When tradition is not Tradition

‘The Church, in the course of centuries, tends perpetually towards the fullness of divine truth,” says Vatican II of the Tradition of the Apostles (Dei Verbum 8). Nothing to frighten the horses there, but the passage has its critics – not for what it says but what it doesn’t say. Broadly, the critics claim that no proper distinction is made between the essential core of Tradition (capital “T”), and the traditions which the Church develops from time to time. Thus there is no slot for such secondary traditions which remain open to reformation.

An example of these is the tradition that unbaptised infants cannot ipso facto get to heaven, and so Limbo is the solution. That tradition started roughly with St Augustine and lasted until – well, yesterday.

It is not the length of the tradition but its relationship to Tradition which counts. And this sometimes cannot be clearly discerned until the repudiation of a tradition confirms that it must, after all, have been tangential.

We cannot dismiss these critics as the gadflies who love to point out the Church’s blemishes. Among them is the late Cardinal Albert Meyer, the acknowledged intellectual leader of the American hierarchy. He was a member of the commission drafting the document. A second was the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches (1963). A third was a certain Tübingen professor, Joseph Ratzinger – writing in 1969.

At least so Professor Francis A Sullivan SJ, from Boston University, tells me in his paper “Catholic Tradition and traditions” in The Crisis of Authority in Catholic Modernity (OUP), into which I have been dipping on your behalf from time to time.

Sullivan looks at two representative cases. The first is slavery. The subject was covered in this newspaper on March 23 2007, and can be roughly summed up by the Holy Office Instruction of June 30 1866: “Slavery itself, considered as such in its essential nature, is not at all contrary to the natural and divine law, and there can be several just titles of slavery and these are referred to by approved theologians and commentators of the sacred canons.”

There have, of course, been many strictures on the abuses of slavery, but Sullivan argues that the principle was never condemned directly; it was only with the Church’s deeper understanding of human dignity – as expressed in the Catechism and in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (2003) that it was manifestly, yet still only implicitly, thrown into the bin.

The second issue – the rights of human beings to the exercise of their own religious belief, and acceptance of its potential salvific value – is another doctrine which was only able to emerge with the growth in the Church’s own understanding of the human condition. It is a doctrine of significance to this newspaper which fought, in effect, a running battle with much of the clerical establishment during the 1950s to promote this insight.

Unlike slavery, whose condemnation was largely a done deal in the minds of decent people by the 20th century, the belief that “error has no rights” (a statement strictly without meaning) was actively promoted.

The latest concordat giving special privileges to the Catholic Church under Franco was only signed in 1953. Its dismantling took some 20 years following the Council, and much dragging of feet. There are those who believe that the tendency of the Church to colonise via secular power is so deep laid that, even now, it would snap back in place at the drop of a mitre.

Sullivan cites, as an example of a tradition which potentially might be reformed, the application of celibacy as the norm for the secular priest. I find this example too slight; I think there is more meat in the Church’s tradition that telling a lie can never be excused. Again, we are thinking of a long tradition: St Augustine was more than clear on the subject. And the Catechism (2482 ff) is explicit: “To lie is to act or speak against the truth in order to lead someone into error.”

But this was a revision of the position taken in the previous edition, which read: “To speak or act against the truth in order to lead into error someone who has the right to know the truth.” Those last nine words make a difference of substance. I will argue that the previous edition was correct. That is, the teaching should not be based on structure of speech (“the purpose of speech is to communicate the known truth to others”) but on the relationship between persons, and what is owed by one to another. By definition one cannot owe truth to someone who has no right to it.

But how do mere laymen dare to suggest that a revision of the Catechism may be wrong? This brings me to Sullivan’s last point. There is no such thing as mere laity. Just as we are innately able to recognise the moral law through reason so we are able through faith to cling to the Word of God, penetrating it more deeply and applying it more thoroughly to life.

So says Vatican II, and Aquinas tells us that the divinely infused light of faith enables the faithful to assent to what accords with this faith and to reject what does not (references on Secondsightblog.net) We may not be a democratic community, but we are a witnessing community.

And though my light of faith may be as small as a mustard need, it may still be bright enough to discern this question. Tell us what you think.

The reference to Aquinas (above) is: ST 2a 2ae, q.2, a.3, ad 2

About Quentin

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83 Responses to When tradition is not Tradition

  1. Peter D. Wilson says:

    Common sense must have a place in this question (which I think we may have touched before).

