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True Tradition in the Church is Dynamic and Growing

About valid Tradition

Scriptural Tradition Latent Tradition Dynamic Tradition Informed Tradition Valid Tradition

True Tradition in the Church is Dynamic and Growing

“The Tradition that comes from the apostles makes progress in the Church, with the help of the Holy Spirit. There is a growth in insight into the realities and words that are being passed on. This comes about in various ways. It comes through the contemplation and study of believers who ponder these things in their hearts (cf. Lk. 2:19 and 51). It comes from the intimate sense of spiritual realities which they experience. And it comes from the preaching of those who have received, along with their right of succession in the episcopate, the sure charism of truth. Thus, as the centuries go by, the Church is always advancing towards the plenitude of divine truth, until eventually the words of God are fulfilled in her.”

Dei Verbum. ‘Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation’ no 8, in The Conciliar and Post-Conciliar Documents, ed. by A.FLANNERY, Dominican Publications, Dublin 1975, p. 754. See full chapter here.

True Tradition is not static. It grows; not in the sense that it differs substantially from the inspiration received from Jesus Christ and the Apostles, but in the sense that many of its latent implications are gradually realised with the help of the Holy Spirit.

“Regarding its substance faith does not grow with the passage of time, for whatever has been believed since, was contained from the start in the faith of the ancient fathers. As regards its explication, however, the number of articles has increased, for we moderns explicitly believe what they believed implicitly.”

St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-74)Summa Theologica, 2-2,2,7.

We will follow three steps:

Doctrine develops

From the earliest times, the Church has realised that Christian faith is not static, even if it holds on to a firm kernel of revealed truth. There is constant progress. The classic patristic text on this growth goes back to St. Vincent of Lérins (434 AD) who stressed both the fidelity to what was received and the growth in understanding.

“But, it will be said, is not religion then open to any progress in the Church of Christ? On the contrary, there must be progress, considerable progress. Who would be sufficiently hostile to humankind and to God to oppose it? But a reservation must be made; this progress must constitute a real progress for the faith, and not an alteration: the characteristic of progress being that each element grows and yet remains itself, while the characteristic of alteration is that one thing is transformed into another. Therefore, let intelligence, knowledge and wisdom increase and progress greatly, as well those of individuals as those of the community, those of a single person as those of the whole Church, according to the ages and centuries—but on condition that it be greatly in keeping with their particular nature, that is to say in the same teaching, the same sense and the same thought” Vincent of Lerins, Commonitorium, c. 23. The last line was quoted by the First Vatican Council in Session III, c. 4 (Denzinger, 1800).

Progress “in the same sense and the same thought” may simply be the unfolding of an idea that is already present. For instance, the dogma of Nicaea (the Son being “consubstantial” with the Father, a term not found in Scripture) clarified the content of an idea already contained explicitly in the Bible. The same is true for the dogma of Christ’s real presence in the Eucharist, for which the term “transubstantiation” has been declared highly fitting. Progress “in the same sense and the same thought” may also be the development of the latent qualities of an accepted idea or reality believed. The dogma of the Immaculate Conception, for example, or that of the corporal Assumption of Mary, Mother of God, can scarcely pass as the simple explanation of a formal statement of Revelation, explicitly found in Scripture. And yet these dogmas have strong ties with Revelation, by means of what is called the analogy of faith.

The Church possesses other sources of knowledge besides written documents. She has the experience of Christian reality as such continually present within her, motivated and directed by the Holy Spirit, sometimes called ‘the Gospel in the heart’. ‘Tradition’, if properly understood, is precisely the place where the synthesis is realized between the historical transmission and the present experience which, thus united, produce, in the present and in preparation for the future, a profound knowledge of Christian reality transcending the text of written documents of the past. Tradition is not merely memory, it is actual presence and experience. It is not purely conservative, but, in a certain way, creative. After nineteen centuries of existence it presents a certain additional value with regard to its primary statements, at least in so far as we can deduce these from the documents. From this aspect of development, the Tradition of the more or less distant past has prepared the Tradition of today, and today’s Tradition will prepare that of the more or less distant future. In its actual role as channel, since it is not inert but living, it is to a certain extent a source. By nourishing the tissues of the body the blood is rejuvenated in the arteries that carry it. Tradition is the living artery which receives an increase of the very life it communicates, in its act of transmission.

