Tradition and Traditions

By Yves Congar, 1960

I’ve found that all of the most interesting books about tradition are written either by Catholic or Eastern Orthodox theologians.  This is because these traditional Christian bodies are committed to the following two not-easily-reconcilable propositions:  1) revelation ceased with the death of the last Apostle, and 2) doctrines like that of the Trinity are parts of the Christian revelation, even though we have no records of them being explicitly promulgated by the Apostles.  How can this be?  Here is where tradition comes to the rescue:  the traditions of the Church have come down to us from the Apostles, and these traditions contain, at least implicitly, some theological content beyond what could be directly inferred from the New Testament.  Therefore, the development of doctrine through Church history is not a case of continual revelation.  Nor is it a case of a primitive revelation being corrupted by merely human additions.  Rather it is a case of knowledge already embedded in some way in the life of a community being extracted into propositional form.  This is the Catholic/Orthodox view, and even if it were not true, it would still be the most interesting description of description out there.  It asserts straight up one of the most intriguing features about tradition:  it has real intellectual content, but this content is not (at least, while it remains traditional) being transmitted in written/conceptual form.

Congar’s book is largely a review of Catholic speculations on tradition.  The two thinkers from whom he draws most frequently are Johann Moehler and Maurice Blondel.  Congar shows that the Church has always asserted the existence of a body of tradition received from the Apostles.  Sometimes this meant information passed down by word of mouth rather than writing, although a number of actions (e.g. liturgical practices) were also understood to be part of the tradition.  Since the nineteenth century, the Catholic understanding of tradition has grown more subtle.  Traditions communicate something greater than bare information; they make a person part of a collective life.  For the Catholic, this collective life, the Church, is also the mystical body of Christ, so it is a direct experience of the reality to which revelation refers.  Traditions refashion one’s character and sensibilities.  They provide a context, a milieu, within which information like doctrines are to be understood.  For the Catholic Church, two of the great “monuments” of tradition are the liturgy and the writings of the Fathers, or rather the spirit one extracts from them.

 Though we may lose consciousness of some of the riches of the faith, so long as we preserve tradition, these treasures will be preserved for our rediscovery.  As Congar writes in 1960,

“But we need only step into an old church, taking holy water, as Pascal and Serapion did before us, in order to follow a Mass which has scarcely changed, even in externals, since St. Gregory the Great, or we may open our missals at the pages which give the Paschal Tridiuum…Everything has been preserved for us, and we can enter into a heritage which we may easily transmit in our turn, to those coming after us.  Ritual, as a means of communication and of victory over devouring time, is also seen to be a powerful means of communication in the same reality between men separated by centuries of change and affected by very different influences.  Both as a lived action and as a ritualized action, the liturgy preserves and hands on to us elements which are much more numerous than were realized by those men who performed and preserved the rites, and actually handed them on to us:  many more, even, than we ourselves can know.  The whole Eucharist is given to me in its celebration, I myself possess it in its entirety, although I understand and could express so little of it…The whole of our love is expressed in the liturgical kiss, even if we do not really attend sufficiently to what we are doing.  The whole of our faith is in the most ordinary sign of the cross, and when we say ‘Our Father’ we already imply all the knowledge which will be given to us only when we embrace it in the revelation of glory.” [emphases added]

Oh, wait…thanks a lot, spirit of Vatican II.

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