Sacred Tradition: The Forgotten Doctrine?

The miracle and mystery of divine guidance has been the primary constituent element of Church teaching over the centuries, and this guidance is what makes Tradition “sacred,” but rarely is it linked with the teaching of any other doctrine.

Pentecost by El Greco

In my preparations for teaching an RCIA class recently, I noticed that, in the manuals and catechisms which I perused, there was sparse attention paid to what is the most foundational Catholic doctrine of all—Sacred Tradition. Its explanation is typically relegated to a page, if not a paragraph, in these texts, may be scattered here and there (in one case near the end of the book), and treated as just another doctrine to be held by Catholics. Usually there is an explanation of the “basics”: the etymological Latin derivation of the word “tradition,” reference to apostolic succession and the apostolic deposit, the action of the Holy Spirit in guiding the transmission of faith, and Tradition’s role in a complementary pairing with Scripture to form Revelation.

The miracle and mystery of divine guidance has been the primary constituent element of Church teaching over the centuries, and this guidance is what makes Tradition “sacred,” but rarely is it linked with the teaching of any other doctrine. Yet, it is the sine qua non of all doctrines, the font, the key, the source—and if Catholics don’t understand and remember it as the basis for all other Church teaching on faith and morals, then they cannot logically understand and accept other doctrines. Perhaps, this partially explains why we have so many “cafeteria” Catholics, and so many Catholics in open dissent from Church teaching. If the Holy Spirit is not guiding the Church in all of its teaching on faith and morals, then it may not be guiding the Church in any of its teachings. If the deposit of faith handed on through the centuries is only a nice idea when convenient, and not a constant reality, then Catholic faith is meaningless. But if the Holy Spirit is, indeed, guiding and animating the Church, then the subject of Sacred Tradition should be front and center in every one of our faith presentations, and linked directly to other doctrines as the ultimate certitude of that doctrine’s truth. The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, for example, is credible only if referenced to Sacred Tradition. Presently, from my examination of a representative sample of Catholic catechetical texts, I would say that the importance of Tradition is, in fact, understated in the hundreds of pages of various books, and lost in the catechesis of the myriad of other Catholic teachings. For many Catholics and prospective Catholics, then, the importance of this essential doctrine may fade away, and, for all practical purposes, be forgotten. The insufficiency of catechetical attention to Tradition was recognized by Pope John Paul II in his General Directory for Catechesis in 1997: “It is necessary, however, to examine with particular attention some problems so as to identify their solutions—with regard to the fundamental direction of catechesis, catechetical activity is still usually impregnated with the idea of Revelation, however, the conciliar concept of Tradition is much less influential as inspiration for catechesis. In much catechesis, indeed, reference to Sacred Scripture is virtually exclusive, and unaccompanied by sufficient reference to the Church’s long experience and reflection, acquired in the course of her two-thousand-year history. The ecclesial nature of catechesis, in this case, appears less clearly; the interrelation of Sacred Scripture, Tradition, and the Magisterium, each according to “its proper mode,” does not yet harmoniously enrich a catechetical transmission of the faith. 1

Sacred Tradition is important because it is the first, or source, doctrine insofar as we can say that it “began” on Pentecost when the Holy Spirit descended upon the Apostles, and they began preaching from the deposit of faith. The Church, from its first days, claimed guidance by the Holy Spirit, as promised by Christ, who would teach it everything, and be with it for all time.

Tradition is also important because it is all encompassing. Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum, informs us: “Now, what was handed on by the Apostles includes everything (my emphasis) which contributes toward the holiness of life and increase in faith of the people of God; and so the Church, in her teaching, life, and worship, perpetuates and hands on to all generations all that she herself is, all that she believes.” 2

This concept of a “deposit” containing a body of truths of faith which are not written down anywhere, and which are, in fact, unwriteable in their entirety (i.e., unable to be contained in all the books in the world, cf., Jn 21:25), may be somewhat difficult to explain, but necessary.  Assistance here can be found in Msgr. Eugene Kevane’s book, The Deposit of Faith: What the Catholic Church Really Believes, in which he defines the all-encompassing deposit: “… the Deposit of Faith and Morals is simply the Catholic Faith.” 3

