Catholic Tradition

Many protestants and Christian sects reject Catholic Tradition but with time some of them have admitted some of the traditions – such as Lutherans, Episcopalians and Evangelicals. They are all governed by a certain supreme authority – The Queen of England is the head of the Anglican Church, the King of Prussia was at the head of the Reformed Lutherans, and there is scarcely a non-Catholic denomination in which some sort of ‘board of directors’ is not vested with a supreme authority in its administration. Many denominations reject all Catholic Traditions on the grounds that they are subject to corruption. When any doctrine, they claim, is carried on for generations – from father to son – necessarily so many legends and myths arise that little truth is left.

This is an affirmation on their part that the Church is not infallible. What, according to them, happened to the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete? Had they believed that the Church is infallible, they would not have forgotten so soon the assistance promised to the Church by Christ.

They forgot that, strictly speaking, all Revelation, whether contained in the Scriptures or in other documents, on monuments, on the walls of the catacombs, in usages, and so on, were all written down and transmitted to posterity. The Apostles wrote that part of Revelation which is contained in the Scriptures, while their disciples wrote what the Apostles preached, taught or instituted in the Church, but which had not been written by the Apostles.

It is a mistake to speak only of an oral tradition carried on from generation to generation through the help of word of mouth. For Tradition, in the first place, is not ‘oral’ in the sense that it is maintained and propagated ‘only’ through man’s lips. It is oral in the sense that in the beginning it was received by the Faithful from the Apostles themselves, not in writing, but through their preaching, teaching or institutions, established in the Church by the same Apostles. What the apostles did not write, but preached, taught or instituted, was afterwards written by their immediate disciples, and sometimes by the disciples of these immediate Apostolic disciples (the Church Fathers). Therefore Tradition is ‘oral’ not in the sense that it was never written, but in the sense that ‘what in the beginning was not written’ by the inspired authors was written ‘afterwards’ by their disciples. What the disciples heard or were taught by the Apostles and not committed to the Scriptures, they afterwards laid down in writing. Tradition is ‘oral’ as distinguished from that part of Revelation which was written by the Apostles – namely, Scripture. For what the Apostolic disciples afterwards wrote, as heard, learned or as instituted by the Apostles, is what we call, properly speaking, Tradition.

The Apostles, who were the ‘ancients’ and legislators of the Church, instituted certain days of the week or certain seasons of the year as time of penance, of joy or of rest, to be observed by all. Abstinence from meat on Friday, fasting in Lent, the Sunday observance instead of Saturday, Easter Joys, the ceremonies of Holy Mass, etc., were instituted by the Apostles as a help to the Christian to save his soul and as an ornament to divine worship. All these things were a part of the routine of the Church. All accepted them as a matter of course and as a part of the daily life of the Church. Hence, there was no necessity on their part to write them down – they preached and taught the Faithful what they must do as members of the Church of Jesus Christ. It was therefore natural that what the Apostles did not write, their disciples, in order to refresh their memories, as well as to transmit it to other generations, did write,  according to the warning of St. Paul, ‘to teach others also’ (2 Tim 2:2). ‘Hold the traditions, which you have learned, whether by word, or by our epistle’ (2 Thess 2:14).

Traditions, therefore, according to St. Paul, are of two kinds, written and unwritten. The written are the Scriptures, because tradition means anything that is delivered or transmitted to others. In this case, the Scriptures are traditions, although improperly so called. The unwritten are all those other Traditions which are not contained in the Scriptures, but which, as the Apostle says, his disciples received through his preaching. They are properly called ‘Traditions’.

As both kinds of Traditions – received, as the Apostle says, ‘through my preaching’ (properly called Traditions) ‘and through my Epistle’ (The Scriptures, improperly called Traditions) – come to us from the Apostles, both are to be accepted, both are to be believed, both must be lived up to because, according to the command of the Apostle, we must hold both.

