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Why Be Catholic? 7: Tradition

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jul 07, 2016 | In Why Be Catholic Series

This is not primarily an essay about Sacred Tradition, which is certainly another worthy apologetical topic. Instead, I have in mind here the Catholic Church’s unique vision of human nature, a vision so profound that one particular dimension of it is just now beginning to be grasped in the 21st century. That dimension is the role of tradition in defining what it means to be human. Stated positively, the core insight is that tradition is essential to being human. Stated negatively, we could say that, devoid of tradition, human reason is essentially useless.

The best way I’ve found to make this point is to quote at some length an important passage from Principles of Catholic Theology by Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI:

Humanity and historicity, intellect and history, are inextricably related. The human spirit creates history; history conditions human existence…it is as memory that intellect proves itself qua intellect; memory generates tradition; tradition realizes itself in history…for without the necessarily trans-temporal relationship of person to person, humanity cannot be awakened to itself, cannot express itself…. The most distinctive characteristic of tradition is, in fact, the ability to recognize my now as significant also for the tomorrow of those who come after me, and therefore, to transmit to them for tomorrow what has been discovered today. On the other hand, a capacity for tradition means preserving today what was discovered yesterday, in that way forming the context of a way through time, shaping history. This means that tradition properly understood is, in effect, the transcendence of today in both directions…. Tradition, as constitutivum of history, is constitutive of a humanity that is truly human, of the humanitas hominis. (87)

Now this expresses an apparently complex idea which, once grasped, becomes as luminous as it is simple. Tradition is, in effect, the ground of thought and even an essential component of a unified human personality. No understanding of any reality, including the most abstract philosophical theory or the most technical scientific theory, is possible without being rooted in tradition, which in turn provides a fundamental way of looking at all of reality. Man is incapable of divorcing himself from tradition and, insofar as he attempts to do this—as the Western world has generally attempted to do over the past two centuries or so—he spirals down into meaninglessness. As we slowly come to make some sense out of our post-modern condition, philosophers are just beginning to fully appreciate how tradition informs rationality, and how bankrupt is the quest to separate the two.

There are, in effect, two choices open to man: tradition or nihilism. The one tends toward wholeness and hope, the other toward chaos and despair. The Catholic Church has always recognized that tradition is an essential part of what it means to be human and, moreover, that tradition is in fact distinctively human. Thus tradition is a far more decisive separator of man from animals than any definition of reason. The most obvious difference between ourselves and animals (and the most obvious indicator that man is a spiritual being while animals are not) is the enormous fact that we alone have tradition. We alone have the capacity to project our present backwards and forwards in time. Not only does this uniquely spiritual capacity lie at the heart of the Catholic Faith generally, but human tradition is uniquely confirmed and reinforced by the Catholic understanding of Sacred Tradition. This Sacred Tradition, which is one of the two sources of Divine Revelation, is in essence Revelation transmitted through the ongoing life of the Catholic community.

Significantly, with its conviction that grace perfects nature rather than obliterates it, the Catholic Church has always embraced reason as well, recognizing that a reflective analysis of human tradition must be used to purify that tradition wherever it fails to reflect reality and so fails to lead to the proper formulation of truth. But at the same time, the Church understands that reason cannot be divorced from tradition, that it cannot conceptualize anything useful without relying on what it has received as a ground for its operations. This interplay between tradition and reason constitutes an inescapable dimension of human life, without which life becomes unintelligible. The Church alone conserves and rightly explains Sacred Tradition, which stimulates a continuous purification of reason, while at the same time she encourages reason, thus secured, to purify human tradition in its turn.

I am convinced that no other institution or belief system enshrines this fundamental understanding of man as a being at once marked by tradition and capable of purifying it with the help of God—with the help of God who communicates Himself as the Logos in Tradition, as the Word operating through time. Is this too abstract? Perhaps so, but it is abstract only in its articulation, for this is something which all of us live instinctively. The fundamentally traditional character of man is suppressed and weakened, with great damage, by those who would ideologically divorce man from the very ground of his identity mediated through time. The Church, then, has tradition right. Autonomous man liberates himself from tradition only to his shame. His glory is to be the bearer of a continually purified tradition, and ultimately of Sacred Tradition itself. It is another reason to be Catholic.

Originally published October 27, 2009.
Previous in series: Why Be Catholic? 6: Divine Intimacy
Next in series: Why Be Catholic? 8: Incarnation

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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