Furthermore, there are other benefits to stressing, in our catechesis, Tradition’s meaning, origin, importance, and relevance to other doctrines. Frequent reference to Sacred Tradition in catechesis will bring unity to instruction in all other Catholic doctrines because these can then be seen as emerging and developing from a common source (i.e., the deposit) and thus related to each other in that common source. In the exposition of Catholic Faith, as in the exposition of anything, it is always helpful to bundle ideas together conceptually as an aid to learning. Many RCIA candidates may have never had to wrestle with the profusion of abstract ideas as are found in the Catholic faith. Helping them, therefore, to see the connection between the apostolic deposit, and all other doctrines, will certainly assist their reasoned assent. Catholicism has many parts and pieces. It is a culture that has developed over 2000 years. It has a central theology, of course, which is the most important part, but it also has the cultural accoutrements of two millenia of history, customs, music, art, liturgy, literature, wisdom, dress, mentality, a standing “army” and even a bona fide language. So, learning to be “Catholic” can be a little overwhelming to some people. Therefore, along with standard RCIA curriculum segments like “God,” “Scripture,” “Sacraments,” etc., we should emphasize Sacred Tradition, and show how it incorporates and unifies “everything.” The action of the Holy Spirit in all Church teachings through the centuries up to now will then be a lot easier to grasp and accept.

If you teach, convincingly, the concepts of the apostolic deposit, the “handing on,” and the Holy Spirit’s guidance of the Church in truth, and can root them in Scripture (cf. Mt 16:18-19; Jn 14:16-17, 26; Acts 2), and in acceptance by the infant Church, then you have really taught everything else. If the Church teaches apostolic succession, the primacy of the bishop of Rome, the sacraments, the Immaculate Conception of Mary, etc., then these must be true because the foundation of these, and all Church doctrine in Tradition, is true. That foundation is based upon Christ’s promises of truth and indefectibility. The writings of the Fathers reflect their acceptance of this foundational idea of the inerrancy of apostolic teaching, and the absolute importance of holding firmly to the apostolic tradition. As Fr. Kevane advises, “All catechetics depends upon catechists who see that apostolicity is in the realm of doctrine, that the indefectibility of the Church results from the faithful teaching of it.” 4

So, Scripture, and the practice of the apostolic Church, attest to this key understanding of the apostolic deposit being transmitted under guidance of the Holy Spirit and, thus, provide powerful evidence for the truth of Sacred Tradition.

Sacred Tradition, therefore, is the linchpin, the unifying idea that holds together all the individual elements of Catholic doctrinal and moral teaching, because it is the work of the God who unifies all truths. It is the whole that is greater than the sum of its parts, the mustard seed of the Church’s faith that grows great.

Full explanation of Tradition will also aid explanation of the notion of development of doctrine, which is itself an important concept in Catholic thinking. The very idea of anything “developing” implies some form of animation principle, and so the idea of developing doctrine suggests an animating Holy Spirit  and, thereby, a living faith ever growing, ever new. This, too, helps in illustrating the unity of all Church doctrine. Thus, in an unfolding Catholic theology that explains authority, apostolic succession, the primacy of the bishop of Rome, the hypostatic union, sacraments, the trinity of God, Mariology, infallibility, etc., we perceive God’s plan of gradually unfolding his truths for one purpose—our sanctification and salvation. This connecting thread of sanctification and salvation, carried by Tradition, runs through all Church doctrines. The Holy Spirit unfolds these doctrines, and fits them together in a coherent mosaic. “Handing on” connotes movement, a movement that implies development, development that suggests an ever deepening and richer unfolding of truths latent in the apostolic deposit of a living faith. The inherent movement in Tradition inspired Yves Congar to think of it as a river: “Tradition, in which a whole activity of the Church, down the ages, has become mingled with the pure transmission of the apostolic heritage, is like a river that carries a little of everything (again, my emphasis).” 5

Sacred Tradition has an important apologetic value as well.  Catholicism can no longer be taught in a vacuum because we live in a pluralistic society that is saturated with media, and the many messages of other beliefs. The Catholic, and the prospective Catholic, is constantly hearing the messages of atheism and Protestantism, the latter being attractive to some for its simple message:  “All you need is the Bible, and you can interpret it privately as the Holy Spirit guides you.”  Tradition, therefore, is the most significant doctrine contrasting Catholic from Protestant teaching and, thereby, offers a compelling apologetic argument drawn from Scripture and the Fathers. This might be meaningful to prospective Catholics from a Protestant background. The presentation of Tradition as a unified and all-encompassing “package” of developing truths reflects the unifying action of the Holy Spirit. In the vision of the reformers, the meaning of Scripture is more static, more bound to the precise printed text of the Bible, whereas Catholic Tradition makes explicit what is implicit there, opens up deeper, richer insights, and brings more life and truth to those words than private interpretation could. With the Holy Spirit protecting the Church, error in teaching is impossible. Derailment of the Church before the Reformation came to its rescue, as is generally thought by Protestants, was, therefore, impossible.

