Past and Present Conceptions of Tradition: Looking at the Synod on the Family

“Tradition” is one of the most important concepts in Christianity, and yet, it is a term very often misunderstood among Catholics, let alone other Christians. I propose that this is precisely why the Extraordinary Synod on the Family, which was convened on October 5th, is inciting fear in some and elation in others.

There are two competing views of tradition that underlie such emotional reactions. The frenzied speculation about the synod does not merely reflect authentic concern with the issues at hand, but it reflects, perhaps even more so, prior fundamental theological commitments. The “conservative” view, sometimes termed “traditional” or “classical,” relies on scholastic ideas regarding tradition, such as that constituted simply (or primarily) by the “unanimous” consent of the Church Fathers and by the conciliar decrees. The “progressive” view, sometimes termed “liberal” or “modern,” is, oftentimes, inspired by the Second Vatican Council, understood in terms of adaptation to the rapidly changing post-Enlightenment world.

While I do not typically like to approach theological questions in political terms (and, quite frankly, artificial), such as “conservative” and “liberal,” in this case, I think “conservative” and “progressive” are the most apt, even though still inadequate, adjectives correctly characterizing two fundamental theological orientations, very much alive and operative in the thoughts of many lay people (and clergy), regardless of the level of catechesis received by each.

It seems, everyone has an opinion on matters such as homosexuality, contraception, admission of the remarried to communion, and other similar issues, and very strong opinions, at that. But the same persons are often unaware of the underlying reasons for why they feel so strongly one way or the other. I suggest that a, if not the, key orientation that is determinative of one’s opinions on these issues (and many more) is his or her prior understanding of tradition, however vague or “subconscious.”

The first mentioned view of tradition, in terms of the unanimous consent of the Fathers, is sometimes also called the “static” view, because it is difficult to conceive of authentic changes or developments in doctrine, as the Church journeys through time, when this view is assumed. The second view is, then, proposed as the “dynamic” view, according to which, the Church and its teachings can, and do, change as it interacts with the ever-evolving world of contingent beings. But this division is amorphous and misleading—what needs to be clarified are the necessary conditions under which ecclesial doctrine may “change,” and precisely, the nature of this change. Some of the buzz phrases that have come out of attempts to answer these questions, among the theologically concerned, are the “development (rather than change) of doctrine” from Cardinal John Henry Newman, and the “hermeneutic of continuity” from Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI). Although such phrases do something to clarify tradition, they are also liable to exaggeration in one direction or another, lacking precision, having been wrenched from context (as are all slogans). Surely I can do only a little in this short piece to clear the air, as it were.

The theology of tradition (and of the Magisterium) has seen a crescendo in the 20th century with such thinkers as Yves Congar, George Lindbeck, and Joseph Ratzinger, propelled, in many cases, by the late 19th-century thought of Johannes Mohler, John Henry Newman, and the Tubingen school, in general. While certainly these, and other thinkers, do not represent consensus on every detail of revelation theology, there are fundamental points that have been brought to light which, I think, could help the lay person sift through the muddled media reports and the loud opinions of “church mice.”

Instead of attempting here to give an adequate account of tradition’s place in the theology of revelation, I will simply clarify some distinctions, utilizing evocative examples throughout. Sometimes people will appeal to the distinction made by Pope John XXIII, in his opening speech at the Second Vatican Council, between the content of a doctrine, and the way in which it is expressed; but confusion inevitably remains, regarding precisely what this means in all practicality. It is not the case that the way the Church expresses a truth is entirely separable from the truth itself, or that the truth itself is vulnerable to changing modes of communication. But it is the case, that however the Church’s (temporal) authorities formulate a truth about God, man, or the world in relation to God, it can never perfectly express the truth as it is in itself, immutably comprehended by God alone. It is also the case that there are only so many ways of communicating the essence of these truths, divinely revealed to mankind in Scripture and tradition.

