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Nature of Sacred Tradition


According to its strict definition, Sacred Tradition refers to the body of revealed truths and practices that originated with Christ and the Apostles, but which have not been committed to writing by way of divine inspiration and which have since been handed down to us from generation to generation by word of mouth. Together with Holy Scripture, it constitutes the entire deposit of faith that has once and for all been “delivered to the saints” (Jude 3).


The above definition indicates the nature of Sacred Tradition when considered objectively, that is, as a body of truths or doctrines. However, Sacred Tradition may also be considered actively, that is, as an act or practice. Sacred tradition, when viewed in this light, is nothing more than the act and practice of preaching by the Church, through which the truths contained in the deposit of faith are authoritatively communicated. In the beginning, the Magisterium consisted of St. Peter, the Apostles, and the bishops whom they ordained. Their oral teachings also became part of Sacred Tradition. But after the death of the last Apostle, public revelation ceased. Although the Magisterium continued to exercise its function of preaching and teaching the word of God, it no longer teaches any new revelation but simply interprets and defines dogmas that were already contained in Sacred Tradition and Holy Scripture. Its function is reduced to being the principal teacher, interpreter, guardian, and keeper of the Faith.


It is important not to confuse the Sacred Traditions of the Church with the “traditions of men,” which our Lord condemned in Matthew 15:3–9 and Mark 7:1–15. These texts are often cited by critics of the Church to show that Christ condemns Sacred Tradition. But that was not so. The so-called “traditions of men” censured by our Lord consisted of purely external displays of piety, such as the Jewish ritual of washing their hands without at the same time maintaining the purity of their souls or their rule of exempting the Jews from financially supporting their aging parents on the excuse that they were donating money to the Temple treasury (the Korban rule). Christ justly condemned these human traditions as acts of hypocrisy.


The Sacred Traditions of the Church are entirely different. They consist rather of doctrinal teachings and practices that came from God or Christ and that were originally handed down from generation to generation by word of mouth, some of which were never recorded explicitly or completely in Holy Scripture. It is these sacred teachings and traditions, not the corrupt “traditions of men,” that St. Paul was referring to when he said to Timothy (a bishop of the early Church): “And the things which thou hast heard of me by many witnesses, the same commend to faithful men, who shall be fit to teach others also” (2 Tim. 2:2). The text beautifully illustrates how doctrine was being handed down by word of mouth from one generation to the next.

Incidentally, the universal doctrines and practices contained in Sacred Tradition must also be distinguished from the various local customs and traditional practices observed in the church, such as the gestures in praying (whether kneeling or standing), the feast dates of the saints, the rules of fasting and abstinence, etc. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church says, "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 the light of Sacred Tradition, these traditions can be retained, modified or even abandoned under the guidance of the Church's Magisterium" (CCC, Part One, Section One, Chapter 2, Article 2, II, #83).

Importance of Sacred Tradition


We ought to be thankful that, in addition to Holy Scripture, we also have Sacred Tradition as a source of revelation. For there are many revealed truths that are not fully recorded in the Holy Scripture. For example, it is from Sacred Tradition that we learn the doctrine of the Blessed Trinity, the dogma of the Assumption of Mary, and the Privilege of her Immaculate Conception. It is also from Sacred Tradition that we learn that each of us has a Guardian Angel, that the Catholic Church is the One True Church, that the Church and the Popes are infallible, etc. It is by having recourse to Sacred Tradition that we learn what the books of the Bible are, who the real authors were, and what the meaning and correct interpretation of some difficult passages in the Holy Scripture should be. Finally, it is from Sacred Tradition that we discover the pious practices of the early Church, such as the practice of observing the Sabbath on Sunday, the practice of infant Baptism, the practice of praying for the souls in Purgatory, the practice of honoring Mary and the saints, the practice of offering the Sacrifice of the Mass (also known as “the breaking of the bread”), the worship of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the confession of sins to a priest, the laying of hands in Holy Orders, etc. All of these were not clearly nor explicitly recorded in Holy Scripture, but we got them from Sacred Tradition as teachings and practices that date back to Apostolic times.

