Catholic Update

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Tradition in the Catholic Church:
Why It's Still Important

By Monika K. Hellwig

If you enjoyed Fiddler on the Roof as much and as often as I did, then the song —Tradition! Tradition!— probably rings in your ears every time you see a title with the word in it.

I suppose the reason we all love Fiddler on the Roof so much is that it is all so true—about ourselves. The constant concern with tradition in the play was due precisely to the fact that the Tradition and traditions of the Russian Jewish village seemed to be breaking down. People felt all —at sixes and sevens,— not knowing anymore what must give and what must hold. Realizing that the winds of change were blowing through their village and that they had to leave it, they must have wondered whether their Jewish community could survive at all.

It often seems like that in the Catholic Church since Vatican II. A lot of my friends are asking: —Should you make or persuade your children to go to Confession? Should you insist on your teenagers going to Mass? With the Lenten fast no longer obligatory, is there any point in observing it? How about meatless Fridays? They were so important before; do they suddenly not matter? Why don—t we say the rosary or have Benediction anymore? Shouldn—t we restore these traditions? Why have so many things that somehow —made— us Catholic and made us feel at home been allowed to drop by the wayside?—

I have another friend whose experience is a bit different. When some traditions started changing, she felt an initial exhilaration—but then panic. Her story goes something like this: —I used to follow all our Church—s traditions because it never occurred to me not to. Then things began changing in the church building, in the Mass, in the calendar, in the children—s religious instruction, in the rules. That was really the first time it occurred to me that things could change in the Church the way they change everywhere else.

—I felt sort of liberated. I began to make up my own mind about some things. I found myself dropping certain practices like the Morning Offering, family grace, rosary, Friday abstinence, monthly confession. It seemed logical. It seemed more authentic. It seemed right—each time, with each thing. But there came a point when I had to say, —Hey, wait a minute. How much more can I drop without really losing Catholicism? Help! Help!— I also began to ask in some desperation: —Where do we.go from here? Do we eventually turn into Protestants and say that only Scripture is important, and not Tradition?—

I suppose we all go through some form of anguish over the issue of Tradition—an indication of its ongoing importance in Catholic life. The Church has always undergone a struggle in trying to protect its rich heritage at the same time it must adapt to the changing times. Perhaps a better understanding of Tradition can allay some of the anguish.

As you may have already noticed, we are spelling tradition in this article both with a capital —T— and a small —t.— Tradition with a capital —T— refers to those elements of Tradition that cannot be abandoned and are binding for Catholics, such as our belief that Jesus is both human and divine, our loyalty to the Pope as Vicar of Christ and our celebration of the Eucharist as the center of Christian life. Small —t— traditions, on the other hand, include much that may be transitory, for example, certain Holy Days and devotions, rules of fast and abstinence, kneeling and standing in church. Both kinds of tradition, however, refer to Catholic beliefs and practices passed on from generation to generation.

Scripture and Tradition

The Protestants have something very important to teach us. They have been trying to tell us something for 400 years, and at Vatican II we finally began to listen to them. What they wanted to say can be put this way: To know what is helpful in our Christian traditions built up over the ages and what is really a hindrance to the Christian life, we must constantly look at all we do in the light of God—s Word in Scripture. Because we were so busy arguing with them in the 16th century, we did not really hear what they had to say—and they did not really hear us. After 400 years we can discuss it better and learn a great deal from each other.

The Catholic understanding of Tradition, what it is and how it comes to regulate our changing life and understanding, really goes back to Scripture, which actually supports the idea of Tradition. For example, the Gospels tell us that Jesus himself was sometimes caught in the argument between the Pharisees and Sadducees. The main difference between the two parties was that the Sadducees wanted to restrict beliefs and rules to what was explicitly written in the Hebrew Scriptures, while the Pharisees held themselves bound by the cumulative wisdom of the ages that had been gathered in the Tradition. On this issue, Jesus took sides very emphatically with the Pharisees against the Sadducees. For instance, in the Gospel of Matthew (22:23-33) he supports the Pharisees— traditional teaching of the resurrection of the dead.

Paul, in his writings (1 Corinthians 11:23, for example), states very forcefully that he is —handing on— what was —handed on— to him. This —handing on— is a term with a special meaning in the Jewish teaching of the time. It translates into Latin as traditio, from which our English word tradition comes. Paul is evidently convinced that the community of believers has a strong sense about what is important enough to be passed on to the next generation of believers. The Holy Spirit, he believes, will help the community understand what in its experience and customs—and in its vision of the redemption—should really be held on to. In fact, Paul carefully distinguishes between what he offers as his own opinion and what he sees to be the Church Tradition handed on to him.

How to Determine Our Authentic Tradition

From earliest times Christians have asked how they might know whether they were following the right interpretation of the teaching of Jesus. Tradition, the —handing on,— came to have the same special meaning for them as it had and continues to have for the Jews. St. lrenaeus in the second century told the people of his diocese not to worry about preachers from certain sects who were trying to tell them that the message of Jesus had a hidden and secret meaning. Instead, he assured them, they could assume that what was publicly taught and handed down in the whole community of the faithful was what was important and central in the Church—s Tradition. He said they could always know what that was because on these essential matters all the local communities were agreed and all their bishops vouched for it.

Three centuries later, the monk and theologian St. Vincent of Lerins had to consider this question again: How am I to know what is the true Tradition that I should follow? He answers that the true Tradition is that which has been held always, everywhere and by all.

But many matters do not fall into that category—or at least it—s not always clear that they do. Consider, for example, the Assumption of Mary, the ordination of women or certain questions about the nature of Christ. How do I discover the mind of Christ then?

In such situations, one goes to the most reliable —authorities,— namely to those who ought to understand what is at stake and ought to be conscientious in following the truth—the leaders and teachers of the Church. That is why we have councils of the Church like Vatican II. Such councils do not simply pass on dogmas and regulations from the past. They also deal with new issues. But they try to resolve new issues in continuity with the best understanding and the best customs from the past. Sometimes that involves some experimenting.

The Church Is Like the Family

I believe this matter of experimentation is the point at which many of us at first feel liberated and later begin to panic a bit. Tradition does involve experimenting because like any living thing it grows and changes, but this growth must be in continuity with the past. We see this kind of growth-with-continuity in a healthy family where relations between spouses and between parents and children and the wider circle of relatives keep changing according to ages and personal maturity and changing circumstances. And yet this unfolding takes place without breaking the constant commitment the family members have toward each other. The household might be organized, furnished and arranged differently—e.g., breakable items put out of reach or not—depending on the different stages of the children—s life. Some of the changes will be abrupt, some so slow one barely notices them. Some will be decided by family discussion of the matter and with unanimous consent, while others may be resolved only with conflict—and yet others will just somehow happen.

That, I think, is what the Church is like. That is how its customs and traditions grow and change. If you care about belonging, the memories matter to you—memories of the saints, the heroes and heroines of our tradition; the memories of great prayers that have shaped Christian imagination and understanding such as the Stations of the Cross, the mysteries of the Rosary, the Angelus; memories also of the shape of Catholic life, such as the expectation of Advent, the earnestness of Lent and solemnity of Holy Week and the colorful parade of so many feast days, meatless Fridays, Saturday confessions and dressing up for the family expedition to Sunday Mass. These and so many more personal memories linger with us.

One can respond to the memories in different ways when times change and needs change and we all grow older and more sophisticated. Today Catholics are sometimes tempted to be ashamed of the piety and customs of their childhood, because they seem naive and exaggerated and express sentiments not acceptable in our society today and in language that seems to us too sentimental. This seems sad—like being ashamed to have people meet your immigrant grandfather because he speaks English badly and embraces everybody.

