Sacred Tradition: The Forgotten Doctrine | Stephen J. Morrissey | Homiletic & Pastoral Review
The miracle and mystery of divine guidance has been the primary constituent element of Church teaching over the centuries, and this guidance is what makes Tradition “sacred,” but rarely is it linked with the teaching of any other doctrine.
In my preparations for teaching an RCIA class recently, I noticed that, in the manuals and catechisms which I perused, there was sparse attention paid to what is the most foundational Catholic doctrine of all—Sacred Tradition. Its explanation is typically relegated to a page, if not a paragraph, in these texts, may be scattered here and there (in one case near the end of the book), and treated as just another doctrine to be held by Catholics. Usually there is an explanation of the “basics”: the etymological Latin derivation of the word “tradition,” reference to apostolic succession and the apostolic deposit, the action of the Holy Spirit in guiding the transmission of faith, and Tradition’s role in a complementary pairing with Scripture to form Revelation.
The miracle and mystery of divine guidance has been the primary constituent element of Church teaching over the centuries, and this guidance is what makes Tradition “sacred,” but rarely is it linked with the teaching of any other doctrine. Yet, it is the sine qua non of all doctrines, the font, the key, the source—and if Catholics don’t understand and remember it as the basis for all other Church teaching on faith and morals, then they cannot logically understand and accept other doctrines. Perhaps, this partially explains why we have so many “cafeteria” Catholics, and so many Catholics in open dissent from Church teaching. If the Holy Spirit is not guiding the Church in all of its teaching on faith and morals, then it may not be guiding the Church in any of its teachings. If the deposit of faith handed on through the centuries is only a nice idea when convenient, and not a constant reality, then Catholic faith is meaningless. But if the Holy Spirit is, indeed, guiding and animating the Church, then the subject of Sacred Tradition should be front and center in every one of our faith presentations, and linked directly to other doctrines as the ultimate certitude of that doctrine’s truth. The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, for example, is credible only if referenced to Sacred Tradition. Presently, from my examination of a representative sample of Catholic catechetical texts, I would say that the importance of Tradition is, in fact, understated in the hundreds of pages of various books, and lost in the catechesis of the myriad of other Catholic teachings. For many Catholics and prospective Catholics, then, the importance of this essential doctrine may fade away, and, for all practical purposes, be forgotten. The insufficiency of catechetical attention to Tradition was recognized by Pope John Paul II in his General Directory for Catechesis in 1997: “It is necessary, however, to examine with particular attention some problems so as to identify their solutions—with regard to the fundamental direction of catechesis, catechetical activity is still usually impregnated with the idea of Revelation, however, the conciliar concept of Tradition is much less influential as inspiration for catechesis. In much catechesis, indeed, reference to Sacred Scripture is virtually exclusive, and unaccompanied by sufficient reference to the Church’s long experience and reflection, acquired in the course of her two-thousand-year history. The ecclesial nature of catechesis, in this case, appears less clearly; the interrelation of Sacred Scripture, Tradition, and the Magisterium, each according to “its proper mode,” does not yet harmoniously enrich a catechetical transmission of the faith. 1
Sacred Tradition is important because it is the first, or source, doctrine insofar as we can say that it “began” on Pentecost when the Holy Spirit descended upon the Apostles, and they began preaching from the deposit of faith. The Church, from its first days, claimed guidance by the Holy Spirit, as promised by Christ, who would teach it everything, and be with it for all time.
Tradition is also important because it is all encompassing.