Role of Tradition in Catholicism

Hello all,
I would like to better understand the role of tradition in Catholicism.

Follow up questions:

  1. Is tradition considered as co-equal with Scripture in terms of importance?

  2. Do all Catholic traditions have a scriptural basis?

  3. If the answer to #2 is ‘No’, how are traditions determined to be of God and therefore profitable for a Christian to believe and follow?

  4. Can you provide a few examples of some important Catholic traditions?

Your help in this is much appreciated.

Your inquiring brother in Christ,

Excellent questions, Tom! To answer them:

  1. Yes, Sacred Tradition is equal to Scripture in importance. Sacred Tradition, also just called Tradition, is the compendium of the oral teachings that came to us from the Apostles. They’re mentioned in Scripture - St. Paul talks of holding fast to traditions, John’s Gospel states that there were things Jesus did and said that were not written down, and Jesus taught the Apostles for 40 days before He ascended into heaven - but those teachings are nowhere in Scripture.

  2. Not every Catholic teaching has its origins in Scripture. Some of them come from Sacred Tradition, or from the Magisterium (the teaching office of the Church).

  3. Scripture and Tradition are in harmony with each other. Tradition comes to us from the Apostles and has not changed. Any new teaching from the Magisterium must be in harmony with every previous teaching, because divine revelation is complete. Sometimes people will claim, “Well, the Catholic Church didn’t believe this until X time, because they didn’t write about it prior to that!” It is true that something may not have been formally written until that point - but often, things were formally written because heretics had tried to spread false beliefs questioning the teaching. (One classic example is the fact that Jesus had two natures: fully divine and fully human. I don’t think anything was formally written on this fact until Arius decided that Jesus was half-god and half-man; there wasn’t a reason to write anything until that point because the dual nature of Jesus had been accepted as fact. After Arius started spreading false teaching, they HAD to write something so everybody knew the Church’s teaching.)

  4. One classic example of Sacred Tradition is the Assumption of Mary into heaven. This was proclaimed ex cathedra, meaning that it is an infallible statement. (The Pope and bishops, as men, are not infallible. However, their holy offices in the form of the Magisterium are infallible, and consequently are protected from error in certain matters.) No early Church community EVER claimed the tomb of Mary - because although she was buried, she ascended into heaven shortly after her death. Consequently, she really had no tomb. My understanding is that Church teaching states that the Apostles were present at her death and when they went to her tomb to anoint her body, they found only flowers. This is not stated in the Bible; consequently, it would have been a teaching of the Apostles.

You can also find “tradition” with a small “t” in the Church. This is NOT Sacred Tradition; rather, it refers to pious practices. Some communities have traditions such as having processions for certain feast days, there is the tradition of crowning a statue of Mary during May to signify that Mary is the queen of heaven (NOT equal to or above God, though), and there is the tradition of praying novenas (a specific prayer or set of prayers to be said for 9 days in hopes of obtaining a specific request).

While most Traditions are based on Scripture or alluded to in Scripture, it is not necessary for every Tradition to be explicitly based in Scripture. One important point though, is that nothing in Scripture contradicts Tradition and nothing in Tradition contradicts Scripture.

Traditions are determined by Christ’s Church and the authority He left to it. When the magisterium teaches on faith and morals, it teaches infallibly meaning that the Holy Spirit protects it from teaching in error. This really starts and ends with “authority”. Christ left us His Church with the Pope as it’s head and the Bishops in union with him as descendents of the Apostles. When His Church teaches Traditions it is as if Christ Himself were teaching them.

By the way, as you continue to explore this topic, be mindful of Tradition (with a capitol “T”) and tradition (with a lowercase “t”). The former refer to faith and moral teachings which must be held and the latter to disciplines, rules and local customs which are optional and may change.

One that jumps to mind for me is the Trinity. Do you believe that we worship one God in one person or one God in three persons? If the latter, where is that explicitly stated in Scripture? The word “trinity” is never used in any book of the Bible and while it is alluded to (“I am in the Father and the Father is in me”) no where does Christ tell us that exactly what the trinity is or how it works. The knowledge you have of the trinity is a Catholic Tradition passed down and developed over the centuries.

