If you are a Catholic of a certain age—like in “old”—you might recall that your catechism or classroom instruction described the teaching authority of the Church as “Scripture and Tradition.” The instructor—in my case religious sisters and Christian Brothers—would then quickly add that tradition in this context is always capitalized as Tradition, and that Catholics believed in a ‘two source” theory of Revelation, or at least this is how it sounded to me. Paragraph 78 attempts to bring clarity to the language by defining Tradition as “the Church, in her doctrine, life and worship, perpetuat[ing] and transmit[ing] to every generation all that she herself is, all that she believes.” Tradition is the life of the Church in terms of what she knows and teaches.
During the Reformation and beyond, the Church was accused of placing too much emphasis upon Tradition. A common cry of Lutherans, Calvinists, and Anabaptists was a return to a pure faith in the Bible, unsullied by “Catholic invention” (my term) or what we call Tradition. The problem with this argument is that the New Testament is itself part of Catholic Tradition, or more accurately, the tradition of all Christian Churches whether this fact is recognized or not. The Gospels and other New Testament writings are themselves the product of a believing and teaching Church. It would be the Apostolic authority of the Church’s bishops that would determine which books belong to the New Testament Canon, and how they were to be interpreted into the Creed in the fourth and fifth centuries of the Church’s history, in the famous Christological Councils [Nicaea 325, Ephesus 432, and Chalcedon 451 A.D.]
The root of the idea of Tradition is the command of Jesus to preach the Gospel to all the nations, in the full confidence that he would be with the Church until the end of time. This presence is dramatically made known in the Pentecostal event, where God’s animating Spirit is poured forth upon the Church—specifically the Apostles—to conduct this mission in God’s power until the end of time.
One of the catechetical challenges in explaining Tradition is the humanity of the Church itself. Historically, the Church has held the doctrine of indefectibility, which is not quite the same thing as infallibility, though the natural tendency would be to fold one into the other. Indefectibility hold that the corporate Church cannot err in the sense of deviating from its mission in the Holy Spirit. The corporate Church cannot cease to believe as a whole that Jesus is not God, or that there is no afterlife. I was careful to emphasize the word “corporate” because there is no doubt as we look through history that popes, bishops, priests, dioceses, and even nations have erred. Many bishops, as it turns out, believed that the avoidance of scandal in the Church was of greater importance than acknowledging child abuse in its ranks.
Vatican II labored considerably to find precise language to describe the relationship of God’s Kingdom to the Church. For a long time, the consensus held that the Kingdom and the Church were the same. Such a belief gave incredible power to churchmen, particularly in terms of papal authority in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. The phrase “outside the Church there is no salvation” was still popular in my early lifetime. The downside of such a broad claim of divine authority was the obvious fact that the Church did err and still does err. The fathers of the Council introduced the concept of the Church as “pilgrim people” struggling through the desert like the Israelites behind Moses. Indefectibility holds that enough of the pilgrims will remain faithful to be recognizable as God’s holy people; the whole flock will never go over the cliff.
A further consideration is the continuing growth of Tradition—from better understanding of the Bible, from continuing scholarship, and from the genuine experiences of the baptized faithful. There are some in the Church who hold that Apostolic Tradition is complete, static, and crystal clear. Others see the Church as evolving in understanding precisely because the Holy Spirit is a living and enlightening force. Pope Francis, in addressing major superiors of religious orders last November, expressed his personal concern about “black and white priests” (referring to their mindsets), calling them “restorationists.” For Francis, looking at pastoral life in absolutes, or taking the Church back in time to an earlier period, almost always the baroque post-Reformation Church of the seventeenth century, seemed to him a denial of a Holy Spirit living in human time and enervating the Church with new passions and understandings for the living of the Gospel.
That said, the reality of Tradition with the capital “t” keeps the Church focused in a healthy equilibrium between past, present, and future in terms of understanding its mission to preach the Gospel to the whole world. All the essential knowledge we need for salvation comes to us as the fruit of the Church’s reflection upon Jesus and its efforts to teach a way of life that will make us prepared for the moment of the Lord’s coming at the end of time.