The Lord entrusted to his Church the Deposit of Faith, which is the body of his teachings to be handed down to each generation in all its purity, uncorrupted by any modifications or omissions. The determination of what teachings are essential as opposed to what are not is fraught with danger. Nothing should be cast aside that would undermine belief in the teachings of the Faith. Our attitude should be that everything taught by the Church has an essential importance in itself, even if some elements of belief take precedence over others. For example, the belief in the Triune nature of God ranks higher than the belief in the existence of angels, but both are true, and we must believe both teachings.
The essential things of the Faith are obviously the Sacred Scriptures, the Creed, the sacraments, the moral teaching, defined dogmas, conciliar teachings, papal teachings.
The essentials of the Faith are then supported, surrounded, and buttressed by all sorts of teachings and practices which are designed to protect those teachings from the corrosive effect of unbelief and heresy. An example of an essential Faith teaching is the Church’s Eucharistic doctrine, which proclaims that the bread and wine consecrated by the priest at Mass truly become the Body and Blood of Christ. In turn, this doctrine has been developed and defended over the centuries by the magisterium in response to various heresies. Liturgical practices such as genuflections to and adoration of the Blessed Sacrament—whether exposed in the monstrance upon the altar or reserved in the tabernacle—teach the faithful that this is no mere symbol or reminder of God’s presence, but is in reality God present in the Most Holy Eucharist.
To say that we can tinker around with the formulation of dogmatic teachings and rework them to be more intelligible or acceptable is a dangerous business because you can think you are updating the language when, in fact, you are changing it and therefore harming the popular ability to understand its true meaning.
Church Tradition, with a capital “T,” is part of divine revelation. We say that the two fonts of revelation are Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition, which flow “‘from the same divine wellspring’ and ‘form one sacred deposit of the word of God, committed to the Church’” (Dei Verbum, §9, 10). In other words, the gift of revelation includes what the Apostles and the sacred writers wrote down in the Bible, and the unwritten Tradition which is transmitted orally down through the centuries from the Apostles to their successors and is manifest in the way the Church conducts her activities. This includes the liturgical order, the life of prayer, and also the things the Church forbids and discourages. These all tell us what the Apostles received from the Lord for our belief and practice, and not simply for a particular moment but for all time.
This Tradition, since unlike the Scriptures is not written, has to be guarded by having an overall sense of the Faith which is respectful for things that are not immediately understandable but have always been believed or done. This is an area where the Church has gravely failed in its duty in the last fifty to sixty years, by changing so many things that were taken for granted as being part of Catholic Tradition rather than simply human traditions. The Church’s discipline of fasting, for instance, was radically altered after the Council. The understanding of fasting and its importance in the life of the Church goes back to the Apostles. The same is true of the liturgical order, that is, how the Mass is celebrated, and the meaning and ordering of the rituals. What was done and how it was done were viewed as a sacred inheritance which goes back to the Apostles in its essential forms and then was developed over time, in such a way as to support what the Apostles themselves did, and what we are supposed to be doing ourselves.
Tradition is important because Christ founded a Church which is the living voice of Tradition. In other words, the things that the Apostles experienced and learned from Christ were not all written down. What was written down was what God intended to be written down, but not everything was written down. As St. John says at the end of his Gospel, “But there are also many other things which Jesus did; were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (21:25).
Just as in a family there are ways of living that are handed on orally and by practice and are essential to the good order of the family and to being faithful to your family’s way of doing things, so in the Church that’s what the Apostles passed on and their successors understood to be binding and normative.
Fr. Gerald E. Murray, a priest of the Archdiocese of New York, is pastor of the Church of the Holy Family in Manhattan. He is a canon lawyer and a guest commentator on religious news on EWTN, Fox News Channel, and other media outlets. Ordained a priest in 1984, he has served in parishes in the Bronx and Manhattan and was a chaplain for eleven years in the United States Naval Reserve. He studied canon law at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome from 1993 –1997, being awarded a doctorate in 1998. He is a regular columnist at TheCatholicThing.org and at HumanLifeReview.com.
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