Protestants tend to think of Catholic teaching as a complex hodge-podge of doctrinal accretions invented over the years. To the extent, then, that we can present a single unifying idea, a big picture concept of an array of faith elements, under a single umbrella doctrine, emanating from a single source—the Tradition of the early apostolic Church—the more compelling, then, is our argument of guidance by a divine will with a divine plan.

The apologetics value of teaching Sacred Tradition extends also to many Catholics who have difficulty accepting the Church’s claim to the “fullness of truth,” who believe that all religions are good, and think that all people are heaven-worthy in the eyes of God as long as they behave themselves. Our response here, of course, is that there can be only one truth, that it is not relative, and that our loving God would surely find some way, a single “fullness” way, to lead us all to his one truth.

Such emphasis on Sacred Tradition in RCIA classes, and in the pulpit, will help Catholics accept Church moral teachings also because these, too, have sprung from the apostolic deposit and, thus, have been transmitted authoritatively by the Holy Spirit, and not by a Church hierarchy thought to be out of touch.

Catholics must be reminded that the Church’s doctrine of divine guidance actually means something. We take seriously, and read literally, Christ’s very last words on earth as recorded in Matthew’s Gospel: “… behold I am with you always, until the end of the age.” If the Church believed something 2000 years ago, and still believes it today, then we know it is true. God doesn’t change his mind, not even after 2000 years. If the Church believed, for example, in its earliest centuries, that it should restrict ordination to men only, and if the Church today continues in that opinion, then it is reasonable to believe that this is the opinion of the Holy Spirit. It means that the Holy Spirit is much more likely to be guiding the Church in that belief than, say, dissident nun Joan Chittister, and many others, who disagree. This is what it means to be Catholic. The Church does not hold a belief simply because it has held that belief for a long time, but because it has held that belief for a long time under divine guidance by the Holy Spirit. This is the very point made by Pope John Paul II in a 1994 Apostolic Letter, when he said:  “… the teaching that priestly ordination is to be reserved to men alone has been preserved by the constant and universal Tradition of the Church. …” 6

St. John Paul II did not mention other arguments, and there are a few others, for this belief. But this is the primary argument. He simply refers to Sacred Tradition as the ultimate explanation. In a follow-up to this Apostolic Letter in October 1995, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, then Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, issued a Responsum ad Dubium regarding John Paul’s above letter on male-only ordination which stated: “This teaching requires definitive assent  since, founded on the written Word of God, and from the beginning, constantly preserved and applied in the Tradition of the Church, it has been set forth infallibly by the ordinary and universal Magisterium (cf. Second Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium 25.2). Thus, in the present circumstances, the Roman Pontiff, exercising his proper office of confirming the brethren (cf. Lk 22:32), has handed on this same teaching by a formal declaration, explicitly stating what is to be held always, everywhere, and by all, as belonging to the deposit of the faith.” 7

Practicing Catholics will usually agree that the Church is divinely guided, and this keeps them coming to Mass. But this conviction becomes weak, if not forgotten, in the face of some of the nitty-gritty issues that crop up in daily life, and in the daily newspaper. It doesn’t always occur to them that the divine guidance that the Church enjoyed in defining the Real Presence in the Eucharist, or the trinity of God, for example, is the same divine guidance with which it speaks through its Ordinary Magisterium about abortion, euthanasia, in vitro fertilization, gay marriage, etc. Modern “common sense” notions of ethics and fairness do not necessarily apply in the above examples, nor in other moral issues on which the Church has spoken from its Tradition.

The presentation of Sacred Tradition has been neglected in the catechetics materials that I have seen, and these may be a representative sampling. It is not a static idea, not just one of many Church doctrines, but the carrier of all Church teachings on faith and morals. Its primacy as the unifying source doctrine of all doctrines, its usefulness in apologetics, and in assisting the faithful to understand and accept Catholic moral teaching, should make it the most important doctrine of all to emphasize in catechesis. It is “everything” to the Catholic Faith, its source doctrine, its linchpin, a font, a river, and a mustard seed that, if not tended well, dies and becomes forgotten.

