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Tradition: The Magician's Hat

Question: In your Q&A section you answered a question about Sacred Tradition. The person who asked the question cited 2 Thessalonians 2:15 to establish the reason for believing in Sacred Tradition. You provided an answer that I found helpful, however, I have a question to ask. You cited Trent and Vatican II to show how the Roman Catholic Church defines the concept of Sacred Tradition. After that you stated that, "Tradition is a body of undefined teachings..." My question is how did your citations of Trent and Vatican II lead you to restate the Catholic position using the word “undefined”?

Answer: Tradition is a body of undefined teaching; the contents and limits of this teaching are not available for inspection or study. This is in contrast to the Holy Scriptures, which anyone can read and examine for himself. If I claim that a particular teaching is biblical, you can verify or refute my claim by checking out the Bible.

But when the Catholic magisterium claims that such doctrines as the papal supremacy, the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption are found in Tradition, no one can prove or disprove that claim. How can you?

Take a second look at those two references:

"The Council (of Trent) clearly perceives that this truth and rule are contained in the written books and unwritten traditions which have come down to us, having been received by the apostles from the mouth of Christ himself, or from the apostles by the dictation of the Holy Spirit, and have been transmitted as it were from hand to hand."

"Sacred Tradition takes the word of God entrusted by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit to the apostles, and hands it on to their successors in its integrity."

Notice, first of all that traditions are “unwritten”. You cannot go to a library and read them for yourself. (By the way, the writings of the church Fathers are NOT Tradition; they are called “witnesses” to Tradition - and I may add, very ‘fallible’ witnesses, for the Fathers often make mistakes and contradict one another and the teaching of the modern church). So where can you go to discover the contents of Tradition? Well, you can only go to the magisterium, i.e. the Catholic bishops (who claim to be the successors of the apostles and to whom the apostolic traditions were supposedly transmitted ‘from hand to hand’). But notice that the same bishops, who appeal to Tradition as their divine source of their teaching, are themselves that same Tradition since they had supposedly received the unwritten teachings from their predecessors.

I hope you can see that this concept of Tradition is only a proud and empty claim. Ask a Roman Catholic a simple question - Is Tradition equal or more extensive than the teaching of the Holy Scriptures? Are there some vital Christian doctrines that are taught in Tradition and not in the Bible? The different answers you get - some say yes, others say no.

Contrary to the position of many modern Catholic apologists who assert the material sufficiency of Scripture, many conservative Catholics maintain the opposite. For example, St Alphonsus wrote: "These traditions, which are the unwritten word of God, have the same authority as the written word of God . . . Traditions are necessary that belief may be given to many articles of faith . . . about which nothing at all exists in scriptures, so that these truths have come to us only from the font of tradition" [S. Alphonsus, De fidei veritate. Cap. VI, n. 30. S. Alphonsi Opera dogmatica (Rome, 1903), 292]. Or consider this, "Tradition is a source of revelation distinct from Scripture, and goes beyond the data of Scripture. This is a dogma of faith from the Council of Trent and from the Vatican Council" [ G. Van Noort, Dogmatic Theology, Vol. III, The Sources of Revelation (Tr. J. Castelot, S.S., and W. Murphy, S.S., Westminster, Md., 1960), 146].

Catholics don’t even agree on the extent of 'Sacred Tradition, let alone its content.

The concept of Tradition is a convenient excuse for the Roman Catholic magisterium to teach whatever they desire as if it is the Word of God, and without any accountability whatsoever. It is useless to protest that such teachings as papal infallibility and the Marian dogmas are absent from the pages of Scripture and even the writings of the early church. Tradition is their carte blanche. Tradition is the magician’s hat, out of which the Roman magisterium can pull any new theological rabbit and call it the Word of God!

© Dr Joseph Mizzi