“It is the American way, as we know, to establish traditions quickly, where popular instinct and sentiment pronounce them sound.” So declares Orson Wells in his introduction to the dramatic presentation of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” This may be “the American way,” but it is hardly the way of the Catholic Church. The United States of America is a young country. Our written history goes back barely 500 years, much less than recorded human history, which goes back some 6,000 years. The Church’s history goes back 2,000 years, and longer, if we consider her roots in Judaism. With such a long history, tradition in the Catholic Church can, and does, move at a different and much slower pace than tradition in our American way.

Whether we are considering Tradition with a capital T, which, along with Scripture, constitutes the expression of revelation, or tradition, with a small t, which consists in a wide variety of various expressions of the faith, the Church is slow to make her pronouncements. Very early in the Church’s history, St. Paul wrote to Timothy, “All scripture is inspired by God.”[1] Yet the question of what exactly constituted “scripture” would puzzle the Church for several hundred years. And while the Church has declared what books of the Bible are inspired Scripture, it has never said anything about what texts, among the thousands of copies and fragments, are the approved texts of those books.

Similarly, belief in the bodily assumption of Mary has been shown to exist since the 4th century, yet it would take 1600 years before it would be defined as a dogma. Americans may establish traditions quickly, but the Church most definitely does not.

So, what do we mean in the Church when we say that something is “traditional”? When we are speaking of Tradition as part of revelation, we are generally speaking of a belief that has long been held in the Church and especially of those beliefs that have been officially defined as dogmas. When we speak of “tradition” with a small “t,” we are referring to ideas, beliefs and practices that have been handed down by believers and groups within the Church. This is a very general category, with no official definition. A devotional practice that is “traditional” in one part of the Church may be unknown elsewhere.

Back in the 1980s, I remember reading in a letter to the editor of the National Catholic Register, that “what people mean nowadays when they use the word ‘traditional’ is ‘the way things were 50 years ago.’” The “way things were 50 years ago” referred to the way things were in the Church prior to Vatican II. But as we have seen, “traditional” in the Church as a whole usually refers to something that has the approval of a widespread part of the Church through many long centuries. Does “the way things were” before 1963 go back very far and have this widespread “stamp of approval”?

Certainly, by the mid-20th century, the liturgy had changed very little for some 500 years. We can say the same for many well-known devotions such as the rosary and the stations of the cross, processions, fasting and other similar practices. The everyday life of the Church seemed to be well established.

When we look at theology, however, we find a more fluid situation. In the preparatory phase before Vatican II, at least one important Schema was criticized for expressing a theology that only went back some 300 years and which presented a notable change in direction from previous theological thinking. In my recent article, ”Keeping God at Arm’s Length”, I quoted Prof. Joseph Ratzinger’s statement concerning the Schema “On the Sources of Revelation.” In his talk on October 10, 1962, Prof. Ratzinger criticized the Schema prepared for the Council because it identified revelation with the expressions of revelation that are Scripture and Tradition. “Scripture and tradition are for us sources from which we know revelation, but they are not in themselves its sources, for revelation is itself the source of Scripture and tradition.”[2]  He says further, “Actually, Scripture and tradition are not the sources of revelation, but instead revelation, God’s speaking and his manifesting of himself is the unus fons [one source], from which then the two streams Scripture and tradition flow out. This is the true way of speaking of tradition, which Trent used and took for granted.”[3]

However, Prof. Ratzinger says that to speak of “the two sources of revelation” was common at the time immediately before Vatican II. “To be sure, all theological textbooks speak this way.”[4] So there had been a shift since the Council of Trent. He states that the “reversal by which the composed and formulated expressions of revelation, Scripture and tradition, are made sources and revelation becomes something following from them, probably became common in the early phase of historicism, when people everywhere were asking about sources and Christians came to call Scripture and tradition the sources in which they found revelation.”[5] This locates the shift in outlook in about the 17th century, thus after the Council of Trent.

God’s revelation is the foundation stone of Catholic belief. An understanding of revelation that dates back only some 300 years can hardly be called “traditional,” especially if it fails to correspond with the understanding presented in previous centuries.

As I showed in my article mentioned above, the correction of this reversal of the traditional understanding of revelation, in which revelation was again understood as God’s self-revealing to man, was the primary paradigm shift of Vatican II. An obvious conclusion to be drawn from this is that the theology commonly taught prior to Vatican II was based on a flawed expression of the foundational belief of the Church. “This way of speaking [i.e. that Scripture and tradition are the two sources of revelation] is flawed in failing to distinguish the order of reality from the order of our knowing.”[6] “Accordingly, it was traditional in the Middle Ages to call Scripture fons scientiae [the source of science], but never fons revelationis [the source of revelation].”[7]

After thus returning to the truly traditional understanding of revelation, he addresses the place of the study of revelation. “While it is right that theological work have Scripture and tradition as its ‘sources’, it is dangerous and one-sided to use there the title of a theological treatise on Scripture and tradition in a way wholly centered on the knowing subject, which does not depict the order of reality but instead only that of our approach to reality. This brings with it the danger of conceiving revelation wrongly. For revelation is not something following upon Scripture and tradition, but is instead God’s speaking and acting which comes before all historical formulations of the speaking, being the one source that feeds Scripture and tradition.”[8]

