July 15, 2013

So what is Tradition, anyway?

Within Catholic circles, the word "Tradition" (note the capital "t") gets thrown around more than a frisbee. It invokes all kinds of feelings: from an old, crusty manuscript to an honorable acceptance ritual. It is used as a rallying cry to garner support for older practices falling out of use, as a certificate with which we authenticate various views on a doctrine, and as a vague admonition towards all things modern and charismatic. And yet, amid all this usage, a technically accurate and truly invigorating definition is missing. Instead of a rugged, hardened, and clear understanding of what tradition is and isn't, we're left with a general idea of the kinds of things which qualify as traditional. Instead of being able to point with analogical, technical, and spiritual clarity toward the reality which is the Church's tradition, we approximate what sorts of things might be included.

This problem is understandable. The three parts of God's revelation to us, Magisterium, Scripture, and Tradition, are not all equally accessible. Scripture is easy to see and define: it's the Bible (the question of how to read and interpret aside: we at the very least know where to look when someone says "Scripture"). Magisterium is also rather easy: it's the dogmatic and clear statements of the Pope or the bishops in union with him, using formulaic language to communicate infallible dogma. These things are easy to see and check against. Does the Bible really say "Love your neighbor as yourself?" You can go and look. Did Paul VI really condemn the use of artificial contraceptives? You can go and read Humanae Vitae. These are relatively clear. Tradition, on the other hand, is not so. A general idea is easy, but any particular application becomes more and more difficult. We can say that tradition, generally, means the collective thinking of the Church across the centuries. It means what Catholics have "always and everywhere" (so to speak) held to be true. This definition is accurate, and communicates all those great feelings of continuity, antiquity, and wisdom I mentioned earlier. Unfortunately, it also makes it impossible to go and look to see whether "abortion" (or any other currently debated subject) is favorably or unfavorably treated by the "tradition."

This problem arises because there is no universal text, no single collected summary, and no comprehensive list of what the tradition does and does not say. This lack of a go-to text is caused by various things, including language barriers, manuscript problems, and the simple fact that there are way, way, too many pieces of paper with words written on them by Catholics. In fact, there is so much writing by Catholics that no one could ever read them all. So, if you cannot read everything, how can you decide what the Catholic tradition is, and what it says? Further, among things written by Catholics, how many are "authentically" Catholic, and carry the Truth in some aspect of its fullness within them? How can we tell which writings are truly traditional, and which are merely old?

Three descriptors I came across in my study can help more adequately describe the characteristics of writings which authentically belong to the Catholic tradition. A bit about the function of these descriptors: they are not some sort of "litmus test" for orthodoxy. These are not the measure by which documents, authors, or ideas should be judged. Rather, they point to an authentically Catholic ethos in which true Tradition is made.

The first is that Tradition is cumulative. This descriptor, at face value, doesn't say a whole lot. Tradition builds over time. For example, what I am currently saying, int his post, accumulates into one collective unit with what John Paul II, Louis de Montfort, Thomas Aquinas, Augustine, and the Apostles said. Tradition is a single entity, and not a collection of different entities. Although this sounds simple at face value, it has far-reaching implications. Each theologian does not to build from scratch a system all his own. There is no scholastic tradition separate from the monastic and mendicant traditions: rather, all thought which is truly Catholic thought builds into one, cohesive, coherent, and united whole. This statement is a crushing blow to relativism: instead of a bunch of crazy people individually coming up with a way to talk about their God experience, we have a united Truth about who God is, revealed through the ages by many different voices, who all saw the same thing. As a Catholic, first only as a baptized member, but also second as a theologian, I find it comforting to know that I am not alone in my thoughts and experience of God. Rather, my experience, which I talk about here, is added to the cumulative Tradition of God's Church.

The second is that Tradition is explanatory. By looking to Tradition, the cumulative writings of those before us, we can truly learn about our faith. The writings of ages past are not inaccessible, locked away irrevocably by a language or time barrier. Instead, we have access to the insights and faith experience of saints, martyrs, doctors, and popes of ages past. Their experiences and wisdom are truly and efficaciously communicated through Tradition. Our understanding of the Catholic dogma is not isolated from Augustine, Aquinas, and Bonaventure. Because the Holy Spirit protects the transmission of truth, we are able to access their insights, and the Truth of the Catholic faith is united across the centuries. The ideas of Jesus are preserved to the present day by the explanatory nature of Tradition.

The third, and final, is that Tradition is communal. This descriptor has a twofold meaning. First, it means that the Tradition of the Church unites Catholics across time and space into the same Church by means of one shared creed. This is the most obvious sense of communal, and ties in to the explanatory nature of Tradition. The second meaning of the Tradition's communal nature is that, in order to be interpreted correctly, Tradition must be read in the context of Catholic community. The mass, confession, the lives of the Saints, the communal prayer of the Office, and the rhythm of the Church year make possible, by the ethos they create, the frame of mind which can accurately interpret the Tradition. This is an appropriate point to make on St. Bonaventure's feast day: he made it very clear through his life and writing that only the person of prayer and holiness could accurately write theology. In other words, it is only possible to access what the Tradition truly means by entering wholeheartedly into the Catholic community.

Hopefully, this general discussion and look at three different aspects of Tradition has helped. My goal here, again, was not to provide a final, conclusive, and unilateral definition of Tradition, by which we might exclude those who disagree. Rather, my intention was to paint a loving picture of the organic and living Tradition of the Catholic Church, from which I learn my own faith, and to which I hope to contribute. If I did my job right, the next time you pick up a work of the Fathers, or even the National Catholic Register, you'll think about it in this context: of a cumulative, explanatory, and communal work, inspired by the Holy Spirit, which leads the entire Church community toward the Truth of God.



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