Common Misunderstandings About Catholic Tradition

What do Catholics mean by the statement that they believe in Scripture plus Tradition?
Here are some sources of common confusion amongst non-Catholics (and even some poorly catechized Catholics) that I’ve run into. I hope this helps:

(1) Tradition is a Separate Deposit of Faith from Scripture. (Alternatively: Tradition and Scripture Are Identical).
Neither view is correct. Rather, the Catholic view is that Tradition is the oral form of the Apostolic Deposit of Faith, and Scripture is its original written form. The Catholic idea is that the Apostles didn’t intentionally leave things out of Scripture in a deviant way, but that certain things either: (a) fell outside of the scope of the writings, (b) occurred within the Apostolic period, but after the time of the writing, or (c) were omitted despite the author’s awareness of their veracity (usually, because the belief wasn’t under attack).

Most Protestants acknowledge all three of these things as being true about Scripture. I want to look at each one.

(a) Scope of Writing
The New Testament is divided up roughly like this: the Gospels, which focus upon the Life, Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Christ; Acts, which focuses upon the fledgling Church; the Pauline epistles, which are addressed to specific local churches, usually because of specific problems; the Catholic Epistles, short letters addressed to the global Church by Church leaders; and the Book of Apocalypse (or Revelation), which focuses on liturgy and eschatology (last things).

This means that anything which didn’t fall into the scope of the author’s writing was almost surely left out. Mark isn’t going to talk about the Corinthians’ behavior in his Gospel, for instance. And seemingly everyone, Protestant or Catholic, agrees that John has separate books for his biography of the life of Christ (the Gospel of John) than for his revelation: the Apocalypse, also known by the less cool-sounding name, Revelation. Likewise, Luke divides his Gospel from his early Church history [Acts], as if it is a sequel. He even gives a nod to his Gospel in Acts 1:1-2. Clearly, then, information which fell outside of the life of Christ was excluded from the Gospels, and information which fell outside a history of the early Church was excluded from Acts. This means, in effect, that lots of dogmatic truths aren’t mentioned in those five books, unless they’re tied to the biography of Christ, or are derived from His earthly teachings. It that truth wasn’t disputed by one of the local churches, it probably didn’t make the rest of the books, either. That’s why, for example, the argument over whether you baptize by immersion or sprinkling finds no solid Scriptural in either direction: the early Church learned how to baptize from the Apostles, and so it already knew the answer. (If you’re curious as to what it is, check out the Didache, chapter 7)

(b) Information Arising After the Time of Writing
For (b), the most obvious example is the canon of Scripture itself. No book tells us which other books are Scriptural. That is, none of Scripture contains a divinely-inspired Table of Contents. It’s generally agreed that the last book to be written was the Apocalypse, and it’s focus is on the revelation to John, not on which other books belong in the New Testament. To the extent that Protestants believe that they have a divinely inspired Bible, consisting of the perfect choices, it’s not because the books of the Bible tell them so. It’s because they believe that the Early Church was largely aware which books were the real McCoy, and which books were artificial. In other words, because of an appeal to Tradition. I addressed this particular point here, from a conversation with Reese.

Others have pointed out that the Destruction of the Temple, one of the largest events in Judeo-Christian history, goes unremarked upon (minus some ambiguous passages) by the New Testament writers. This is probably because their work precedes the Destruction of the Temple, although Christ does seem to prophesy it (in addition to prophesying His own death) in John 2:19-21.

(c) Silence for Various Other Reasons
For (c), Protestants are quick to point out, when faced with alleged Bible “contradictions,” that silence is not denial. John and Mark don’t deny the Virgin Birth by not talking about. If John includes a point which the other three leave out, it’s not an indication that the other three don’t believe it. It just means that for whatever reason, John felt it necessary to include it, while the others didn’t. Likewise, Paul writes to numerous local churches on what are often the same issue, and he’ll include or omit information in one epistle and not another. He doesn’t just cut and paste, or have his scribe copy the previous text verbatim. He’s not, by omission, denying in one what he affirms in the other: he simply writes as a human being (albeit inspired), and focuses upon the important issue at hand.

(d) Conclusion: “The Gospel of Tradition”
Catholics simply assert that what the Apostles taught orally sometimes differed in the way that the Gospels differ with one another: upon smaller points, and upon details. Things which may be relevant to one group, or things brought up by a particular discussion, etc. So when we see, for example, a belief amongst the early Christians that Mary’s body was bodily assumed into Heaven at the end of her life (it’s unclear from the record we have whether she was alive or not when her body was taken up), we believe that the silence of the New Testament writers is because Mary either was assumed after they wrote, or because her assumption was unrelated to their later writings.

I’ve heard an audio tape version of Scott Hahn’s conversion and read his book, and I can tell you that there are certain details or stories he includes in one and omits in the other. I don’t conclude then say, “anything which he didn’t write down is untrue,” or “anything which he didn’t say in his audio version is untrue.” I just assume they’re both accurate, and that he didn’t feel, for whatever editorial reason, the need to include it in one of the two forms.

We know that this is the way that God favors us reading Scripture already, don’t we? Or do we not realize that’s why we have 4 Gospels telling the same story with different details? If He wanted, He could have inspired a single comprehensive Gospel, or even a single-authored New Testament, the way that the Koran (and arguably, Book of Mormon) have only one author. He didn’t. In other words, don’t think of Tradition as a wholly independent Deposit of Faith, or as a wholly identical one. Think of it as if it is a 5th Gospel, or a 28th New Testament book. It’s a complement to the others, not a contradiction or a correction.