Then again some Catholics have a fear that if we don—t stick with the customs with which we grew up we—ll end by losing the faith. So they want to hold on to everything without asking whether a given custom is something essential or something quite trivial, whether it is something that still helps or something that has begun to hinder. To cling blindly to past customs in this way is to ask for trouble just as parents do who never allow their children to grow up. They refer to their 18-year-old habitually as —our baby— and try to run their children—s lives even after these are married and have children of their own.

But there is a third way to respond. And that is to keep on growing up, to cherish all the memories and to continue doing what helps while cautiously modifying or dropping what does not help. In most families, family photographs are not thrown away, and the best toys and children—s books are kept for one—s own children, and the family celebration of Christmas and birthdays is never outgrown. Yet, there are also times when a family must be ready to adapt to new situations.

More Personal Responsibility and Care

What this involves in the Church is a greater sense of responsible personal involvement. For instance, when Friday abstinence was no longer an obligation many of us reacted as though we had now been commanded to eat meat on Fridays. When the Lenten fast was no longer an obligation many of us read the change as though we had been told it was wrong and outmoded to fast in Lent. Many of my more thoughtful friends have tried it both ways and have quietly returned to the Friday and Lenten observance on a voluntary basis. They experimented, reflected and concluded that what was ineffectual about the old system was not the observance but the fact that people had been forced into it by fear. Actually if we look at the documents that brought in such changes we find that they never simply reversed the Church—s teaching. They continued to affirm past values while attempting to modify and adapt them to the present situation.

To participate with greater responsibility in either protecting or —experimenting— with a given tradition, we need to care deeply about the Church—about our participation in the whole project of the Redemption. And we need to care about doing it with this particular community of Christians which we call Catholic. I believe that is why many Protestant groups who have no theology of Tradition (that is, of a handing on of customs and beliefs that are binding) nevertheless are very loyal to the central traditions of their Churches. They know very well what has been taught and done in the community and they follow it faithfully and with a certain enthusiasm.

If we really care deeply about our community and its goals and ideals and life together, we have a certain freedom to use our own judgment because then we have a —feel— for what is precious. We normally do not allow strangers to clear out our attic and decide what is to be kept and what thrown out. People who care and are at home in the Catholic community can safely exercise a great deal of freedom in adapting their prayer and observances.

However, it seems to me that being at home in the Catholic community means not only a happy relationship to the Church and Catholic life as we have personally known it in our own time and place. To be Catholic is to be concerned with the whole breadth of the universal Church. To be at home in it means taking the trouble to know something of the total, overall history of our customs and beliefs, our prayers and observances, our spiritual movements and our institutional structures.

Community Means Compromise

Knowing the history and the whole picture, at least in a general sort of way, helps with the other side of the problem that many Catholics feel today. Often we are troubled not so much by things that have changed as by things that don—t seem likely to change in spite of evident need. Many people, for instance, felt very restless when the change to Communion in the hand was slow in coming. Many find it intolerable that the new rite of the Sacrament of Penance in its three forms is not really being implemented yet and that it does not seem possible in most cases to use the rite for general absolution. The difficulty lies in the expectation and understanding and preferences of people in the Church who do not exactly share our experiences. That happens in families too, and our experience here tells us that in order to stay together, we shall have to make some compromises. G.K. Chesterton may have had something like this in mind when he said, —If it is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.—

Perhaps the keenest tension is felt by those who are convinced that it is necessary and urgent in our times to open the priesthood to married men and women, or by those who sense the urgency of a more nuanced position on contraception, or by those others who feel that time is running out for a more explicit and decisive stance on many grave issues of social justice. Such people are overwhelmed with frustration when they hear, —The Church has always done it this way,— —There is no precedent for such a thing,— —We have no tradition to that effect— and so forth.

Oddly enough, it is in these most acutely frustrating situations that the term Tradition (with that capital —T— which means it is obligatory) is most frequently and badly misused. Often when a speaker says, —We have no precedent for this in our Tradition,— the speaker simply means that he cannot remember such an instance or that Church history has not recorded a single example.