The written Traditions, or the Scriptures, contain the greater part of Revelation. But it is not less true that what the Apostles preached, taught or instituted in the Church, but did not write, are a very important part of the Deposit of Faith. They were written by their disciples.

Therefore, the objection collapses, that Traditions, being oral, become corrupted in the course of time. Tradition, strictly speaking, is not oral. It was only such in its first proclamation. All Traditions have been written, if not by the Apostles, certainly by the  Church. As pastors and doctors, or as writers of the Church, the first Christians wrote what they heard or learned from the Apostles, or what was practiced in the Church. They wrote not as inspired writers, but simply as common teachers or believers who had nothing else in view but to defend and protect the Deposit of Faith. God, in His Providence, induced those men to write, to be witnesses of that Faith which is always old and always new, feeble and still strong. Although written in the documents of old, Tradition is still better written in the hearts of the Faithful and deeply engraved in the religious practices and belief of the Church.

What a presumption it was on the part of the Protestant Reformers (and still is on the part of many Christian denominations and sects) to claim that they knew better than the Fathers what the government and doctrine of the Church had been during the first three centuries! The Fathers were men of great learning and piety. They enlightened the Church and glorified the Faith with their great works. They were the great men of their times, writing first-hand about their contemporaries. And they testify that, besides the Scriptures, which they saved from oblivion and total loss, there is also in the Church another ‘Rule of Faith’ and that is the Church herself, to which Christ and the Apostles delivered the Deposit of Faith.

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16 Responses to “Catholic Tradition”


  1. 1 Karinann May 19, 2010 at 17:12

    Gabriella,
    Thank you for this. Your post demonstrates how Scripture and Sacred Tradition work together to give us the fullness and richness of our faith.
    God Bless!

  2. 2 Marcie May 19, 2010 at 19:35

    Exactly so, Karinann! Even though the Bible is the inerrant Word of God, it is not the only guiding rule of faith. Both the Bible and Apostolic Tradition are the Word of God. Both are important sources for the Faith. The Catholic Church being the Church founded by Christ preserves both from corruption and uses both to teach God’s Word with guidance from the Holy Spirit (Matt 28:16-20; John 16:12-15).

  3. 3 churchmouse May 19, 2010 at 21:11

    The Reformers, particularly Calvin and Luther, cited doctors of the Church extensively in their writings. So, I’m not sure I understand.

    They claimed that the Catholic Church fell away from this early post-Apostolic tradition through various activities which occurred at the time of the Reformation (e.g. the clergy’s sale of indulgences and infrequent reception of Holy Communion by Catholics — once or twice a year). So, it was largely the clergy of their day to whom the Reformers objected.

    They had hoped for an internal Reformation but, seeing that wasn’t possible, separated from the Catholic Church.

    Today, the most common Protestant objection to the Catholic Church revolves around Sola Scriptura, which Calvinists (mainly orthodox Presbyterians) believe is the principal determinant of an orthodox Christian faith. In their eyes, the church which deviates the most from this is the Catholic Church.

    No offence meant, but there have been longstanding debates online about this between Catholics and Calvinists.

    It is interesting that Calvinists actually call themselves Catholics — believing they have recaptured the true Catholic faith from the New Testament through to the first few centuries of the Church.

    Whatever one wishes to think, the primary denominations emanating from the Reformation have not in any way discounted the first few centuries or so of the Christian Church or Church doctors. In fact, they have borrowed from this period and these documents extensively in putting forward a case for a return — Reformation — to the Church of this period.

