Latent Tradition in the Church

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‘Latent’ Tradition in the Church

“What was handed on by the apostles comprises everything that serves to make the People of God live their lives in holiness and increase their faith. In this way the Church, in her doctrine, life and worship, perpetuates and transmits to every generation all that she herself is, all that she believes.”

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.

The history of the Church demonstrates that we should study the past carefully. Underneath the practice and explicit texts, there may lie a valid latent Tradition, a Tradition that is faithful to the teaching of the Gospel and transmitted through the centuries without always being explicitly recognised as such.

We will proceed by these steps:

Valid Tradition must not be confused with ‘common teaching’ or ‘common practice’

The veneration of some saints

Not so long ago, St. Leo the Second, St. Philomena and St. George were commonly considered saints. Their feasts ranked in the official liturgical calendar. Masses were celebrated in their honour. Boys and girls were named after them at baptism. They were made patrons of churches, of associations and even of countries. In spite of all this devotion the Congregation of the Sacred Rites decided to cancel these saints from the liturgical lists. Why ? Because it was found that even the very existence of these saints can reasonably be doubted.

“Leo the Second” owed his existence to a mistaken reading of ancient calendars in which the “second feast of Leo the Great” (on the 3rd of July) was indicated as “feast of Leo II”. Later generations began to think that there was question of a Leo other than the one celebrated on the 11th of April. This is how the existence of Leo the Second came to be assumed. St. George has a different origin. He occurs only in legendary traditions which, moreover, can be proved to be of pagan origin (‘the famous old theme of the hero defending a virgin against a dragon’).

What about St.Philomena? Many Popes in the 19th century had a devotion to St.Philomena: Leo XII (1823-1829), Gregory XVI (1831-1846), Pius IX (1846-1878) and Leo XIII (1878-1903). Pius X (1903-1914) declared her veneration irrepressible. He wrote: “To discredit the present decisions and declarations concerning Saint Philomena as not being permanent, stable, valid and effective, necessary of obedience and in full effect for all eternity, proceeds from an element that is null and void and without any authority” (1912).

St. Philomena’s career as a saint had begun with the finding of a sepulchre bearing the inscription “philomena” on a broken title-stone. The tomb was interpreted to have contained a martyr and the bones inside (which archaeology has proved cannot have belonged to the “philomena” mentioned on the title-stone) occasioned visions among sudden venerators. In fact, nothing definite is known about this Philomena (if we admit the existence of such a person). She might have been a Christian, a saint and a martyr, but then again, she might not. We don’t know that she did. We even don’t know at what age she died! In short: we know far too little to allow public veneration.

The Congregation for Liturgy was right, therefore, when in 1961 she dropped the public veneration of these saints in spite of the ‘common teaching’ of former Catholics who included saints and Popes. In doing so she did not contradict true valid Tradition, but merely corrected that ‘common teaching’. For these two do not coincide!

Biblical studies

If medieval theologians could have had a glance at a modern introduction to the Bible, surely their eyes would have opened wide in surprise and bewilderment. What ? Were the psalms not composed by David ? Was the Book of Wisdom written only after the exile ? Did Judith not exist ? Must the story of Jonah and the whale be relegated to the realm of inspired midrash ? We can imagine how the theologians would lay down the book with blazing indignation. “These opinions”, they might say, “offend pious ears! They go counter to the common teaching of the Church!”

It is true that in those ages all alike, whether Popes, bishops, theologians or doctors of the Church, were unanimously of the opinion that David himself composed all the psalms, that the story of Judith did actually happen, that Jonah was truly swallowed by a sea monster. Such ideas were commonly believed true. They were preached as such from the pulpit. They were taught as such in the monastic schools. Yes, many may even have considered these truths an inalienable part of revealed doctrine! Opposing them might have led to condemnation by the Inquisition itself.

Former centuries may have been convinced that Moses wrote the Pentateuch, or that God created the world in precisely six days. Such convictions represented the universal and common teaching in the Church. Theologians, Bishops and Popes considered them part of unbroken tradition. Yet, as new information became available and new understanding grew, the Church had to lay off such opinions as obscuring her true Tradition. For ‘common teaching’ does not brand a belief to be valid Church Tradition! At one time ‘common teaching’ in the Church held the earth to be flat and the sun to move round it! And yet, will we give up our belief in a Telstar or cancel a “round-the-world” trip on account of it?


