The Meaning of Tradition in the Catholic Church

Father James Chelich – 2003 (revised 2007)



is Jesus’ promise of the gift of the Divine Spirit.

John 14:16-17 I will ask the Father and He will give you another Paraclete – to be with you always: the Spirit of Truth, whom the world cannot accept since it neither sees him nor recognizes him; because he remains with you.

In Catholic Faith, Tradition is the Holy Spirit at work in the Church doing exactly what Jesus says the Holy Spirit is sent to do.



is the presence and action of the Holy Spirit

in the Church

IIa. TRADITION is the Holy Spirit reminding the Church of the words and deeds of Jesus.

John 14:26 The Paraclete, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will instruct you in everything, and remind you of all that I told you.

It was the Holy Spirit who was active in the preaching of the Apostles as they accurately recalled the words and deeds of Jesus, preached them and then accurately explained their meaning. It was the Holy Spirit who was active in the assembly of the Church when it discerned which of the written collections of Jesus’ words and deeds and which of the collections of the Apostles teachings were authentic and which had been corrupted. Thus did the Church canonize (define as authentic) the Scriptures and form the Bible.

IIb. TRADITION is the Holy Spirit guiding the Church as it discerns and defends the truth about Jesus and the truth in Jesus when it is controverted.

We can see an example of this in the life of the early Church recorded in the Bible. The assembled apostles write to the Gentiles who have come to faith in Jesus concerning the controversy about whether they are to be

circumcised and follow Jewish ritual law:

Acts 15:28-29 It is the decision of the Holy Spirit, and ours too, not to lay on you any burden beyond that which is strictly necessary, namely,

to abstain from meat sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals, and from illicit sexual union.

Saint Paul warned: “A time will come when people will not tolerate sound doctrine, but, following their own desires, will surround themselves with teachers who tickle their ears. They will stop listening to the truth and wander off to fables.” (2 Timothy 4:3-4) How, then, are we to know the truth with certainty.? Jesus provided for this in the Church:

John 16:13 When he comes, however, being the Spirit of truth he will guide you to all truth.


TRADITION is the articulated truth (Doctrine) the Holy Spirit leads the Church to know and embrace.

It is clear that Saint Paul knows about a body of truth about Christ

to which he must be faithful:

I Corinthians 11:2 I praise you because you always remember me and are holding fast to the traditions just as I handed them on to you.

I Corinthians 15:3-7 I handed on to you first of all what I myself received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures,; that he was buried and, in accordance with the Scriptures, rose on the third day; that he was seen by Cephas, then by the Twelve. After that he was seen by five hundred brothers at once, most of whom are still alive, although some have fallen asleep. Next he was seen by James; then by all the apostles…

I Corinthians 11: 23-25 I received from the Lord what I handed on to you, namely, that the Lord Jesus on the night in which he was betrayed took

bread, and after he had given thanks, broke it and said, ‘This I my body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way, after supper, he took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.’

IIIa. TRADITION is both Oral and Written:

2 Thessalonians 2:15 Therefore, brothers, stand firm. Hold fast to the traditions you received from us, either by our word or by letter.

IIIb. TRADITION guarantees that Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever.

Hebrews 13:8 Remember your leaders who spoke the word of God

to you; consider how their lives ended, and imitate their faith.

Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.

Even while the Holy Spirit was inspiring Saint Paul and the other apostles and leading them to articulate the truth about Christ, it is evident that they understood that they were contributing to a growing body of articulated truth about Christ which could not be contradicted or set aside, and to which they were accountable in their preaching and teaching:

Galatians 2:1-2, 9 I went up to Jerusalem again with Barnabas, this time taking Titus with me. I went prompted by a revelation, and a laid out for their scrutiny the gospel as I present it to the Gentiles – all this in private conference with the leaders, to make sure the course I was pursuing, or had pursued, was not useless. …Those who were the acknowledged pillars, James, Cephas and John, gave Barnabas and me the handclasp of fellowship, signifying that we should go to the Gentiles as they to the Jews.



is the Church

in whose offices and members the Holy Spirit is active.

Saint Paul understood that the Holy Spirit was present and at work in the Church, and that the Church carried within her the Holy Spirit’s guarantee

of the truth of its teaching:

I Timothy 3:14-15 I am writing you about these matters so that if I should be delayed you will know what kind of conduct befits a member of God’s household, the church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth.

1 Corinthians 12:27-30 You, then are the body of Christ. Everyone of you are a member of it. Furthermore, God set up in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracle workers, healers, assistants, administrators, and those who speak in tongues.

Matthew 16:13 Jesus…asked his disciples this question: ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ They replied, ‘Some say John the Baptizer, others Elijah, sill others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ ‘And you,’ he said to them, ‘Who do you say that I am?’ ‘You are the Messiah,’ Simon Peter answered, ‘the Son of the living God!’ Jesus replied, ‘Blest are you, Simon son of Jonah! No mere man has revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father. I for my part declare to you, you are ‘Rock,’ and on this rock I will build my church, and the jaws of death shall not prevail against it. I will entrust to you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you declare bound on earth shall be bound in heaven; whatever you declare loosed on earth shall be loosed in heaven.’


“traditions” are not TRADITION

“Traditions” are:

1) patterns of cooperating with grace used in the reform

of one’s personal life,

2) patterns of personal and communal prayer and piety,

3) modes of witnessing Christ before the world.

These are evidenced in the lives of the saints and emulated by the Church or individual members of the Church because they prove helpful to sustaining spiritual health and growth in the members, and unity in the whole body.

In Catholic faith there is a clear distinction between TRADITION and “traditions.” “Traditions” can change. TRADITION does not change.

An example from Jesus’ teachings: Matthew 23:23

You pay tithes on mint and herbs and seeds (“traditions”) while neglecting the weightier matters of the law, justice and mercy and good faith (TRADITION). It is these you should have practiced,

without neglecting the others.

An example in the Worship of the Church:

The Constitution on the Divine Liturgy, Vatican Council II, Chapter 1, #21

The liturgy is make up of unchangeable elements divinely instituted (TRADITION), and elements subject to change (“traditions”).

These latter not only may be changed but ought to be changed with the passage of time, if they have suffered from the intrusion of anything

out of harmony with the inner nature of the liturgy or have become

less suitable.