    Suppose that I know person X is being hunted by a homicidal gang, and that he has taken refuge in location Y. A member of the gang approaches and asks me where he is. If I say “He is at Y” I am telling the truth, but become an accessory to murder. If I deny knowledge, or worse say “He is at Z” in the opposite direction, I am committing a sin according to the current ruling. If I remain silent I am liable to be tortured and am convinced that sooner or later I shall fail to maintain it.

    In this extreme case I incline to the pragmatic view that where the Church’s teaching leads to such palpable absurdity it should be disregarded. However, there are other cases far less clear-cut and I am not at all sure where to draw the line.

    • Horace says:

      Quentin says “I think there is more meat in the Church’s tradition that telling a lie can never be excused.”

      To interrupt with one little question: Are necessary lies permissible, for instance when getting someone to say on the telephone that you are unavailable?
      These are quite practical questions on which even moralists are divided. There is an important school of thought, represented by Kant, that holds that truth has a value in itself and that it is therefore never appropriate to trespass against it. It’s quite understandable that someone should want another person to say on the phone that he is not there. But you should at any rate keep very careful watch on yourself here; once you open this little door you very quickly slip farther and farther. But I would not want to condemn straightaway such an attempt to protect oneself – because I do it, too.
      (Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger “God and the World” trans Henry Taylor)

  2. Peter D. Wilson says:

    I suppose, in my hypothetical case, saying “He is at Z” might be taken as objectively sinful but blameless.

    • st.joseph says:

      Where would sin come into this?
      As you say it is common sense.
      What is sinful about saving some ones life.
      If the same question was asked to a child,they would say the same as you.

      • st.joseph says:

        I think if we look further than CCC 2482 to 2483 and so on it becomes clear!

      • Peter D. Wilson says:

        st.joseph – I’m not sure that the later catechism articles help. To be sure, they give instances where it would be wrong to reveal the truth, but not where “not revealing the truth” in practice requires denying it. The alternatives suggested by tim are in reality unlikely to be feasible, and the dilemma I postulated has often been far from hypothetical – in Ireland within memory, for instance.

    • John says:

      It was put to me some years ago that it is permissible to reply “I do not know” in the sense and intention that “Inasmuch as I have the right to tell you, I do not know” – not regarded as a lie.
      The context was the hypothetical case of a priest being asked about an event which was under the seal of confession where the priest had an obligation not to answer.
      Some will argue that this is Jesuitical casuistry, but it seems to me to be a fair analysis.
      “Man he made to serve him wittily, in the tangles of his mind” (Man for all Seasons – Bolt).

  3. Brian Hamill says:

    The word ‘lie’ is the name of a wrong action. We have been caught up in a very childish understanding of ‘truth’ whereby there has to be an exact correspondence with reality as we perceive it at the moment, otherwise it is a lie. The term ‘white lie’ is an attempt to cover up this deficiency. When someone asks for my knowledge of a certain fact, I am at liberty to ask myself, ‘Has this person a right to ask this question?’ If he has that right, there is some sort of obligation to response with a ‘true’ reply. If that person does not have that right, I can answer whatever I like. The classic case is in the law-court when a priest, under oath, is asked if a specific person came to him for confession. He has the right, and duty, to deny it since neither the questioner, nor anyone else, has the right to ask that question, even if his denial has momentous consequences. It is a fact that journalists seem to think that they have the right to ask questions and demand a correct answer. Actually they do not and this leads to all the weird and wonderful stories in our newspapers.

  4. tim says:

    Common sense (‘prudence’) is a great virtue (I shall argue). Never accept hypothetical dilemmas (‘trolleyology’ – saving other people’s lives by pushing fat men off bridges). If approached by a homicidal gang seeking information, try running away – or replying in Welsh, or some similar stratagem. Do not immediately fall back on a lie as the easy option.

    This is a counsel of perfection, of course. But we should aim at perfection and not accept mediocrity.

    • st.joseph says:

      Are we not being a little scrupleous here.
      Why not look at the real issue of lies.
      The lies that a certain Robert Williams told and did so much damage to persons characters last June with the cancelled Faith of Our Fathers Conference.
      I am sure many will know about that.
      That is really lieing!!!!
      If one doesn’t know ,look the ‘Christian Order’ web site. Nov 2011 Editorial.
      Then compare that with ‘someones life.