The Guardian Angel, 1656

A painting by Pietro da Cortona (1596-1699)

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Critics of the Catholic Church often claim that the Catholic Church teaches too many doctrines that are not in the Holy Scripture. It is true that some of the Church’s teachings are neither fully nor explicitly found in Holy Scripture, but that does not mean that the Catholic Church arbitrarily invented them. When one reads the writings of the Fathers of the Church, such as St. Clement of Rome (died c. A.D. 100), St. Ignatius of Antioch (A.D. 35–117), the apologist St. Justin Martyr (A.D. 100–165), St. Polycarp (A.D. 69–155), St. Irenaeus (A.D. 130–203), St. Dionysius of Alexandria (A.D. 265), etc., one will discover that the early Christians upheld the very same doctrines that the Catholic Church has taught and still teaches today. Therefore, the Catholic Church did not invent any of her teachings. She inherited them from Christ and the Apostles by Sacred Tradition.  


Existence of Sacred Tradition


The reliability and divine origin of the Holy Scriptures are thoroughly discussed and may be found under the "Holy Scriptures" tab of this website. Assuming that the reader has read those pages and is now convinced that the Holy Scriptures are a reliable source of religious doctrine, the Bible itself may be used to prove authoritatively the existence of Sacred Tradition during the early years of Christianity. This is useful when carrying on a conversation with Protestants, for these people believe that the Bible is the only reliable source of religious truth.


So, how do we know that Sacred Tradition (or the active practice of oral Apostolic preaching) existed in the years following the death of Christ? Some evidence may be found in the Bible itself:


  • Before His ascension into Heaven, our Lord instructed the Apostles to make the faithful observe “all things whatsoever I have commanded you” (Matt 28:20). But from John 21:25, we know that not everything that Christ did was recorded in Holy Scripture. Therefore (now connect the dots), if the Apostles were to teach "all things" that our Lord did, but not everything was recorded in Holy Scripture, then there must be other spoken teachings handed on by the Apostles to the Church that were not fully written in Holy Scripture. This was Sacred Tradition! Of this, St. Paul writes: “Therefore, brethren, stand fast; and hold the traditions which you have learned, whether by word or by our epistle” (2 Thes 2:14). 

  • In the Acts of the Apostles, St. Luke records St. Paul as saying, "I have showed you all things, how that so laboring you ought to support the weak, and to remember the word of the Lord Jesus, how he said: It is a more blessed thing to give, rather than to receive" (Acts 20:35). This saying of our Lord (in italics) is nowhere in any of the Gospels. How, then, did St. Paul find out about it? Obviously, by word of mouth. Christ made this remark to his Apostles, who then told it to their disciples, who in turn passed it on to other disciples until it reached St. Paul. 

Much evidence may also be found in the writings of the Fathers of the Church, who did not merely point out the existence of unwritten Tradition, but even showed its role in the preservation of the Faith. Only two examples will be given:

  • St. Irenaeus of Lyons (A.D. 125-200), Against Heresies, Book I, Chapter 10, # 2: "As I have already observed, the Church, having received this preaching and this faith, although scattered throughout the whole world, yet, as if occupying but one house, carefully preserves it. She also believes these points [of doctrine] just as if she had but one soul, and one and the same heart, and she proclaims them, and teaches them, and hands them down, with perfect harmony, as if she possessed only one mouth. For, although the languages of the world are dissimilar, the import of the tradition is one and the same. For the Churches which have been planted in Germany do not believe or hand down anything different, nor do those in Spain, nor those in Gaul, nor those in the East, nor those in Egypt, nor those in Libya, nor those which have been established in the central regions of the world. But as the sun, that creature of God, is one and the same throughout the whole world, so also the preaching of the truth shines everywhere, and enlightens all men that are willing to come to a knowledge of the truth. Nor will any one of the rulers in the Churches, however highly gifted he may be in point of eloquence, teach doctrines different from these (for no one is greater than the Master); nor, on the other hand, will he who is deficient in power of expression inflict injury on the tradition. For the faith being ever one and the same, neither does one who is able at great length to discourse regarding it, make any addition to it, nor does one, who can say but little diminish it." (Italics added.)