In the first seven centuries of the Church confession was normally considered a public sacrament. Sacramental absolution was, moreover, only granted once or twice in one’s life. For certain grave sins, such as adultery, apostasy and murder, absolution was delayed until the moment of death. Common teaching at the time would have recoiled from “frequent confessions” such as we know them today. Yet, in spite of this former common teaching, the Church realised in the course of time how valuable confession can be as a means of sanctification. Confession not only offers public reconciliation: it also helps the penitent Christian to grow gradually to a greater likeness of the sinless Christ. This aspect of confession had not been explicitly acknowledged by the faithful of the Early Church, but it was contained implicitly in their faith concerning the sacrament. Frequent confession may, therefore, seem to have been contrary to their practice and the ‘common teaching’ prevalent in the Church; it was not contrary to the valid ‘latent Tradition’.

There exists a valid implicit, latent Tradition

Henry Cardinal Newman explained this eloquently in ‘A University Sermon Preached on the Purification’, Oxford 1843. The full text may be read here. I will print some extracts in which the italics are mine.

No 11. “Now, here I observe, first of all, that, naturally as the inward idea of divine truth, such as has been described, passes into explicit form by the activity of our reflective powers, still such an actual delineation is not essential to its genuineness and perfection. A peasant may have such a true impression, yet be unable to give any intelligible account of it, as will easily be understood. But what is remarkable at first sight is this, that there is good reason for saying that the impression made upon the mind need not even be recognized by the parties possessing it. It is no proof that persons are not possessed, because they are not conscious, of an idea. Nothing is of more frequent occurrence, whether in things sensible or intellectual, than the existence of such unperceived impressions. What do we mean when we say, that certain persons do not know themselves, but that they are ruled by views, feelings, prejudices, objects which they do not recognize? How common is it to be exhilarated or depressed, we do not recollect why, though we are aware that something has been told us, or has happened, good or bad, which accounts for our feeling, could we recall it! What is memory itself, but a vast magazine of such dormant, but present and excitable ideas? Or consider, when persons would trace the history of their own opinions in past years, how baffled they are in the attempt to fix the date of this or that conviction, their system of thought having been all the while in continual, gradual, tranquil expansion; so that it were as easy to follow the growth of the fruit of the earth, "first the blade, then the ear, after that the full corn in the ear," as to chronicle changes, which involved no abrupt revolution, or reaction, or fickleness of mind, but have been the birth of an idea, the development, in explicit form, of what was already latent within it.

“Or, again, critical disquisitions are often written about the idea which this or that poet might have in his mind in certain of his compositions and characters; and we call such analysis the philosophy of poetry, not implying thereby of necessity that the author wrote upon a theory in his actual delineation, or knew what he was doing; but that, in matter of fact, he was possessed, ruled, guided by an unconscious idea. Moreover, it is a question whether that strange and painful feeling of unreality, which religious men experience from time to time, when nothing seems true, or good, or right, or profitable, when Faith seems a name, and duty a mockery, and all endeavours to do right, absurd and hopeless, and all things forlorn and dreary, as if religion were wiped out from the world, may not be the direct effect of the temporary obscuration of some master vision, which unconsciously supplies the mind with spiritual life and peace.”

No 12. “Or, to take another class of instances which are to the point so far as this, that at least they are real impressions, even though they be not influential. How common is what is called vacant vision, when objects meet the eye, without any effort of the judgment to measure or locate them; and that absence of mind, which recollects minutes afterwards the occurrence of some sound, the striking of the hour, or the question of a companion, which passed unheeded at the time it took place! How, again, happens it in dreams, that we suddenly pass from one state of feeling, or one assemblage of circumstances to another, without any surprise at the incongruity, except that, while we are impressed first in this way, then in that, we take no active cognizance of the impression? And this, perhaps, is the life of inferior animals, a sort of continuous dream, impressions without reflections; such, too, seems to be the first life of infants; nay, in heaven itself, such may be the high existence of some exalted orders of blessed spirits, as the Seraphim, who are said to be, not Knowledge, but all Love.”