Tradition, then, cannot be understood purely in terms of propositional truth, as revelation itself is a divine communication involving both a messenger, a recipient of that message, and the event wherein the two come together in some fashion. But the fact that truths of revelation, communicated throughout the centuries (“handed down” or “handed over,” the literal meaning of traditio), cannot be reduced to linguistic formulae, does not mean there is no propositional content at all to such divine communication. For example, “Jesus is God” is a proposition, but it can be understood in a number of ways, e.g., Jesus represents God, Jesus is the son (above all sons) of God, Jesus is co-equal with God the Father (i.e., literal versus metaphorical interpretation). And as soon as one accepts the truth that Jesus is the co-equal Son of God the Father, that does not mean the truth is truly grasped in its entirety; one might possess merely an intellectual grasp of the proposition, with no impact on one’s relationship to the divine (except insofar as such abstract knowledge entails a new relationship). Just as truths may take on more concrete significance in an individual’s life, or may serve as mere propositions abstractly affirmed, so truths in the Church, as the living body of Christ, his mystical bride, may be conceived exclusively in terms of propositional truth, or they may take on organic significance which implies a certain viability in the world of constant change. Hence, “organic continuity” does not mean rigid continuity, but it also does not mean rupture. Divine truths take on their own “lives,” if you will and, therefore, develop (there’s that buzz word) in dialogue with one another. For example, traditionally the Church has taught “extra ecclesiam nulla salus” (outside the Church, there is no salvation), but it has also taught that there are “logoi spermatikoi” (i.e., seeds of the Word) present throughout the pagan world and that, as Augustine states, “there are many within the Church who do not belong to God, and many who belong to God who do not belong to the Church.” Of course, the reconciliation of these statements involves specifying the precise meaning of “Church,” which must paradoxically possess a certain flexibility in order to survive as an integral reality, if both sides of the equation are to be maintained. This kind of approach is necessary, also, to resolve the tension between the “traditional” approach to religious liberty, and how the Church has treated the topic in the wake of Vatican II.

A few quick distinctions are to be added now. “Tradition” may refer to a mere custom, to an ecclesial discipline, or to a doctrine. Customs are, in principle, as changeable in the Church as they are outside the Church, but men need customs in the sacred as well as in the profane, or secular, world. “Doctrine” simply means “teaching” (from the Latin, doctrina), but it usually refers to teachings that are considered authoritative in the Church. Now, authoritative does not mean infallible (or dogmatic), but it does mean binding, and that is because there is a hierarchy of truths taught by the Church. I think it is helpful to designate “dogma” as infallible doctrine—not all doctrines are dogmas, but all dogmas are doctrines. The Church distinguishes between doctrines that are binding de fide, and doctrines that require obsequium religiosum (“religious submission”), but we need not enter into the nature of these. Ecclesial disciplines are not teachings, so much as practices (commonly mislabeled by the media as “Church policy”), but they are also often binding on the faithful, meaning the authoritative doctrines are to be lived out in these particular practices (e.g., the words of institution in the Mass are always the same, because the Church, as it teaches, does not have the right to change the divinely instituted rites handed on to it by the Apostles). This leads me to another distinction: some traditions are from the Apostles (called “apostolic traditions”) and others developed later (called “ecclesiastical traditions”). Most apostolic traditions are untouchable, but there are some that pertain to such practical matters that they are, indeed, changeable. It is another question whether they should be changed, or not, in each particular instance: for example, Paul instructed women to wear veils in church, so as not to distract the men from worship—an apostolic tradition no longer in force—due to cultural changes and other considerations than those entertained by Paul at the time.

Some ecclesiastical traditions, even though they developed later, are considered just as unchangeable (i.e., infallible) as many apostolic traditions: the Holy Spirit does not abandon the Church. Some disciplines also cannot change (as in the example given of the words of institution). Much debate may arise concerning which traditions ought to be changed which are, in fact, changeable, and which pertain to the essence of the faith (that is, divine revelation). But the Catholic Church, for scriptural and historical reasons, maintains that it alone, represented in its hierarchy, particularly the bishop of Rome, and all bishops in union with him, has the definitive say on which traditions can, and cannot, be changed.

Tradition is more a milieu than a majority opinion. Either it has always belonged to the culture, as it were, of the Christian community, to worship the Christ as God and, therefore, such is unchangeable, or there is wiggle room on the question (which there surely is not in this case). To take a more controversial issue, either the Church authoritatively ordained women at some point in the past, and later ceased unjustifiably (e.g, because of social qualms); or it has not, and it should take up the practice for some reason that can be theologically justified on the basis of divine revelation (an impossible task in my humble opinion). Perhaps, it has not precisely because of divine revelation (what is sometimes referred to as the “deposit of faith”) that is for indisputable theological reasons that may nevertheless be unpopular or misunderstood. Therefore, it should not attempt to change such a tradition, as there is no warranted reason for such a dramatic overhaul of historic Christianity.

