THE BLOG
02/19/2014 12:38 pm ET Updated Apr 20, 2014

What We Mean When We Speak of Tradition in the Church

Tradition is of great significance to Catholics. The Catholic Catechism distinguishes among several types of tradition, all of which must be taken seriously. The first and most important kind is Sacred Tradition. It is the awareness and transmission of the Word of God from generation to generation. It was the means by which knowledge of Jesus was transmitted to the earliest Church communities before there was a Bible or an agreed-upon New Testament canon. It is this Sacred Tradition which is deepened and strengthened by the great Church Councils -- from Nicaea to the Second Vatican Council. But there are other forms of tradition also -- devotional traditions, which might attach to a saint or a pilgrimage site, or ecclesial traditions which might shape the liturgy or the Church calendar.

But what is meant by "Tradition" in a Church that is now 2000-years-old? When we speak of Tradition, we must speak of historical process. Tradition, after all, has significance only where the passage of time is concerned. But the historical process is not a phenomenon of nature. It is always the product of conscious choice and reflection.

Let us unpack this reasoning. The world and all that is in it is irreducibly historical. Every act we engage in, every word we utter, every thought that races unbidden through our minds, is historical. Consider a conversation I might have with a student: The instant I utter my first sentence, that sentence becomes a part of history and can only be retrieved through an historical process. Its exact wording, its intonation, its connotation, none of this can ever be precisely recovered. So, what is my student to do? She must process that sentence, make it her own, interpret it, and formulate a response. She must, in other words, interpret the past. And then, when I formulate my reply, I must go through the same process, now interpreting not only my first statement, but my student's understanding of it and her response to me.

This is a process that normally occurs so fluidly, so subconsciously, that we are unaware of its existence. Still, it is worth knowing that everything we say, everything we understand or apprehend, is a remembrance of things past. And not only is it a memory, it is necessarily a reinterpretation, an editing of what has gone before.

Nothing comes to us pre-thematically, furthermore, but is interpreted through prisms we have constructed for ourselves. We have categories of thought, into which we fit our memories, out of which we explain them. The past does not simply sit out there, in a pre-digested state. We mull it over, we meditate upon it, we reflect upon it. And the prisms we construct for ourselves, they constitute our value system, which in turn is formed from the communities of which we are a part. The world, in other words, is not only a remembrance of things past, but a continuing, shifting conversation about the meaning of those memories.

Now, what does this have to do with Tradition in the Catholic Church? It means at least this much, that Tradition is something we select, we make our own, we reinterpret. Indeed, this is the only way in which we can make Tradition come alive. For if we did not do this, Tradition would be nothing more than a meaningless inert text, mere letters on a page.

Let's think about how this has worked in the historical Church. Consider first the "Acts of Paul and Thecla." There is little in the way of devotion to St. Thecla today, so it is good to refresh our memories about this text. It is not canonical, it is not found in the New Testament, but it was nevertheless a text the early Church took very seriously.

The "Acts of Paul and Thecla," likely composed in stages over the course of the second century, recounts the tale of St. Thecla, purportedly the female traveling companion of the Apostle Paul. She was a virgin from a well-to-do pagan family in Asia Minor who heard Paul preaching and promptly abandoned her privileged life to follow him. She preached with Paul and embarked on a series of remarkable adventures. She survived an attack by lions in the arena, was adopted by the Queen of Thrace (whom she converted), and worked a steady stream of miraculous healings.

Her saintly deeds were the object of great devotion in the early Church. There is a Catacomb of St. Thecla in Rome. St. John Chrysostom preached on her merits and St. Ambrose governed the Diocese of Milan from the Cathedral of Holy Thecla. Clearly, her life is part of the deep and rich Tradition of the Church. That she is barely remembered today is the product, alas, of centuries of unfortunate choice.

Now, let's take a second example, the invention of the modern practice of repeatable confession by the Irish monks of the early middle ages. The early second- and third-century Mediterranean Church certainly had confession. But it would be very foreign to us today. Confession in the early Church was public, non-repeatable, and involved lengthy penances of ten or twenty years. A relapse into grave sin could result in near-permanent banishment from the Church, though deathbed reconciliation remained possible.

The monks who converted Ireland in the early middle ages, however, developed a very different process for the forgiveness of sins. Confession was to be private. It was understood as medicine for the soul and, by analogy to medicine, could be repeated as often as needed. Penances might be severe, but, at least by Mediterranean standards, were not that long. The aim was to effect a spiritual cure and thereby bring about the healing of the sinner's soul.

This was a living, adaptable, fundamental reshaping of Tradition. The New Testament taught the forgiveness of sins, but the shape it took might be dramatically different based on the felt necessities of the age.

What does this mean for Catholics today? Tradition is not a prison-house. It is, rather, the dialogue we have with the past. This dialogue must be conducted with a preference for stability. If we love the great historical figures of the past -- and, as Christians, we are called to love everyone -- then a preference for stability is merely the respect that we owe to them. Even the word "tradition," derived from the Latin traditio, means something that is handed down, something that is bequeathed to us from the past.

But Tradition is not blind obedience to the past nor the rote repetition of past acts. Indeed, if we accept the reality of the historical process -- that every moment is necessarily a conscious reinterpretation of what has happened to us up to then - then eve blind obedience and rote repetition must be understand as entailing the conscious choice that this is the best means by which we follow what we believe to be Tradition today.

Tradition therefore is open-ended. The Irish monks who invented confession knew this, as indeed, have Christians of every age. To say this validates Jaroslav Pelikan's brilliant insight that Tradition is the living faith of the dead. We retrieve the past, but if it is to have any meaning, if it is to make any sense, then we must reinterpret it according to our experience, our needs, our reflective thought on where we stand today. As we approach what is increasingly looking like a turning point in Church history, it is good to bear these lessons in mind.