A Proper Catholic Understanding of Sacred Tradition and Ecclesiastical Customs

Catholic Apologetics #20

On May 23rd, Pope Francis told the participants who had gathered for the 21st general assembly of Caritas Internationalis: “It is a mistake for the Church to try to hold onto old traditions or to have clear answers for everything.”[i] Such a statement is contrary to the very foundation of the Church which is built on the two pillars of Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition. On the contrary, as expressed by Gustav Mahler, the famous Austrian composer, “Tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire.”

Pope Francis’ troubling remarks could be interpreted in two ways. First, his claim could be used by non-Catholic heretics who seek to attack the necessity of Sacred Tradition, thus advancing the Protestant error of Sola Scriptura, the false notion that the Scriptures alone are the source of Divine Revelation. Secondly, such remarks could be attacking not Sacred Tradition but the worthwhile and time-honored customs of fellow Catholics, which although they are not a part of the Deposit of the Faith, are still important connections to our ancestors in the Faith.

Scripture and Tradition are the two means of Divine Revelation. 

As the book My Catholic Faith succinctly summarizes: “Divine Revelation comes down to us by two means: through Holy Scripture, written down under divine inspiration, and through Tradition, handed down orally from Apostolic times.” The Church is founded upon these pillars.

Catholics do not and should not neglect the Scriptures as both the Scriptures and Apostolic Tradition are on the same level of authority. Yet, some falsely believe that the Church discourages its members from reading the Scriptures. This is false. Pope Pius XII in his 1943 encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu encouraged Catholics to read and study the Bible:

“Inspired by the Divine Spirit, the Sacred Writers composed those books, which God, in His paternal charity towards the human race, deigned to bestow on them in order ‘to teach, to reprove, to correct, to instruct in justice: that the man of God may be perfect, furnished to every good work.’ This Heaven-sent treasure Holy Church considers as the most precious source of doctrine on faith and morals. No wonder therefore that, as she received it intact from the hands of the Apostles, so she kept it with all care, defended it from every false and perverse interpretation and used it diligently as an instrument for securing the eternal salvation of souls, as almost countless documents in every age strikingly bear witness.” (Pope Pius XII, 1943)

Yet, St. Paul in writing to the members of the Church in Thessalonica urged them to remember the traditions of the Church: “Therefore, brethren, stand fast; and hold the traditions which you have learned, whether by word, or by our epistle” (Second Epistle to the Thessalonians, 2:14). In his commentary on the Scriptures, Bishop Richard Challoner comments on this verse, stating: “See here that the unwritten traditions are no less to be received than their epistles.” The very history of the Holy Bible’s formation not only underscores the importance of the Catholic Church as God’s established religion but also illustrates the fundamental role of Tradition in the determination of which Books were to be included in the Canon of Sacred Scripture.[ii]

Time Honored Ecclesiastical Tradition Connects Us with the Past

While time honored customs are not on the same level as Sacred Tradition, as taught by the Apostles themselves, such ancient traditions are not to be abandoned lightly, merely in favor of novelty.  In a popular 1941 recording of the Traditional Mass narrated by Archbishop Fulton Sheen that can be viewed on YouTube, the Archbishop remarks, “It is a long established principle of the Church never to completely drop from Her public worship any symbol, ceremony, object, or prayer which once occupied a place in that worship.”

From the vestments at Mass, the feast days we celebrate, and the Divine Office arrangement, to the gestures we make, the food we eat on holidays, and the like, these customs are all connections with our ancestors in the Faith. In the years since the Second Vatican Council, some call these traditions as “small t” traditions to distinguish them from the level of Sacred Tradition which is on the same level of Scripture. However, in so doing, those who use this qualifier at least inadvertently diminish the importance of customs and seem to assert that such ecclesiastical customs could be simply dropped tomorrow without issue. This too is false.

The view of Pope Francis, which has been shared by others in these years of the Crisis in the Church, seems to be that ecclesiastical traditions are entirely changeable, and such a view has led to dangerous modifications in Catholic practices, liturgy, and disciplines. In fact, this novelty regarding ecclesiastical traditions has led to an embracing of novelty which had been unheard of in the Church before the 1960s.

This view further contradicts Pope St. Pius X’s Motu Proprio Sacrorum antistitum (an oath taken by all priests prior to the Council), Pope Gregory XVI’s Mirari Vos, the Fourth Anathema of the Second Ecumenical Council of Nicaea, the teaching of the First Vatican Council, especially the document Pastor Aeternus, and the “Fourth Anathema of the Second Ecumenical Council of Nicaea” which reads, “If anyone rejects any written or unwritten Tradition of the Church, let him be anathema.”

Ecclesiastical traditions can surely change over time unlike the Traditions which are on the level of Divine Revelation, but they must do so only organically and never if the changes harm souls, lead to sin, or damage the understanding of the Faith.

Indeed, the life of a Catholic is one of tradition not because we are luddites seeking to preserve the ashes of a past but rather because we keep the fire of faith burning in the hearts of the faithful, who through tradition have a connection not only with their parents and grandparents but with centuries of our ancestors who have preceded us in the life-saving Faith. Let us pray for Pope Francis as he surely needs our prayers.





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