(2) Sacred Tradition is Perpetually Unwritten, Passed On Secretly.
Protestants writing against Tradition often cite as support Biblical passage or Patristic writings which decry and reject secret traditions being passed on. Such was the practice of the Gnostics, for example. But that’s 180 degrees opposed from the Catholic understanding of Tradition. We believe that Sacred Tradition is the oral manifestation of the Apostolic Deposit of Faith. Like I suggested above, this is simply the oral account of the Apostolic teaching. So the obvious follow-up is, “how do we know what is and isn’t Tradition?”

Since we don’t have audio tapes of the first few centuries after Christ, we trace Tradition to written documents (by the Apostolic Fathers, Ante-Nicean Fathers, etc.), to art, and to liturgies. In other words, we investigate Apostolic Tradition the same way that you would investigate anything else historically. I mentioned the Assumption of Mary before. We know that very ancient churches from one end of the Roman Empire to the other believed this. We see depictions of Mary being taking up in (very) early Spanish Catholic art, and we hear of it in some of the earliest Eastern Liturgies, despite their geographic (and eventually, political) separation.

The Church never just comes along and says, “Surpise! We’ve been secretly passing down x doctrine!” In fact, they expressly deny themselves the power to do that. They can’t create doctrine, nor can an authentic teaching be passed on only through secret channels. So all of the “extra-Biblical” dogmas you hear that Catholics have are either: (a) not dogmas; (b) actually Biblical; or (c) demonstrably contained in early Tradition. Of course, both (b) and (c) can be debatable: what seems like solid Biblical or historical proof to me may look weak to you, or vice versa. That’s where the guidance of the Holy Spirit comes into play (and in fact, is logically necessary to provide a reliable religious authority).

So there’s no such thing as Secret Sacred Tradition in Catholicism.

(3) By the Catholic Church’s own Standard, She Can Only Believe Tradition Taught Unanimously by the Church Fathers.
This argument always seems to precede an attempt to show that there was an outlier: that the Catholic Church spoke and one or two Church Fathers had said otherwise (against the overwhelming majority, in almost every case). This comes from a misunderstanding of Trent and Vatican I. Here’s what Trent said:

Furthermore, in order to restrain petulant spirits, It [the Council] decrees, that no one, relying on his own skill, shall,–in matters of faith, and of morals pertaining to the edification of Christian doctrine, –wresting the sacred Scripture to his own senses, presume to interpret the said sacred Scripture contrary to that sense which holy mother Church,–whose it is to judge of the true sense and interpretation of the holy Scriptures,–hath held and doth hold; or even contrary to the unanimous consent of the Fathers; even though such interpretations were never (intended) to be at any time published.
(Council of Trent, Session 4, Second Decree)

In other words, if your private interpretation of the Bible (on issues of faith and morals) contradicts the Catholic Church’s explicit stance, or the unanimous view of the Fathers, you’re wrong. Note two things: first, the unanimous consent of the Fathers is automatically the Catholic stance, implicitly: any other view is wrong. The First Vatican Council made it more clear that is true not only of a person searching Scripture on their own, but of the pope, and the Catholic Church herself. In addition to declaring (again) that “it is not permissible for anyone to interpret Holy Scripture in a sense contrary to this, or indeed against the unanimous consent of the fathers,” Pope Pius IX pledged that:

3. Likewise I accept Sacred Scripture according to that sense which Holy mother Church held and holds, since it is her right to judge of the true sense and interpretation of the Holy Scriptures; nor will I ever receive and interpret them except according to the unanimous consent of the fathers.

It is likely this last statement which has caused the most confusion. What Pope Pius IX is saying is that neither he, nor any pope, can contradict the unanimous consent of the Fathers [I admit that it is poorly worded in this regard, but I think that the two other uses of the phrase make clear what is meant here]. What he cannot be saying is that the only things he’ll ever speak on are those which the Early Church Fathers were unanimous upon. After all, they weren’t even unanimous on which books make up Scripture: even a layperson claims for themselves greater authority than that! At the point you say “2 Peter is (or is not) canonical,” you’re contradicting at least some of the Fathers.

So what is actually meant by this phrasing? It means a few things.

  1. If all of the Church Fathers say x on an issue of faith and morals, you must hold x to be true.
  2. If a good number of the Church Fathers say x on an issue of faith and morals, and some are silent, you must hold x to be true. [I’m unsure how many must say x, however: by definition, if only one says it, it can’t be consent, but I don’t know, personally, if two Fathers in agreement would be enough to constitute “unanimous consent” absent anyone else addressing the topic].
  3. If some Fathers say x on an issue of faith and morals, and some say y, there is unanimous consent that it is x or y. You cannot hold z to be true.

The Catholic Church plays by the exact same rules as you or I when it comes to the above. There is a rule 3(b), however: if the Catholic Chuch dogmatically declares that x is true and not y, the fact that a handful of Church Fathers got it wrong doesn’t matter. You’re still bound to hold x. Again, we see this in regards to the canonization of the Bible: some of the Fathers guessed wrong. Easy mistake, but you know better now.

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