Possibly more relevant to the present moment in the Church, one question purportedly to be taken up at the synod is whether invalidly “remarried” Catholics should be admitted to Communion, and/or whether getting remarried without an ecclesiastical annulment (which is NOT the ecclesial equivalent to divorce, as many assume) is a serious enough sin for one to be barred from the sacraments, as is the present (and long-standing) practice or discipline of the Church. On the one hand, this practice seems to be historically contingent enough a discipline to be subject to change by the authority of the hierarchy; but on the other hand, it might be that the discipline is an irreversible application of infallible Church teaching (e.g., that no man can separate what God has joined together, as Jesus himself says). The present, age-old tribunal system of Church-appointed judges is charged with the task of discerning—in cooperation with canon lawyers, and in service to the bishop of the respective diocese—whether marital unions which are civilly dissolved, in fact, meet the necessary conditions for sacramentality, or not, based on all the evidence presented. Hence, it is very important to clarify: annulments do not make a marriage sacramental, or not sacramental, objectively speaking. In other words, because this discernment procedure is not, in itself, infallible, it is possible that an objectively sacramental marriage is judged to be not sacramental, or vice versa. Yet, this fact does not mitigate the responsibility of the parties involved to accept the ecclesial judgments. In fact, getting married outside the Church, or remarried without submitting first to the annulment process, results in automatic self-excommunication under the current code of canon law. That is because faith yields a humble attitude of obedience to the appointed representatives of Christ and his Apostles, in imitation of Christ’s own obedience to his Father.

It will be interesting to see whether the synod Fathers confirm the current law of the Church, that those who publicly persist in manifest and obstinate grave sin be excluded from the sacraments, even if such is rarely enforced, at least by American ecclesiastics. Traditionally, it has been assumed that getting remarried, without going through the Church’s established procedure for adhering to the indissolubility of sacramental marriage, constitutes a grave matter; otherwise, canon law would not impose such a harsh consequence. The Church does not judge culpability, but it can, presumably, judge the gravity of the “matter” of an act, and until now, it has been argued that because sexual infidelity has always been considered grave matter, those who remarry without the Church’s permission are engaged in acts that are objectively disordered in a grave (or deadly) manner.

Nevertheless, it appears the dimension of the question to be clarified by the synod is not so much whether Catholics who remarry are guilty of sexual infidelity and, therefore, should not be admitted to Communion, but more so, whether the Church should continue to require the faithful to submit to this fallible (but, nonetheless, authoritative) procedure, for determining the sacramental validity of the union. Arguments are made that in the ancient Church, remarriage was sometimes permitted, even if only under very stringent circumstances, with severe penances incurred. But tradition is neither a retreat to foregone practices, nor excessive attachment to the disciplines that replaced them, as the Church’s theology continued to develop. Sometimes, the Church learns that the trajectory of its history has led it to exaggerate one dimension of the faith over another, recognizing the need to return to more ancient emphases, albeit in a distinctly “modern” way, thereby establishing a better harmony between “the new” and “the old.” I believe that, in this particular case, the bishops will deem it necessary to revise the annulment process, but they will maintain that the sacraments (principally, marriage itself) are of such dignity, that the faithful need to submit to ecclesial authority prior to enjoying the full benefits of the sacramental economy. But I submit my own judgment on the question to theirs.

Hopefully, it is clear from the examples given precisely how one’s implicit theology of tradition often determines one’s opinion on questions of both doctrine and discipline. Many self-proclaimed “traditional Catholics” are vehemently opposed to any consideration of significant changes in ecclesial discipline. Because they view tradition simply in terms of “unanimous consent” and formal definitions, they tremble at the prospect that Pope Francis might revise the disciplinary process of annulment and reexamine admittance to the sacraments, simply because the Church has always taught that marriage is indissoluble, and that remarriage (except in the case of the death of a spouse) is, therefore, sexual infidelity, which constitutes grave matter warranting exclusion from the sacraments. Meanwhile, so-called “liberal Catholics” are vehemently pushing for a change in this venue, as in practically every area of ecclesial life, simply because “times have changed,” “no one should be excluded from the body of Christ,” “no one has the right to judge the sinfulness of another,” etc., all of which are reasons stemming from a misunderstanding of the nature of either divine revelation (particularly, in the form of tradition), or ecclesial authority (which is called to safeguard sacred tradition), or both.

Divine revelation is not up for a vote. Tradition is not simply the “will of the people.” But, at the same time, the Spirit speaks through the sensus fidelium, which is, inevitably, in continuity with historic Christianity (i.e., it is both diachronic and synchronic, as Ratzinger reminds us in his ecclesiological writings). Therefore, although the prudential judgments rendered by the bishops at the synod convoked by the successor of Peter certainly will not be infallible, the faithful trust that they also will not (because they cannot) veer from the substance of the faith, or the essence of divine revelation, which is Jesus Christ himself.

