Paragraph 80 is critical to the understanding of identity of Catholicism, but it remains one of the most misunderstood realities of the nature of the Church. The easiest way to explain Tradition and Scripture is to define what they are not. In opposition to very fundamental forms of Protestantism, Catholicism is not “a religion of the book,” i.e., the Bible. Catholicism understands itself as the living succession of Jesus Christ, having received from the Apostles the teachings and commands of Jesus. These teachings and commands are handed along through history—some orally, some by writing, and some by practice. The word tradition comes from the Latin tradere, “to hand on.” Tradition in Catholic theology applies to both fidelity to what has been received by Jesus through the Apostles and application of this content to present day life in the world.
Para. 80 labors to explain what borders on the mysterious. The search for a precise meaning of Tradition has been a quest of the ages—no less than Augustine, Gregory the Great, Clement of Alexandria, Irenaeus, Origen, and the Emperor Justinian gave it their best shot. From our own time, I consulted Jaroslav Pelikan’s The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine (1971), the five-volume masterpiece on the subject. Pelikan writes: “The form which Christian doctrine, so defined, has taken in history is tradition. Like the term “doctrine,” the word “tradition” refers simultaneously to the process of communication and to its content. Thus, tradition means the handing down of Christian teaching during the course of this history of the church, but also means that which was handed down.” (vol. 1, p. 7)
Pelikan’s definition, along with the Catechism text, underscore both the reality of an origin of Christian faith and a dynamism, one might say an unfolding, of its reality. While there is a timeless truth about the nature of Jesus and his message, the variable has been and continues to be our full grasp of understanding and comprehending. Para. 80’s use of the phrase “makes present” implies that the dynamics of history or the culture of a time cries out for a fresh interpretation that which is handed on through history. It is in the interpretation where things get messy and divisive.
Again, to argue from the negative, one of the primary criticisms of Roman Catholicism made by Protestant reformers was the primacy and reach of the Catholic claims for Tradition. One might say that extreme reformers would question both the right of the Catholic Church to be the official stewards of Tradition, or that Tradition even supports the existence of a dictating church. Such critics would contend that Apostolic primacy is handed down through the Bible alone and the individual conscience of the baptized believer. The extreme arguments are relatively easy to counter: historically, the formation of the New Testament canon itself and its legitimacy is the product of Christian faith and Church doctrine over several hundred years, not the other way around. Nor has the pure reliance on the individual bible-toting Christian conscience distinguished itself in history with profound unity of faith.
It is true that a literal reading of para. 80 can be stunning, in the sense that a human body (Tradition) stands equal to the revealed word of God (Scripture), in that they are “bound together” and “flow from the same divine wellspring” and “come together in some fashion to form one thing” and “move to the same goal.” Without some measure of faith and theology, it is a lot to absorb, and para. 80 is at a loss to explain the details of how Scripture and Tradition come together, using the elusive phrase “in some fashion.”
In speaking of Scripture and Tradition, it is important to bear in mind several points. The revelation of Sacred Scripture comes not from the literal words on the paper but from the history of encounter with God that the texts describe. The narrative of Scripture is itself the story of a tradition, God’s relentless pursuit of his sacred people over two millennia and the climax of that pursuit in the sending of his Son. When one proclaims in the Nicene Creed that “I believe in one, holy, catholic, apostolic Church…” one is conceding that the age of the chase is over, so to speak, and that God has passed the mission of love to the Church through the gift of the Spirit.
Faith in the Church is faith in its origin and history. We use the term Tradition to describe the Church’s history of divine intervention rooted in the life of Jesus and the mission of the Apostles, and to establish that new understandings of Revelation—as in the definition of seven sacraments over the first millennium of its life—are legitimate expressions of divine intent. It is hard at times to love or believe a Church whose leaders and members have a continuing history of egregious errors, but Christian history is not unlike Israel’s history. Israel’s sins did not cancel out God’s revelation or restrain his abiding love.
It would be wrong to pass over one particular feature of Church Tradition: its passing on of morality. As we have seen on the Monday posts here, Catholics in the present day continue to debate the “reach” of Tradition in matters of sexual ethics, economics, and other significant contemporary matters, or the adaptability of historical wisdom to new circumstances. For now, I would say that while Tradition embodies the content of what we believe, much of that content was not arrived at easily. Resolutions come, to quote para. 80, “in some fashion.”