Tradition | Chapter 14 of On Being Catholic | by Thomas Howard
To be Catholic is to be profoundly conscious of one’s place in an immensely ancient tradition.
Tradition, of course, is the bond that holds together virtually every aspect of our mortal life. It is the matrix from which arises the varying shapes that we, in our varying tribes, give to our existence. The Bantus do it this way; the Finns do it this way; the Sumerians do it this way; the Jews, or the Irish, or the Latins do it this way.
What is this "it"? Well, human existence, we would all have to reply. Eating, drinking, marrying, dying, building, garbing: the mystery that lies at the root of our very identity as peoples steps into visibility in the shape that our tradition gives to all those activities. The efforts to shake off tradition discover that some shape must very quickly be given to all that the tradition has heretofore shaped: the revolutionaries in France at the end of the eighteenth century; the Bolsheviks; the hippies who collected in communal farms: they all found that we mortals cannot live together at all without some agreed-upon shape for things and that the attempt to hammer out fresh shapes has a melancholy tendency to present itself as a somewhat attenuated parody of what has been jettisoned, or worse, a travesty. Very little is gained by enthroning Reason in Notre Dame Cathedral; and who will insist that the phalanx of commissars in heavy overcoats planted shoulder-to-shoulder on the loge of Lenin’s tomb answers more auspiciously to our humanity than does the procession of archimandrites and archpriests with smoke and brocade and jeweled crowns? And is it to be urged that the draggled look that obtains in hippie sectors marks an advance on your traditional farm kitchen, with Grannie with her specs in the rocker by the hearth, the cat batting the ball of yarn, and Mother, all apple-cheeked and hearty, rolling out dough, befloured to the elbows?
Overstatement? Stereotype? Yes. The only point to be insisted upon in this connection would be that indeed we mortals do, in fact, over long periods of time, give a shape to things that somehow reveals aspects of our humanity itself and that it is very difficult to recreate such a shape in haste.
The same phenomenon may be seen in the religious aspect of life. Nay, we would all object: that is too flat a way of saying it. It is in the religious aspect of life that we may descry most sharply this property of tradition to disclose the most profound levels of our identity. What is it about the Northwest Indian tribes that takes shape in totem poles? Or about the Angles that takes shape in Anglican chant? Or the Spanish that will surge through the streets in the enormous processions of the Semana Santa?
This, of course, is a problematical line of thought. Pursued much further it would find itself obliged to insist that all religious traditions are somehow tied to ethnicity, but that is a line that will not hold through to the end. Does Lutheranism have the shape it has because it is German or because it is Lutheran? Is Hinduism Indian or Hindu? How necessarily Japanese is Shinto? What we may all observe without controversy, however, is that tradition gives a profoundly significant shape to human life and that religious tradition touches the depths of our identity as keenly as does any aspect of mortal existence.
To be Catholic is to be wholly at home in this awareness. This would seem to be laboring the obvious, except that there are forms of Christian profession that not only set virtually no store by tradition: they explicitly disallow any real authority to tradition. They speak of the ancient faith as though the Bible had swum into view just this morning and as though one’s approach to it is simply to open it, read, and start running.
Once more, we find ourselves with a problematical line of thought before us. May not the Bible be thus used? Is it not perspicuous? Must we interpose prelates and pedants between the humble peasant and the Word of God?
And again, it is difficult to avoid overstatement and stereotype. Things do not always separate out into such tidy categories as humble peasants and pedants. Indeed the Bible is the Word of God, say all the churches, Roman and Orthodox as well as Calvinist and Anabaptist. And indeed it is to be sought out and ingested day by day. But when we have said that, we find ourselves with the next question, namely, who may teach this Bible? Marcion? Apollinarius? Joseph Smith? Socinius?
All of these profoundly serious readers of the Bible are looked upon by the principal churches in Christendom as in some sense heretical. You may not, if you wish to think of yourself as a Christian, as that word has been understood from the beginning, espouse their teachings.
Who says so? What court of appeal so rules?
The tradition of the Church, say the Catholics. And so say most Protestants, in one form or another. Socinius’ reading of various texts was faulty and is not to be allowed: the correct understanding of the New Testament is that Jesus of Nazareth was the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity incarnate of the Virgin Mary. Socinius has it wrong. So says tradition.
But then what of the questions that bedevil "traditional" Christian groups? Did Jesus die for the elect or for the whole world? John Calvin will tell you one thing, John Wesley, another. Is the bread at the Lord’s table only bread, or is it the Body of Christ? Zwingli will tell you one thing; Luther, another. Is the Church to be governed by elders and general assemblies or locally, by democratic vote of the congregation itself? The Presbyterians will tell you one thing, and the Congregationalists another. Will there be a "secret rapture" of believers exempting them from the great tribulation to come upon the world, or must the Church brace herself for just such tribulation? A hundred voices clamor here.