Joshua Brotherton About Joshua Brotherton

Joshua Brotherton is set to graduate this academic year of 2015 from The Catholic University of America with a PhD in Systematic Theology. He has been published in numerous academic journals. In addition to his MA in theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville, he has an MA in philosophy from the University of Dallas.


  1. Avatar Tom McGuire says:

    As you write: “ “organic continuity” does not mean rigid continuity, but it also does not mean rupture. continuity”. In dialogue one is not confronted with “either or” but “both and”. When one thinks he or she owns the whole truth no dialogue is possible because I am right and the one who thinks different from me is wrong. Unity that Jesus prayed for is impossible and division is the consequence. Some of the comments on the Synod reflect an attitude: “I posses the truth”.


    • Avatar Joshua Brotherton says:

      I agree completely, Tom. It is also noteworthy that in the famous Christmas 2005 address of Pope Benedict to the Roman Curia in which he speaks of the two contrasting interpretive approaches to Vat II, he actually speaks of a “hermeneutic of reform” vs. a “hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture.” I suggest by “reform” there he has in mind the great work of his theological companion, Yves Congar, “True and False Reform in the Church,” which is said to have inspired John XXIII to call the Council. I might add that I do not agree with either the “progressive” or “conservative” approaches to Vat II, a false dichotomy, but with a well-informed theology of tradition.

  2. Avatar Ted Heywood says:

    Interesting parallels to the argument about the Constitution of the US. Is it a ‘living document’ (progressive view) or the ‘Founders Intent’ (Conservative view). Since I sort of get a headache trying to follow all the big words and convoluted phraseology, I find comfort in the simple belief that the Holy Spirit will not allow error to be introduced in teachings on matters of Faith and Morals.

  3. Avatar Martin B. Drew says:

    Systematic theology is transscendental where grace, sin, faith ,sacraments, mother of God, jesus Christ, saints and eschatoligical theology are permanent . Yes Truth about God comes to anyone but in freedom that person must mentally take hold of it. The Sacrament of matrimony is also a contract between the man and woman and both must agree to an annulmate for it to be considered.Divorce or separation never has the approval for remarriage to preserve the indissolubility of marriage and to preserve the Faith in those persons . Any automatic excommunication on one is one cannot receive the Body of Christ . Tradition, as we say with a capital T, suggests that Jesus and the Holy Spirit are with us baptised members of the catholic Church. Reception of the Sacrament of Reconciliation may remove an excommunication with ones change of life Pope Francis needed to present an agenda for consideration to this synod In my opinion this synod was not necessary since changes were not necessary..

  4. Avatar Fr. Jack Feehily says:

    i am grateful for this article for its excellent endeavor to make some very important distinctions regarding doctrines, authoratative teachings, Tradition, and discipline. I wish to point out that insufficient attention is being given in the present dialogue to the meaning and status of so-called “civil” marriage. Even a cursory survey of church history reveals that the present distinction between sacramental and civil marriage is far from an eternal verity. Ecclesiastics have not always claimed authority over marriage much less proscribe rites that guarantee validity or liceity. Nor have nation states always carefully codified laws regulating the liceity of marriage. All of this has been subject to development in response to changing realities and perceptions in the realms of church and state. The assertion that all marriages must be presumed indissoluble as a consequence of the teaching of Jesus is itself a development subject to change. Much work needs to be done to fill out Ratzinger’s writings on the relationship between faith and sacramental efficacy. No one would claim that every Catholic who takes communion experiences the fruit of that sacrament. How about adolescents pushed into Confirmation by the expectations of parents and religious educators. I understand “ex opere operato”. Does everyone understand “ex opere operantis”. I submit from a pastor’s perspective that it is absolutely legitimate for Francis and his brother bishops to enter into a careful but bold conversation with the members of the Body over the next year to discern the sensus fidelium on the meaning and application of the indissolubility doctrine and its relationship to Eucharistic discipline. We need to learn from the people the degree of acceptance of the teaching that civilly remarried Catholics are unrepentant adulterers unless and until an annulment is acquired. Should be interesting.