Maurice Blondel (1861 - 1949 AD) explained it as follows:

  • “Tradition is not merely an oral substitute for the written teaching; it retains its raison d’ètre even in matters where Scripture has spoken; it is the progressive understanding of the riches possessed objectively from the beginning of Christianity, held and enjoyed in a truly Christian spirit, and transformed by reflection from ‘something lived implicitly into something known explicitly’.”
  • “ Tradition brings to the surface of consciousness elements previously imprisoned in the depths of the faith and of its practice, rather than expressed, expounded and reasoned. So this conservative and protective force is also instructive and progressive. Looking lovingly towards the past, where its treasure is enshrined, tradition advances towards the future, where its victory and glory lie.”
  • “ Even in its discoveries it has the humble feeling of faithfully regaining what it possesses already. It has no need of innovation since it possesses its God and its all: but its constant task is to provide us with fresh teaching, because it transforms something lived implicitly into something known explicitly.”
  • “ Whoever lives and thinks in a Christian fashion is in fact working for tradition, whether it is the saint perpetuating the presence of Jesus among us, the scholar returning to the pure sources of Revelation, or the philosopher engaged in opening the way to the future and ensuring the continual production of the Spirit of renewal. And this activity, shared by the different members, contributes to the health of the body, under the direction of its head, who, united to a conscience receiving divine assistance, alone orders and encourages its progress.”

Source: Maurice Blondel, ‘Histoire et Dogme: les lacunes de l‘exégèse moderne” in La Quinzaine 56 (January and Februarv 1904), pp. 145-167, 349-373, 433-458.

Yves Congar speaks of developing Tradition in terms of ‘interest accrued to its capital’, a completing of our knowledge of God's love, an ‘enrichment’ of faith.

“Tradition in its historical journey, is as much development as memory and conservation. In this way it earns interest, as it were, during the centuries, which is added to its capital foundation. Although living in a moment of time subsequent to it, what I receive is still the apostolic heritage: “the faith that was handed down, once for all, to the saints” (Jude 3), but as it has been lived in and by the Church, in the communion of saints. It is given to us, but also asked of us, with all the saints, “to measure, in all its breadth and length and height and depth, the love of Christ, to know what passes knowledge. And to be filled with all the completion God has to give” (Eph. 3. 18-9). I am called to live it today in a religious relationship, in the form given it by Jesus Christ once and for all, but also in the way it is presented, and in certain respects enriched, for having been lived, pondered and expressed by generations of believers inhabited and vivified by the Spirit of Pentecost.” (The Meaning of Tradition, Hawthorne, New York 1964, p. 114).

Some of the best expositions on the dynamic growth in Christian Tradition have been written by John Henry Cardinal Newman. Here are some excerpts from his classic An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (1845), edition published by Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 1989.

  • “Granting that some large variations of teaching in its long course of 1800 years exist, nevertheless, these, on examination, will be found . . . to proceed on a law, and with a harmony and a definite drift, and with an analogy to Scripture revelations, which . . . constitute an argument in their favour, as witnessing to a superintending Providence and a great Design.” (pp. vii-viii).
  • “Principle is a better test of heresy than doctrine. Heretics are true to their principles, but change to and fro, backwards and forwards, in opinion; for very opposite doctrines may be exemplifications of the same principle . . . ” ( pp.181-182. Part 2, ch. 5, section 2, no. 3).
  • “It becomes necessary . . . to assign certain characteristics of faithful developments . . . the presence of which serves as a test to discriminate between them and corruptions . . . I venture to set down Seven Notes . . . as follows: - There is no corruption if it retains one and the same type, the same principles, the same organization; if its beginnings anticipate its subsequent phases, and its later phenomena protect and subserve its earlier; if it has a power of assimilation and revival, and a vigorous action from first to last.” (pp.170-171. Part 2, chapter 5, nos. 2, 4).

Dynamic Tradition is the whole truth and reality of Christ preserved by the whole Church

What is tradition?