  1. Pope John Paull II, General Directory for Catechesis, 1997.
  2. Pope Paul VI, Dei Verbum, Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Ch. II, Sect. 8, Par. 1, 1965.
  3. Eugene Kevane, The Deposit of Faith: What the Catholic Church Really Believes, Author House, Kindle Edition, Msgr. Kevane (d. 1996),  was noted as an authority on Tradition and his serious contest with Neo-Modernist control of  catechetics at Catholic University of America. 
  4. Ibid.
  5. Yves Congar, O.P., The Meaning of Tradition, p. 65 (original English edition by Hawthorn Publishing, New York, 1964).
  6. Pope John Paul II, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, par. 4, May 22, 1994.
  7. Joseph Ratzinger, Prefect, Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, Responsum Ad Dubium: Concerning the Teaching Contained in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, October 28, 1995.
Stephen J. Morrissey About Stephen J. Morrissey

Stephen J. Morrissey and his wife, Georgiann, live in Cloverdale, California. He obtained his BA in psychology from the University of San Francisco, and later received a MBA in finance from Santa Clara University, California. He attended 4 years of high school studies at St. Joseph Seminary in Mountain View, California, and 2 1/2 years of college studies at St. Patrick Seminary in Menlo Park, California. He has worked as an advertising copywriting, as well as various business and finance positions in the banking industry. He is presently retired from ownership of a California mortgage brokerage business.


  1. There are old Latin texts on Sacred Tradition. Franzelin’s Tractatus de divina traditione, for instance, and other works dealing with the “De Locis Theologiae”. It is about time for Catholics to take a look at the work they’ve already done on this important subject. The least we could do is issue some summaries or translations.

  2. Avatar Paul Rodden says:

    I think you’re making an important point.

    I’ve often read that the things the Early Church took for granted were not written down, and that often, doctrines were only formulated when they came into question.

    It seems to me, based on what you’ve written, there might be a case to do something about this now, particularly that there seem to be certain groups and high profile individuals who seem to be creating their own ‘traditions within the Tradition’, and I’m not sure how healthy that is.

    I’m sure they’re doing it for the best of motives owing to the apparent vacuum or lackadaisical attitude of many Bishops, but the Bishop/Magisterium, rather than what seem to be a growing number of ‘celebrity catechists’, should be the prime teacher, as far as I understand it, not coteries of very vocal lay people, promoting the teachings of these ‘celebrities’ as if they are authoritative, or in some cases, implicitly undermining the role of the Bishop, however highly educated or popular they are. These vocal individuals/groups are causing division and a lot of pain in some parishes by trying to enforce their model on everyone.

    It’s as if they’re diminishing the fullness of the truth into ‘schools’ as they did when I was an Evangelical. ‘As NT Wright says…’ or ‘What RC Sproul teaches…’, as they’re the definitive answer, and this, I believe, is happening in Catholicism, too, implicitly undermining the Tradition de facto, whatever these people are teaching, de jure.

    We need to recover the ‘Apostolic worldview’ not only in an intellectual sense, but as a day to day attitude towards how we perceive truth and authority.

    We don’t pray for Bishops and priests in the Eucharistic Prayer for nothing, and I think they need prayer outside of Mass, too. It’s fine to pray for vocations, but that’s often where ‘praying for priests’ stops: at provision. We need to pray for them to manifest God’s Will, not ours, and then we can accept their authority with docility and humility, especially if we think they are wrong.

  3. Thank you, Mr. Morrissey, for an excellent and very important article. The confidence that we have in the Church must be grounded in divine assurance – not habit, not mere human loyalty, not human logic and certainly not the “sola scriptura” individualism that clothes many of the opponents of Catholic Faith. This confidence in the Church must be formed and strengthened in those presently Catholic, through faithfulness to our mandate, to “make disciples,” through comprehensive and systematic programs of faith formation, lest the Church forsake her appointed motherhood and be (as Pope Francis warned) a mere babysitter.

    I used to add a “bumper-sticker” slogan in “discussions” [arguments] with anti-Catholic evangelicals: “Do you trust Christ? Then trust the Church that He entrusted.” The result was always no result in my opponents, but a growing understanding in me of the truth that faith is a gift of grace. And I continue to believe, in spite of their denials, that they resist even seeking such grace – not because of some theological point or doctrinal conviction – but because of the scandal they personally experienced with an absence of vibrant life in Christ, among Catholics they knew or know. We need renewal.

