The Truth of Catholic Tradition: Not a Contradiction

By Fr. Nilo A. Lardizabal, OP 

One of the more significant issues dividing many of our evangelical and fundamentalist friends from Roman Catholics has to deal with Catholic Tradition. Note that I used this word with a capital “T”. There is a difference.

Simple dictionary meaning says that a tradition, from the Latin traditio, is something handed over, or passed down. It can also mean “an inherited, established, or customary pattern of thought, action or behavior”. Now, Sacred Catholic Tradition is understood similarly but in a different sense.

Before proving the use of Catholic Tradition from the Bible, let us hear first from what the Catechism says. Accordingly, there were three stages in the formulation of Sacred Scripture in general, as well as that of the Gospels.

First, when Jesus still walked the earth He preached everywhere, bringing the message of salvation to all people. He healed the sick, established the sacraments and called disciples to Himself. Notice that at this stage, there was nothing written during His time on earth. Jesus in fact never wrote anything, except when he wrote on the ground! The disciples too were not taking notes while Jesus was preaching. In fact, to be a disciple means “to listen”. So there was nothing written, nor was there a need to at that time.

Upon the Ascension of Jesus, the disciples for their part spread the Word of God by “oral tradition,” meaning, by word of mouth. They were commissioned by the Lord to “go and baptize all nations” (see Matthew 28:19-20); and they did it by preaching.

Then a third stage came to the fore when the original disciples were dying out. Many of the sacred authors of Scripture, inspired by the Holy Spirit, were moved to write and put down all the stories they heard and believed so dearly about Jesus. The Catechism says:

The sacred authors, in writing the four Gospels, selected certain elements that had been handed orally or already in written form, others they synthesized or explained in view of the situation of their churches, while preserving the form of proclamation. But always in such a way that they have told us the honest truth about Jesus. (CFC, # 82 quoting Dei Verbum 19 and CCC, 126)

Notice that the authors of Scripture put in writing what they have heard from oral tradition, in other words, from what has been passed on to them as stories and parables. We could say then that the Bible itself was and is a product of Sacred Tradition. That is why other Christian sects cannot simply disregard this. If they do not believe in Tradition, then they ought not believe in the Bible too, because as we said, the Bible was a product of Sacred Tradition.

Now, going through the pages of the Bible: could we as Catholics say that Sacred Catholic Tradition was taught and believed by the early Church? The answer is yes. But before doing so, our evangelical friends teach that Catholic Tradition is no longer needed because “the Bible is enough”. Martin Luther, former Augustinian friar, as he drifted further away from Church teaching argued for Sola Scriptura or “Scripture alone”.

For one thing, this implies that there is no need for many rituals, no need for sacraments or priests in worshipping God. Secondly, only the Bible will bring the individual to salvation. To him, only Scripture is the sole basis of Christian faith. Many Protestant groups followed this way of doctrine. But we beg to ask: can that statement of Martin Luther and others be found in Scripture? Where in the Bible does it say that Sacred Scripture is enough as a basis for Christian faith?

This is what they give. Accordingly, a passage from 2nd Timothy 3:16 says this:

All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction and for training in righteousness, so that the man of God will be fully equipped and ready for any good work.

We may ask: is this the proof for Scripture alone? It doesn’t really say. First of all, they focus on the word “All Scripture is inspired by God…”; we as Catholics believe that too but it doesn’t say that it is the only source of Faith. In fact, did not the Gospel of John 21:25 say that “not all has been written in this book (the Bible)?”

Another term they focus on is the part which says: “so that the man of God will be fully equipped and ready for any good work.” They argue that the use of Scripture is enough to make a person a good Christian. Again, it doesn’t say that the use of Scripture alone is the only way to be fully equipped in the Faith. Do we discredit then the work of the Grace of God in this case? Will the Christian not be fully equipped with Grace from the Almighty?

To settle these issues, allow me then to present some proofs from Scripture that Sacred Catholic Tradition was used by the early Church. Many of the apostles and disciples of Christ carried on the work of salvation.

First, the apostle Paul was very much into it. Remember that, while Paul did not witness the Resurrection of Christ, he himself was a product of Sacred Tradition. He has this to say in 1 Corinthians 11:2: “Now I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the Traditions even as I delivered them to you.”

So he was not only basing their Faith from what they read but also from what has been passed on to them. Also, from 2 Thessalonians 2:15: “So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter.” Now that he has taught them, he invites the Christian communities to be faithful to the traditions they received.

He even warns that if a believer strays from it, he is to be avoided. This is in 2 Thessalonians 3:6:

Now we commend you, brothers, in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you have received from us.

This again is plain and clear enough. Sacred Scripture and Sacred Catholic Tradition go hand in hand in the Christian Faith. Without Sacred Catholic Tradition there can be no Sacred Scripture.

It is sad that some of our so-called “born again” friends find it easy to condemn Catholics as un-scriptural, especially when it comes to Catholic Tradition. But we have biblical proof that it is not so. Maybe we can help them understand that Catholic Tradition is in fact essential to the Faith. This is the very reason why Catholics have recourse to it.

Catholic Tradition is valid because it guides people. In any human society and institution, there are norms or standards, even prior to it being written. The Catholic Church as a divine institution also needs the inspiration from Catholic Tradition because it brings us back to the time when their Faith was tested, and their traditions became the source of strength.

This is just as true for us now. Scripture is an essential part of the Faith, but it has to be lived out and passed on. Our Christian ancestors did it for us; and we too are challenged to be steadfast in our Faith as well. Catholic Tradition cannot be a contradiction; it is a way of life – the Christian life. 

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