83 The Tradition here in question comes from the apostles and hands on what they received from Jesus' teaching and example and what they learned from the Holy Spirit. The first generation of Christians did not yet have a written New Testament, and the New Testament itself demonstrates the process of living Tradition.
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.
82 As a result the Church, to whom the transmission and interpretation of Revelation is entrusted, "does not derive her certainty about all revealed truths from the holy Scriptures alone. Both Scripture and Tradition must be accepted and honored with equal sentiments of devotion and reverence.
Quite coincidentally I learned yesterday that I am conducting a workshop in late June on Ecclesiology, or the nature of the Church, and of course Paragraph 82 will form a major pillar of the outline. For convenience sake, it may be helpful to repeat the previous paragraph from which 82 comes forth: “And [Holy] Tradition transmits in its entirety the Word of God which has been entrusted to the apostles by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit. It transmits it to the successors of the apostles so that, enlightened by the Spirit of truth, they may faithfully preserve, expound and spread it abroad by their preaching."
Paras. 81 and 82 describe the authoritative status of the Church as teacher and protector of Sacred Revelation until the end of time. When, in the phrase from the Nicene Creed of the Mass, we are called upon to state our belief in “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church” (“catholic” being a synonym for universal), this is what we are talking about—faith that the Church has received the Holy Spirit; that its first leaders, the Apostles, have accurately handed down the essence of Jesus’ revelation to their successors; that these successors enjoy the power of the Spirit to preach and accurately interpret Revelation and God’s until the Second Coming; and that this authority must be embraced in good faith by anyone who considers himself/herself Catholic.
The thing to bear in mind with today’s Catechism text is its context: a section devoted to outlining the sources of the Faith, the Church’s constitutional birthright, in other words. The Catechism is not going out of its way to flaunt the unique position of the Church, but rather to establish that a commitment to Jesus in the Roman Catholic Community is a faith well placed. Somewhere on this post I used the word “audacious” to describe how the claims of the Church must sound to an “outsider.” I suspect that for many Roman Catholics, too, this definition of the Church is an eye-opener, particularly as we live daily in the Church and the magnificence of our forest gets lost among the diseased trees.
The definitions of authority outlined in the Catechism today are offered with more restraint than some popes have understood them. Perhaps the most audacious (I like that word) claim of Church authority was made by Pope Boniface VIII in his encyclical Unam Sanctam (1302). Boniface claimed that the Church possessed authority over all matters, not just Revelation and Faith. He wrote: “Certainly, the one who denies that the temporal sword is in the power of Peter has not listened well to the word of the Lord commanding: 'Put up thy sword into thy scabbard' [Mt 26:52]. Both, therefore, are in the power of the Church, that is to say, the spiritual and the material sword, but the former is to be administered for the Church but the latter by the Church; the former in the hands of the priest; the latter by the hands of kings and soldiers, but at the will and sufferance of the priest. However, one sword ought to be subordinated to the other and temporal authority, subjected to spiritual power.” Boniface was under political and physical harassment from King Phillip IV of France at the time of composition, so his excesses can probably be excused somewhat.
While Roman Catholicism does through Tradition teach authoritatively on matters of morals (e.g., the killing of noncombatants in warfare) it does not claim special expertise outside of the realm of Scripture and Tradition, nor make extravagant claims in the public forum a la Boniface VIII. Vatican II reemphasized the power of Baptism/Confirmation in anointing the laity to bring Gospel values to their respective spheres of influence.
This does bring us to an intriguing question: who actually does exercise the authority of paras. 81 and 82? The easy answer is to look to the pope, successor of Peter. Tradition holds that the Bishop of Rome can speak for the Church infallibly in matters of faith and morals. However, the exercise of this authority has occurred only once since the doctrine of infallibility was formalized in 1870; in 1950 Pope Pius XII declared the Assumption of the Virgin Mary a doctrine of the Church.
Infallibility is not, then, the primary vehicle for the day-to-day governance of the Church. The correct term for on-going exercise of teaching authority is magisterium, from the Latin magister (teacher). Solemn exercise of the Church’s authority, such as the 1950 Declaration of the Assumption of the Virgin, would be called an “Extraordinary Exercise of the Magisterium.” More common to our lives is the ordinary exercise of the Magisterium, the daily discipline of faith and morals that bishops—in communion with the pope—exercise in their respective dioceses and conferences. The ordinary magisterium maintains unity of worship and mission. A rather common example is oversight of the sacramental rites and texts, such as approval of the English translation of the Mass that went into effect in 2011. The ordinary magisterial Church authority maintains a unity of essentials; the Catechism itself is an exercise of this authority.
There will be much discussion at the Café about a number of aspects of the Church’s Magisterium, and in several streams. Is there, for example, a hierarchy of importance in Church teaching, or put another way, are some doctrines and disciplines more essential to the core than others? This becomes a major question in the science of Catholic morality. Some conduct is clearly more offensive to God than others; I wrote recently of the Church’s teaching that all moral matters of sexuality are “of grave matter” and thus mortally sinful if committed (which led one of my professors to joke that, speaking of sexual mores, you may as well stretch a single into a double as far the state of your soul was concerned.)
Two major questions have endured and continue to do so since Vatican II: the circumstances of a Catholic who, in good faith, finds difficulty in compliance with some matter of the ordinary Magisterium (artificial birth control, for example) or that of a Catholic academic whose exploration of Scripture and Revelation brings her to new and contemporary expressions or understandings of the Deposit of Faith. I raise these questions here because everywhere I teach I am peppered with questions from adult catechists and teachers, and I think as a Church we are a lot better off to listen to the discontent that drives many of these inquiries.
