Responsive image
Nederlands/Vlaams Deutsch Francais English language Spanish language Portuguese language Catalan Chinese Czech Malayalam Finnish Igbo
Japanese Korean Romanian Malay language Norwegian Swedish Polish Swahili Chichewa Tagalog Urdu
Tradition must be Informed

About valid Tradition

Scriptural Tradition Latent Tradition Dynamic Tradition Informed Tradition Valid Tradition

Tradition must be Informed

“Thus God, who spoke in the past, continues to converse with the spouse of his beloved Son. And the Holy Spirit, through whom the living voice of the Gospel rings out in the Church—and through her in the world—leads believers to the full truth, and makes the Word of Christ dwell in them in all its richness (cf. Col. 3:16)”.

. . . “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. 755. See full chapter here.

In the Church's experience of her Tradition, it has become clear that misunderstandings and misjudgements can be made. During certain periods of the Church's history people were prevented from discerning the true Tradition because their reasonings were wrong or their minds were focussed on the wrong reality.

In order to be validly part of Tradition, a doctrine or practice must be informed. This means that the carriers of Tradition must understand the question and the issues that are at stake.

In ‘The Survival of Dogma’, Avery Dulles adduces the following principle: “No doctrinal decision of the past directly solves a question that was not asked at the time.” For example, the fact that Paul, quoted by Trent, asserts that Adam was a single individual (see Romans 5,12-21) cannot be used to refute modern science's idea of polygenism; the question had not even arisen yet. By extension, “whenever the state of the evidence on any question materially changes, you have a new question that cannot be fully answered by appealing to old authorities.”

As Pope Pius XII stated in Divino Afflante Spiritu (1943): “There are many matters, especially historical, which were insufficiently or hardly at all developed by the commentators of past centuries, because they lacked nearly all information needful for elucidating them”.

We will illustrate this principle in three steps.

The ‘truth’ as a source of Tradition

In Vatican II’s dogmatic constitution on Revelation § 2 (quoted above) mentions that progress in the understanding of a Tradition comes about in various ways:

  • through the contemplation and study of believers who ponder these things in their hearts [=the private study of truth by believers];
  • from the intimate sense of spiritual realities which they experience [=the ‘sensus fidei’];
  • from the preaching of those who have received, along with their right of succession in the episcopate, the sure charism of truth [=the teaching authority].

The Council says that, from a combination of these factors, the Church will eventually reach the ‘fulness’ of divine truth, until eventually the words of God are ‘fulfilled’ in her.

The important principle is that, next to the main source: ‘Scripture & Tradition’, there is another source, namely: Truth as it becomes known to us through other means in the course of time.

The principle has been acknowledged in the history of the Church as an auctoritas [=‘authoritative source’] next to Scripture and Tradition. It is found in Ambrosiaster in this form: “Whatever is true comes from the Holy Spirit, no matter who expresses this truth.” The implications are that truth has to be taken seriously from whatever source it comes, as long as it can be shown to be true. Such truth may be found through new scientific discoveries, through the spiritual experience of non-Christians, through the wisdom of philosphers, and so on. (See Yves M.J.Congar, Tradition and Traditions, Burns & Oates, London 1966, pp. 130 - 131).

Ambrosiaster's principle, which was usually ascribed to St. Ambrose, has been frequently quoted:

  • Peter Lombard (Coll. in Ep. 1 ad Cor. c. 12; PL, 191, 1650);
  • Hervé de Bourg-Dieu (In Epist. I ad Cor., c. 12; PL, 181, 939ff.);
  • Peter the Cantor, Peter of Tarentaise (Dilucidatio, Antwerp ed., 1617 215a);
  • John de la Rochelle, etc. (quoted by Z. Alszeghy, Nova Creatura. La nozione della grazia nei commentari Medievali di S. Paolo, Rome, 1956, p. 196);
  • St. Albert the Great, (In I Sent., d. 2,5);
  • St Thomas Aquinas, (In 2 Tim., c. 3, lect. 3; In Joan, c. 8, lect. 6; /n 2 Cor., c. 12, lect. 1; Summa Theologica I-II, q. 108; q. 109, a. I).