    Thanks, Gabriella, for the opportunity of a rebuttal. :)

  4. 4 andrea May 19, 2010 at 21:58

    Secondo me,però, lutero e i luterani sono,allo stato dei fatti,due cose diverse. Da un punto di vista storico si potrebbe dire che la figura di lutero,grande personaggio, sia stata screditata fin da subito,al di là delle teorie o pensieri teologici,dalle potentissime autorità ecclesiastiche del tempo. Minacciato di morte e perseguitato fino alla disperazione, da una parte,perchè pericolo vivente per le casse della corte papale dell’epoca,dall’altra protetto dai principi tedeschi,che vedevano in lui l’occasione per non mandare più montagne e montagne di denaro a Roma.Lutero fu un ottimo monaco,prima di prendere l’altra direzione. E la chiesa cattolica non è esente da colpe,anche per quanto riguarda lutero. Minacciato continuamente,richiamato più volte(non avrebbe mai rinnegato la sua contrarietà all’acquisto delle indulgenze),nemico pubblico,scomunicato(perchè contrario alle indulgenze),condannato al rogo o ad altre torture,braccato… Immaginiamo di trovarci al suo posto,con tutto il mondo contro… In definitiva,la tradizione cattolica,”per quanto riguarda il suo rapporto di coerenza al vangelo”non è tutta rosa e fiori. Perciò ho sempre ringraziato Dio e lo ringrazierò sempre per aver mandato un uomo come Giovanni Paolo Secondo Il Grande,attraverso cui il Signore ha portato un pò di luce nella Chiesa Universale dopo tanto e tanto buio e scheletri nell’armadio.

  5. 5 Cathy May 19, 2010 at 22:49

    Well written post. Most informative and Spirit filled!!

  6. 6 Antonella May 20, 2010 at 07:59

    Thank you Gabriella for this eye-opener of Traditions and also thank you Churchmouse for your insight. As it is I am sure that the Holy Spirit is very active in making His Church…..One, Holy and Apostolic…….which was Christ’s prayer to His Father..”May they be one in us as you are in me and I am in You”

    Alas, we humans have fragmented the Body of Christ (his Church) !

  7. 7 Gabriella May 20, 2010 at 09:21

    Hi Churchmouse,

    I did follow the online debates and your interesting posts on Calvin a few months ago but let’s put aside all the ‘deep’ thoughts on the matter (which have excellently been elaborated on by minds such as Cardinal Newman, Chesterton, Waugh, etc.) and take the very simple and basic argument:

    As Andrea says above, Luther was not at all ALL WRONG and the Catholic Church had its faults, many, but throughout its history, guided by the Holy Spirit, it has always come out of its mistakes and corrected them (errors that have never touched Catholic doctrine or Dogma or any of the deposit of faith, but things such as Galileo, sale of indulgences, and many more) whether it was thanks to Luther, St. Athanasius or St. Francis or whoever else. Correct the Church, Argue with it (the big fight today is in the hands of the Traditionalists) BUT NEVER LEAVE CHRIST’S CHURCH. It is alive. It is in the hands of the Holy Spirit, it is always one, holy and apostolic and God will be with it up to the end of time, human errors, sins and all.

    Suppose, for the sake of argument, that the Catholic Church should be excluded from the illumination and inspiration of the Holy Spirit, then there should be but ONE great Protestant Church. For the Protestant principle is the same, namely, that everyone who reads or hears the Scriptures is enlightened and inspired by the Holy Spirit. This principle, however, instead of being a bond of union, has proved to be a terrible cleaver, splitting Protestantism into divisions and subdivisions. Every Protestant can be a church in himself and unto himself.

    Recognizing the fallacy of this principle, Luther himself, writing to Zwingli, declared ‘If the world will last much longer, on account of the million different interpretations of the Scriptures that now exist, it will be again necessary to receive the decrees of Councils!’ (Luther, About the Eucharist).

