Tradition: North Star of Personal and Social Identity

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Memory is Essential to Knowing Who You Are

A sensitivity to tradition is essential to knowing who you are!

A man’s sense of identity is inseparable from his memory of his past. His remembrance of past events and crucial truths about his existence make him aware of who he is, where he has come from, where he is going.

To understand his present he must know his past. If he were merely to live in the present, in his “here and now” he would be like someone suffering from Alzheimer’s. Without the knowledge of history, man remains a dramatic question to himself with no hope of ever finding an answer.

The vibrantly alive individual is he who is able to draw upon the experience of the past, stored in the memory, as that which empowers him to illumine his decisions, seeking the greatest good and achievement, avoiding the repetition of evil, and contributing to progress for self, family, society and civilization.

Through knowledge of history, man has a better capacity to know who he is because his memory of his past is not merely that of his own lifetime but also that of his forefathers, of his society, of his civilization.

For this reason so many of the renowned social and political transformers, whether for good or for evil, studied history and made their decisions and formulated their public policies in the light of what Winston Churchill called “historical imagination”. To paraphrase Napoleon they recognized that ignorance of history is dangerous since he who does not know history is destined to repeat past mistakes.

Tradition is Society’s Memory and Memory is Identity

For these movers and shakers of society, study of history was not about accumulating a mere heap of facts about the past. It meant acquiring knowledge about the engine of history, the forces that moved men to live and die for ideals and achieve success in social change. Ideas, philosophies and, above all, religions, had to be reckoned with. Not in the abstract however but as they  were lived out in society in relatively unchanging ways, passed on from society’s leaders and from parents to children, generation after generation.

Traditions, which, in each civilization, formed part of the Tradition in the measure in which they were expressive of the Natural Law, were valued by all civilizations prior to the present post-modern, secularized, Western civilization. All recognized, without exception, the role of tradition for the flourishing – and indeed the survival ‒ of the individual and society, as historians such as Dawson and Toynbee have recognized.

A Catholic’s Identity is Born from His Sense of Tradition

By being sensitive to Tradition – which, for a Catholic, is the heritage of truths and customs expressive, even if only faintly and non-essentially of the Natural Law and Divine Revelation ‒ the Catholic is aware of his own spiritual DNA.

He knows he possesses a heritage,  his heritage, a heritage he will pass on to others because it is the core of his identity, that which makes him who he is!

Accordingly, the transmission, handing on (i.e., traditio) from generation to generation of the truths and customs that make up one’s personal and social patrimony, are vital for the Catholic’s knowledge of self and for the education of future generations.

Catholics recognize especially that the traditions of the sacred liturgy, tried and tested by the passage of the centuries, are the vibrant guardians of Catholic identity,ensuring continuity of the Church’s life.

In this sense Tradition and the spirit of tradition are the North Star guiding both the entire Church, both the magisterium and the entire body of believers, as they interpret the Sacred Scriptures and seek to follow Him who is “The Way, The Truth, and The Life”.

“Through Tradition, ‘the Church, in her doctrine, life and worship, perpetuates and transmits to every generation all that she herself is, all that she believes’ (Vatican Council II, Dei Verbum, 8,1)… ‘the life-giving presence of this Tradition, showing how its riches are poured out in the practice and life of the Church, in her belief and her prayer’ (Dei Verbum, 8,3). (Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 78)

Accordingly, Catholics know that their awareness and living out of Tradition must remain intact, pure, and uncontaminated by the pollution from the world’s evils or merely foreign ideas.