A second is Scripture itself. Where in the Bible does the Bible tell us what, among the hundreds of writings of the early Church, books are to be included in Scripture? When you hold a Bible, you hold the books that Catholic Tradition infallibly determined are what God wants us to have as sacred scripture.

Thank you His_helpmeet and TheDoctor. Especialy helpful are your examples and I appreciate them. I see what you mean by the Trinity being a core belief of Christianity but not being explicitly mentioned in Scripture (although implied).

I noticed that the Protestant and Catholic Bibles are similar but not exactly the same. The Catholic Bible contains some books that are not in the Protestant Bible, such as Maccabees. I’m not sure when the two diverged but I assume it was during the Protestant Reformation, but I could be wrong on that.

One area in which I am still very weak is in the history of the Church from the the end of the New Testament times until the Reformation, which is a long, long time (except for little snipets like the Nicean Creed, Saint Patrick converting Ireland to Christianity, and the story of St Francis). It would be interesting to see how the early Church grew and evolved over the centuries leading up to the Reformation as well as some of the men and women of faith who lived during those times. Something tells me there may be some stories of faith that would be beneficial to all Christians.

The Mass is not specifically mentioned in Scripture but can be seen in Luke 24:13 - 35 The Road to Emmaus. Here is a very good article about it…

Notice that Christ was revealed to them when He took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.

Two books you may be interested in…

Where We Got The Bible by Fr. Henry Graham

Why Catholic Bibles Are Bigger by Gary Michuta

Here is a primer, and should get you started…

Something wonderful is happening. Many of our Evangelical brothers and sisters are beginning to appreciate the ancient Catholic teaching that Sacred Scripture is the written portion, not the totality, of Sacred Tradition given to us by the apostles with the authority of Christ himself…Sacred Tradition is the living and growing truth of Christ contained, not only in Scripture, but in the common teaching, common life, and common worship of the Church.

  1. Is tradition considered as co-equal with Scripture in terms of importance?

  1. If the answer to #2 is ‘No’, how are traditions determined to be of God and therefore profitable for a Christian to believe and follow?

From the link above…That’s where the Magisterium comes in. This Latin word simply means teaching authority of the bishops, successors of the apostles, who teach in union with the Pope, who is the successor of Peter. It was the Magisterium of the Catholic Church in the 2nd through 4th centuries that discerned which books were inspired and were to be recognized as Scripture. It was the Magisterium of the successors of the apostles that guided and guarded the process of the handing on of apostolic tradition.

From Clement of Rome:
Clement of Rome writes this in his Epistle to Corinth…

1Clem 42:4 So preaching everywhere in country and town, they appointed their firstfruits, when they had proved them by the Spirit, to be bishops and deacons unto them that should believe.
1Clem 44:2 For this cause therefore, having received complete foreknowledge, they appointed the aforesaid persons, and afterwards they provided a continuance, that if these should fall asleep, other approved men should succeed to their ministration.

And later from St. Ireneus, (d. AD 200) writes:

But, again, when we refer [the heretics] to that tradition which originates from the apostles, [and] which is preserved by means of the succession of presbyters in the Churches, they object to tradition, saying that they themselves are wiser not merely than the presbyters, but even than the apostles, because they have discovered the unadulterated truth. For [they maintain] that the apostles intermingled the things of the law with the words of the Saviour; . . . It comes to this, therefore, that these men do now consent neither to Scripture nor to tradition.10

. 3) Can you provide a few examples of some important Catholic traditions?

The Liturgies of both the East and the West is an example.

You may want to look into this also, it is known that St. Thomas went and preached in India and established a church there (now known as the Syro-Malabar Church). They lost contact with Christianity sometime and for several centuries. They were discovered again sometime in after the 1300s or so…by Portugese missionaries (I believe). The missionaries were surprised there where Christians already, had the mass, the sacraments.

Didn’t our moral code originate before the Apostles and some outside of Scripture? Civic duties, for example.

Thanks to Pablope and johnnyc for your insights and for the links to go further in depth. Much appreciated, my friends. :thumbsup:

My apologies, but I am not clear on what you are asking. Can you ask again in a different way please?

It was more of a statement. Cicero’s De Officiis, for example, was adopted by the early church fathers as the ideal guidance in civic matters. Expressed principles we still use today, “choose the lesser of all evils” and such.

I see now. Well stated then. Thank you for taking the time to clarify.

