to have their origin in divine revelation. To distinguish human traditions from sacred Tradition,
Catholic literature generally capitalizes the latter.
Neither is Roman Catholic Tradition the conclusions of scholars who have studied the
documents, history, and archaeology of the first centuries in search of the primitive Christian
faith. Tradition is not the writings of early Christian leaders, ancient liturgies, or even
the decrees of synods and ecumenical councils. These may be partial expressions of or
witnesses to Tradition, but they are not sacred Tradition itself.
So what exactly is Tradition? Catholic bishops tell us that "Tradition is the word living
continuously in the hearts of the faithful,"2 "the living memorial of God’s Word"3. Roman
Catholic Tradition is not something you can read or even lay your hands on.
[Tradition] … is not an inanimate thing passed from hand to hand; it is
not, properly speaking, an assemblage of doctrines and institutions consigned to
books or other monuments…. it must be represented as a current of life and truth
coming from God through Christ and through the Apostles to the last of the faithful
who repeats his creed and learns his catechism. The Catholic Encyclopedia4
Tradition, as explained by Catholic scholars, is not contained in books, but in people,
in the life of the Church. It is the life experience of the Catholic faithful. It is revelation "…written principally in the Church’s heart rather than in documents and records…."5
Roman Catholicism describes Tradition as a "living transmission"6 through which "…
the Church, in her doctrine, life and worship, perpetuates and transmits to every generation
all that she herself is, all that she believes"7. It is the living faith produced by "realities and
words that are being passed on."8 This, explains Catholic scholars, is accomplished in a
variety of ways:
The way in which the faith is transmitted can take almost any form in the
Church: the sign of the cross that a mother traces on the forehead of her child;
teaching the basic prayers of Christianity, especially the "Our Father," in the home
and in religious instruction; living, praying, and singing in the local congregation,
into which the young person grows; Christian example in everyday life and
Christian action even to the point of martyrdom; the witness given by Christian
music (especially hymns and chorales), by architecture and the plastic arts
(especially representations of the cross, which is considered a privileged Christian
symbol); and, not least, by the liturgy of the Church. The Church’s Confession of
Catholic definitions equating Tradition with the oral teachings of the apostles are misleading.
For example, the Second Vatican Council described Tradition as revelation that
the apostles passed on "…by the spoken word of their preaching, by the example they
gave, by the institutions they established… "10. In support of this definition, the Council
referred to Paul’s instruction to the Thessalonians:11
So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were
taught, whether by word of mouth or by letter from us. 2 Thessalonians 2:15
In citing this verse, the Church would have us believe that Roman Catholic Tradition is
equivalent to the Apostle Paul’s oral teachings. This is misleading, however, for, as we
have seen, Roman Catholic Tradition is a far more complex concept. It is not the direct oral
teaching of the apostles as referred to in 2 Thessalonians 2:15. Rather, Roman Catholic
Tradition is "a current of life and truth."12 It can be as ethereal as an idea that, after having
lain dormant for centuries, can spring to life in modern times through pious contemplation.
The Assumption of Mary is one such example. The Church pronounced it a divinely
revealed dogma in 1950. In view of Mary’s sinless perfection, said the Church, Mary’s body
did not undergo decay at the end of her life. God miraculously took her up to heaven. In the
document defining the Assumption of Mary, Pope Pius XII cited several Scriptures in an
attempt to demonstrate a biblical basis for the doctrine.13 In doing so, he acknowledged that
most of the Scriptures referenced had been put forth by theologians and preachers who
had "…been rather free in their use of events and expressions taken from Sacred Scripture
to explain their belief in the Assumption."14 The fact of the matter is that none of the Scriptures
the Pope cited said anything about Mary’s Assumption. Only one, Luke 1:28, even
refers to Mary. Nevertheless, the Pope used them anyway. No reasonable comparison can
be drawn between such teachings based on Roman Catholic Tradition and the Apostle
Paul personally and directly instructing the Thessalonians—the "traditions" of 2
Scripture and Roman Catholic Tradition are not equals. The Roman Catholic Church
teaches that "…both Scripture and Tradition must be accepted and honored with equal
feelings of devotion and reverence"15. But the Scriptures are a written record of revelation.
They are tangible, unalterable, and accessible to all. Moreover, they are an inspired record,
"God-breathed" (2 Timothy 3:16, NIV), the writings of "…men moved by the Holy Spirit
spoke from God" (2 Peter 1:21). Scripture, therefore, is rightly called the Word of GodRoman Catholic Tradition, on the other hand, is an amorphous body of beliefs and
practices which the Church claims has been handed down for some 60 generations in
"human formulas"16: a bishop teaching, a priest delivering a Sunday’s homily, a theologian
writing, a mother reciting prayers with her children, a hymn, a stained glass window, or the
unspoken "spiritual realities"17 shared by the faithful. Though a child could see the difference
between this and Scripture, the Church cannot, or will not.
Adapted from The Gospel According to Rome (Harvest House Publishers: Eugene, 1995).
1. Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 166.
2. The German Bishop’s Conference, The Church’s Confession of Faith (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1987), p. 45, quoting J. A.
Mohler. See also the Second Vatican Council, "Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation," no. 8; and the Council of Trent, session
4, "First Decree: Acceptance of the Sacred Books and Apostolic Traditions."
3. Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 113.
4. Jean Bainvel, The Catholic Encyclopedia (New York, NY: Robert Appleton Co., 1912), "Tradition," vol. 15, p. 9.
5. Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 133.
6. Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 78.
7. Second Vatican Council, "Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation," no. 8.
8. Second Vatican Council, "Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation," no. 8.
9. The German Bishop’s Conference, The Church’s Confession of Faith (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1987), p. 46, quoting J. A.
10. Second Vatican Council, "Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation," no. 7.
11. Second Vatican Council, "Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation," no. 8.
12. Jean Bainvel, The Catholic Encyclopedia (New York, NY: Robert Appleton Co., 1912), "Tradition," vol. 15, p. 9.
13. Genesis 3:15; Psalm 131:8; 44:10-14; Song of Solomon 3:6; 4:8; 6:9; 8:5; Isaiah 61:13; Luke 1:28; Romans 5-6; 1 Corinthians
15:21-26, 54-57; Revelation 12.
14. Pope Pius XII, Munificentissimus Deus, no. 26.
15. Second Vatican Council, "Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation," no. 9.
16. Jean Bainvel, The Catholic Encyclopedia (New York, NY: Robert Appleton Co., 1912), Tradition," vol. 15, p. 11.
17. Second Vatican Council, "Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation," no. 8.