The principle was also formulated in the form that the Holy Spirit was acknowledged as the source and origin of all true knowledge.

  • St Isidore, Sent., I, 15, 4 (PL, 83, 569);
  • Beatus, In Apocalypsim, Lib. I (ea. H. A. Sanders, Rome, 1930, p. 44);
  • Walafrid Strabo, De Exordiis, pr. (PL,144, 919; Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Capp., II, p. 475);
  • Pope Zacharias, in 743 (Regesta Pontificum Romanorum, ed. Jaffé, Leipzig 1885, 2270);
  • Pope Zosimus, quoted by Prosper, Contra Collatorem, 5 (PL 5 1, 228A);
  • Abelard Theologia (PL, 178, 1221c.), etc. etc.

The First Vatican Council (1869 - 1870 AD) defined that there cannot be any real disagreement between revealed truth and truth established by natural reason.

“Although faith stands above reason, there can, however, never exist any real contradiction between faith and reason, since the same God who reveals mysteries and infuses faith, implanted in the human soul the light of reason. God cannot deny himself or ever make truth contradict truth. The semblance of such contradiction mostly arises from this that either the doctrines of the Church have not been understood or explained according to the mind of the Church, or what is mere opinion is held to be the outcome of reason.” Dei Filius, ch. 4, § 3; Denz. (new) 3017.

The Second Vatican Council (1963 - 1965 AD) spelled out the implications even more fully.

  • Every person has the duty and the right to seek truth. “All human beings are impelled by nature and bound by a moral abligation to seek the truth, especially religious truth . . . . Truth is to be sought after in a manner proper to the dignity of the human nature and social reality. The enquiry is to be free, carried on with the aid of teaching or instruction, communication and dialogue. In the course of these, people explain to one another the truth they have discovered, or think they have discovered, in order thus to assist one another in he quest for truth.” Religious Freedom, § 3.
  • “Nowadays when things change so rapidly and thought patterns differ so widely, the Church needs to step up the exchange with the outside world by calling upon the help of people who live in the world, who are expert in its organizations and its forms of training, and who understand its mentality, in the case of believers and nonbelievers alike.
    With the help of the Holy Spirit, it is the task of the whole people of God, particularly of all its pastors and theologians, to listen to and distinguish the many voices of our times, and to interpret them in the light of the divine Word, in order that the revealed truth may be more deeply penetrated, better understood and more suitably presented. The Church in the Modern World, § 44.

The application of this in the history of the Church can be quite dramatic. The new economic reality of banking, for instance, forced the Church to re-read and re-interpret the Scripture texts related to ‘usury’. Scientific discoveries about the ‘genetic’ basis of homosexuality throws an entirely new light on the morality of homosexual existence. The realization of how social and cultural prejudices influenced the thinking and practice of the Church in previous centuries calls for a reappraisal of the limitations put on women's ministry. A study of such examples helps us understand the principle of ‘informed’ Tradition, ‘informed’ by a wider discovery and deeper realization of truth.

The example of taking interest for capital loans

The Magisterium forbade the taking of interest for capital loans until 1830. The taking of interest was simply equated with usury in the ‘tradition’ that was supposed to support it. Here are some examples of official Church teaching on the matter:

