Tradition is to be distinguished from the various theological, disciplinary, liturgical or devotional traditions, born in the local churches over time. These are the particular forms, adapted to different places and times, in which the great Tradition is expressed. In the light of Tradition, these traditions can be retained, modified or even abandoned under the guidance of the Church's Magisterium.
In reflecting upon the term “Tradition” and looking back on recent Thursday posts, I must admit I am not satisfied with the way I have explained it. Tradition, in its technical sense, speaks to the identity of the Catholic Church—its mission, its authority—and it underlines many of the difficult issues presently faced by the Church, as an institution and as individual members. One of the prime criticisms of Pope Francis is precisely the worry among some that his teachings on marriage, for example, stand in opposition to Church Tradition. On the other hand, there are many who feel that the pope has extended the umbrella of Tradition into areas it does not belong—climate change, the world economy, etc.
The Council fathers at Vatican II found it difficult to define the Church in terms of its relationship to the direct revelation of God. In Lumen Gentium the Council accepted, as we would expect, the doctrine that Christ founded one body or kingdom, and that he wished this body to be one, or united in faith. The more perplexing question is the nature of the relationship between Christ’s body and the collective body of those who claim Jesus as savior. Section 8 of LG states that “the one mediator, Christ, established and ever sustains here on earth his holy Church, the community of faith, hope and charity, as a visible organization through which he communicates truth and grace to all men.” When speaking of “his holy Church,” (or kingdom, as Scripture would put it) however, can we say that it is synonymous with the Roman Catholic Church?
The obvious answer, and certainly the one embedded in Catholic DNA, is yes. However, a simple yes is not quite precise. For one thing, the Council fathers refrained from a simple “yes” and instead used the term “subsists,” as in “This [Christ’s] Church, constituted and organized as a society in the present world, subsists in the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the bishops in communion with him.” But in a departure from prior councils, Vatican II recognized elements of Christ’s Church not in communion with Rome: “Nevertheless, many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside its visible confines. Since these are gifts belonging to the Church of Christ, they are forces impelling toward Catholic unity.”
As late as 2007 the debate about changing the verb “is” to “subsists” continued to the point that Pope Benedict felt it necessary to teach that “subsists” in the Latin language is a richer form of the Latin for “is,” and that there was no change in the historical teaching that Christ’s Church is the Catholic Church. However, this clarification does not address those elements of salvation “outside its visible confines” nor several other points in the Council documents.
For one thing, the Council wanted nothing to do with any suggestion that the Catholic Church equals Christ on earth. Peter may be Christ’s vicar, but he is not his alter ego, either. Popes have sinned, and sinned badly throughout history. Church leadership and membership are semper reformanda, always in need of reform. Bad policy has been taught under the umbrella of Tradition—the status of Jews is one example that immediately comes to mind. Morality is enforced eclectically; artificial birth control remains verboten while abuse of minors by clerics has been addressed much too softly. To simply equate Jesus Christ with this sinful human institution is both ridiculous and even blasphemous.
The Council Fathers introduced a new metaphor for the relationship of Christ and the Catholic Church, that of “the pilgrim people of God.” In this understanding, which has strong Scriptural basis, the Catholic Church is an institution of religious pilgrims on the journey to full communion with God at the end of time. There are overtones of humility, temporality, and dependence in this model. Jesus himself models this stance when he tells Pilate that “my kingdom is not of this world” or when he states that the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head. The picture that emerges here is that while Christ’s kingdom subsists in the Catholic Church, the very nature of Christ’s kingdom needs examination. Evidently the writers of Lumen Gentium were not going to simply endorse the existing formulation of Church without considerable reflection.
One of the themes of Vatican II, both on and off the floor, was a growing sense that Tradition—and the attitudes of those entrusted with protecting and teaching it—was being passed on with an arrogance of power that left the power of Baptism and the other sacraments sprawling in the dust. St. Paul’s writing of the charisms or gifts of the Spirit to all the baptized faithful was rendered meaningless when all questions are claimed to be answered for all eternity without as much as a nod to the Spirit’s life in the Church as a whole. The bishops at the Council raised much the same questions about their own responsibilities vis-à-vis the Curial offices, the advisory arm of the pope.
It occurs to me that the major difficulty in teaching Tradition in a catechetical setting is the sense that those entrusted with handing down that Tradition are much more at home with passing on the rules of Christ, so to speak, and less so over passing on the living example of Christ, which of course is much harder. Pope Francis in his four years has called bishops to task for too much bling, for example. His reform of the Curia and those in Orders has been slow and painful. Many bishops here in the United States, for example, are remarkably tone deaf to the pope’s call for episcopal reform, while enforcing the at-times onerous burdens of Church Law to “every jot and tittle.”
May I return to the earlier cited quote from section 8 of LG: “Nevertheless, many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside its visible confines. Since these are gifts belonging to the Church of Christ, they are forces impelling toward Catholic unity.” This is clearly a reference to separated Christian Churches—a significant ecumenical step forward that recognizes the work of the Spirit in other churches and a welcoming to the Catholic tradition in place of denouncing errors. But I would go further and say that this text applies to the large number whose relationship to the Catholic Church of their birth has grown estranged. I think that the Vatican II documents make clear that its Tradition is a living presence of Christ, through the Spirit, to people beyond the pale of “official observance.” In short, if you are a parent of children who do not practice, as they say, they remain in the Catholic fold in the same sense that they remain your children.