Which reminds me: I am teaching all day Saturday near Melbourne, Florida: “Catechesis and Human Sexuality.” Talk about sticking your head into the lion’s mouth. I taught this course a month ago, and received an anonymous letter that I should have spent the whole day present John Paul II’s Theology of the Body series. As I would have written her if I had an address, that text is 25 years-old, and no less than the present pope saw fit to address sexual morality in a new encyclical in 2016. I wish I had infallibility.
81 "Sacred Scripture is the speech of God as it is put down in writing under the breath of the Holy Spirit."42
"And [Holy] Tradition transmits in its entirety the Word of God which has been entrusted to the apostles by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit. It transmits it to the successors of the apostles so that, enlightened by the Spirit of truth, they may faithfully preserve, expound and spread it abroad by their preaching."43
Paragraph 81 seems to be a good opportunity to introduce into our stream the present working guidelines of the Church on the interpretation of Sacred Scripture. On April 21, 1964, the Pontifical Biblical Commission issued The Historicity of the Gospels, though its principles can be applied to nearly all aspects of the Biblical Canon. This document was released independently by the PBC during the Council and is not considered a Vatican II document, though the essence of its contents is seen throughout conciliar documents. The PBC’s work is indicative of the flowering of academic theology prior to the Council. The more revolutionary of teachings to come from the Council reflect at least a century of groundwork, most of it in Europe. With a few exceptions, the United States was not an active party, theologically speaking, in the scholarship renewal of other parts of the world.
I am including a link to The Historicity of the Gospels from EWTN’s site; the Vatican document service does not currently provide the text on-line in English. I am not recommending that you drop everything right now and read it, but you may want to hold on to the document, particularly if you are an educator/catechist. The 1964 PBC document attempts to mend catechetical rifts that would become hotly contested here in the U.S. after the Council, notably the argument fought in many an adult education class over the nature of the Scriptures as literal historical sources or as symbolic theological texts.
Para. 81 describes Sacred Scripture as “the speech of God as it is put down in writing under the breath of the Holy Spirit.” The entire paragraph (through footnotes 42 and 43) is attributed to Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, but Vatican II in turn borrowed this terminology from the fourth session of the Council of Trent (1545-1563). Trent, you may recall, was the Catholic response to the Protestant Reformation, which had begun with the cry of sola scriptura, or the text of the Bible without embellishment. Catholicism was accused of being the great embellisher through its assertion of Tradition, which para. 81 refers to as the transmitter of the Word of God in its entirety.
Explaining the nature of Revelation is a challenge. Last week I cited a source which defined Tradition as both the act of passing along our Apostolic roots and the content of what is passed along. The challenge to the Church from Apostolic times has been the designation of those entrusted to nurture and care for the Tradition, what we might refer to as legitimate Church leaders, and the certification of the truths passed along. In the first century of the Church both facets of Tradition were fluid, in the formative stages. Church communities and local bishops determined that the narrative of Jesus’ life and its saving potential was better expressed in a Gospel by Mark than in a purported Gospel of Thomas. A similar process was unfolding in terms of authorized leadership. It is not precisely clear who celebrated Eucharist in the earliest times—first and second century literature mentions traveling prophets, heads of households, etc. St. Irenaeus (d. 202 AD) is often credited with establishing the tradition of strong local bishops.
It goes without saying that the Church of 2017 is more complex in every sense than the Church of Irenaeus’ day, though it is the same Church. It also goes without saying that the Church has made many decisions as to what should be contained in the body of Tradition. Doctrines of Infallibility, the Immaculate Conception, and the Assumption of Mary are very recent in our history, and at some points of history were considered questionable. In the late 1300’s the Dominicans came under fire at the University of Paris for teaching that the Immaculate Conception of Mary was unnecessary. In the early centuries of the Church the first feast of Mary was her Dormition (dormire in Latin, “to sleep”); the first accounts of an Assumption appear well into the Church’s history, and the doctrine was declared only in 1950.
The second portion of para. 81 defines an intimate connection between the Scripture and Tradition that is dynamic and unfolding. The New Testament is not a museum piece, but a living entity in time as it is preached around the world. It is important to underscore this dynamic between Scripture and Tradition because without this understanding, the early Protestants would be right in their assertions that Catholicism has built for itself an entire system of life and faith that goes much farther than God’s Word ever intended.
It may be useful here to bring up the example of Pope Francis. He is the living embodiment of Tradition in our time—in communion with the bishops of the Church and all the faithful. His tenure is remarkable in several senses: in what he teaches, and how he teaches. The controversies raised by several churchmen over the pope’s pastoral approach to the divorced and remarried is probably well known and need not be repeated here. But historians will later pay more attention to how he taught. I have read only a portion of Amoris Laetitia, but I was struck by Pope Francis’ narrative, almost story-telling, style which begins from the experiences of the faith and clergy drawn from the two synod meetings of 2014 and 2015. He proceeds to trace the holiness and importance of the family through a substantial review of biblical instances. He proceeds to a social analysis of the problems facing modern families, incorporating economic and other concerns from his previous Laudato Si. He develops a marital/familial spirituality based upon Jesus Christ. He integrates Pope Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae and earlier teaching into the thrust of his message. He discusses the life of the family vis-à-vis the Church. He devotes a full section to reflections on love.
When I read this text for the first time, I was acutely aware that no pope in my recollection had taught in such a fashion before. The propositional elaborations of eternal truths—scholasticism—was being replaced by a teaching narrative in which the Bible, history, and human experience were woven together in the format described in para. 81. Francis, in his holy office, protects Tradition while at the same time expanding it in a new metaphor. He is meeting his vocation, his patrimony of Tradition, to “faithfully preserve, expound and spread it abroad by [his] preaching."