  • The Fathers condemn it: Athanasius (Expos in Ps. xiv), Basil the Great (Hom in Ps. xiv), Gregory Nazianze (Orat xiv, in Patrem tacentum), Epiphanius (adv. Haeres, epilog, c. 24), John Chrysostom (Hom 41 in Genes), Theodoret (Interpr. in Ps. xiv.5 and liv.11), Hilary of Poitiers (in Ps. xiv), Ambrose (de Tobia liber unus), Jerome (in Ezech vi.18), Augustine (de Baptismo contra Donatistas iv.19), Leo the Great (Epist. iii.4), Cassiodorus (in Ps.xiv 10).
  • Early local Church Councils forbade the clergy to take interest: Nicea I (325 AD), Carthage (348 AD), Loadicea (343-381 AD), etc.
  • Later Church Councils imposed the same prohibition also on the laity: Theodore's Penitential (690 AD), Mainz (813 AD), Rheims (813 AD), Chalons (813 AD), Aix (816 AD).
  • Peter Lombard, Aquinas, Bonaventure and other medieval theologians all condemned any taking of interest. Thomas Aquinas on the grounds that it was an “unnatural” form of reproduction.
  • The Second Council of the Lateran (1139 A. D.) prescribed that persons who take interest “be not admitted to the sacraments”. And: “in case they do not retract their error, they should be refused an ecclesiastical burial.”
  • Many Popes condemned the practice. An outspoken condemnation was made by Benedict XIV in Vix Pervenit of 1745. He stated: “One cannot condone the sin of usury by arguing that the gain is not great or excessive, but rather moderate or small; neither can it be condoned by arguing that the borrower is rich; nor even by arguing that the money borrowed is not left idle, but is spent usefully, either to increase one’s fortune, to purchase new estates, or to engage in business transactions. The law governing loans consists necessarily in the equality of what is given and returned; once the equality has been established, whoever demands more than that violates the terms of the loan.”

What were the reasons for the condemnation?

The Fathers of the Church, pastoral leaders, theologians and the Popes simply equated the ‘taking of interest on capital loans’ with ‘usury’, which had been condemned in Scripture: Exodus 22,25; Leviticus 25,36-37; Deuteronomy 23,19-20; and so on.

The Church changed her mind on the taking of interest when it realised that the modern system of banking, which began in the Middle Ages, treated money in a new way.

In Old Testament times ‘usury’ consisted in demanding a profit on the loan of a loaf of bread or a sack of wheat. Such a practice is an exploitation of the poor and demands condemnation. But the Old Testament did allow landowners to demand a regular income from tenants who cultivated the land. A loaf of bread is not fertile. A piece of land is fertile. From the loan of land one may demand a share of the profit.

However, in our modern society capital is ‘fertile’. It produces a profit as much as a piece of land does. Taking interest for a capital loan is consequently in harmony with Christian justice.

Further explanations and bibliography in John Noonan, “The Amendment of Papal Teaching by Theologians”, in Charles E. Curran, ed., Contraception: Authority and Dissent, (New York: Herder & Herder, 1969), pages 41-75.


  • The earlier socalled ‘tradition’ forbidding the taking of interest for capital loans was simply ill-informed, because it rested on a lack of understanding modern economics.
  • The volume or severity of the socalled ‘tradition’ does not make it valid. It does not matter how many Fathers, Church Councils, theologians and Popes condemned it, and under what terms. It was simply not part of the Church's true Tradition.

The blanket condemnation of all homosexuality in the past

Homosexuality has been denounced in both the Old and New Testaments.

  • The Hebrew story of Sodom and Gomorrah has had much influence on Christian beliefs (Genesis 19,1-29). The story tells of God's destruction of this city as a punishment for homosexual practices. See also Judges 19,1-30; Leviticus 18,22; 20,13-23).
  • In Romans 1,26-27 and 1 Corinthians 6,9-11 Paul condemned the homosexual excesses in the Graeco-Roman empire.

Small wonder that homosexuality has always been considered sinful in the ‘tradition’ of the Church.

See, for instance, Clement of Alexandria (Paedagogus 2,20; 3,3-5; Stromateis 4,8); John Chrysostom (Homily 4; Ag. Opponents of Monastic Life no 3); Thomas Aquinas (Summa Theologica 2 2ae, q.154, a 12, r 2-4).

It was called a ‘sin against nature’ and was put on a line with ‘bestiality’, that is: having intercourse with an animal. For the State it was a criminal offence, often punishable by death.