No 13. “Now, it is important to insist on this circumstance, because it suggests the reality and permanence of inward knowledge, as distinct from explicit confession. The absence, or partial absence, or incompleteness of dogmatic statements is no proof of the absence of impressions or implicit judgments, in the mind of the Church. Even centuries might pass without the formal expression of a truth, which had been all along the secret life of millions of faithful souls. Thus, not till the thirteenth century was there any direct and distinct avowal, on the part of the Church, of the numerical Unity of the Divine Nature, which the language of some of the principal Greek fathers, prima facie, though not really, denies. Again, the doctrine of the Double Procession was no Catholic dogma in the first ages, though it was more or less clearly stated by individual Fathers; yet, if it is now to be received, as surely it must be, as part of the Creed, it was really held every where from the beginning, and therefore, in a measure, held as a mere religious impression, and perhaps an unconscious one.”

No 14. “But, further, if the ideas may be latent in the Christian mind, by which it is animated and formed, it is not surprising that they should be difficult to elicit and define; and of this difficulty we have abundant proof in the history whether of the Church, or of individuals. Surely it is not at all wonderful, that, when individuals attempt to analyze their own belief, they should find the task arduous in the extreme, if not altogether beyond them; or, again, a work of many years; or, again, that they should shrink from the true developments, if offered to them, as foreign to their thoughts. This may be illustrated in a variety of ways.”

No 15. “It will often happen, perhaps from the nature of things, that it is impossible to master and express an idea in a short space of time. As to individuals, sometimes they find they cannot do so at all; at length, perhaps, they recognize, in some writer they meet, with the very account of their own thoughts, which they desiderate; and then they say, that "here is what they have felt all along, and wanted to say, but could not," or "what they have ever maintained, only better expressed." Again, how many men are burdened with an idea, which haunts them through a great part of their lives, and of which only at length, with much trouble, do they dispossess themselves? I suppose most of us have felt at times the irritation, and that for a long period, of thoughts and views which we felt, and felt to be true, only dimly showing themselves, or flitting before us; which at length we understood must not be forced, but must have their way, and would, if it were so ordered, come to light in their own time. The life of some men, and those not the least eminent among divines and philosophers, has centred in the development of one idea; nay, perhaps has been too short for the process. Again, how frequently it happens, that, on first hearing a doctrine propounded, a man hesitates, first acknowledges, then disowns it; then says that he has always held it, but finds fault with the mode in which it is presented to him, accusing it of paradox or over-refinement; that is, he cannot at the moment analyze his own opinions, and does not know whether he holds the doctrine or not, from the difficulty of mastering his thoughts.”

No 16. “Another characteristic, as I have said, of dogmatic statements, is the difficulty of recognizing them, even when attained, as the true representation of our meaning. This happens for many reasons; sometimes, from the faint hold we have of the impression itself, whether its nature be good or bad, so that we shrink from principles in substance, which we acknowledge in influence. Many a man, for instance, is acting on utilitarian principles, who is shocked at them in set treatises, and disowns them. Again, in sacred subjects, the very circumstance that a dogma professes to be a direct contemplation, and, if so be, a definition of what is infinite and eternal, is painful to serious minds. Moreover, from the hypothesis, it is the representation of an idea in a medium not native to it, not as originally conceived, but, as it were, in projection; no wonder, then, that, though there be an intimate correspondence, part by part, between the impression and the dogma, yet there should be an harshness in the outline of the latter; as, for instance, a want of harmonious proportion; and yet this is unavoidable, from the infirmities of our intellectual powers.”

