Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Mark Shea on Sacred Tradition

As a follow-up to my last post, I thought I'd link to a new article by Mark Shea on Sacred Tradition.  Shea's book on the subject is one of the best treatments and explanations of Sacred Tradition that I know.  (Of course, John Henry Neuman's treatise on the development of doctrine is a must-read as well.)

Shea's article begins:


A reader writes:

I am almost finished reading your book By What Authority, and wanted to express my extreme gratitude to you for writing this book. I was raised as an evangelical and, like you and so many others, have been mulling over questions that seem to have no satisfactory answers inside the evangelical world. I recently picked up the aforementioned book and have not been able to put it down. I have been on an exploratory mission the last couple of years, researching and praying about the Catholic Church, and if there were a lynch pin in my story, reading this book might just be it. I have a question though that was not addressed in the book, or maybe I just didn’t pick up on it.

My question is this ... If the Church relies on Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture as you explain, both written and unwritten, what exactly does that Sacred Tradition look like? What is it right now, two thousand years later?

I assume that it is all written down, perhaps comprised of the writings of the early Church Fathers ... Right? Or does it reside in the living successors to the apostles? And if it is written down, what is the difference between that and the Scriptures if both are equal and necessary?

Or is some written in history, such as veneration of Mary and the saints, and some of it unwritten as of yet, such as prohibition of doctor assisted suicide?

Gawrsh! Thanks for your kind words!

In answer to your question: Sacred Tradition is the common life, worship and teaching of the Catholic faith. You can read about the basics of what it is and how it relates to Scripture (which is the written aspect of the Tradition) by starting here and going down to paragraph 100 of the Catechism.

Beyond this, though, asking “exactly” what Tradition looks like and where it can be found is rather like asking “exactly” what Western Civilization is and where it can be found. Is it in Beethoven? Or the Beatles? Dante or Mark Twain? The architecture of St. Peter’s or the Empire State Building? The monarchy of Louis IX or the presidency of Thomas Jefferson? The Simpsons or the Mona Lisa? Well, all of these things are expressions of Western Civilization. And the thought of Fathers of the Church who sometimes quarreled or disagreed with each other on certain points still falls within the Catholic tradition, too.

Or, to vary the metaphor, it’s like asking just where the exact location of Jazz is and what the precise boundaries and borders there are between it and, say, Rock and Pop. That sort of mathematical precision won’t get you anywhere. In short, I suspect you need to rethink your paradigm.

Strictly speaking, the Tradition is Jesus. It is he who is being handed down by the Church in her life, worship, and teaching. The Church hands him down in the sacraments, for instance. She hands him down in her doctrines, which teach us to think with the mind of Christ. She hands him down in her moral and devotional life, wherein we learn to worship the Father as he does. She hands him down in her people, both lay and ordained as they gather to worship and express him through our various gifts and offices. She hands him down in Scripture, which is his living word in writing. She hands him down in the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. She hands him down in the ordained office. In all this, the Tradition is much more like a living organism than a mathematically precise body of doctrines.


Read more here!

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