What is beginning to change thinking in the Church?

The facts. Social research has established that 5 - 10% of the population in most countries has an innate homosexual disposition. Three ‘causes’ of homosexuality are now generally accepted: it is a genetic trait in some people; it may be the result of a hormone imbalance before birth; it may also stem from the situation in which a child grows up (i.e. incest or child abuse) and the experiences he/she has of each sex.

But if God, the Creator, has made some people homosexual by nature, we cannot condemn them outright, whatever our views on legitimate sexual acts for homosexuals.

The Congregation for Doctrine's Declaration on Certain Issues Concerning Sexual Ethics (1974) was an improvement on earlier Roman statements because it acknowledged that there are ‘homosexuals who are definitively such because of some kind of innate instinct or a pathological constitution judged to be incurable’. ‘In the pastoral field, these homosexuals must certainly be treated with understanding and sustained in the hope of overcoming their personal difficulties and their inability to fit into society. Their culpability will be judged with prudence.’ But the Document still condemns all sexual homosexual acts as ‘intrinsically disordered’ and ’condemned by Scripture as a serious depravity’ (Paragraph no 8).

Reflection on this issue is not finished in the Church. Here we will quote some modern theologians discussing the issue. Note that our renewed, informed understanding leads to a different evaluation of the ‘tradition’.

  • “ God, the one who has made all of creation, loves and cherishes all creatures without exception. And modern psychology shows us that homosexual orientation is set by age five or six. Most psychologists agree that it is not a matter of choice, whether orientation is inborn as some think or acquired very early as others say. How then could an all-loving God possibly violate Divine nature and regard homosexuals as ‘sinners’?”
    “Contemporary biblical scholars are indicating that the idea of homosexual orientation was unknown to the writers of the Sacred Scripture. Certainly these authors had no knowledge of the Kinsey research which established the existence of a continuum along which all of us are somewhere between the end points of totally heterosexual through bisexuality to exclusively homosexual. Many of the oft-quoted "condemnatory passages" may assume that heterosexuals are acting out of their violation of their ‘nature’.”
    Sister Mary Ann Ford, Pastoral Theologian
  • “When read at face value, the Scriptures have nothing positive to say about homogenital behaviour. However, most Christians do not interpret the Bible literally; they try to understand the Scriptures in their historical and cultural context and see what meaning the Scriptures have for us today. These Scriptures were written approximately 2000 or more years ago when there was no knowledge of constitutional homosexuality. The Scripture writers believed that all people were naturally heterosexual so that they viewed homosexuality activity as unnatural.”
    “Since we have come to know that homosexuality is just as natural and God-given as heterosexuality, we realize that the Biblical injunctions against homosexuality were conditioned by the attitudes and beliefs about this form of sexual expression which were held by people without benefit of centuries of scientific knowledge and understanding.”
    “It is unfair of us to expect or impose a twentieth century mentality and understanding about equality of genders, races and sexual orientations on the Biblical writers. We must be able to distinguish the eternal truths the Bible is meant to convey from the cultural forms and attitudes expressed there.”
    “God has created people with romantic and physical attractions to the same sex, as well as those with attractions to the opposite sex. Many, if not most, people, we are now discovering, have both kinds of attractions in varying degrees. All of these feelings are natural and are considered good and blessed by God. These feelings and attractions are not sinful. Most Catholic moral theologians now hold that homogenital behaviour, as well as heterogenital behaviour, is good and holy in God's sight when it is an expression of a special and unique love which one person has for another. Both homosexual and heterosexual genital expression can be sinful if they are manipulative, dishonest, or unloving actions.”
    Sister Jeannine Gramick, PhD, College of Notre Dame Maryland.
  • “Catholicism uses four major sources for principles and guidance in ethical questions like homosexuality: scripture, tradition (theologians, church documents, official teachings, etc), reason, and human experience. All are used in conjunction with one another. Scripture is the fundamental and primary authoritative Catholic source -- but not the only source. Biblical witness is taken seriously, but not literally. An individual scriptural text must be understood in the larger context of the original language and culture, the various levels of meanings, and the texts’ applications to contemporary realities in light of the role of the community's and its official leadership role in providing authoritative interpretations. Both Jewish and Christian scriptures do speak negatively of certain form of same-gender (generally male) sexual behaviour (not same-gender love), especially when associated with idol worship, lust, violence, degradation, prostitution, etc. Whether the Scriptures condemn all and every form of same-gender sexual expression in and of itself for all times, places and individuals is the topic of serious theological and Biblical discussion and debate.”
    I do not believe that God regards homosexuality as a ‘sin’ if homosexuality means the psychosexual identity of lesbians or gay persons, which we know from contemporary scientific studies is within the boundaries of healthy, human psychological development, and which seems to be as natural for some people as heterosexuality is for others. If homosexuality means the emotional, intimate bonding in same-gender relationships of love and friendship, I believe that since God is love, where there is authentic love, God is present.”
    “Where God is present, there can be no sin. If homosexuality means same-gender erotic, physical expressions of union and pleasure, the possibility of personal sin exists in homosexuality -- as it does in heterosexuality -- depending on the interplay of three factors: including (1) the physical behaviour itself and its meaning for the person, (2) the personal motives and intents of the person acting, and (3) the individual and social consequences or results of the behaviour. For many people, sexual behaviour which is exploitative, coercive, manipulative, dishonest, selfish or destructive of human personhood is sinful; for all people ‘sin’ means freely acting contrary to one's deeply held moral or ethical convictions, whether these come from organized religion or a personally developed value system.”
    “ Same-gender expressions of responsible, faithful love in a covenanted relationship between two truly homosexually oriented people not gifted with celibacy is not something envisioned by the Scriptures. Whether this form of homosexuality violates biblical or anthropological principles of sexuality and personhood -- especially in the light of current scientific knowledge and human experience about the homosexual orientation -- is a key issue facing the churches and religious groups today.”
    Father C Robert Nugent , co-editor of ‘The Vatican and Homosexuality’, holds degrees from St Charles College, St Charles Theologate, a degree in library science from Villanova University and a Masters of Sacred Theology from Yale University Divinity School.