No17. “Again, another similar peculiarity in developments in general, is the great remoteness of the separate results of a common idea, or rather at first sight the absence of any connexion. Thus it often happens that party spirit is imputed to persons, merely because they agree with one another in certain points of opinion and conduct, which are thought too minute, distant, and various, in the large field of religious doctrine and discipline, to proceed from any but an external influence and a positive rule; whereas an insight into the wonderfully expansive power and penetrating virtue of theological or philosophical ideas would have shown, that what is apparently arbitrary in rival or kindred schools of thought, is after all rigidly determined by the original hypothesis. The remark has been made, for instance, that rarely have persons maintained the sleep of the soul before the Resurrection, without falling into more grievous errors; again, those who deny the Lutheran doctrine of justification, commonly have tendencies towards a ceremonial religion; again, it is a serious fact that Protestantism has at various times unexpectedly developed into an allowance or vindication of polygamy; and heretics in general, however opposed in tenets, are found to have an inexplicable sympathy for each other, and never wake up from their ordinary torpor, but to exchange courtesies and meditate coalitions. One other remark is in point here, and relates to the length to which statements run, though, before we attempted them, we fancied our idea could be expressed in one or two sentences. Explanations grow under our hands, in spite of our effort at compression. Such, too, is the contrast between conversation and epistolary correspondence. We speak our meaning with little trouble; our voice, manner, and half words completing it for us; but in writing, when details must be drawn out, and misapprehensions anticipated, we seem never to be rid of the responsibility of our task. This being the case, it is surprising that the Creeds are so short, nor surprising that they need a comment.”

No 18. “The difficulty, then, and hazard of developing doctrines implicitly received, must be fully allowed; and this is often made a ground for inferring that they have no proper developments at all; that there is no natural connexion between certain dogmas and certain impressions; and that theological science is a matter of time, and place, and accident, though inward belief is ever and every where one and the same. But surely the instinct of every Christian revolts from such a position; for the very first impulse of his faith is to try to express itself about the "great sight" which is vouchsafed to it; and this seems to argue that a science there is, whether the mind is equal to its discovery or no. And, indeed, what science is open to every chance inquirer? which is not recondite in its principles? which requires not special gifts of mind for its just formation? All subject-matters admit of true theories and false, and the false are no prejudice to the true. Why should this class of ideas be different from all other? Principles of philosophy, physics, ethics, politics, taste, admit both of implicit reception and explicit statement; why should not the ideas, which are the secret life of the Christian, be recognized also as fixed and definite in themselves, and as capable of scientific analysis? Why should not there be that real connexion between science and its subject-matter in religion, which exists in other departments of thought? No one would deny that the philosophy of Zeno or Pythagoras was the exponent of a certain mode of viewing things; or would affirm that Platonist and Epicurean acted on one and the same idea of nature, life, and duty, and meant the same thing, though they verbally differed, merely because a Plato or an Epicurus was needed to detect the abstruse elements of thought, out of which each philosophy was eventually constructed. A man surely may be a Peripatetic or an Academic in his feelings, views, aims, and acts, who never heard the names. Granting, then, extreme cases, when individuals who would analyze their views of religion are thrown entirely upon their own reason, and find that reason unequal to the task, this will be no argument against a general, natural, and ordinary correspondence between the dogma and the inward idea. Surely, if Almighty God is ever one and the same, and is revealed to us as one and the same, the true inward impression of Him, made on the recipient of the revelation, must be one and the same; and, since human nature proceeds upon fixed laws, the statement of that impression must be one and the same, so that we may as well say that there are two Gods as two Creeds. And considering the strong feelings and energetic acts and severe sufferings which age after age have been involved in the maintenance of the Catholic dogmas, it is surely a very shallow philosophy to account such maintenance a mere contest about words, and a very abject philosophy to attribute it to mere party spirit, or to personal rivalry, or to ambition, or to covetousness.”

This Tradition has been known in traditional theology as ‘the Gospel in the heart’

It has always been recognised in the history of the Church that the real Gospel was not a written text. Paul said: ‘You are a letter from Christ, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts’ (2 Corinthians 3,3; compare especially Jeremiah 31,31-34).

