Tradition and Catholic faith

Editorial, October 2010

Recently I read a little book by the German Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper called Tradition: Concept and Claim (St. Augustine’s Press, 2010). In the book Pieper offers some reflections on the important notion of tradition. He is not primarily concerned with tradition as it is understood in Catholic theology, but what he has to say is very applicable to tradition as a norm of Catholic doctrine and morals.

Tradition, Pieper says, is the process of handing on or transmitting some truth, such as a teaching, a statement about reality, or a proverb; it can also be a custom, a legal maxim, or a holiday, like the Fourth of July. An essential point regarding what is handed down as a tradition is that it is not changed in any way by either addition or subtraction. It is handed down from one generation to the next, like a precious diamond that always remains the same.

Traditions like that help to unify a people or a nation. Common traditions tend to bind people together; we see that in this country at Fourth of July celebrations, when people of different ethnic and social backgrounds get together to celebrate the founding of the country.

Pieper makes the point that a physical science, like physics, does not have a tradition in the same sense, because it is constantly undergoing change and revision. In a sense everything is up for grabs as new discoveries are made. He also says that teaching is not the same thing as tradition. The teacher forms students according to his own way of proceeding and according to his own insights and way of thinking. He may pass on some traditions, but that is not primarily what teaching is about. He strives, or should strive, to communicate truth to his students, and that truth is constantly being added to.

Tradition as it is understood in the Catholic Church is something quite different from the description given above because what is handed down from one generation to the next is divine revelation—either as the word of God or divine events such as the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. That revelation is also called the “deposit” of faith. We find it expressed in the liturgy of the Church, in the Bible, in the Fathers of the Church and in the Magisterium.

Tradition in this sense is also called “sacred” because it comes from God himself—it is not a human invention. Church authorities—the pope and bishops—have a serious obligation to hand on the deposit of faith without adding to it or taking anything away from it. Their task is to hand on unchanged what they have received ultimately from God.

What, then, is the role of theology, which is faith seeking understanding? Theology’s task is to reflect on the deposit of faith, to seek new insights into divine revelation and apply them to the age in which it takes place. Examples of this are Augustine, Thomas Aquinas and Cardinal John Henry Newman. Of course, there is such a thing as the development of doctrine, but this means coming to a deeper understanding of divine revelation and making explicit what was implicit in what God said or did in the past.

The Church’s most recent teaching about tradition is found in chapter 2 of Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation. There we read that there is “a close connection and communication between sacred tradition and sacred Scripture. For both of them, flowing from the same divine wellspring, in a certain way merge into a unity and tend toward the same end.”  Revelation, however, is broader than just the Bible and was communicated to the Church before it was written down. In the same place Vatican II says, “Consequently, it is not from sacred Scripture alone that the Church draws her certainty about everything which has been revealed” (§9).  So there are revealed truths in tradition which are not written down in the Bible. On this point the Council said, “Sacred tradition and sacred Scripture form one sacred deposit of the word of God, which is committed to the Church” (§10).

“The task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed on, has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church, whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ”(§10). According to the Council, then, Scripture, tradition and the Magisterium are united and stand together as the source and norm for Catholic theology, spirituality and liturgy.

Fr. Kenneth Baker, SJ About Fr. Kenneth Baker, SJ

Fr. Kenneth Baker, SJ, is editor emeritus of HPR, having served as editor for over 30 years. He is the author of the best selling Fundamentals of Catholicism (three volumes) and of the popular introduction to the Scripture, Inside the Bible.