SACRED TRADITION AND SACRED TRADITIONS


SCRIPTURE READINGS: [ GEN 1:20-2:4; PS 8:4-9; MARK 7:1-13 ]

Protestants often criticize Catholics for subscribing to man-made traditions instead of following the Word of God.  Often, they would cite this scripture text from the gospel when Jesus berated the Pharisees and the Jewish leaders for distorting the Word of God.  Jesus said, “The worship they offer me is worthless, the doctrines they teach are only human regulations. You put aside the commandments of God to cling to human traditions.”  Is it true that Catholics have strayed from the Word of God and substituted the true faith of the Church for human traditions?  Have we lost the purity of the gospel?  To answer this question, we first must make a few clarifications before we can ask ourselves whether we have been faithful to the gospel of Christ.  (cf Gal 1:6-9)

Firstly, let it be clear that no institution in this world, be it religious, political, cultural or economic, is without traditions.  Human beings need to manifest their values and beliefs in concrete ways, through words, gestures and practices.  Otherwise, they will remain abstract.  So it is not only Catholics who have Catholic Tradition, all other Churches, mainstream, denominational, Pentecostal or evangelical churches have their own liturgical traditions, governance structure, celebrations and practices.  Therefore, it would not be right to say that only Catholics have man-made traditions whilst the other institutions do not have.  Even the country or nation has its traditions, like, standing at attention at the singing of the National Anthem, reciting the Pledge, saluting, etc.

Secondly, we must hold that the Bible is the Word of God.  Vatican II teaches, “This commission was faithfully fulfilled by the Apostles who, by their oral preaching, by example, and by observances handed on what they had received from the lips of Christ, from living with Him, and from what He did, or what they had learned through the prompting of the Holy Spirit. The commission was fulfilled, too, by those Apostles and apostolic men who under the inspiration of the same Holy Spirit committed the message of salvation to writing.”  (Dei Verbum 7)  Although all the truths for salvation are found in the scripture, not all are explicitly formulated.   There are many implicit truths contained in the bible that need to be explicated.   Indeed, the bible was originally an oral tradition before it was put into writing.  Furthermore, the Church, that is the apostles and their successors, the bishops, had to determine which book was considered to be inspired.  Most of all, the bible in itself is dead unless it is interpreted by the Church, which is inspired by the Holy Spirit.  That is why St John at the end of his gospel wrote, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”  (Jn 20:30f)  Nevertheless, what is special about the Bible is that it is the Written Word of God and therefore because it is written, it has its benefit of objectivity when we need to establish a basis for our interpretation.

Thirdly, flowing from what we said, we must also hold that the Word of God, that is the gospel, the Good News about the person Jesus the Christ, is not contained in the written Word of God alone.  It is primarily rooted in the Apostolic Tradition.  The Word of God was given flesh through the teaching of the apostles over and above their writings.  “And so the apostolic preaching, which is expressed in a special way in the inspired books, was to be preserved by an unending succession of preachers until the end of time. Therefore the Apostles, handing on what they themselves had received, warn the faithful to hold fast to the traditions which they have learned either by word of mouth or by letter (see 2 Thess. 2:15), and to fight in defense of the faith handed on once and for all. (see Jude 1:3)” (Dei Verbum 8)

So what is Sacred Tradition?  It includes everything that makes possible for us to encounter Jesus as a person, through the use of words and actions.  “Now what was handed on by the Apostles includes everything which contributes toward the holiness of life and increase in faith of the peoples of God; and so the Church, in her teaching, life and worship, perpetuates and hands on to all generations all that she herself is, all that she believes.”  We do not come to experience Jesus simply using our minds but our hearts and indeed, the entire body for the Lord commands us to love Him, with all our heart, mind and strength.  (cf Dt 6:5) Jesus is more than just the written Word of God.  The latter is only a means, even if undoubtedly it occupies a special position in terms of reverence.

Hence, the Constitution on Divine Revelation concludes, “there exists a close connection and communication between sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture. For both of them, flowing from the same divine wellspring, in a certain way merge into a unity and tend toward the same end. For Sacred Scripture is the word of God inasmuch as it is consigned to writing under the inspiration of the divine Spirit, while sacred tradition takes the word of God entrusted by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit to the Apostles, and hands it on to their successors in its full purity, so that led by the light of the Spirit of truth, they may in proclaiming it preserve this word of God faithfully, explain it, and make it more widely known. Consequently, it is not from Sacred Scripture alone that the Church draws her certainty about everything which has been revealed. Therefore both sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture are to be accepted and venerated with the same sense of loyalty and reverence.”  (Dei Verbum 9)

Fourthly, we must make a clear distinction between Sacred Tradition and sacred traditions.  Sacred Tradition refers to the Word of God, written and oral that presents to us the gospel of our Lord.  Sacred Tradition, therefore, encompasses those fundamental doctrines about Christ, the Church and our salvation.  This is handed on through the written word of God, the preaching and interpretation of the Apostolic Fathers, and by the Church’s Magisterium, the college of Bishops.   What are some of these teachings in Sacred Tradition that cannot be changed?  For example, in the first reading from Genesis, the teaching on the dignity of man, the institution of marriage between a man and a woman, the goodness of creation and the Sabbath law.  Over and above the written Word of God, the Church also recognizes other doctrines explicated over time that are traced to the apostolic tradition as part of Sacred Tradition, for example, the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, Original Sin, the Eucharist, the Sacraments, the dogmas of our Lady, the church, the ordained priesthood and the Petrine ministry.  In other words, infallible doctrines belong to the Sacred Tradition.

Beyond these teachings pertaining to the Sacred Tradition found in scriptures directly or indirectly through the handing of the Apostolic Tradition, the other traditions that are not central to the gospel, such traditions are man-made and can be changed.  Even the Sabbath Law, although must be observed, can be done in different ways according to the rules of the Church.  Hence, the Church, over and above the Sunday obligations, can also rule that Catholics must also attend mass on special solemnities.  However, such rules can be changed and applied differently at different times.  This is true even with respect to the celibacy of the priesthood in the Roman Catholic Tradition.  If that were so, other aspects of traditions, such as liturgical expressions, gestures, church laws, customs and devotional practices, all these are not permanently cast in stone. These customs and practices must adapt to the changing times and needs without contradicting Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition.

So has the Catholic Church fallen into hypocrisy as condemned by Jesus in the gospel?  It all depends on whether we can establish that our doctrines are in line with sacred scriptures and the apostolic tradition, the faith that has been handed over to the Church consistently over the centuries and believed by both the magisterium and the faithful.   If our doctrines can be shown that it is not against the gospel teaching about Christ, the Church and our salvation, then it belongs to the Sacred Tradition, the Gospel.    (cf Dei Verbum 10)


Written by The Most Rev William Goh, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Singapore © All Rights Reserved


Best Practices for Using the Daily Scripture Reflections
  • Encounter God through the spirit of prayer and the scripture by reflecting and praying the Word of God daily. The purpose is to bring you to prayer and to a deeper union with the Lord on the level of the heart.
  • Daily reflections when archived will lead many to accumulate all the reflections of the week and pray in one sitting. This will compromise your capacity to enter deeply into the Word of God, as the tendency is to read for knowledge rather than a prayerful reading of the Word for the purpose of developing a personal and affective relationship with the Lord.
  • It is more important to pray deeply, not read widely. The current reflections of the day would be more than sufficient for anyone who wants to pray deeply and be led into an intimacy with the Lord.

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