Monday, 19 August 2013

The Many Voices of Sacred Tradition

In Catholic theology, the Sacred Tradition has been understood to be manifested in and transmitted by many different sources. By what is contained in these sources, we can know what is contained in the Sacred Tradition itself, and thus what it is that pertains to the Catholic faith and everything annexed to it. From these sources we learn what it is we must believe and what it is we must do. Now, Tradition in the Church can be understood in two different senses: there is a broad sense of tradition and a strict sense. The former contains simply everything that has been handed down in the Church, including the Scriptures, while the latter is confined to what has been passed down in sources other than Sacred Scripture. 

1. The Magisterium. The Magisterium of the Church is perhaps the most important source for our knowledge of Tradition. Often, there is a distinction made between the remote and the proximate rule of faith. The remote rule of faith is said to be constituted of Scripture and Tradition, while the proximate rule of faith is the Magisterium of the Church. Normally, however, this distinction need not be made, since Scripture, Tradition, and the Magisterium ought to come together in such a way that forms one coherent rule of faith. Hence, normally, the Magisterium ought to be trusted as the authentic organ of Tradition; and this trust ought to be complete and unreserved as regards the infallible teachings of the Magisterium. But this distinction between the remote and proximate rule of faith becomes useful when we consider that it is possible for the Magisterium - when it does not speak infallibly - to deviate from the rules set forth by Scripture and Tradition. Otherwise, however, the remote and proximate rules of faith ought to come together as one coherent rule. Anyhow, we find the teachings of the Magisterium in all the great encyclicals and other documents of the Popes down through the ages, as well as in the Ecumenical Councils. Tradition is represented by the magnificent continuity which exists between these sources. We distinguish between the extraordinary and the ordinary, universal Magisterium:
a. The Extraordinary Magisterium. This is when the Pope or an Ecumenical Council makes a formal, solemn statement of doctrine. A statement of this kind is infallible when it is explicitly and irrevocably defined, with supreme authority, and pronounced binding in conscience on all the faithful. 
b. The Ordinary, Universal Magisterium.  This is found in the day-to-day teaching of the Church, such as in many of the Papal encyclicals and other letters and documents and preaching. Statements of this kind can also be infallible if it is clear that they are intended to be irrevocable and definitive, and if it is clear that no Catholic may in good conscience depart from them. 
It is important that even when the Magisterium does not necessarily fulfill the conditions of infallibility in a particular teaching, nonetheless we owe such a teaching the natural assent of our mind and will, insofar as this teaching represents the traditional opinion of the Church.

2. The Creeds of the Church. The creeds of the Church are essentially verbal professions of the faith which have been formulated and promulgated by the Church at various points in history. Notable among these creeds are the following:
a. The Apostles Creed. - A basic summary of all the truths of faith, such as the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Redemption, the Church, Eternal Life, etc. 
b. The Nicene Creed. - Similar to the Apostles Creed in content and form, but with more depth and length. 
c. The Athanasian Creed. - A powerful exposition of the truths concerning the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the necessity of Faith for Salvation. 
d. The Chalcedonian Creed. - A summary of Catholic teaching on the Incarnation and the Hypostatic union. 
e. The Tridentine Creed. - Contains the Nicene Creed, but continues with several other essential aspects of Christian faith and duty. (This creed was slightly modified at the First Vatican Council, so as to incorporate some of its teachings.)
These creeds are infallible statements of the Catholic faith, and are therefore binding upon all Catholics. 

3. The Fathers of the Church. Whenever the Fathers of the Church are in agreement on a particular point relating to doctrine or morality, this is held to be an authoritative source of the Church's teaching. The individual fathers are also authoritative each by themselves (especially St. Augustine), although their authority is greatest and most definitive when they are all in agreement. The Council of Trent and the First Vatican Council condemn all those who interpret the scriptures in such a way that is contrary to the unanimous interpretation of the Fathers. 

4. The Doctors of the Church. Thus far, there are 35 officially proclaimed Doctors of the Church. These learned and saintly writers are esteemed in the Church as having contributed to the Church's knowledge of the faith to a substantial degree. Among the greatest of the doctors of the Church is St. Thomas Aquinas, often called the Angelic Doctor or the Common Doctor. The teachings of St. Thomas have repeatedly been commended by the Church to the faithful as a sure and reliable norm for instruction in the faith, more so than any other writer in the Church.