This is an important point that needs to be emphasized. God knows Himself in His Word. Human beings know reality by concepts, and concepts come into being through experience. God expresses Himself to us in His Word, His Son “for in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily.”[9] No amount of human words can adequately express Him. Scripture is indeed the Word of God given to us in human words, but just as the understanding of revelation in recent centuries needed to be reversed and returned to its truly traditional meaning, so too the understanding of Scripture of recent centuries needs to be returned to its rightful place and in that way to allow the correct understanding of tradition to come to the fore. In his talk, Prof. Ratzinger touches on this: “One may say that from the beginning the concept of paradosis (tradition) was foundational for patristic thought and belief. But the Fathers did not see this as a set of affirmations being passed on alongside Scripture. In fact, they simply denied the existence of such statements. For them tradition was the insertion of Scripture into the living organism of the Church and the Church’s right of Scripture, as Tertullian formulated in classic fashion in The Praescription of Heretics. For them, tradition is simply scripture in ecclesia [Scripture in the Church]. Scripture lives in the midst of its vital appropriation by the Spirit-filled Church and only so is it truly itself. For most of the Fathers the idea of tradition as a set of affirmations communicated alongside Scripture was an idea they rejected as gnostic.”[10]

The reduction of tradition in which the expressions of revelation are equated with revelation itself cannot fail to have had a negative impact on theology as a whole. We see this most notably in the area of moral theology, in which, from the 17th century on, the “morality of obligation” became the driving force of moral theology and which was presented in virtually all seminary textbooks. Unlike St. Thomas Aquinas and the Fathers of the Church, who “clearly recognized the existence of moral obligations, but [who] subordinated them to the virtues,” with the shift in understanding of revelation, “the relationship is reversed: Obligation is given priority and invades the entire domain of the moral life.”[11] Moral theology is then “divided into two parts: fundamental moral theology, which treats the foundational principles, and special moral theology, which considers in detail the laws determining what is permitted or forbidden and governing the resolution of cases of conscience. Fundamental moral theology contains four treatises: laws, human acts, conscience and sin. Comparing this structure with the structure of St. Thomas’ Summa theologiae one notes immediately the disappearance of the treatise on happiness and the ultimate end, as well as the absence of a treatment of the virtues and the gifts. Moreover, a treatise on conscience has been inserted that will henceforth occupy a central place. Lastly, the treatise on grace has been removed from the domain of morals and placed in dogmatic theology.”[12]

We are so used to the idea of “the faith” as consisting in the statements presented in catechisms and textbooks that we have lost sight of the faith from which those statements flow. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that “Faith is the theological virtue by which we believe in God and believe all that he has said and revealed to us, and that Holy Church proposes for our belief, because he is truth itself.”[13] But faith is not a series of sentences by which we know God. It is that knowledge itself infused in us at Baptism. “I know my own and my own know me,  just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.”[14] His knowledge of His Father is the same as our knowledge of Him. It is a knowledge no words can adequately express, yet we possess it in faith. “In a way this dark loving knowledge, which is faith, serves as a means for divine union in this life, as does the light of glory for the clear vision of God in the next.”[15]

In past centuries we were immeasurably blessed by the great writers and doctors of the Church who gave us the tremendous theological teachings and insights by which the Church has grown. Indeed, their writings are so full of wisdom that it is not surprising that we have lost sight of the fact that they are only signposts to the source of wisdom, not the possession of wisdom itself. Words cannot teach God. Jesus is the Truth but “the truth is not easily come by. The truth is God; and to teach the truth as it should be taught one must learn God.”[16] Words are the enticements by which we grow in our love of God so that we will be open to His one and unique Word. “By love [God] can be caught and held, but by thinking never.”[17] The more we let the words enamor us of God, the more we are open to receive “the knowledge of God’s mystery, that is, Christ himself, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.”[18] Then filled with this knowledge, we can continue to hand on the true tradition of the Church.


[1] 2 Tim. 3, 16

[2] Jared Wicks, “Six Texts by Prof. Joseph Ratzinger as peritus before and during Vatican Council II” Gregorianum, Vol. 89, No. 2 (2008), pp. 233-311 (79 pages), p. 271 (All italics are in the original.) https://www.jstor.org/stable/23582851

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Col. 2, 9

[10] “Six Texts”

[11]  “Morality, The Catholic View.” Servais Pinckaers, O.P., St. Augustine Press, South Bend, IN, 2001, p. 32

[12] Ibid. p. 33

[13] Catechism of the Catholic Church #1814

[14] Jn 10, 14-15

[15] St. John of the Cross, “Ascent of Mt. Carmel” II, 24, 4

[16] Gerald Vann, O.P. “To Heaven With Diana,” Pantheon Books, Inc. New York, 1960, p.12

[17] “The Cloud of Unknowing”

[18] Col 2, 2-3

Image: “IMG_0747” (CC BY 2.0) by Xavier Boudreau

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Sr. Gabriela of the Incarnation, O.C.D. (Sr. Gabriela Hicks) was born in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, in the Gold Rush country of California, which she remembers as heaven on earth for a child! She lived a number of years in Europe, and then entered the Discalced Carmelite Monastery in Flemington, New Jersey, where she has been a member for forty years. www.flemingtoncarmel.org.

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