  • The blanket condemnation of all homosexuality in the past has now been abandoned by the Church.
  • The biblical texts were misunderstood because they were taken to imply norms imposed for all times, exceeding the intended scope of their authors.
  • The process of understanding the Tradition better goes hand in hand with our deeper understanding of the issue of homosexuality itself.

The question of the ordination of women

When considering the socalled ‘tradition’ of not ordaining women to the priesthood, the reasons underlying the ‘tradition’ are paramount. If these reasons are found to be defective, the whole ‘tradition’ becomes suspect because it was not focussed, reflective and informed

Here is the judgment of Elizabeth A. Johnson, C.S.J., professor of theology at Fordham University, president of the Catholic Theological Society of America, and the author of She Who Is (Crossroad).

“Regarding the second, history is replete with examples of unbroken tradition breaking due to the moral sensibilities of believers, the insights of critical thinkers, and careful searching on the part of the teaching office, all converging in the context of cultural change. At one time it was official church teaching that it was unlawful for married couples to take pleasure in the marital act; that killing infidels was a way to salvation; that taking interest on a loan was forbidden; that slavery was permissible; that discrimination against Jewish people was legitimate; that biblical scholars could not use historical critical methods on Scripture texts. How do we discern whether the teaching on women's ordination can be open to similar development? The stated reason why women were not ordained throughout the centuries was that they were inferior, or "defective males" (Aquinas). That reason has crumbled in our day. And so do the other arguments given . . .”

