How is the Sacred Oral Tradition passed on?


I am Catholic, but one thing is still not too clear to me.

How are the Oral Traditions passed on down.

Is it in seminary, is it in meetings at the Vatican, is it told to you once you become a bishop?

Is it just a general view of interpreting scripture and beliefs?

I hear of many non traditional things being taught in seminaries these days, and read that there are some bishops who hold some strange beliefs which are not in line with the Vatican, and it seems to me that they would pass on down these errors.

It took a council to stop Arianism where 2/3 of the bishops held to that heresy. I have read that Arianism was put down mainly because it went against the Traditions of the Church. Well if the church had these Traditions, then how did the bishops fall into heresy. I thought that the Oral Traditions were passed on by these bishops.

Any insight would help, thank you.


Excellent question. I am a non-Catholic, but I would be very interested in hearing what are the precise mechanisms by which the oral traditions are preserved through each generation and passed along outside scripture. Is there a meeting where the next generation is told the extrabiblical tradition? Is it written down somewhere? What is the mechanism? (That’s a sincere question, not sarcasm.)




“By the word Tradition is meant the teaching of the faith, the law of God, the sacraments and the liturgical rites, as handed on by word and example from one man to another and from generation to generation.” (Tradition and Traditions page 296) Quoted from J.A. Douglas’ book "The Relation of the Anglican Churches with the Eastern Orthodox, London, 1921, p 132)

Tradition was passed down by written and oral means, 2 Thes 2:15,3:6, 1 Cor 11:2.


To understand the answers to your questions, we first need to look at how Catholics view the Church. Christ instituted a Church on earth, initially presided over by the apostles before the truths of Christianity were ever written down in what we call the New Testament writings. Things that we all believe - the inspiration of those writings by the Holy Spirit and the fact that general revelation ended with the death of the last apostle - are themselves not found in Scripture. They are based on Traditions handed down through the Church.

Catholics believe that the apostles handed down their teachings and authority to successors (bishops). What we call the apostolic succession. These successors handed on those teachings and authority to other successors, and so on and so forth right down to the present day bishops of the Church. Sometimes these Traditions were written down somewhere, whether it was by a bishop or some other member of the Church. Sometimes they were not. The community of bishops have historically met from time to time in ecumenical councils to put to rest various controversies or to establish dogmatic teachings of the Church. When they do so, they many times reference the Traditions.

Sometimes the apostolic Traditions are not clearly distinct to one and all from the mere traditions of men that may have invaded the Church. The council though by virtue of its apostolic authority is guided by the Holy Spirit to distinguish between what has always been the Church’s Tradition and what is not. This is the precise mechanism for determining apostolic Traditions.

It is not, as some non-Catholics seem to believe, a list where we track one particular Tradition back through each and every successor to a particular apostle. This is not required. The assembly of apostolic successors with the aid of the Holy Spirit recognize the Traditions handed down within their own Church.


Tradition is not a body of information, separate from Scripture.

For SavedSinner and CThomas, have you read *Dei Verbum *yet?

I suggest you read this document if you want to understand what Catholics mean by “Sacred Tradition,” its relation to Sacred Scripture, and how God’s revelation of both Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition came to us.

One of the ways Tradition has passed from one generation to another is through the Church’s worship or liturgy (the Mass). We Catholics often take it for granted, but each response and prayer we say during Mass contains profound insight. Also, consider the structure of the Mass itself (The Order of Mass)–the penitential rite, the Gloria, the liturgy of the word, and the liturgy of the Eucharist. The Mass is the perfect prayer. We learn to pray from the structure of the Mass. When we pray to God, we approach Him first with sorrow for our sins, then we praise Him, then we listen to His word, etc.

Also, if you look outside of the Mass itself, we have the liturgical cycle–a year-long period during which we celebrate each Mass in the context of the mysteries of the Incarnation. Our liturgical year starts with Advent (preparation for the coming of Emmanuel), continues through the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus, and finally ends with Jesus in glory (Feast of Christ the King.) Then the cycle repeats. Each year, with each repeating cycle, we are drawn more and more into the mystery of the Trinity.

In addition to the liturgical cycle, we have our feast days during which we celebrate and reflect on the heroic lives and sacrifices of our older brothers and sisters in faith–our beloved martyrs and saints.

So in answer to your question, Sacred Tradition is handed down primarily through the life of the Church, through the liturgy–its cycles, feast days, and prayers. If we pay attention at Mass, we can learn a lot.


The Creed(s)? The Catechism? Papal Bulls and Decrees? How are the results of Ecumenical Councils published? These are all my guesses.

In the early centuries the Didache was the closest thing to a Catechism.


The Psalms are an example of oral tradition. They were sung. They describe all the heartache man experiences and how to cope…with absolute trust in God, Our Father and the Holy Spirit.’

Jesus I Trust in You. Jesus I Trust in You. Jesus I Trust in You.


Yes, I think we can consider Tradition as the way we view Scripture.

All of us who read Scripture, read it through the light of a particular Tradition. Baptists read Scripture according to Baptist tradition; Evangelicals read Scripture according to Evangelical tradition; Lutherans read Scripture according to Lutheran tradition; Jews read Scripture according to Jewish tradition.

You mentioned non-traditional doctrines being taught and bishops holding strange beliefs. This is a problem in the Church today, but it is nothing new. Even in the Apostolic age, heresies crept into the Church:

There were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will introduce destructive heresies and even deny the Master who ransomed them, bringing swift destruction on themselves. 2 Peter 2:1

Many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh; such is the deceitful one and the antichrist. Look to yourselves that you do not lose what we worked for but may receive a full recompense. Anyone who is so “progressive” as not to remain in the teaching of the Christ does not have God; whoever remains in the teaching has the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this doctrine, do not receive him in your house or even greet him; for whoever greets him shares in his evil works.
2 John 7-11

For there have been some intruders, who long ago were designated for this condemnation, godless persons, who pervert the grace of our God into licentiousness and who deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ. Jude 4

As far as individuals within the Church teaching error (including the Arian heresy), this has happened in the past and continues to happen today. We must remain vigilant just as the Apostoles remained vigilant. We have faith that the same Holy Spirit who guided the Apostles still guides the Church’s Magisterium today.


When I hear ‘oral tradition’ I am reminded of the Native American stories which were passed down through the ages. The elder story teller would teach their apprentice until they could repeat them. This way the story’s were passed down intact through the ages. It is only recently that the art is dying if the different tribes. Too bad.

So when I hear of the Catholic Oral Tradition, I have a problem separating what I know about how the Indians passed on their oral traditions, and how the church passes it on.


Fantastic answer. One of the ways Tradition is passed on is through the Sacraments, administered by the Church.


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