The Real Meaning of Tradition

This is not what is meant by Tradition, however. Something becomes part of our Catholic Tradition when the community of the faithful has 1) reflected on its own experience, 2) made a careful and comprehensive discernment about it and 3) come to an agreement that a certain way of worship, of formulating doctrine, of organizing Church life or of regulating moral behavior ought to be the pattern handed down from generation to generation. But even this does not rule out all further modification.

Certainly, Tradition cannot be invoked about issues which are simply beyond the understanding and cultural scope of earlier historic periods. To be a little frivolous, one cannot say that Tradition forbids the ordaining of people who wear contact lenses or have had open heart surgery because in all these centuries we have never done such a thing. Nor could one say that Tradition forbids the TV broadcasting of liturgies because the solid testimony of 19 centuries shows that it was never done.

In general, the argument that —we have never done it and therefore it should not be done— is an argument that goes counter to the Catholic understanding of Tradition. According to Catholic understanding, Tradition implies change in continuity with the past. Both elements are essential. If there is no room for adaptation and growth, we are not talking about Tradition but about repetition. If there is no concern with continuity, that is, with loyalty to the goals and ideals and tasks of the community as we learn it from its history, then we are not speaking of Tradition but of fads and fashion and disorientation. The true argument from Tradition is this: The lessons of our history suggest that if we do thus and so we shall be moving towards our goal. Or we can put it this way: Our history shows that the Church as a living community has already thought through this issue and made a definitive discernment about it which still seems to hold good under our present circumstances.

—The Sabbath Was Made for Man—

The solution to any of our problems with Tradition, whether we are worried because too much is changing or because not enough is changing, seems to lie not in subtle arguments to solve a particular case but in the whole attitude that we bring to our lives in the Church together. With a clear eye on the goal of salvation—which is always the gift of God to our need and poverty—we ought to have a certain sense of —freedom in constraint.— To live with others always means to accept some limits. To strive for real community always means to make many compromises of personal preferences.

In any case, Tradition is not an end in itself. —The Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath— (Mark 2:27), said Jesus when the Pharisees accused him of breaking certain traditional rules that were in conflict with legitimate human needs. We could say the same about our own Tradition, and certainly about all the many little traditions that are not binding but somehow cumulatively make up the context of being Catholic. They are there to help, and when they hinder they can peacefully be modified or relinquished for the sake of the goal.

When we, who are the followers of Jesus and therefore members of his Church, look at the example of Jesus himself, the questions about particular usages and customs and formulations and about the possibilities of change within the structure of the Church seem much less threatening. In the light of Jesus himself, everything becomes so much simpler and calmer and more spontaneous.

If we turned to Jesus in person with some troubling question about Communion in the hand, or First Penance before First Communion, or whether we should still have the Novena of Grace and the statues in the Church, he would probably dispel much of our anguish. Would he not perhaps laugh and take us by the hand into the countryside to tell a story about the providence of God in nature and peasant life—the birds of the air and the flowers in the fields? Would he not assure us that if we keep his essential goals in mind and —seek first the Kingdom of Heaven— these concerns will fall into proper perspective?

Monika K. Hellwig is professor of theology at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. Her most recent book is Understanding Catholicism (Paulist Press). She is presently preparing a book on the Sacrament of Penance, Sign of Reconciliation and Conversion (to be published by Michael Glazier, Inc.). She is the mother of three children.


A Growing Tradition

Tradition is expressed in (and grows from) the Church—s creeds, the records of the Church—s liturgy, the writings of the great teachers, the decrees of popes and councils, the prayer and faith of the people....

Tradition develops in the sense that the Church probes more deeply into the meaning of all that has been handed on. The Holy Spirit guides its growth and explanation. Each age must express the age-old Tradition of the Church in the forms of its day. The essentials remain, the application and form may change.

The Church is a living organism; in each generation, it must respond to God through the language, culture, problems and opportunities of its own day. The Church remembers its experience and listens to the living Word of Jesus in the Bible and is thus led by the Spirit to show Christ to the world.

Leonard Foley, O.F.M.
Believing in Jesus



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