The wellspring of Tradition


By Patrick Schma


I just so happened to be in the middle of Yves Congar’s “The Meaning of Tradition” when the revision of the Catechism regarding the death penalty was released in early August. Pope Francis’ timing could not have been more perfect.


Along with this announcement, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith said Francis’ new teaching was an “au­thentic de­velop­ment of doctrine.” In other words, it is the unfolding of Tradition. But what is Tra­dition? There are at least six shorthand markers that help us think about Tradition.


Firstly, Catholics often differentiate between small “t” tradition and big “T” Tradition. The first is transitory, the second is foundational. When I lived in Rapid City, S.D., there was a small “t” tradition that at the end of Mass everyone would kneel and pray three Hail Mary’s for those who have passed away. It is not as if the parishioners would lose their Catholic identity if they discontinued this spiritual and pious practice. On the other hand, if we stopped believing in the Trinity we would have abandoned something intrinsic to our faith. Big “T” Tradition is what concerns us here.

Secondly, Tradition has an amorphous quality to it. There is no official church teaching on which teachings constitute the Tradition. Compare this with the Bible, which is made up of a definitive and closed list of books. This does not mean there are no boundaries to the Tradition, but the lack of a definitive and closed list signals that Tradition develops over time. This takes us to the next point: Tradition both conserves and progresses.

Thirdly, the mission of the church necessitates ardent efforts to preserve the integrity of the faith through history. This fidelity to the saving mystery of Jesus Christ also calls us to put the Tradition in conversation with the contemporary situation. As the centuries pass we build upon the collective wisdom of the church as our relationship with God deepens. This deepening begs us to ask where God is calling us to live out the love of Christ in ever more authentic ways.

Fourthly, Scripture and Tradition are inherently compatible. They are not separate sources of Revelation, but “form one sacred deposit of the word of God” (Dei Verbum No. 10). The Tradition gives weight to the Scriptures, helping us to interpret them. The meaning of Scripture is not entirely self-evident, neither is it a systematic presentation of Christian (or Jewish) beliefs. Consider for a moment that we wouldn’t have formal teaching regarding the Eucharist from Paul if the community at Corinth hadn’t erred. This is not to say that we wouldn’t have the Eucharist — we certainly would because it was passed down in the Tradition.

Fifthly, integral to a Catholic theology of divine revelation is the idea that the essential salvific mystery of Christ would have been carried on in the Tradition even if we didn’t have the written Scriptures. Tradition is the animating spirit of Christianity as the faith is handed on to each succeeding generation. This leads us to the sixth and final point.

In English the word Tradition is a noun. Our noun comes from “the Latin traditio, the noun of the verb tradere” (Congar 9). The equivalent Greek verb paradidonai implies the same meaning as the Latin. Congar writes that a “good simile [for these terms] would be that of a relay race, where the runners, spaced at intervals, pass an object from one to the other” (Congar 9-10). Thus, Tradition is not so much a thing as it is an activity. This connects us back to Pope Francis.

The new teaching on the death penalty both conserves what is essential in the Christian Tradition and progresses towards an authentic articulation of God’s love. The teaching of the church will always develop and will manifest itself in varied ways. The Tradition propels us towards union with God and compels us to ask where we have not yet lived into God’s loving presence. As a communion we are quickened by the Holy Spirit as we pine for the kingdom to come, and we are eager to discover how the Tradition might unfold in the years to come.

(Editor’s note: Patrick Schmadeke is a graduate of St. Ambrose University (‘13) and a student in the Master of Divinity program at the University of Notre Dame. His column offers reflections on his coursework, engaging with the richness of the Catholic Tradition and its relevance to the world today.)

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