  • It is that sense of who we are as God's people, that sense of what God has revealed to us, that we find in the life, the worship, and the teaching of the Christian community which is the Church down the centuries and across the world.
  • “The whole truth and reality originally communicated by Christ and the Spirit to the apostles, preserved and presented ceaselessly by the whole Church in the fullness of its vital existence and operation” (Walter J. Burghardt, Christian Tradition, a Paulist Videocassette (New York, 1984).
  • “The normative Tradition is . . . a living force whose contingent expressions . . . can change” (Robert Taft, "The Frequency of the Eucharist throughout History," Concilium 152 (1982), 21).
  • “Tradition is understood by the Second Vatican Council as something dynamic, not static, a sense found in the ongoing life, thought, prayer and worship of the Christian community. It involves progress and development and change. No longer can Catholics accept the dictum of the fifth-century Vincent of Lerins that "what is Catholic is that which has been believed everywhere, always and by all." (Commonitorium II: 3). That philosophically "substantialist" mindset is no longer acceptable. It produced an image of the Church as unchangeable and allowed for only accidental, external, changes in the Church's passage through time. "Tradition," in this understanding, was a sort of arcane treasure trove of propositional statements waiting authoritative enunciation. It is no longer seen that way” (James Hennesey, ‘Searching for the Tradition’, in Catholic Southwest, 1992). Read the full article here.

The Church is a reality that changes, that finds different forms and shapes according to the changing demands of time and place, that embodies, as the great French Dominican theologian, Yves Congar, has said, "the one content of faith diversifying and finding expression in different cultural contexts." Congar has also pointed out that this historical approach to understanding the Church has been highlighted by the Council's emphasis on the description of the Christian community as "the People of God" (Yves Congar, "Church History as a Branch of Theology," Concilium57 (1970), 87).

For Tradition to be valid, it needs to “live in the Church”. This means it needs to rest on the sensus fidelium, a spontaneous, supernatural appreciation of the faith by the faithful.

The ‘sensus fidelium’ as a norm to recognise a doctrine in the process of development

This section is based on John E.Thiel, ‘Tradition and authoritative reasoning: a nonfoundationalist perspective’, Theological Studies 56 (1995) p. 627-51. Read the full text here.

According to the Second Vatican Council, the “whole body of the faithful who have an anointing that comes from the holy one ... cannot err in matters of belief.” This unerring belief appears in “the supernatural appreciation of the faith (sensus fidei) of the whole people, when ... they manifest a universal consent in matters of faith or morals” (Lumen Gentium no. 12).

The sensus fidei is not a self-subsistent belief isolated from other dimensions of ecclesial life and practice, including the hierarchical teaching office. Indeed, the unerring sense of the faith is guided by the magisterium, relying on its teaching for the preservation of its truth.

Yet, at the same time, the sense of the faith is the faith of the "people of God, ... from the bishops to the last of the faithful,"(Lumen Gentium no. 12) and so it cannot simply be reduced to the teaching of the magisterium.

Magisterial teaching that has not been received in belief and practice by a wide segment of the faithful offers a more reliable, but still incomplete, criterion for judging whether doctrine is currently in a state of dramatic development.

This criterion is not without its ambiguities. Sociological findings may be helpful in locating teaching not received by the faithful, but polling results alone cannot establish the extent of doctrinal reception. In addition, there remains the theological issue of how one understands Lumen Gentium's reference to "the whole body of the faithful" in which infallibility resides.

Does this phrase refer to the baptized, to practitioners of the faith, or more self-referentially to those who do indeed possess the unerring sense of the faith, however difficult it may be to determine its character or their number? This question points to the inherent difficulties attending judgments about doctrinal reception. Although appeal may be made to social-scientific data in testing the reception of doctrine in the Church, one must rely finally on the sense of the faith itself in judging whether doctrine has been received by the faithful, who in turn evaluate the legitimacy of the judgment. In any case, defining the unerring faithful as those who receive all magisterial teaching in faith and practice wrongly equates the infallibility of the Church with obedience to the magisterium in any particular historical moment, and ignores both the dynamics of doctrinal development and the fact of dramatic development in the tradition . The criterion of reception, then, remains ambiguous, though by nature and not by fault.

This ambiguity can be mitigated somewhat by other criteria. A second criterion for judging current dramatic development is that the magisterium also invokes theological argument in the presentation of its teaching. The magisterial practice of supporting teaching with or actually offering teaching through theological argument can be found as early in the tradition as Leo I's fifth-century Tome on the person of Christ(FN7) or as recently as an encyclical of Paul VI (Humanae Vitae) and an instruction of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (Inter Insigniores). The magisterial use of argument to convey authentic teaching is not necessarily a symptom of its noninfallible character, as the illustration of Leo's Tome, a strong textual influence on the Chalcedonian decree, testifies. But the use of theological argument in magisterial teaching is a reliable symptom that the doctrine taught is in a state of development which itself prompts the need for argument.