It depends on what you mean by that. Everything revealed by God and handed down through the Apostles is to be regarded “with equal veneration,” whether it was written down in inspired Scripture or not. But “equal veneration” doesn’t mean equal importance.Scripture is, I would say (and while I am not yet Catholic, I endeavor to follow Catholic teaching and I think my opinions are in agreement with it), by far the most important of the many way in which the teaching of Jesus and the Apostles has been handed down.

  1. Do all Catholic traditions have a scriptural basis?

There’s a difference between Tradition and traditions. There are lots of traditions–like wearing certain colors at certain seasons of the liturgical year–that aren’t divine revelation but just custom. These aren’t of equal standing with Scriptural truth, of course. But if we’re talking about Tradition–truth revealed by God–then I would say that it’s all connected. Vatican II’s phrasing was “the Church does not draw her certainty about revealed truth only from Scripture” or something to that effect.

  1. If the answer to #2 is ‘No’, how are traditions determined to be of God and therefore profitable for a Christian to believe and follow?

By the guidance of the Holy Spirit. It’s hard to be more specific than that because it varies from one case to another. Again, this is about the certainty with which the Church holds a tradition–all Tradition is connected to Scripture in some way, because all truth is connected to all other truth and Scripture is a well of infinite depth.

  1. Can you provide a few examples of some important Catholic traditions?

Things that Catholics believe and modern Protestants typically don’t, in large part because they are relatively hard to establish from Scripture alone, would include:

The sacrificial nature of the Eucharist and the priesthood
Asking saints to intercede for you
Prayer for the dead if you count only the Protestant canon of the OT (so it is in Scripture, but not in what Protestants call Scripture–it may be mentioned in the NT as well, actually, but it’s ambiguous)
The sinlessness of Mary


Mark Noll’s book Turning Points is a good, brief summary of some major events in church history. Noll is a very learned, ecumenical Protestant (teaches at Notre Dame, actually).

If it’s not inappropriate, I’d also like to recommend the magazine Christian Historywhich my wife edits and for which I write frequently.


Thanks, Edwin for the info. Much appreciated and very helpful. I think I will look into reading Mark Noll’s book ‘Turning Points’ based on your recommendation.

Brief history of the Bible:

Israel and Judah had various texts that wrote down their oral traditions. Apparently the first such books were written about 10th Century B.C., under David or Solomon (the Yahwist texts from the first four books of the Old Testament), as well as somewhat later the prophets (Amos is the earliest written prophetic book we have, from about the 8th Century). Over time, especially during the Babylonian Captivity, in the 6th Century, these books were given final form and collected as Torah (first five books of the OT) and Prophets, plus other texts (such as the Psalms) called the Writings.

Now, all these early books were written in Hebrew or the closely related Aramaic. However, after Alexander the Great conquered the whole area (4th Century BC), Greek became a common language, and so (by tradition) the Bible was translated into Greek in Alexandria–this became the Septuagint. In the process, some additional books were added–including some chapters of Daniel, additions to the book of Esther, and the two books of Maccabees. There was no dispute over this–the canon had not yet been established.

After the Christians came along, they began accepting gentile converts, and very quickly the Greek speakers far outnumbered the few Hebrew/Aramaic-speaking Jewish Christians. Hence they adopted the Septuagint as the Old Testament, and began to add new texts, such as letters of Paul and the Gospels, to tell the story of Jesus and the Church, forming the core of the New Testament. In response to this development, the Jewish Rabbis got together and, among other things, decided to go back to a more restricted Bible–just the books written and preserved in Hebrew and Aramaic. Meanwhile, the Church also had some problems over what texts were inspired–Marcion comes to mind–and so between about A.D. 250 and 400 the books of the Bible were considered, and the canon was established.

Fast forward some 12 or so centuries, to the Protestant Reformation. The Protestants apparently wanted to get rid of some of the books they saw as “too Catholic” and one way was to point to the Jewish Bible, and take that as their Old Testament, so they did. Some put the other books and chapters into a special section, “Apocrypha”; other simply banished them from the Bible. Luther also wanted to get rid of the Letter of James, since it said that faith alone, without works, is useless, but in the end he accept it. So the result: The New Testament is the same among Orthodox, Catholics and Protestants, but the Old Testament differs by these “Deutrocanonical” books.

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