Catholicism Explained - Sacred Tradition

Time for the next Catholicism Explained post! (I really ought to work on getting these up earlier in the day. Oh well.) If you're interested in reading older posts, we discussed the Real Presence here and here.

Today we're going to talk about Sacred Tradition.

(Does anyone else think of The Fiddler on the Roof  when you hear the word "tradition"?)

Fiddler on the Roof....another childhood staple. Love, love, love this musical...:

Basic Church Teaching

Sacred Tradition, basically, is the teaching of Jesus Christ handed down from generation to generation through the Apostles and their successors. The Catechism of the Catholic Church has this to say:

"In keeping with the Lord's command, the Gospel was handed on in two ways:

- orally 'by the apostles who handed on, by the spoken word of their preaching, by the example they gave, by the institutions they established, what they themselves had received - whether from the lips of Christ, from his way of life and his works, or whether they had learned it at the prompting of the Holy Spirit';

- in writing 'by those apostles and other men associated with the apostles who, under the inspiration of the same Holy Spirit, committed the message of salvation to writing.'" (CCC 76)

So Oral Tradition is just as big a part of passing on the Gospel as Written Tradition (Scripture) is. It doesn't replace Scripture or anything like that; rather, the two go hand in hand.

Oral Tradition and the Bible

I find it interesting that Scripture itself is considered part of Sacred Tradition. Indeed, without Oral Tradition we wouldn't have Written Tradition. The books of the Bible have been around for - well, a really long time; but it wasn't until the Council of Carthage in 419 that they were officially compiled in a definitive list. At this point the Church said, "Here, these are the books that are divinely inspired; this is what you can read as absolute truth." How did they know which books were divinely inspired? Through Oral Tradition.

Oral Tradition, then, has always been a part of the Christian faith. This is Biblically supported, as explained in this article, which points out several relevant Bible verses:

"...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)

"So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes by the preaching of Christ" (Rom. 10:17)

"[W]hat you have heard from me before many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also" (2 Tim. 2:2)

Tradition vs. tradition

It's important to note the different kinds of tradition. There's Tradition with a big T - the really serious infallible kind - and tradition with a small t.

Tradition means the basic truths of Christianity which have been handed down from age to age - things that are indispensable to the Catholic faith. So, things like the Trinity. The word "Trinity" is never mentioned in the Bible (though it is Biblically supported), but it is a basic tenant of the faith. You can't be a Christian and not believe in the Trinity. That's Tradition with a big T.

Other examples of Tradition with a big T include the divinity of Christ, Purgatory, the Immaculate Conception, and other such doctrines. (Not all of these are indispensable to Christianity - there are lots of good Christians who don't believe in the Assumption of Mary, for instance - but they are indispensable to Catholicism.)

The tradition with a small t means pretty much anything which is a part of the faith, and sometimes a big part, but not an indispensable part. These traditions can be done without. They may change through time.

Examples of tradition with a small t include women veiling themselves at Mass, setting up Nativity scenes at Christmas time, having Mass in Latin, devotions such as the rosary, and even having unmarried priests. All these things are changeable and unnecessary. We don't veil at Mass anymore; there was a time Nativity scenes hadn't been invented; Mass can now be said in English; devotions come and go; and at certain times in Church history priests have been allowed to marry. Small t traditions are nice touches to the faith, and people often feel they are integral parts of their lives; but they aren't basic tenants of the faith the way big T Traditions are.

This is all explained very well in this article.

In Conclusion!

I don't know if I can think of anything else to say about Sacred Tradition at the moment. So let's talk! Comments? Questions? Concerns? Arguments?

 Is there any way this feature could be better? Have you any ideas for future Catholicism Explained posts? Does anyone else feel like watching Fiddler on the Roof right now? :)


  1. Haha! Fiddler on the roof! Never seen it, but heard the music, to my great confusion (at least until certain aspects were explained about it). I love that you have defended such a little-defended, and yet indispensable part of our religion! So many people shun tradition, calling it 'fancies from the minds of sinful men', meaning the popes, bishops, and priests. This is such a terrible thing! I would seriously recommend the book 'The Great Heresies' by Hilaire Belloc (G. K. Chesterton's BFF) if you want to know more about such tradition and arguments for and against our faith.

    1. I can see how the music alone would be confusing. :)

      It's so very sad whenever anyone shuns any part of the faith. I think most people who do it do so out of ignorance or misguided fervor, though, and not out of ill will. Which is why it's good to talk about these things. :)

      Ooh, I must read that book. Any friend of Chesterton's is a friend of mine! I think I've heard of Hilaire Belloc before.

    2. Yes, actually their views on things were so similar, that the public referred to them as 'the Chesterbelloc' when they gave their opinions on things. I always thought that was cool. :)

  2. Just for the record, you've earned about a thousand points for including a reference to Fiddler on the Roof and a picture of Tevye!

    You make a good point, separating tradition and Tradition. I'm not against tradition, as I've said before. But I suppose it's the 'little t' traditions I'm -for lack of a better word- slightly wary of. I sometimes see them being used to separate Christians. When we'd rather be 'right', instead of focused on the more important 'capital T' Tradition: the Gospel.

    1. Yay! ;) I really need to watch Fiddler on the Roof again...

      I can see how that might happen - little t traditions separating Christians. Although if we have the right understanding of them they shouldn't be a problem. They're not essential to the faith, just beautiful gemstones coming along with it (I guess you could say), so there's no reason to get all worked up about a disagreement. And small t traditions, little ceremonies and customs, are just such an innate part of human life. Even outside religion (as one of those articles I gave a link to says) there are tons of little t traditions, like Christmas trees and birthday cakes and things like that.

      I think there's a passage in G. K. Chesterton's book "Heretics" where he basically says, "The man who scoffs at religion for being too full of silly ceremonies doesn't realize that every day he goes through a dozen silly ceremonies - tipping his hat to a lady, wiping his shoes before he goes through the door, putting a handkerchief in his pocket - which would seem just as silly to an outsider as church ceremonies seem to him." Not that that's really what we're talking about, here, but I saw a chance to mention Chesterton and took it. ;)

      Wow! Look how long I've been rambling....sorry about that! :)

  3. When's the next C.E.?

    1. Sorry! It was supposed to be yesterday, but I didn't get around to it. I'll try to put one up today (Monday the 27), but there's a chance I might not get it up until Sunday,July 3.

    2. Okay, thanks.... I love this site and how amazingly creative (and yet so classy!) it is, and so I am sorry if I get impatient. Btw, I do have a name, I wonder why it puts me as anonymous.... :P

    3. Aww, thank you! Don't worry about being impatient - you don't come off that way at all. :)

      Oh dear, computers and logins and other internet-y things can be so annoying. (My vocabulary is amazing, isn't it? I'm so tech-savvy...not.) Feel free to sign the end of your comments if you like! Or not. Whatever you're comfortable with. :)

  4. Well, my silly device is currently not letting me, so I guess anonymous I'll stay. :)


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