“The reasons do not hold up, try as one might to entertain them. According to traditional Catholic teaching, the human faculty of judgment is not free, unlike our will. We can give genuine assent only to what presents itself to our mind as true: "The truth cannot impose itself except by virtue of its own truth, as it makes its entrance into the mind at once quietly and with power" (Vatican II, Declaration on Religious Freedom, no 1). If a declared teaching or practice continuously jars our mind as missing the mark, as in the present case, it is our responsibility to explore and express the reasons why. This resistance is not to be equated with disloyalty or rebellion, let alone lack of faith, but with a form of loyalty and service . . .”

“Over the years, informed, responsible disagreement has been a gift to the church whereby the criticism born of love has empowered growth. In my view, the recent noninfallible statement about the alleged infallibility of the tradition about women's ordination calls for just this sort of response.”

‘Disputed questions: authority, priesthood, women’ in Commonweal 123 (Jan. 26,1996) pp. 8-10.

Sister Rose Hoover R.C., staff member of the Cenacle in Metairie, Louisiana, writes as follows:

“For centuries, the male priesthood seemed to provide an effective means for the transmittal of the message of Christ, and in this sense could be seen as tradition in service of the Tradition . But what about today? What if the exclusion of women from the priesthood is jeopardizing the handing on of the tradition ? I am not just worried about the practical problem of a lack of vocations. What if the exclusionary tradition of the male priesthood is itself inimical to the gospel Tradition?” . . .
“We cannot let the views of the Fathers of the Church or of scholasticism or even of theologians early in this century determine how women are to be viewed in the church today. We are responsible for what we have learned about men and women from modern social and biological sciences, as well as from the Holy Spirit. Thomas Aquinas was wise in many things, but even he was a product of his times. In the Summa Theologiae we read that "since it is not possible in the female sex to signify eminence of degree, for a woman is in the state of subjection, it follows that she cannot receive the sacrament of Order." What is more, woman's subjection is not due to social conditions. Addressing the question of whether slavery is an impediment to ordination, Thomas wrote in the Summa that "sacramental signs signify by reason of their natural likeness. Now a woman is a subject by her nature, whereas a slave is not." Aquinas also believed that "in women there is not sufficient strength of mind to resist concupiscence." One would certainly have doubts about ordaining a creature of such limited endowment. We cannot judge Thomas Aquinas. But we know better.”
“ We know that women are not by nature inferior to men (see John Paul II's 1988 apostolic letter, Mulieris Dignitatem). We know that a woman is no more in a state of subjection by her nature than is a man. Aquinas's objections can no longer be cited as reasons to refuse ordination to women. Nor can any other reasons that imply inferiority. To do so would stand in contradiction to what we now understand of the good news of Christ.”

From ‘Consider Tradition: the Case for Women's Ordination’ in Commonweal 126 (January 26, 1999) pgs 17-20. For the full article, click here.


In the past, judgments and decisions have, at times, been based on ignorance or defective information. Tradition can only be valid if it has rid itself of such human accretions by becoming critical. The Holy Spirit helps the community of believers to re-examine their convictions in the light of the new data that become available in the course of time, so that the contents of Tradition can be re-assessed and given relevance in changed circumstances.

John Wijngaards

Please, credit this document
as published by www.womenpriests.org!

Wijngaards Institute for Catholic ResearchThis website is maintained by the Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research.

The Institute is known for issuing academic reports and statements on relevant issues in the Church. These have included scholars' declarations on the need of collegiality in the exercise of church authority, on the ethics of using contraceptives in marriage and the urgency of re-instating the sacramental diaconate of women.

Visit also our websites:Women Deacons, The Body is Sacred and Mystery and Beyond.

You are welcome to use our material. However: maintaining this site costs money. We are a Charity and work mainly with volunteers, but we find it difficult to pay our overheads.

Visitors to our website since January 2014.
Pop-up names are online now.

The number is indicative, but incomplete. For full details click on cross icon at bottom right.

Join our Women Priests' Mailing List
for occasional newsletters:
An email will be immediately sent to you
requesting your confirmation.