Saturday, February 18, 2017


This is the time of year where people announce they are becoming Catholic. They can do so anytime but the typical time for the sacrament is Easter and the typical time to make the go/no go decision is right around now. So there have been a few stories as there are every year. A couple mentioned that one issue for them was that they didn't know what tradition was. That sparked something in me. I had some of the same issues. When I started exploring the church I thought of tradition as a mindless "monkey see, monkey do" phenomenon. A lot of protestants still seem to have ideas like that.

What is meant by tradition? It is the whole impact of who you hang out with and what emotional attachments you have to them. What preachers do you listen to? What books do you read? What songs do you worship with? What friends do you confide in? Which opinion leaders do you respect? What stories do you connect with? 

The thing to notice here is everyone has a tradition and it is always hugely influential on your thinking. People don't think in a vacuum. They talk to each other. They influence each other. People who you love and respect will influence you more. If you are in a circle of friends where a certain thinker is hugely respected then you will have a strong tendency to go along with that line of thought. 

Often people underestimate the influence of tradition on them. They see it on other people. He is just that way because his dad is that way. He was raised to believe that. Yet when you ask the actual person about their own opinions they typically say it is not tradition. They say they have sound reasons for believing what they believe. They can list them for you. Yet that does not mean that person was not influenced hugely by tradition.

Tradition does not tell us to stop thinking. It tells us to think a certain way and gives us reasons to do so. Yet a different tradition would tell you to think a different way and give you reasons for doing that. Often the deciding factor is not which set of arguments is logically better but which set of people is emotionally more trustworthy. In fact, we rarely go against the thinking of the group we have grown comfortable with. That is tradition.

So tradition is not just people latching on to old ideas because they are old. Very modern ideas can gain a wide following simply because that is what everyone else seems to think. So someone saying that sex outside marriage is wrong because Christians have always believed that is appealing to one kind of tradition. Someone saying sex outside marriage is OK because everyone is doing it is appealing to another tradition. A modern secular tradition of thought which is not less of a tradition because it is new. In fact, many people accept it without serious question precisely because the tradition is so strong.

What we need to be clear about is that traditions can be very wrong. We can see this in the previous example. No matter what you believe about sex outside marriage you are going to believe one tradition or the other got it wrong. That is a big deal. Many people accepted a wrong answer to this important question because they listened to the wrong tradition.

Protestants talk about not letting tradition be the main guide of your thinking. They think the bible should be. That is actually humanly impossible. We don't make big life choices apart from other people. Sure the bible plays a role but often there is debate over what the bible says so you need to decide what to make of that. Tradition is always going to matter. Different people will have different opinions. Whose thinking do you trust more? That is how humans make choices. They don't just sit down with a book and ignore what everyone else thinks. They want their opinions affirmed by others before they really trust them.

In practice Protestants pick one particular set of thinkers they like. Not a bad thing to do. Yet there are many different groups who disagree with each other on many different questions. These groups used to be called denominations. Not so much anymore. People from different denominations can be very much in the same theological school of thought. People from the same denomination can be in very different groups. Yet these schools of thought are many and diverse. It really does matter that we get the right one. These are the big decisions that are supposed to transform our lives. We want to get them right.

Catholics believe God enters in to this with His grace. That He gives us something called Sacred Tradition. A certain set of people and opinions and ways of thinking that God has highlighted over time as being true. He has used the popes and the bishops of the church to do this in each generation. What this gives is a way to make decision as a Christian that is not inhuman. It gives us real people living the faith in the real world that we can trust. 

The trouble is that God pointing us to one source of truth means He is also saying a lot of other traditions have been getting things wrong. Modern society has made some real errors. Many Christian thinkers have made some real errors. So all the things we believed because they were emotionally easier now become harder. Sometimes we have to disagree with family and friends. Sometimes we have to face the fact that almost everyone we knew and trusted got this wrong. It rocks your world. 

Yet that would not happen if you chose to know and trust those who also have a commitment to this same Sacred Tradition. That is how God expected His church to work. That people would lead each other into truth and unity because we would actually be part of one body with the same head.  

1 comment:

  1. I think the best definition of Oral Tradition for the Catholic is Liturgical Life. This has the dual purpose of more concretely defining "tradition" and helps Protestants see that Tradition is essential. I wrote a post about this: