What exactly is “tradition” in the Catholic Church and why does it have the same authority as the Bible?
You have lots of questions, and many people who are willing to answer them. I would suggest you begin your search here:
You can search by keyword and find the work of Catholic apologists answering your questions. Here are just a few results from a search of “tradition”:
Everyone has traditions, even if the tradition is to read and follow as best as possible the bible.
In the bible, where there is instruction, it’s basis would be the experience from another.
To follow that instruction is to carry on a tradition.
It is called Sacred Tradition. The Bible, as you have it today, is a subset and a product of Sacred Tradition.
The list of books in the Bible came from the Tradition of the Catholic Church, based on what was being read in the Churches in the early centuries before a final list was settled.
Sacred Tradition comes from Christ. It’s the full, living gift of Christ to the Apostles, faithfully handed down through each generation. It is through Tradition that the Holy Spirit makes the Risen Lord present among us, offering us the very same saving Word and Sacraments that he gave to the Apostles!
Understanding Catholic Tradition is essential to understanding the Catholic Church and the Catholic Christian faith.
Tradition is “handed down”
The word “tradition” actually means handing down something to another person.
Scripture testifies to this meaning of Catholic Tradition as the normal mode of transmitting the Faith:
“So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter.” (2 Thess 2:15)
“For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you…” (1 Cor 11:23)
“For I handed on to you as of first importance what I also received…” (1 Cor 15:3)
“…I know whom I have believed *, and I am sure that he is able to guard until that Day what has been entrusted to me. Follow the pattern of the sound words which you have heard from me, in the faith and love which are in Christ Jesus; guard the truth that has been entrusted to you by the Holy Spirit who dwells within us.” (2 Tim 1:11-14)
“You then, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus, and what you have heard from me before many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.” (2 Tim 2:1-2)
“…I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints.” (Jude 1:3)
This is the most basic meaning of Catholic Tradition: it is the true Faith itself, given to the Apostles by Christ and faithfully transmitted to each new generation. (Catechism, 77-78)
We often write Tradition, with a capital ‘T’, to mean Sacred Tradition. This Catholic Tradition is different from those traditions (small ‘t’) that are merely customs, and which are not part of Divine Revelation.
The Apostolic source of Catholic Tradition
The Second Vatican Council (“Vatican II”) wrote an important document called “On Divine Revelation” (Dei Verbum in Latin). It’s quite readable, and contains definitive teaching on the full meaning of Catholic Tradition.
The Council notes the importance of seeing that Catholic Tradition is firmly rooted in the Apostles: it is Christ’s whole gift to them, and to us. The Council writes:
In His gracious goodness, God has seen to it that what He had revealed for the salvation of all nations would abide perpetually in its full integrity and be handed on to all generations. Therefore Christ the Lord in whom the full revelation of the supreme God is brought to completion…, commissioned the Apostles to preach to all men that Gospel which is the source of all saving truth and moral teaching, and to impart to them heavenly gifts.
(Dei Verbum, 7)
It is specifically this “commissioning of the Apostles” that is fulfilled in the handing on of Catholic Tradition.
The Apostles dedicated themselves to this mission, and they appointed other faithful men to succeed them and carry on their work. That same passage of Dei Verbum continues:
This commission was faithfully fulfilled by the Apostles who, by their oral preaching, by example, and by observances handed on what they had received from the lips of Christ, from living with Him, and from what He did, or what they had learned through the prompting of the Holy Spirit. The commission was fulfilled, too, by those Apostles and apostolic men who under the inspiration of the same Holy Spirit committed the message of salvation to writing.