There are three reasons for this argumentative need to which we can refer respectively as the circumstantial, the logical, and the rhetorical. First, argument is deemed necessary because the teaching addresses changing cultural circumstances in which a simple reiteration of traditional doctrine would not suffice. Argument serves as a way of mediating traditional meaning to novel issues, problems, or situations. Second, argument is deemed necessary because this mediated teaching requires a specific and convincing application of the tradition 's more basic beliefs, an application that represents a movement to doctrine more derivative, though not necessarily less authoritative. Logic (here following its traditional rules!) serves the magisterium by demonstrating the reasonableness of the application, by showing how the teaching's conclusion derives its authority from a major premise (more basic beliefs) rightly modified by its minor (changing cultural circumstances).(FN9) Third, argument is deemed necessary because unanimity in the Church is lacking for the doctrine in question. Argument thus has the rhetorical goal of persuasion.

These first two criteria for dramatic development, when taken together--magisterial teaching that one judges not to have been widely received by the faithful and that presents its teaching through theological argument--provide good direction for determining doctrine clearly in a state of development.

A third criterion must be added, however, for distinguishing development that is more likely to be dramatic. That criterion, itself a supplement to the previous two, is that the theological argument by which magisterial teaching is supported or conveyed does not prove convincing to a wide segment of Catholic theologians. If the magisterium supports or conveys its teaching by the logical application of more basic beliefs to changing circumstances in order to persuade the faithful who are disinclined toward its reception, and that argumentation does not convince a wide segment of those in the Church knowledgeable about the tradition to which it appeals and able to assess the viability of the argumentative application to present circumstances, then there is a greater likelihood that such teaching is developing dramatically than if such conditions did not prevail.

Dramatic development could be encouraged in such an eventuality as theologians offered criticism of the current teaching, showing how and why the doctrinal argument advanced did not justify the teaching or offering alternative arguments that advanced another version of consistency with traditional beliefs and with the current beliefs of many in the Church.

The principle applied to INTER INSIGNIORES

Inter insigniores, which presents a rationale for the Church's long-established practice of restricting priestly ordination to men, ... seems not to have met wide reception among the faithful. In fact, sociological evidence suggests that the acceptability of the ordination of women among Catholics in the years since the document's publication has increased substantially. For example (and one typical of North American and Western European countries), a 1977 Gallup poll found 41% of American Catholics to favor the ordination of women, a statistic that increased to 63% by 1993.

A 1993 Gallup poll found that 33% of Catholic respondents "strongly agreed" and 30% "moderately agreed" that it would be "a good thing if women were allowed to be ordained as priests" (The Gallup Poll: Public Opinion 1993 144). A 1994 New York Times/CBS News poll found that 59% of American Catholics favored the ordination of women to the priesthood (The New York Times [1 June 1994] B8).

As noted earlier, one must be wary about reducing the sensus fidei to the findings of sociologists and doubly wary about the Catholic beliefs of some nations standing as the belief of the whole Church. Yet this increase of belief in the ordination of women is telling, and enough so to judge that the teaching of the Church in question has not been widely received by the faithful. The most likely explanations for this increase are a growing awareness of injustices toward women in traditional societies, the strength of movements for the equal rights of women, and a resulting expansion of the role of women in social structures and responsibilities customarily reserved for men. One cannot completely discount, however, the influence of the document's argument itself on the increasingly wider lack of reception of the teaching among the faithful over this period of time.

We find in Inter insigniores all three reasons, circumstantial, logical, and rhetorical, for the appeal to argument in the promulgation of magisterial teaching. The exclusive ordination of men to the priesthood is, after all, a practice that dates in some form to the first-century Church. The felt need to justify such an ancient practice stems from changing circumstances in which argument is called upon to defeat challenges to the tradition . The document's opening paragraphs identify those changing circumstances as the modern recognition of the full equality of women, the wider participation of women in the apostolate of the Church, the unqualified admission of women to pastoral office in some Protestant churches, and arguments by Catholic theologians for the ordination of women to the priesthood. Logical mediation is deemed necessary in Inter insigniores to bring the tradition 's most basic beliefs to bear upon these changing circumstances.

