* developers of the Tradition. “He who listens to you listens to me. And he who listens to me, listens to him who sent me.” No bishop, speaking as a private individual is infallible, of course. Not even the Pope. But as a general rule, we are called to obey the bishop (on those extremely rare occasions where he asks our obedience) since it is his task to teach, sanctify and govern. In council, it’s another story: and the Councils of the Church occur now and then to guide the Church through the turbulent waters of history. Of course, the paradox is that every council generates its own turbulence and tends to create a small backwash of people who “liked it better before they changed everything.” This phenomenon is as old as Acts 15, which produced the first Reactionaries, known as “Judaizers,” who didn’t like all that newfangled stuff about Gentile converts not needing circumcision. Of course, it also produces Progressives, who are full of the future and sure they know where history is going. These people, who John warned not to “run ahead,” tend to be full of devotion to the Council that they are sure will happen in the near future, which will affirm them in all their dissents from Church teaching that bugs them at present (typically, in our day, meaning The Pelvic Issues). The pattern of Reactionary and Progressive Dissent continues on down to the present and the remedy is the same: Stick with what the Church teaches and you’ll be fine.

4.  See the Catechism link on the relationship of the written Tradition (i.e Scripture) and the unwritten Tradition.

5. The veneration of Mary and the saints is a fixture of the liturgy from the get-go, which is how we know it is part of the Tradition.

6. As to things like euthanasia, this is why the task of the Magisterium, or teaching office of the Church, is to *develop* and not merely conserve the Tradition. In this case, we are looking at a development of the fifth commandment: You shall not murder. The task is to apply old truth to new situations. In this case, euthanasia has been condemned multiple times in such documents as Evangelium Vitae (an encyclical by JPII) and other documents.  In one sense, it’s nothing new, since the Church has always condemned the taking of innocent human life. But it is new because now we face a culture that predicates the value of human life on things like pleasure and productivity instead of on inherent dignity. So things our ancestors took for granted must now be laboriously explained to an increasingly anti-natural culture.


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