  • St. Basil the Great (A.D. 329-379), On the Holy Spirit, Ch. 27, #66: "Of the beliefs and practices whether generally accepted or publicly enjoined which are preserved in the Church some we possess derived from written teaching; others we have received delivered to us in a mystery by the tradition of the apostles; and both of these in relation to true religion have the same force. And these no one will gainsay — no one, at all events, who is even moderately versed in the institutions of the Church. For were we to attempt to reject such customs as have no written authority, on the ground that the importance they possess is small, we should unintentionally injure the Gospel in its very vitals; or, rather, should make our public definition a mere phrase and nothing more. For instance, to take the first and most general example, who is thence who has taught us in writing to sign with the sign of the cross those who have trusted in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ? What writing has taught us to turn to the East at the prayer? Which of the saints has left us in writing the words of the invocation at the displaying of the bread of the Eucharist and the cup of blessing? For we are not, as is well known, content with what the apostle or the Gospel has recorded, but both in preface and conclusion we add other words as being of great importance to the validity of the ministry, and these we derive from unwritten teaching. Moreover, we bless the water of baptism and the oil of the chrism, and besides this the catechumen who is being baptized. On what written authority do we do this? Is not our authority silent and mystical tradition? Nay, by what written word is the anointing of oil itself taught? And whence comes the custom of baptizing thrice? And as to the other customs of baptism from what Scripture do we derive the renunciation of Satan and his angels? Does not this come from that unpublished and secret teaching which our fathers guarded in a silence out of the reach of curious meddling and inquisitive investigation?" (Italics added. This quote from St. Basil is remarkable, for it also gave many examples of customs and practices, such as the Sign of the Cross, facing the East at Mass, the prayers of invocation at the Liturgy of the Eucharist, as well as the prayers before (preface) and after (conclusion) the consecration, the blessing of the water of baptism and the oil of chrism, the anointing with oil and the renunciation of Satan and his angels - all of which were not in Holy Scripture, but had been handed down to us from Apostolic times as expressions of our Faith.

Icon of St. Basil the Great

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Illustration of St. Basil from the Nuremberg Chronicle

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The above citations prove that Sacred Tradition is a fact and that it has preserved and supported (with customs and practices) the Faith of the Church. Clearly, Christ did not intend Holy Scripture to be the sole means by which the faithful should have access to revealed truth. He also established a Church to teach all men what He had revealed. If Holy Scripture is the only source of revealed truth, then many of the early Christians would not have had the benefit of knowing their Faith, for the Bible did not become accessible to many people until the invention of the printing press in A.D. 1450. For several centuries before the invention of the printing press, the faithful had to rely on the preaching activity of the Church to receive adequate knowledge of their Faith.



The Infallibility of Sacred Tradition


Christ commissioned the Apostles to “preach the gospel to every creature" (Mark 16:15) and promised them His abiding presence: “Behold, I am with you all days, even to the consummation of the world” (Matt 28:20). In addition, He assured them of the assistance of the Holy Spirit, who would teach them “all truth” (John 16:13). This means that with the mandate to teach the faith to all nations, Christ also gave the Church the gift of infallibility. Since the Church has infallible Teaching Authority, the divinely revealed truths taught and kept by the Church in Sacred Tradition and Holy Scripture must also be infallibly true. Sacred Tradition is infallible because, like the Holy Scriptures, it has the same source: God Himself.

The acts and teachings of our Lord Jesus Christ existed and were preserved in Sacred Tradition by word of mouth before they were committed to writing by the four evangelists: St. Matthew, St. Mark, St. Luke, and St. John. This is why it has often been said that the Gospels merely grew out of the Sacred Traditions of the Church. Although Sts. Matthew and John were among the Twelve Apostles of Christ, Sts. Mark and Luke were not. St. Mark heard and learned the activities and teachings of Christ probably from St. Peter, while St. Luke probably learned them from St. Paul. St. Paul, in turn, probably learned the Faith from Ananias and the disciples who helped him in Damascus after his conversion. If we regard the Gospels that the evangelists had written as infallible, we must believe that the Sacred Tradition by which St. Mark, St. Luke, and St. Paul received them was also infallible.

Before the first Gospel was written, the Good News only existed in Sacred Tradition after Christ's resurrection. And not everything Christ did or said was fully recorded by the evangelists either. So, the transmission of the Christian revelation continued for many years by word of mouth only. Although the contents of Sacred Tradition were originally passed down from generation to generation by word of mouth, much of what we now know about Sacred Tradition was eventually recorded in the works of the early Christian writers, particularly the Fathers of the Church. However, these records of Sacred Tradition were not written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and, therefore, cannot be regarded as parts of Holy Scripture. Strictly speaking, neither could they be regarded as parts of Sacred Tradition. 


