Tradition and Traditions

When I was an evangelical, I was taught that the big problem with Catholics was that they had allowed tradition to creep into their lives.

It was weekends like this past Memorial Day that began to disabuse me of this notion.

You see, in our family, we have a nearly sacred tradition that weekend: Every year we go camping in the San Juan Islands in beautiful Puget Sound.

It’s as vital for the health of our family (especially our kids) as Christmas and Easter.

The weekend is joy from beginning to end. We rent a group campsite, and a bunch of friends come along (with all their kidlets). The campsite is perfectly safe (no predator bigger than an osprey lives on the island), and there are lots of fun things to do, ranging from running around in the woods, splashing around in the surf, digging for clams, bike riding, hopping a ferry over to Friday Harbor and doing a bit of shopping or whale watching, and even hanging with some nuns over on Shaw Island and helping them feed their geese.

We go on Friday morning, goof around on the beach, picnic and chitchat while we await the ferry. Then we ride in the glorious salt breeze across the waves, hold our breath till we get up the ferry ramp to terra firma, work like busy mice setting up the camp — and then devote ourselves to jollification for four solid days.

The only fixed points in the whole adventure are arriving, getting to Mass at the little church on Sunday afternoon, and going home Monday.

Everything else is up for grabs (though certain mini-traditions like “rolling down the hill behind the church after Mass” and “eating s’mores around the campfire” have also become pretty constant).

So here’s the thing: This utterly vital tradition at Chez Shea is one of the central pillars of our existence as a family. To banish it as “unbiblical” would be utterly crazy. And nobody would think of doing so, least of all my old evangelical church.

Because that church was itself chockablock with its own perfectly healthy human traditions, such as summer camp at Miracle Lake, harvest parties in the fall, Christmas decorations, weddings, favorite songs, and all the other normal bric-a-brac of life.

Nobody fretted about wedding rings, birthday cakes, Fourth of July fireworks and all sorts of other traditions. These things were woven into the warp and woof of life.

It was only when a Catholic lit a candle or said a Rosary that, suddenly, “tradition” was seen as sinister and dark.

It was much like the puzzle of watching my pastor’s kids call him “father” with nobody brandishing Jesus’ command “Call no man ‘father’” (Matthew 23: 9), as is routinely done with priests.

Or the fact that nobody got too worried about the graven images atop baseball trophies, but instead saved all the high dudgeon for statues of Mary.

The reality was that we understood (when the subject wasn’t churchy stuff) that the problem was not “tradition,” but “human tradition masquerading as divine tradition.”

For, we believed in divine tradition. We just didn’t know we did. That’s how we knew what books belonged in the New Testament: We accepted the Church’s tradition without thinking about it. It’s how we knew human life was sacred from the moment of conception. Not clear in Scripture, but we knew it anyway — from Tradition. It’s how we knew God was a Trinity. “Trinity,” like “Bible,” did not appear in the Bible, yet we accepted it.

It’s how we knew polygamy was wrong. It’s how we knew there was no further revelation to be had after the death of the apostles.

The problem was never tradition; it was only treating human tradition as though it was sacred tradition.

But the Catholic Church didn’t treat human tradition like sacred tradition. We evangelicals did. Of which, more next time.

Mark Shea blogs at