In terms of the tradition of faith, this came to mean that Christ had entrusted to his community of believers an internal awareness of his revelation that exceeded everything written in either the New Testament, or in later Church documents. It was the reality in the consciousness of the believing community, the ‘Gospel in the heart’. Clement of Alexandria expressed it in this way: “By the Saviour’s teaching, given to the apostles, the unwritten tradition of written tradition has been handed down to us, written by the power of God in new hearts, which correspond to the newness of the book of Isaiah.” Stromata Book 6, chap. 15, 131, 4-5. Nicephorus of Constantinople stated: “Everything done in the Church is Tradition, including the Gospel, since Jesus Christ wrote nothing but put his word into the souls of people.” Antirrheticus, III, 7; PG 100, 385cd.

St. Thomas Aquinas says, with St Augustine, that all Scripture, including the New Testament, is, when it is considered as written, and therefore external to the heart of people, a mere letter that kills. External means of communication continue to be used under the New Dispensation but these are only secondary realities whose role is merely to produce the interior fruit, the primary reality: these are things inducing us towards the grace of the Holy Spirit i.e., the grace in which the new law properly consists, the law of the Spirit written not in ink, but by the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.

Augustine, De Spir. et Litt., 14, 23 and 17, 30 . Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica I-II, q. 106, a. 2. See ST I-II, q. 106, a. I, sed cont.; a. 2, ad 3 III, q. 42, a. 4, ad 2, q. 72, a 1l; Comm. in 2 Cor., c. 3, lect. I; In Hebr., c. 8,lect. 3 end.

The concept of the ‘Gospel in the heart’ was taken up strongly by Catholic theologians in their defence of traditional doctrine against the Reformers who narrowed revelation to only those truths explicitly stated in Sacred Scripture. See Yves Congar, Tradition and Traditions, Burns & Oates, London 1965, pp. 494 - 508.

Joseph Ratzinger, the present Cardinal Prefect of the Congregation for Doctrine, has shown that the ‘Gospel in the heart’ was very much discussed at the Council of Trent (1601 - 1612 AD). Cardinal Cervini proposed to the Council three principles and foundations of our faith:

  1. The sacred books which were written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
  2. The gospel which our Lord did not write, but taught by word of mouth and implanted in people’s hearts, and part of which the evangelists later wrote down, while much was simply entrusted to the hearts of the faithful.
  3. Because the Son of God was not going to abide with us for ever physically, he sent the Holy Spirit, who was to reveal the mysteries of God in the hearts of the faithful and teach the Church all truth until the end of time.

Ratzinger shows that the whole debate greatly influenced the Council decrees (J. Ratzinger, ‘On the Interpretation of the Tridentine Decree on Tradition’, in Revelation and Tradition, by K. Rahner and J. Ratzinger, Burns & Oates, London 1966, pp. 50-68.

The theme of the ‘Gospel in the heart’ was further developped by a group of 19th century Catholic theologians known as the School of Tübingen. “For Möhler and the Catholic theologians of Tübingen “living Tradition” meant, either a conviction expressed in all its breadth by one’s entire way of life, with emphasis placed on life in a community, or, more simply, the growth through time of the truth entrusted to the Church, like the growth of a living plant. It is this last interpretation which is the most adequate. Tradition is living because it is carried by living minds—minds living in time. These minds meet with problems or acquire resources, in time, which lead them to endow Tradition, or the truth it contains, with the reactions and characteristics of a living thing: adaptation, reaction, growth and fruitfulness. Tradition is living because it resides in minds that live by it, in a history which comprises activity, problems, doubts, opposition, new contributions, and questions that need answering” (Yves Congar, The Meaning of Tradition, Hawthorne, New York 1964, p. 75).

Another favourite expression elaborated by them was: the Catholic spirit (sensus catholicus), the spirit of the faith (sensus fidei), the ecclesiastical spirit (phronema ekklesiastikon), the mind of the Church, Ecclesiae Catholicae sensus, or sometimes consensus Ecclesia, remembering that in these last expressions ‘Church’ stands for the whole community of believers.

