Why Do Catholics Follow So Many Traditions?


When the Pharisees challenge Jesus for failing to practice some of their religious traditions, he rebukes them sharply: "You nullify the word of God in favor of your tradition that you have handed on" (Mk 7:13). Some Christians quote this passage to condemn Catholic tradition as a whole as something contrary to the "word of God." But is Jesus actually condemning all tradition?


The word "tradition" means literally "that which is handed down." Anything received from others and passed onto others is thus a tradition: language, culture, scientific knowledge, and even faith itself. Jesus is certainly not condemning all of these things.


Is the Lord rejecting specifically religious tradition, then? If we examine other biblical passages, we must conclude that he is not. In speaking of the Eucharist, for example, St. Paul notes that he received it from Christ himself, to be handed down to others: "For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you..." (1 Cor 11:23). He explicitly commends the Corinthians for adhering to such traditions: "I praise you because you...hold fast to the traditions, just as I handed them on to you" (1 Cor 11:2).


Some Christians insist that only Scripture (see "Why don't Catholics Believe in the Bible Only?") is authoritative for Christian faith and life. They deny the Catholic teaching (and the historical reality) that Scripture is actually a written portion of a much wider sacred and authoritative Tradition, which includes other elements passed down orally and by patterns of behavior. They fail to realize that if Scripture were the only legitimate source of Christian belief and practice, the early Christians who lived before the New Testament was written and circulated could not have lived the faith.


St. Paul alludes to this reality. He tells the Thessalonians how to discern the truth from error: "Brothers, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught, either by an oral statement (oral tradition) or by a letter of ours (Scripture)" (2 Thes 2:15). In addition, religious tradition can be enacted, a way of life handed down as an example: "Consider the outcome of (your leaders') way of life and imitate their faith" (Heb 13:7).


The only traditions Jesus condemns, then, are those that contradict what we know, from divine revelation, to be God's will (see Mt 15:3).


Other related scriptures: Mt 15:1-9; Mk 7:1-13; 1 Cor 4:15-17; Col 2:8; 2 Thes 3:6; 2 Tm 1:13.


Catechism of the Catholic Church: 75-84; 95-98; 113; 120; 126; 172-175; 182; 1124; 2650-2651; 2661.


*Quoted from The New Catholic Answer Bible. Wichita, Kansas, Fireside Catholic Publishing, 2005. www.firesidecatholic.com


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