5. The Saints and Spiritual Writers. Throughout the history of the Church, many of the saints and other devout Catholics of note have bequeathed to us written testimonies to the sublime truths of God. There are countless sources which give us insight into how God has worked in the lives of holy men and women, and how these same people have lived out the faith in practice. These sources has come down to us and have perfected our knowledge of the faith and of how to live it. For example, the writings of St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avila, Francis de Sales, Catherine of Siena, Therese of Lisieux, Thomas Kempis, and countless others. It is in large part thanks to these individuals of extraordinary virtue and holiness that we have coherent systems of Christian spirituality.

6. The Theologians of the Church. During the Middle-ages, a tradition was born (founded, of course, in the Tradition of the Apostles and the Fathers), in which many men of eminent learning came together and formed schools of Catholic thought. These were the Scholastics, foremost among whom was the great St. Thomas Aquinas (the "Prince" of the Scholastics), mentioned above. Following in the line of this tradition came many other great scholars and theologians, down to the twentieth century (unfortunately it seems that there are few of them today). 

7. The Liturgy of the Church. Pope Celestine I was the first Pope to enunciate the principle Legem credendi statuit lex orandi - the rule of belief is indicated by the rule of prayer. As such, the prayer of the Church constitutes a source of knowledge about what the Church believes. This is only reasonable, since prayer, especially that prayer which is at the very heart of the Church's activity, ought to embody the doctrines of the faith in such a way that gives glory to God and is conducive to a the edification and greater devotion of souls.

8. Christian Art, Architecture, and Music. Some of the greatest testimonies to Tradition are found in the art and architecture of the Church. Christian art is found everywhere from the Catacombs of Rome to the great Churches and Cathedrals. These monuments depict in various ways and with very great beauty the mysteries of faith and Christian piety, and have been bestowed upon us for our edification. Countless statues, images, icons, other paintings, and the magnificent architecture of the Churches, offer us an aid in the raising of our hearts and minds to God, in contemplation of the sacred truths which He has revealed. Likewise, the many musical compositions which have been composed for the enhancement of Catholic worship - such as Gregorian Chant and Sacred Polyphony, etc. - are themselves a testimony to Tradition.

9. The Sensus Catholicus. By this is understood the constant and unanimous belief and observance of the faithful. Whatever is held everywhere and always by the faithful of the Church, as opposed to only by the few and in a short period, is held to be true. Thus, whatever doctrine enjoys the common and constant consent of Catholics is an authentic part of Tradition, and therefore not to be denied or rejected. This standard constitutes a kind of general rule by which we might know what is the doctrine of the Church.

The rejection of or departure from any one of these monuments is considered by the Church to be an act of impiety, meriting severe censure. Hence, the Second Council of Nicea declared: 
Therefore, all those who dare to think or teach anything different, or who follow the accursed heretics in rejecting ecclesiastical traditions, or who devise innovations, or who spurn anything entrusted to the church (whether it be the gospel or the figure of the cross or any example of representational art or any martyr's holy relic), or who fabricate perverted and evil prejudices against cherishing any of the lawful traditions of the catholic church, or who secularize the sacred objects and saintly monasteries, we order that they be suspended if they are bishops or clerics, and excommunicated if they are monks or lay people... If anyone rejects any written or unwritten tradition of the church, let him be anathema.
Although these monuments of themselves do not necessarily constitute parts of the Divine Tradition itself, nonetheless by virtue of their inseparable connection to this Divine Tradition, they too deserve the highest respect and veneration. As sources of our knowledge of the Divine Tradition, they ought themselves to be guarded, protected, and preserved. Tradition thus applies to these objects and sources as well, as a pattern and a rule in the observance and interpretation of them.

Thus, for example, they are gravely mistaken who depart from the concepts and formulas used by the Scholastics in the teaching and exposition of Catholic doctrine. This is all the more true for those formulas which have been used by the Church herself in the formal definition of dogmas and the teaching of other doctrines. Moreover, to abandon the traditional principles employed in the production of the arts of the Church would likewise be the height of insanity. To live in a way that is at odds with the spirituality of the saints is bound to be detrimental, rather than conducive, to sanctity and salvation. Likewise, the rejection or overthrow of a traditional practice or doctrine held by the faithful would generally be a serious error, even if not strictly heretical. And of course, to abandon the traditional liturgy of the Church, from which so much knowledge has been gained in the pursuit of Divine truths, would itself be a grave mistake. And so forth. 

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