  • The Catholic spirit is like the genius of a people, or a national spirit, Volksgeist; a living link between the past and the present. This spirit is embodied and realized objectively in laws and institutions, and supremely in the State. Such is Tradition: the community spirit whose profound inner force is the Pentecostal Spirit, and which lives, is transmitted within the ecclesiastical fellowship and is expressed in the monuments of the Church’s faith.
  • The spirit of the faith (sensus fidei Ecclesiae) should be understood in terms of “awareness”. Tradition is the Church’s awareness. Its role in the Church is similar to that played by awareness in a person’s life: comprehension and memory, gauge of identity, instinct of what is fitting, witness and expression of personality. This awareness, however, is special, because the awareness comes from Christ, it holds data it has received as a deposit. The Church keeps and actualizes the living memory of what she has received, and whose presence and vigour her Beloved Lord continually sustains within her. In a sense, this awareness possesses its object integrally from the start, but it does not express it fully at each moment.

In other words: the ‘Gospel in the heart’ carries the latent traditions Newman spoke about. In the course of time the Church becomes aware of this latent treasure and recognises it explicitly.

As far as I know, the writings of the Tübingen school are not easily accessible in English. In the German language it is J.R. Geiselmann who has made them available: Die katholische Tübinger Schule. Ihre theologische Eigenart, Herder of Freiburg 1964; Lebendiger Glaube aus geheiligter Überlieferung (about Johann Möhler), Mainz 1942; Die lebendige Überlieferung als Norm des christlichen Glaubens (about Kuhn), Freiburg 1959; Geist des Christentums und des Katholizismus (about von Drey), Mainz 1940.

Dissent from ‘common teaching’ may later turn out to be the valid latent Tradition

Underneath the ‘common opinion’ which is perceived by many in the Church to be equivalent to its ‘common teaching’, the true latent Tradition which is faithful to the inspiration of Christ and the Apostles may manifest itself first as dissent.

“(We should) ... attend to the possibility, which has actually been verified on a number of issues, that a doctrine on which there was a consensus in the past, no longer enjoys such a consensus. In other words, what was at first a dissenting opinion, has sometimes become the more common, and even the official, doctrine. One obvious example is the consensus that existed until the 15th century about the absolute necessity of explicit Christian faith for salvation. In the light of the discoveries made in the 15th and 16th centuries about vast populations that had had no possibility of coming to Christian faith before the missionaries arrived, theologians began to reconsider the question, and the Church gradually came around to what is now the teaching of Vatican II on the possibility of salvation for those who, without fault on their part, lack Christian faith.”

“Hence it can happen, and it has happened, that what was at first dissent from common teaching, has subsequently been accepted as the doctrine of the Church. One could name several other issues, such as the Church's judgment on the morality of owning and using human persons as slaves, on the taking of interest on loans, on religious liberty, and on non-Christian religions, where what was at first a dissenting opinion has become the doctrine of the Church. An interesting example of this can be found even in the encyclical Evangelium Vitae.”

“ It would not be difficult to show that for many centuries popes and bishops, following the teaching of Pope Innocent III that "the punishment of original sin is the lack of the vision of God"(Letter Maiores ecclesiae causas of the year 1201; DS no. 780.), were agreed in teaching that infants who died without baptism would not enjoy the beatific vision. Even as recently as 1954, William A. Van Roo published a scholarly article, demonstrating the strength of the sensus ecclesiae on this question.("Infants Dying without Baptism: A Survey of Recent Literature and Determination of the State of the Question," Gregorianum 35 (1954) 406-73.) And yet, in Evangelium Vitae, addressing himself to women who have had an abortion, Pope John Paul II says, "The Father of mercies is ready to give you his forgiveness and his peace in the sacrament of reconciliation. You will come to understand that nothing is definitively lost, and you will also be able to ask forgiveness from your child, who is now living in the Lord."(Evangelium Vitae no. 99; Origins 24 (April 6, 1995) 723). One could also compare what is said in the Roman Catechism issued by St. Pius V in 1566 (II.ii.35), with what is said in the Catechism of the Catholic Church issued by John Paul II in 1992 (no. 1261). )

Francis A. Sullivan, ‘Recent theological observations on magisterial documents and public dissent’, Theological Studies 58 (Sept. '97) p. 509-15.


Genuine Tradition in the Church may be ‘latent’ under the practices and texts of the past. It is preserved by the ‘Gospel in the heart’, the awareness of Jesus’ true mind, kept alive by the working of the Holy Spirit in the hearts and minds of the community of believers.

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