(Dei Verbum, 7)
In short, “Tradition” or “Sacred Tradition” also known as “Apostolic Tradition” are those teachings that Jesus directly “handed down” to His apostles, which they orally passed on to their successors, but which never were never made part of Scripture. Keep in mind that Jesus Himself never “wrote” anything. All of His teachings were passed on orally. Some them the Apostles or their followers wrote down. Others they did not. They merely continued to hand them down orally, like all of Christ’s teachings were handed down for the first roughly 40 years of the Church until Mark (or some say Matthew) wrote the first Gospel. Until then, there were NO scriptural teachings of Christ. All of them were by oral Tradition ONLY.*
Deacon Jeff’s explanation of Tradition is wonderful. I’ve read it twice already. Like when you read a bible passage more than once, you gleen new ideas from it.
I understand about Tradition. I’m pretty well-versed in our faith. Have been studying for about 40 years (whoa!), have taught catechism, belong to different groups, etc. I feel that I know Jesus personally and am hanging on to Him to get to heaven.
But IGotQuestions has a point. I have a big problem with purgatory, for instance. Theological reasons we can’t get into now. So does that make me be not catholic? I could accept on faith, but my brain is having a difficult time. A priest “friend” of mine said not to worry about it too much.
I mean, I understand about passing on ideas orally. But Paul spent 3 years speaking to Peter and the others and coming up with our Christian theology, for intance the book of Romans, if something were of major importance, wouldn’t it have been written down somewhere and included in the bible??
Mathew (maybe Mark as the Deacon said) and the other 3 gospel writers, and Paul and Peter and James and Timoth and let’s not forget our John, all wrote so what Jesus said and did would not be forgotten. Wouldn’t they have written down all the important things? Like when do you baptize, where do you go immediately after death (Paul said to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord).
I’ve never received an answer to these questions. Maybe there is none, like so much else which has to be accepted by faith.
God bless you
The 2nd and 3rd links provided by Michael 1978 are very good but no new ideas for me and they do not answer that basic question of WHY weren’t these important doctrines written down? I believe they should help IGotQuestions and hope he reads all.
Sometimes we refer to the Chruch Fathers. Was our theology handed down to THEM? My adult catechism class refers to them more than to the magesterium of the church. Not that I mind: Augustine, Aquinas, Ignatius of Antioch. Great.
If there is something you don’t understand in the faith, but are willing to trust the Church anyway, without rejecting the teaching, then you are still a Catholic in good standing. Just because we don’t understand something about the faith, or why the Church teaches something, we can still trust the Church, with her 2000 years of wisdom, and keep trying to learn.
Personally, there are lots of areas of the faith that I don’t feel that I have a good grasp on. But I trust in the Church, and keep striving to better understand.
To you question about everything written down. Absolutely not, we should not expect everything to be written down. The Gospels tell the tale of the life of Jesus from a particular point of view, but even John explicitly states that not everything is included. The letters and epistles are aimed at specific audiences and deal with specific issues the Church is facing at that time. There can be a lot of teaching in them, but that doesn’t mean that everything is covered. Take for example Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus. A large focus is on the ordination of men to the priesthood/bishop and what to look for in a man. It is advice on how to shepherd their flocks and other topics. St. Paul spent many years with these men, so he’s not going to go over every possible scenario with them in the letters. He is going to address the most pressing issues.
Remember, the Church is what Jesus built. The Apostles trusted Jesus and His promise to lead the Church into all truth, since it is the pillar and foundation of truth. So it would be shocking to think they would actually consider writing everything down.
Great points. Love your last paragraph. Reminds me of John 21:25
“And there are also many other things which Jesus did, which if they were written in detail, I suppose that even the world itself would not contain the books which were written.”
Thanks. Will keep pluggin’ away.
God bless you
As Catholic we differentiate between Tradition, with a capital T, also called sacred tradition, and tradition with a small t.
Capital T, Tradition, or sacred tradition, is unchanging. These are the teachings of Christ that are passed from generation to generation intact as taught directly to the Apostles. They are protected by the Holy Spirit and entrusted to the the magisterium, or teaching authority of the Church.
Customs, or traditions, with a small t, can change over time and may vary in different localities. While one small community may have elaborate processions and festivals celebrating different feast days, these would be fall under tradition. The transubstantiation during the Mass falls under Tradition.
Thanks for the great answers.