    Fair-minded Protestants are obliged to recognize two Luthers: one before the year 1525, the other after this year. The first Luther, by breaking with the authority of the Church, told the people that every christian is ‘taught of God’ (John 6:45). The second Luther, seeing the great divisions which immediately began to spread within his own ranks, in order to keep some unity and coherency among his followers, declared that ‘the ecclesiastical teaching body, having been instituted by God, has for its source Christ Himself, as well as His mandate and institution’ (In Jorg., p.386). The first Luther was moved by deep rancour towards the Church authorities, the second Luther wavered nervously between the unlimited liberty of the spirit and the severe authority of an authentic teaching ministry (In Jorg., p. 416)

  8. 8 Gabriella May 20, 2010 at 09:59

    Regarding ‘Sola Scriptura’, there are so many ‘real’ arguments against this belief and I can’t very well cover them here. I thought I had written posts about this but can’t find them ;) Just found http://gabriella50.wordpress.com/2009/06/06/the-blindness-of-prejudice/ which is a Newman quote.

    Revelation is not an earthly knowledge, scientific or philosophical, which one is free to admit or reject. It is a knowledge and belief upon which depends eternal happiness. Hence, the knowledge and belief must be based on absolute truth and without danger of error. But how can man acquire truth without error? By reading the Scriptures, some will say. And if we further ask them: Are all God’s truths contained in the Scriptures? Yes, they will insist. We must not believe whatever is not found in the Scriptures: ‘Search the Scriptures’ (John 5:39). But does the mere reading of the Scriptures lead us to the true knowledge of Faith? In the first 1500 years of Christianity, reading and writing was a blessing confined to only a few. Even today many are illiterate. How are they to be saved? By teachers and pastors explaining the written word. In fact, how can one learn and judge all Christian truths without responsible teachers and without danger of error? But when these teachers and pastors disagree about the most fundamental truths, who would be able to settle their controversies – and settle them without error once and for all? What one person affirms, another denies.

    It’s funny how protestants separated themselves from the Church and rejected its authority on the grounds that the Bible and the Bible only is the Rule of Faith, without any other outside authory. Private judgment, according to them, is the supreme authority on all matters of Religion BUT still they are forced to admit that they need the help of preachers or of others well versed in the Bible – but never of the Church! What does that mean? Nothing, except that a great blunder has been committed in the past. One precipice leads to another. Whole nations rebelled against the living voice of the infallible Church, only to have recourse to other living but fallible voices. Is it any wonder that those same nations are now giving up Bible, preachers and Religion?

  9. 9 Cinzia May 21, 2010 at 12:03

    Well done Gabriella!! What a comprehensive response.

    In my simple not-so-educated mind, I couldn’t put things in writing the way you do, but it is so clear to me that there MUST be something wrong with the protestant churches. ALL of them! As you rightly say, if Protestantism was right, there would be only ONE protestant church. Not millions.

    Which one to believe? Which one teaches the right things? Follows Christ 100% with no deviations? Imagine if one had to wade through them all to find one that speaks the TRUTH! What a mind-boggling feat. Impossible.

    Protestants for the most part, I think, go around shopping for the church that best suits their beliefs, lifestyles, whims and whatever else …. you name it, they’ve got it!

    For me, all of these protestant churches, sects, branches and what have you, are the biggest and most sound PROOF that the Catholic Church is the Church instituted by Christ – One, Holy, Apostolic and Catholic (Universal). It is guided by the Holy Spirit and is infallible. 2000 years of it have proven this beyond a shadow of a doubt.

    Evviva la Chiesa! Una, Santa, Cattolica e Apostolica.

    If someone sees that people are doing wrong things within the Church, one should try and straighten them out (like St Catherine of Siena did) – and NOT detach themselves from the one true church and go off and create a new one ….

    Thanks for a superbly put post. I can’t imagine how anyone could have anything to argue against what you write and what you quote.

  10. 10 Davide May 21, 2010 at 17:05

    Wow!! Great response. I agree with everything said by Gabriella and Cinzia. When I look into the different protestant religions and their innumerable divisions I am always reminded of Our Lord’s message, “You will know them by their fruits (Mat 7:16).”

  11. 11 vintage piece March 29, 2013 at 16:20

    Very energetic blog, I loved that a lot. Will there be a part 2?


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