Unwritten Tradition, Birth Control & Abortion

I’ve got a final tomorrow, so this post will be short and sweet. ¬†Actually, it’s a modified version of a comment I left on Roderick’s blog. He was skeptical about what we Catholics call “unwritten Tradition,” so I tried to respond with a concrete example of why the (admittedly confusing) term means:

The short answer is that unwritten Traditions weren’t perpetually unwritten, and are easily verified. (By unwritten, we just mean that they weren’t specifically addressed in the Bible.)

Here’s what I mean. Birth control and abortion was practiced in the New Testament era, but there’s pretty scant information about the Apostles’ teachings. In fact, the only reference we have is Galatians 5:19-21, which bans pharmakeia, which might refer to birth control and abortion drugs, or potions used in black magic (the line between medicine and magic wasn’t always a sharp one in antiquity, although we know from folks like Luke that legitimate medicine was also practiced by Christians).

But then we have the Didache, which although not God-breathed, is an accurate recording of the Apostle’s teachings. It was a book to be read when you entered the Church, a sort of early Catechism or Catholicism for Dummies. The book was written and circulated during the Apostolic era, so the fact that it was held in such high esteem is a good sign of its orthodoxy. The second chapter begins, “And the second commandment of the Teaching; You shall not commit murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not commit pederasty, you shall not commit fornication, you shall not steal, you shall not practice magic, you shall not practice witchcraft, you shall not murder a child by abortion nor kill that which is born.” Again, the terms translated “practice magic” and “practice witchcraft” refer to taking potions, and almost certainly refer to birth control. Here, they’re followed immediately by an explicit early-Christian prohibition against abortion and infanticide (which were much bigger problems at the time than witchcraft). This allows us to set the entire pharmakeia debate aside and say, “Look, the Apostles were clearly against this, because the Didache says they were.” But this teaching, although written in the Didache, isn’t written in the Bible, so it’s known as an “unwritten Tradition,” even though it’s been written down for a little shy of 2000 years.

Finally, you say, “If tomorrow the pope claims to recite some non-written tradition to which he demands adherence, what is the recourse?” This is a total false threat. It’s never happened in history. Every time the Church proclaims something as a part of the Faith, it has a mass of evidence supporting it. For example, on the teaching of the Assumption, to many Protestants it seemed to have come out of thin air in 1950. But that just wasn’t so. Catholics believed it, the early Church believed it, 3rd century art from all corners of Christianity depicted it, the Eastern Orthodox included reference to it in their prayers and liturgy, and churches have been named Assumption for centuries. When Pope Pius XXII in 1946 was considering solemnly making it an irrebutible part of the Faith, he noted that the bishops at Vatican I had requested he do so, to eliminate any doubt about the Church’s teaching on the subject. He then asked the bishops then-living for their opinion, and they were “nearly unanimous” in their support for solemnizing it as an ex cathedra statement (it’s fair to say that even those who rejected making the teaching ex cathedra still believed it: there were legitimate reasons to think that making it dogmatic was imprudent, although even this camp was a scant minority). My point is that the pope has never in history just woken up and declared some bizarre thing part of the Faith without evidence of its continual belief by Catholics. From a Catholic perspective, it’s just not a serious argument. The Holy Spirit prevents any pope, no matter how corrupt, from ever doing so.

Hope that helps, and I’ll try and be back tomorrow post-final with another post. I could sure
use your prayers, by the way! Thanks!

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