    • Fr. Feehily,

      I certainly agree with you, in your concern for the largely overlooked importance of the required right disposition in the recipients for any sacramental fruitfulness, including the Sacrament of Matrimony. I sought to focus on this matter in my article here a few weeks ago, “Lest They Receive it in Vain” (, although my immediate concern was for the Sacrament of the Eucharist. The same issue, the same problem, applies as well to every sacrament the Church is presently administering, I would dare say. Every sacrament.

      Western culture has become radically secular and materialistic. There is not the localized, family-centered “Catholic culture” even of my childhood, that manifested a respect and regard for holy things – an atmosphere conducive to faith, and to the teachings and norms of the Faith. The environment present for most Catholics today, I would say, is aggressively opposed to the Faith, to holy things, to the mind and the ways of Christ. In the matter of readiness for any sacrament, I would dare say, nothing can be presumed, but a long road of preparation ought to be anticipated. Thus the responsibility today falling upon the Church – and to Catholic families – is enormous. We have not responded well to the need for catechesis and faith formation, to date, not at all.

      The challenge to the Church, in my view, is to respond to the problem of poor formation and the consequences of poor formation, with right formation! The secular world of education is adapting to a “dumbed down” student body with lower expectations, lowered standards, lower norms and higher grades. I hope the Church will hold fast to the absolutes with which she has been entrusted, and do the work she has been sent to do: “make disciples”.

    • Father, I just now saw this comment, so pardon the delayed response. I agree with your point that “ex opere operato” should not be emphasized to the detriment of preparing oneself to receive the sacraments with the right dispositions, but I am not sure that the larger problem among today’s Catholics is a failure to recognize the latter so much as the former. I assume you mean to apply this principle (or distinction) to the sacrament of matrimony in particular, with which I am not in disagreement, although I am not sure what consequences this move has besides pointing again to the necessary conditions recognized in canon law for the sacramentality of marriage.
      I also agree that there has certainly been development in the Church’s sacramental theology over the centuries and therefore the practices were not always the same, but I do not think they were contradictory to the eternal truth about sacramentality. By the latter I mean to indicate that whether ecclesiastics always drew a distinction between civil and sacramental marriage or not, there indeed always has been an ontological difference. So I suppose the pivotal point would be that sacraments are supernatural realities, which is to say realities that transcend the merely natural, and that marriages which do not fulfill the conditions of sacramentality are precisely merely natural (hence ‘civil’). I also think the conditions stated in canon law for sacramentality are firmly rooted in natural law and divine revelation, although certainly up for interpretation when it comes to application in particular cases, and thus they were true conditions even before the Church officially recognized them.
      I also agree with you that the current presumption of validity is a courtesy or deference toward personal conscience and natural law, but I do not think it is necessary and it is certainly debatable. Therefore, I think you’re right in implying that we should not judge the remarried to be adulterous, even where an annulment is lacking, and I do not think the Church does so, even under the current canon law, although clearly this is not evident to many “conservatives” who like to repeat that “adultery is adultery,” etc., without thinking about these distinctions. In fact, the supposed “dogmatic watchdog,” Ratzinger, in an 84 address (contained in the book, “Behold, the Pierced One,”), says precisely that those excommunicated (and he names the divorced and remarried), that is, those barred from eucharistic communion, are not barred from the communion of love and can indeed be saved through such suffering, which is to presuppose that adultery may in fact not be the sin that is executed by those who, unfortunately, do not manifest the faith and humility of submitting to the Church’s desire that an annulment be sought prior to “remarriage.” Thoughts?

  5. Fr McGavin Fr McGavin says:

    Useful and calm distinctions made, with a congruency with what I wrote in
    Discerning the Bergoglio mission to revivify Catholic tradition
    on the http://www.chiesa
    Rev Dr P A McGavin
    Canberra, Australia

  6. Avatar Fr. Kevin L. Badeaux says:

    Thoughtful article, though I do find one inaccurate statement. “In fact, getting married outside the Church, or remarried without submitting first to the annulment process, results in automatic
    self-excommunication under the current code of canon law..” Actually, such couples are expected to refrain from the sacraments until such time as their marriages are convalidated (“blessed by the Church) but they are not excommunicated.

    • Ratzinger speaks in an 84 address, compiled in Behold the Pierced One, about the divorced and remarried as excommunicates, by which he means they are not admitted to the sacrament of eucharistic communion. I am not a canon lawyer. But I fail to see the difference between being barred from the sacrament until and unless convalidation occurs and being excommunicated (presumably, anyone who is barred from the sacrament can be readmitted under some such correspondent condition?) Perhaps there is a juridical difference between those barred from communion because of civil remarriage and those barred for other reasons?


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