There are several ancillary arguments in the document that serve to refute defenses of the ordination of women based on Scripture and history. The teaching notes in passing, for example, that the "undeniable influence of prejudices unfavorable to women" in the writings of the Church Fathers had negligible effect on their pastoral practice and spiritual direction. The argument "from origins" continues by observing that "Jesus did not call any woman to become part of the Twelve" even though his attitude toward women did not conform to, and indeed even "deliberately and courageously broke with," the customs of his time. Moreover, the apostles did not consider women candidates to complete the Twelve in the Pentecost Church, even though Mary herself occupied a privileged place in their circle. Nor did Paul extend full ministerial powers to women.

As important as these arguments "from origins" are in the document for defending the continuity of ecclesial practice against counterarguments for change, they are secondary to what we will call its argument "from representation." Although Inter insigniores portrays its reasoning "from representation" as a matter "of clarifying [its] teaching by the analogy of faith" and not as a matter "of bringing forward a demonstrative argument," the manner in which its premises lead to its conclusion seem to involve elementary deduction. The argument's major premise is the "Church's constant teaching" that "the bishop or the priest, in the exercise of his ministry, does not act in his own name, in persona propria: he represents Christ, who acts through him...." In the ministry, then, the priest "acts not only through the effective power conferred on him by Christ, but in persona Christi." This major premise is qualified by the minor premise that the incarnation of the Word "took place according to the male sex," a fact that does not imply a superiority of men over women but which nonetheless conveys a harmony in the plan of salvation revealed by God and symbolically important for the economy of revelation.

Logical mediation yields the conclusion of the teaching that women cannot be priests because as females they could not act ministerially in persona Christi since the savior was a male. This argument's minor premise addresses contemporary cultural shifts in which feminist sensibilities would no longer assume that metaphysical conceptions like persona are intrinsically male or would insist that such conceptions transcend social (and ecclesial) bias only when they are understood in a gender-inclusive manner. The rhetoric of the argument exhibits an awareness of the claims of these sensibilities and of the need to convince those who find the traditional belief incredible--even to the point that the document anticipates and rebuffs counterarguments to the centrality it accords to the maleness of Christ. As we found in the case of Humanae vitae, so many theologians have found the argumentation of Inter insigniores to be problematic that demonstrating its lack of cogency to a wide segment of their number becomes a redundant task.

Both teachings, then, Humanae Vitae and Inter Insigniores, appear to fit our criterion of dramatically developing doctrine, primarily because they seem not to have been widely received by the faithful and secondarily, yet importantly, because they also advance their teaching by arguments that have not proved convincing to those in the Church professionally committed to the task of bringing understanding to faith.

By way of conclusion:

“The changes in Church doctrine that have actually taken place in the course of history show that a tradition could hold firm until advances in human knowledge or culture obliged the church to look at the question in a new light. Through honest reexamination of its tradition in this new light, the church has sometimes come to see that the reasons for holding to its previous position were not decisive after all.”

“There is no denying the fact that many of the reasons given in the past to justify the exclusion of women from the priesthood are such as one would be embarrassed to offer today. No doubt, better reasons than those have been presented in the recent documents of the Holy See. The question that remains in my mind is whether it is a clearly established fact that the bishops of the Catholic Church are as convinced by those reasons as Pope John Paul evidently is, and that, in exercising their proper role as judges and teachers of the faith, they have been unanimous in teaching that the exclusion of women from ordination to the priesthood is a divinely revealed truth to which all Catholics are obliged to give a definitive assent of faith.”

FRANCIS A. SULLIVAN, ‘Guideposts from Catholic tradition . Infallibility doctrine invoked in statement against ordination by Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’, America 173 (Dec. 9 '95) pp. 5-6. Sullivan was professor of ecclesiology at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome for 36 years before retiring in June 1992. He is author of Magisterium: Teaching Authority in the Catholic Church (Paulist, 1983) and Creative Fidelity: Weighing and Interpreting Church Documents (Paulist, 1996).


The Tradition of the Church is not static. It grows. It is enriched by new insights in truth and new spiritual experiences. Tradition thus rejects false interpretations and discovers explicitly what it has always held implicitly in its treasury of faith. This growth in understanding is carried forward by the undying activity of the Holy Spirit in the Church.

John Wijngaards

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