    • Avatar Paul Rodden says:

      I think you’re right, Dr R., and while I’m at it, thanks for the articles you write for HPR.

      I agree. We have to have more than an argument in our defence, however snappy or ‘knockdown’ it appears. The Calvinist apologist, Greg Koukl, has a principle he has in his mind whilst debating: ‘If either of us gets angry, I lose.’, and I think that holds true if we cause them to lose face too, by humiliating them in defeat. Winning the argument, as you suggest, could be the worst thing to do. Maybe an alternative apologist bumper sticker ought to be: ‘If there’s one thing worse than losing, it’s winning.’ :)

      From my experience, to the degree I’m not being scandalous, which sadly is all too infrequently, I find natural curiosity is raised to the degree I step out the way and become a channel of grace rather than a roadblock…

      • Thank you for your thank you, Paul. I like your two contributions to “bumper sticker theology”:
        – “If there’s one thing worse than losing, it’s winning,”
        and also:
        – “… natural curiosity is raised to the degree I step out the way and become a channel of grace rather than a roadblock…”.

        The Lord deserves a Church having the radiance of holiness! Vatican II reminds us that that is our common vocation! “All are called to holiness, and to the perfection of charity.” Lord, give us the grace and the inner longing to answer that call.

  4. If Pope Francis had said the things that Pope Benedict has about tradition, it would be headlines, and his critics would say, “See, I told you he was a heretic,” but, as far as I can see, Pope Benedict’s clarifications of this topic have simply been ignored by people who should know better. So many thanks for your so aptly titled article. Indeed, it is amazing how ignorant even theology professors are when it comes to the importance of tradition. This is true in spite of the efforts of Benedict XVI who has described tradition as a “living dynamic reality.” This occurs for example in his Apostolic Exhortation “Verbum Domini,” where he uses the phrase in dealing with the chapter entitled “Tradition and Scripture.” He has stressed these ideas elsewhere as well, for example in his general audience of May 3, 2006. Speaking of Tradition, he says “it is not a collection of things or words, like a box of dead things. Tradition is the river of new life that flows from the origins, from Christ down to us, and makes us participate in God’s history with humanity.” It is precisely because of this that Tradition has that dynamic quality which was mentioned above by Pope Benedict, and it is this quality that can seem for many, even professors, at first glance to be a contradiction in terms. In his audience of May 3, 2006, the Pope clarified what he had explained already in the previous week (April 26, 2006) using this expression: “Thanks to the Paraclete, it will always be possible for subsequent generations to have the same experience of the Risen One that was lived by the apostolic community at the origin of the Church, since it is passed on and actualized in the faith, worship and communion of the People of God on pilgrimage through time.” Already in his audience of March 10, 2010, Pope Benedict had addressed the topic of Tradition, quoting the words of Jesus about the Holy Spirit, “he will take what is mine and declare if to you” (Jn 16:15). This passage (in its entirety) makes it clear that although the Word of God, who is Jesus, contains the whole revelation of God (to which nothing can be added), it is the Spirit’s role to “declare” what is of Jesus and make it known to us throughout history (not in just the first few centuries of Christianity). In his earlier theological commentary on Fatima, the Pope put all of these ideas in the context of the Council Document, Dei Verbum #8 and explained how prophesy (as at Fatima, for example) is connected to this reality. As I have indicated here, Pope Benedict’s comments merit profound theological discussion, but they seem to have been simply overlooked and forgotten. Hopefully your article will help correct this blatant neglect of an important theological reality. The correct understanding of tradition is important of course in the implementation of ecumenical dialogue so that we can be liberated from a sola scriptura approach which can never adequately express the teachings of Christ.

  5. Avatar Dorothy "Dottie" Borowski says:

    Thank you so much for the extremely interesting and engaging article. Thoroughly enjoyed and couldn’t agree more. God bless!


  1. […] Person? – Louie Verrecchio How do we Know the Holy Trinity? – George Weigel Sacred Tradition: The Forgotten Doctrine? – Stephen J. Morrissey Why do Catholics Call Priests ‘Father’? Didn’t […]

  2. […] Ajluni MD, Catholic Stand Modern Bondage: Slavery Is Very Much Alive Today – Mark Gordon Sacred Tradition: The Forgotten Doctrine? – Stephen J. Morrissey Libertarians and Catholicism – Matthew Olson, Catholic Analysis […]