Therefore, Sacred Tradition does not refer to divine revelation that was never committed to writing but to revealed truths that were not committed to writing by way of divine inspiration but which the Church has regarded as authentically coming from Christ and the Apostles. Actually, many of the truths of Sacred Tradition and what the early Church believed are recorded and preserved in the Church’s conciliar decrees, the writings of the Fathers of the Church, the Acts of the Martyrs, and even in the prayers and liturgy of the early Church. But none of these writings were made under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. They are valuable because they preserve what the Church received from Christ and the Apostles, but they are not “inspired” writings. If they were, then they would be part of Holy Scripture, not Sacred Tradition.


Many people think that the writings of the Church Fathers are parts of Sacred Tradition. But that is not so. Insofar as it is a body of revealed truths that originated with Christ and the Apostles, Sacred Tradition, like the Bible, is infallible. But the writings of the Church Fathers were merely their interpretation or record of Christ’s teachings, and they were not necessarily infallible. Therefore, they cannot be parts of Sacred Tradition. We read the writings of the Fathers, not because they were parts of Sacred Tradition, but because they give us a clue to what the Church believed or what truths were contained in Sacred Tradition. But their books were neither Sacred Tradition, inspired writings, nor inerrant. We might loosely speak of them as "part" of Sacred Tradition, but strictly and more properly, we should say that they were the vehicles or channels by which the truths of Sacred Tradition have been preserved and historically handed down to us.


In practice, the faith of the Church has been transmitted and preserved, not merely in the preaching activity of the Church but also in the writings of the Fathers, the acts of the martyrs and of the Popes, various Councils of the Church, and in the arts, literature, customs, practices, liturgy, hymns, and prayers of the faithful. We might say loosely that all of these are also parts of Sacred Tradition. But, more properly, we should say that these are the various channels or means by which Sacred Tradition, which originated with Christ and the Apostles, has been passed on to us. These tangible records of Sacred Tradition are more appropriately called monuments of Tradition than Sacred Tradition itself.


The monuments of Tradition—the records, channels, or vehicles of Tradition—are not necessarily inerrant or without error. This does not mean that they are without value. The writings of the Fathers, for example, were not composed under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and so they are not guaranteed to be free of error. Still, when there is a morally unanimous agreement among the Fathers on the status of a proposition as divinely revealed, then we can be sure that the truth of the proposition was part of Sacred Tradition (the criterion of unanimity). And it is not necessary that all Fathers express their agreement either. If some of the Fathers, at different times and in different places, express their agreement without opposition from the others, then there exists a morally unanimous agreement. Even if only a few of the Fathers spoke about a doctrine or came to its defense—as in the case of St. Augustine speaking against the Pelagians—under circumstances that show that they were speaking in the name of the whole Church rather than as a private teacher, then a morally unanimous agreement among the Fathers may be presumed. 


Protestants object, saying that because the monuments of Sacred Tradition are not themselves infallible, there is no way to determine which teachings of the Fathers belong to Sacred Tradition. Therefore, Protestant denominations claim that the Bible is the only reliable source of Christian revelation. They do not deny that Christ and the Apostles passed their teachings orally or that sacred truth also exists outside the Holy Scriptures. They simply reject the Catholic claim that infallible revealed truths may be discovered in the various channels or vehicles of Sacred Tradition because these records are not “inspired” or guaranteed to be without error, even if there is unanimity among the Church Fathers regarding what Christ and the Apostles taught. 


In answer to this objection, it must be said that in addition to the criterion of unanimity described above, which gives moral certainty that a revelation was authentically from Christ and the Apostles, Catholics also have a Magisterium, which is guided by the Holy Spirit and which infallibly and authoritatively teaches what is or is not part of the deposit of faith. The Magisterium serves as the keeper of faith and guardian of sacred truth. The same Magisterium that determined infallibly which books belonged to the canon of Holy Scripture also determines which doctrines in the monuments belong to Sacred Tradition. It is the Magisterium that oversees the teachings of the Fathers to determine which of their doctrines are to be regarded as part of the deposit of faith, and which are to be rejected. Thus, St. Thomas Aquinas says that "the very doctrine of Catholic doctors derives its authority from the Church. Hence we ought to abide by the authority of the Church rather than by that of an Augustine or a Jerome or of any doctor whatever." Summa Theologiae, II-II, Q. 10, Art. 12.

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