Our Gospel talks about the Pharisees who would undermine God’s teaching by replacing it
with their own corrupt traditions. It is a temptation we all have to rewrite the Gospel
according to our preferences.
The Greek word translated “tradition” is “paradosis,” and it means “that which is handed
on.” St. Paul will use it to describe the faith that he has passed on to people in 1
Corinthians 11:2; 2 Thess 2:15, 3:6. The verb form in paradidomi, to hand on, and we see it
in Luke 1:2 and 1 Cor 15:3. Also, he warns about being taken in by “empty, seductive
philosophy according to human tradition (Gal 2:8).” Distinguishing human tradition with
divine tradition is key.
Acts of the Apostles 15 describes the Council of Jerusalem and gives an example of how
the Church is to deal with such questions when they can’t be solved just by dialog. The
Church was being torn apart by the question whether being in right relationship to God
came through works of the law of Moses or by faithfulness to Jesus. The next great
example is the Council of Nicea about the identity of Jesus. There was a group following
Arius that said Jesus is not God, but more of a super angel. The Catholic belief about the
divinity of Christ was upheld. This shows us how the Holy Spirit can work in the
development of doctrine that is faithful to the revelation given in the person of Jesus.
The Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum) talks about
the nature of divine revelation and how the truth of the faith is preserved in the Church.
Chapter 2 (sections 7-10) talks about how Divine Revelation is preserved in the Church. I
haven’t the space to quote it extensively here, but it is worth looking up.
Catholic thought has trouble with the idea that right after the Bible was finished, the Church
as a whole, completely misread it for fifteen hundred years until someone finally figured
out what it really meant. So, part of what we talk about in Sacred Tradition is how the faith
has been understood for centuries and recognizing continuity of thought. We also have
trouble with the idea that God would reveal the fullness of truth in Jesus and allow it to be
lost over the years: if it is worth revealing it is worth preserving.
We also recognize that every era has its own prejudices and biases, and we would be
foolish to think we are unaffected by them. When something has been taught for centuries,
that helps us step back from our own perspective to a broader perspective.
One danger is that many people seem to assume that those who came before us were not as
smart as we are and not as good as we are. This leads to the habit of whenever something is
believed or practiced does not make immediate sense to us, we reject it without much
thought or hesitation. G.K. Chesterton said, “Don’t ever take down a fence until you know
the reason it was put up.” I was never one to do things just because that was the way we
always did them, but often it is worth looking a little deeper before dismissing something.
These days, I think our society could benefit from a bit more reflection and broader
perspective before we react. The Catholic Church is famous for moving slowly. That’s not
always a bad thing.