80 "Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture, then, are bound closely together, and communicate one with the other. For both of them, flowing out from the same divine well-spring, come together in some fashion to form one thing, and move towards the same goal."40 Each of them makes present and fruitful in the Church the mystery of Christ, who promised to remain with his own "always, to the close of the age".41
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.”
79 The Father's self-communication made through his Word in the Holy Spirit, remains present and active in the Church: "God, who spoke in the past, continues to converse with the Spouse of his beloved Son. And the Holy Spirit, through whom the living voice of the Gospel rings out in the Church - and through her in the world - leads believers to the full truth, and makes the Word of Christ dwell in them in all its richness."39
Paragraph 79 addresses a very basic question of Catholic life: where and how does the Church—at all levels of membership--receive authority to teach the entire Church on matters of faith and morals? The paragraph spells out the details of the process: that God's revelation--and the authority to proclaim it--has been revealed for all time in Jesus Christ, and through the Holy Spirit this power has been passed along to the apostles and their successors for all time. This inheritance of divine authority throughout time is not only mystical but quite tangible. If you visit your diocesan website and look up your present bishop's biography, you will probably see that at the time of his episcopal consecration he was named bishop of two locations: the first being a city or region believed to date its Christian origins to an apostle or apostolic times, and then to your own diocese (the two assignments occur simultaneously.) Orlando Catholics would be surprised to learn that Bishop John Noonan is the Titular Bishop of Bonusta, a town outside of Carthage in North Africa, of which no trace exists today.
The idea or comprehension of apostolic succession is, as you might imagine, very ancient. St. Luke, in his Acts of the Apostles (1: 15-26) written around 80 A.D., describes the process in the case of the deceased Judas. In the interim between the Ascension and Pentecost, in Luke’s depiction, the eleven Apostles felt an urgency to replace the brother (Judas) who had betrayed Jesus. They determined that the two best candidates were Justus and Matthias. Given Luke’s timetable, it was critical that the twelfth be reinstated prior to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. In the time-honored Israelite tradition, the final determination was made through what we would call a game of chance, possibly either dice or short sticks. The thinking behind this method is that the direct intervention of God would choose the winner. As Christianity progressed into Gentile lands, a variety of religious/consultative selection processes came into play.
One of the notable features of the early Church is its collegiality, i.e., collective decision-making in matters of faith and morals. But Luke and Paul describe in the Scriptures an early “Council of Jerusalem” in which Paul made a compelling argument against the necessity of male concerts to Christianity to undergo the initiation rites into Judaism first, specifically circumcision. Once the custom of strong urban bishops was well established in the second century, regions and clusters of bishops could work in harmony in solidifying matters of faith, worship, and morals. Eventually this development would lead to world-wide councils (“ecumenical” councils, from the Greek oikoumenē, the “inhabited earth.”)
Interestingly, para. 79 speaks of the Spirit as continuing (present tense) its presence and activity in the Church, conversing with “the Spouse of his beloved Son,” i.e. the Church, the Bride of Christ. Para. 77 had emphasized the bishops as the agents of handing on the Tradition of Faith, and one might interpret today’s paragraph as implying that only bishops get invited into the bed chamber. But here we see reference to the Spirit’s animating work in the Church without qualifiers. It is the Spirit that “leads believers to the full truth, and makes the Word of Christ dwell in them in all its richness.”
The history of the Church is witness to an ongoing tension about the determination of who speaks authoritatively for the Spirit in any particular moment. In 1870 the answer for most, if not all Catholics, would have been simple enough: the sitting pope, in virtue of the newly defined doctrine of papal infallibility declared at the Council Vatican I in 1870. (One of the two bishops who voted against infallibility was Bishop Edward Fitzgerald of Little Rock, Arkansas.) But even as the Church fathers convened to consider papal infallibility, scholars in Western Europe were revisiting the theology of the Church’s sacraments, and in particular the sacraments of initiation, Baptism, Confirmation, and Eucharist.
The reformed rite of the initiation sacraments, in theology drawn from Vatican II teachings, includes two critical points related to the Apostolic Tradition and the handing on of the Faith. In the first instance, the candidates receiving these sacraments are identified within the official texts as priests, prophets, and kings. Moreover, the Holy Spirit is said to be poured out in abundance upon those entering the Body of Christ. Unless the language of liturgy is reduced to flowery rhetoric, some genuine action has taken place whereby the Spirit has and continues to converse with the newly anointed “Spouse of the Beloved Son,” as para. 79 puts it.
Moreover, the initiation sacraments clearly identify the Catholic Christian as workers in the vineyard of Christ’s mission. Often the “work” of the vineyard is interpreted in a tangible charitable sense: the corporal works of mercy, pastoral ministry to the sick, the alien, the homeless, which is certainly true. But notably absent in pastoral discussion is the work of wisdom: to think, to read, to write, to meditate, to address the Scriptures and the Tradition of the Church not simply in a passive way—though humility at the feet of saints is always a wise posture—but in an expansive way, bringing new vision to contemporary problems, new visions of ministry to the changing demographics of Catholicism, etc.
I am struck by this thought very often when I teach or engage in church ministries. Last weekend I taught a course on Church history, and on the evaluations several students thanked me for “showing the role the saints played in the bigger picture of things.” I am often saddened that even the most professionally successful Catholics have never received or researched “the bigger picture of things.” Is it possible our minimalist approach to catechetics—particularly adults—impedes the Spirit’s ongoing work of enlightening the Church? There is no restraining God’s Spirit.
78 This living transmission, accomplished in the Holy Spirit, is called Tradition, since it is distinct from Sacred Scripture, though closely connected to it. Through Tradition, "the Church, in her doctrine, life, and worship, perpetuates and transmits to every generation all that she herself is, all that she believes."37 "The sayings of the holy Fathers are a witness to the life-giving presence of this Tradition, showing how its riches are poured out in the practice and life of the Church, in her belief and her prayer."38
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.