In some Catholic circles today, there are disagreements with respect to what constitutes the Tradition of the Church. When we speak of “Tradition,” to what exactly are we referring? On the one hand, there are some who think that everything can change and that the Church can even substantially change her teaching over time. On the other hand, there are those who think that nothing can change including even certain practices and disciplines of the Church. In order to address this dilemma, it’s important to look at Sacred Scripture and what the Church actually teaches about what constitutes Tradition.
In the Gospel of Mark 7:1-13, an exchange takes place between the Pharisees and scribes and Jesus that highlights the distinction in Catholic teaching between Sacred Tradition and ecclesial tradition, between “big T” Tradition and “small t” tradition. When the Pharisees accuse the disciples of Jesus of flouting the tradition of the elders, which required the washing of hands before eating, Jesus excoriates the Pharisees for neglecting the Word of God for the sake of their man-made traditions. He then gives them the example of dedicating to God support that is owed to one’s parents. Jesus points out that this man-made tradition is actually a violation of the 4th commandment to honor father and mother. Yet this commandment violation is given the cover of “tradition” in order to justify it.
Thus, Jesus makes an important distinction between what is known as Sacred Tradition, which includes the Ten Commandments given by God, and human tradition, which is given by man. In the Church, it can be very easy to confuse Sacred Tradition with what is called ecclesial (human) tradition. Quite simply, Sacred Tradition is the Deposit of Faith (Depositum Fidei). The Catechism of the Catholic Church says in paragraph 81: “[Holy] Tradition transmits in its entirety the Word of God which has been entrusted to the apostles by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit. It transmits it to the successors of the apostles so that, enlightened by the Spirit of truth, they may faithfully preserve, expound, and spread it abroad by their preaching.” Paragraph 83 says: “The [Sacred] Tradition here in question comes from the apostles and hands on what they received from Jesus’ teaching and example and what they learned from the Holy Spirit.” Since Sacred Tradition comprises the teaching of Jesus Christ as it has been handed on by the Apostles and their successors, it is not subject to substantial change. The teaching of Jesus Christ is timeless. The Church might make certain modifications to her language over time in order to accommodate semantical changes or there may be legitimate developments in doctrine, but the essential/substantial teaching always remains the same, just as Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever (cf. Heb. 13:8). Sacred Tradition also includes the essential elements and formulae required for the validity of the sacraments, since they also have been handed on by Christ through the Apostles. For example, the words for Baptism “I baptize you N. in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” cannot change.
When it comes to ecclesial (human) tradition, the Catechism says the following in paragraph 83: “[Sacred] Tradition is to be distinguished from the various theological, disciplinary, liturgical, or devotional traditions, born in the local churches over time. These are the particular forms, adapted to different places and times, in which the great Tradition is expressed. In light of Tradition, these traditions can be retained, modified or even abandoned under the guidance of the Church’s magisterium.” Notice the types of “small t” traditions that the Catechism mentions here: theological, disciplinary, liturgical, and devotional. These “ecclesial traditions” can be changed over time under the guidance of the magisterium (the Holy Father and the bishops in union with him) when it is necessary and/or prudent to do so. For example, the Church’s discipline on the required fast before receiving Holy Communion has changed. The faithful were previously required to abstain from food and water from midnight until the time of receiving Communion. My former bishop of the Diocese of Wilmington once told me that as a boy he had to be very careful not to swallow the water he used in brushing his teeth. But now the discipline rule has changed. The faithful are required to fast only from food at least one hour before receiving Communion. Consuming water and even taking medicine are acceptable. Whether or not one personally agrees with this change, it is a legitimate modification in ecclesial tradition.
Another example is the rosary. The rosary is a very important part of the lives of many Catholics today and it’s a beautiful devotion. My community is committed to praying the rosary daily. Yet we should always keep in mind that the rosary is not a part of Sacred Tradition. It is not an unchanging devotional practice that was taught by Christ and handed on through the Apostles. It is indeed a very praiseworthy tradition that can assist us in our appreciation for the Deposit of Faith, but it does not properly belong to Sacred Tradition. Hence, legitimate changes can be made, and have been made, to the rosary over time. The Hail Mary prayer used to consist of only the first half of the prayer (“Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.”) and the second half was not added until much later (“Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen”). The Fatima prayer, “O my Jesus forgive us our sins…” was also a later addition. In 2002, Pope St. John Paul II added a whole new set of mysteries to the rosary, the Luminous mysteries. Devotional practices, which are ecclesial traditions, can change over time.
Finally, ecclesial tradition also includes the liturgy. The Catechism, in line with the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the liturgy Sacrosanctum Concilium, teaches in paragraph 1205: “In the liturgy, above all that of the sacraments, there is an immutable part, a part that is divinely instituted and of which the Church is the guardian, and parts that can be changed, which the Church has the power and on occasion also the duty to adapt to the cultures of recently evangelized peoples.” The liturgical chaos that ensued in the wake of the Second Vatican Council is so well-known that we do not need to rehash that here. There are some who will blame Vatican II specifically for the problems in the Church and the liturgy today. Yet it was not the will of the Council that the liturgy should suffer substantial changes nor was the Council’s call for change meant as an excuse for everyone to do as they please with the liturgy. Sacrosanctum Concilium has very specific instructions on the liturgy that were widely ignored in places like the US and Europe. However, in places like Africa and Asia, the changes were appropriately adopted and both continents experienced exponential growth in the Church since Vatican II. To this day, the Church in Africa is very vibrant as they firmly adhere to the unchanging teaching of the Church – Sacred Tradition, the Deposit of Faith.
In the last couple of decades, there has been a widespread renewal in the liturgy and a greater respect for Sacred Tradition. It is true that ecclesial traditions should be respected by the faithful and should not be disregarded or discarded on a whim simply because they can be changed. Yet it is equally important to always maintain the distinction between Sacred Tradition and ecclesial traditions so that we might not become like the Pharisees, forsaking the Word of God for the sake of our human traditions. Sacred Tradition cannot be changed whereas ecclesial traditions can be changed. The law of charity and the mission of evangelization always precede our own personal attachments to “small t” traditions.
— Fr. Matthew Mary