To be Catholic is to look to the teaching of the Church herself rather than to one’s private efforts to piece Scripture together on such questions. This teaching, understood by Catholics, in the light of St. Paul’s words in 1 Timothy 3:15, to be authoritative, is called the Magisterium of the Church. In this Magisterium a Catholic finds the authority granted by the Lord to the apostles guaranteed for as long as history lasts. Things did not suddenly fray out into a hermeneutical donnybrook when the last apostle died. The unction to teach continues, from the apostles to their successors the bishops. If it comes to a choice between Marcion and your bishop, then you as a Catholic must listen to your bishop. Both men will cite Scripture for you, just as both Zwingli and Luther will do in connection with the bread. Where does this leave you?
A Catholic finds himself in a tradition of teaching that stretches back to the beginning.
But tradition is such a human thing, it may be objected. How can you tell when it has become destructive? Surely the Lord himself attacked with great vigor the traditions of the scribes and the Pharisees that had made a farce of God’s revelation? And what about sinful bishops and popes, to be found right at the center of the tradition? How can you trust what they say?
A Catholic is aware of just such unhappy points. But he is also aware that just such anomalies have beleaguered God’s purposes from the beginning: Noah, God’s own servant and yet falling into debauchery; Jacob, very far from admirable quite often; David, the very psalmist himself, unfaithful; Israel herself, disobedient, idolatrous, perfidious, corrupt—and yet God’s own Spouse.
It is often put to Catholics that it is mad for them to insist that this great juggernaut called the Roman Catholic Church, rumbling down through history heavy with paraphernalia, fat prelates, bric-a-brac, subtle diplomacy, and crusading armies—that this is to be understood as the Body of Christ. No one, surely, can adhere to a notion as manifestly absurd as that?
Well, yes, actually, says your Catholic. I do. Oh, the strictures are all too true, alas. It is a shabby record, full of sin. worldliness, ignorance, pride, avarice, venality, and crueltv. But let us recall God’s people Israel: How can it be that the Most High is pleased to have His Name associated with that lot capering around the golden calf? But he does. O populus meus: my people. To be Catholic is to be keenly aware of just such an anomaly. The people of God is still the people of God, even when they are being licentious; and no one has the warrant to hive off and start Israel anew, ten miles away, in the interest of purity.
It is in such a light that a Catholic sees the history of the Church. The Christians have not done much better than the Jews. If it is dreadful Borgia cardinals and popes you are thinking of, then what you have there (replies your Catholic, not proudly) is wolves in sheep’s clothing, just as the New Testament anticipates. If it is ignorance, sin, worldliness, and terrible catechesis you are thinking of, then you have, alas, the Church as she emerged from the labor of the holy apostle St. Paul himself (see his letters to the Corinthian church). Multiply the shabby record those Christians achieved in a few years by 2,000, add a billion people, and you have the Roman Catholic Church.
And yet—and yet: outsiders, and her enemies, may well list such defects. But to be Catholic is to know that the spectacle of sheer holiness radiates in and from this ancient Church, in her Magisterium, in her liturgy, in her sacraments, and also in the lives of the faithful, that immense throng moving along through the history of this world, beginning with the apostles and followed by Polycarp, Felicity and Perpetua, Augustine, Benedict, Martin, Colurnban, Thomas, Dominic, Francis, Ignatius, Teresa, and the whole host of fathers, confessors, widows, virgins, doctors, and all the nameless faithful who remain in obedient, visible, and organic unity with the ancient see in Rome whither Peter and Paul brought the gospel.
A Catholic feels about the Church a sentiment not altogether dissimilar to the sentiment a Jew cherishes touching Jerusalem. There may be rats and offal in the streets, and jerry-built blocks of flats, and waste and corruption in the government: but if I forget thee, 0 Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. I shall wish thee prosperity. For a Jew there is no question of hiving off and building another Jerusalem somewhere, in order to get it right this time. For a Catholic there is no question of hiving off and building another Church somewhere, in order to get it right this time.
He is as much a part of this ancient tradition as the Jew is of Jerusalem’s. There are not two Jerusalems, much less ten thousand. There is only one, for better or worse. But in that one, the Jew sees Zion, City of our God, dearly beloved of God on high. And in the one Church that there is, a Catholic sees the Body of Christ, or, in another figure, the Bride of Christ. No matter how deeply stained she may be now, she will step forth on the final Day, immaculate. (The sort of perception at work in this paradoxical, even absurd, Catholic attitude is called faith, which is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.)
Tradition implies a continuity developing slowly among a given people over a long period. You cannot create a tradition this morning. You may inaugurate something, but it Will not be a tradition until many years have passed. A non-Catholic Christian may urge in this connection that he and his denomination have an august tradition five hundred years old. But to be Catholic is to find oneself with St. Augustine, who, as a Catholic bishop, had to defend the only Church there was against the inroads (or the exits, rather) of the Donatists, who wanted to split off and start the thing over in the interest of purity. No, says Augustine: you cannot do that. For, of course, the Church herself is infinitely more than a tradition, although she is full of tradition(s). She is a holy mystery, created by God himself and, like Israel, taking a specific, visible, single identity and shape in history. She is not an aggregate, or a network, or an association of associations. She is as visible and solid as Peter or Polycarp or Augustine.
The Church is full of traditions. Everyone, both Catholic and non-Catholic, knows that. Her structure, her teaching, her worship, her piety, her "constituency" are all profoundly traditional.