Tradition: What is it?

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‘A love for tradition has never weakened a nation, indeed it has strengthened nations in their hour of peril. ‘ (Winston Churchill)

Tradition: Truths and Customs at the Center of Human Existence

Love for Tradition is not escapism, an easy-way out of the dangers of innovation, a mere knee-jerk reaction to novelty, a stagnant conservatism.

Tradition for the Catholic is no mere attachment to some “good old days”, a mere psychological construction to escape from an uncongenial present; a reactionary conservatism closed to progress.

No! It is something absolutely different. For the Catholic, Tradition, discovered through study of the past (“history”) is the set of truths that have been embodied  and acted out by “ordinary” men and women,  generation after generation, and often across continental divides (though with circumstantial differences) as expressions of the ultimate meaning about man, society, the cosmos, and time, identifiable through the Natural Law and the Catholic Faith. It is, as Josef Pieper stated referring to Tradition in all civilizations, “the claim to transmit information that is divinely vouched for and concerns the whole of reality and the center of human existence”. (Josef Pieper, Tradition, p. 49)

For the Catholic, what defines some truth or custom as integral to Tradition is the degree to which it is  an expression, channel, and guide of the eternal truths that constitute the Natural Law and Divine Revelation.  Thus, we take our stand for any tradition on the ground that it is, somehow, no matter how tenuously, connected to Tradition, to “the claim to transmit information that is divinely vouched for and concerns the whole of reality and the center of human existence” (Josef Pieper, Tradition, 2010, p. 49)

Although many of the traditions will only touch the fringes of Tradition such as forms of courtesy in addressing strangers, ways of dressing, and meal-time customs, nevertheless, in their raison d’etre, they have importance because they defend and express values such as respect for others, deference towards authority, and virtues such as chastity that are eternally unchanging truths and goods.

Even in our liquified post-modern Western world the masses of people still recognize that some traditions are necessary for living in community.

“First of all, they serve an indispensable function of liberating and unburdening the individual conscience and social interactions.

“Our common life can run along with less friction, and human energies can be turned without let or hindrance to their real goals, when it is taken for granted on the basis of unquestioned tradition that, for example…that at a party you introduce yourself to someone you do not know; that you say thank you when someone helps you; that you say excuse me or pardon me; that everybody uses the usual forms of address; that you do not talk about private and personal issues with just anybody….

“It would be an unendurable burden on our common life if every decision about everything that has to be done were decided from case to case on the basis of critical reflection.” (Josef Pieper, Tradition, pp. 37-38)

The sense of Tradition is therefore the sanctuary in which eternal truths are guarded so that they may fulfill their providential role of being the criterion and standard for evaluating all genuine progress of thought and action.

The Catholic is able to sift, value, and rank traditions in importance according to the standards of the Natural Law and the truths of Divine Revelation found in the core doctrines of the Catholic Faith.

In doing so he finds a powerful aid in the perennial Catholic philosophy whose noblest exemplar, that of St. Thomas Aquinas, is built on the realism of man’s experience and the eagerness to accept truth from wherever it is found.

Tradition therefore presupposes the awareness that the cosmos, history and everyman’s life has a meaning. Man can discover a great deal about this purpose by reflecting on nature. By giving his mind and heart through the Catholic Faith to recognize that Jesus Christ is Lord  he can discover all that is necessary to travel the one and only way to Him who is the source of all truths, and the life by whom the cosmos was created.

In synthesis, Tradition for Catholicism is inseparably bonded to the Truth about Man found in the Natural Law and in the Catholic Faith.