      • momangelica says:

        Aha! St Joseph. The lie you are describing is one of a spiteful nature compared to one that is of hiding facts when demanded by people with bad intentions.

  5. claret says:

    The old moral maze is back on the agenda I see. Were the journalists who exposed the conduct of certain abortion providers as detailed in today’s Daily Telgraph telling lies when they presented themselves as pregnant and wanting an abortion of the grounds of the gender of the foetus, telling lies? Or were they exposing an illegal scandal that having now been brought to public notice will hopefully save the lives of certain unborn children in the future?

    As described in the abuse scandal reports when the Church statements said : “We are co-operating with the authorities in their enqueries,” but delberately ommitting the word ‘fully.’
    Is this a lie ?

  6. mike Horsnall says:

    Hurray! Claret has returned from the wilderness!

  7. John Nolan says:

    In Elizabethan times priests who were arrested and questioned could not tell the truth without betraying others, hence the distinction between mendacity and equivocation which was lucidly put by Fr John Gerard SJ in the autobiography he wrote after his escape. He refers to John 7 vv 8-10 where Jesus tells the disciples he is not going up to Jerusalem for the feast of Tabernacles “ego autem non ascendam”, knowing this to be untrue, since he did in fact go up “quasi in occulto”.

    Interestingly, my version of the [Clementine] Vulgate gives “ascendo” (present tense) in place of “ascendam” (future tense) which of course completely changes the import of the passage; since I cannot believe that Gerard would deliberately misquote Scripture, I can only assume a later editor tweaked the text. Unfortunately I have no Greek – I wonder if one of your erudite contributors could tell me what tense it is in the original.

  8. Nektarios says:

    Before we can talk about the question in hand, `When is tradition not Tradition?’
    Before you know what that Tradition actually is, best to say nothing, but read a little first.

    The best thing I can do is to point you to the origins of your own Holy Tradition in the RC Church which has it’s fulness in the Orthodox Church.
    So please, if you really want to be informed about what the Tradition of the Church actually is:

    Google in: What is Orthodox Tradition.

    Reading especially C Cavarnos’ piece on Tradition and further on ine same piece, Tradtion and Modernism.
    Whether one is Eastern or Western, Roman Catholic or even Protestants, the root of
    our Christian heritage as the Christian Church Tradition can be readly understood.
    What tradition with a small t is, can more readily be understood, then, and only then, discussed with an informed understanding. Happy reading!!

  9. st.joseph says:

    You are quite right in what you say.
    A lie consists of speaking a falsehood with the intention of deceiving. The Lord denounces lying as the work of the devil,
    ‘You are of your father the devil’ there is no truth in him. ,. When he lies , he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies. CCC 2482.
    A lie in its self only constitutes a veniel sin, it become mortal when it does grave injury to the virtue of justice and charity CCC2484..

    If one read the Catechism and I presume catholics do,here are some ref on Tradition.

    Tradition. Catechism of the Catholic Church. 81. and Sacred Scripture Nos -80,83, 95, 113, 120,

    depositum fidei Nos- 84, 97 Catechism of the Catholic Church.

    liturgy as constitutive element.124.

    most important content 638.
    CCC 172-175


    • st.joseph says:

      Would anyone know how we stand in the denying the Truth taught by Holy Mother Church?
      We would obviously be telling a lie against the Holy Spirit.

    • Quentin says:

      st.joseph, your definition “A lie consists of speaking a falsehood with the intention of deceiving.” sounds a good one. But does it stand up to investigation?
      Let’s suppose that a young relative of yours comes to see you. He is very frightened because he has witnessed a crime and has agreed to give evidence in court. The criminal even now is searching for him in order to beat him up. Just as he speaks, there is a banging on the door – it is the criminal. At the door he demands to know whether your relative is in the house. You can either say, yes; or you can say that you won’t tell the criminal whether he is in or not; or you can say that he is not in the house.Only the third choice has a chance of working. But it is a falsehood with the intention of deceiving. And we may not do evil, even if good is the outcome.

      • st.joseph says:

        I believe that the Lord has given us through the help of Grace to discern what is evil and what is good! And to know the difference in certain situations!

      • momangelica says:

        Quentin, Those are the moments when you can be as “wily as a serpent and as gentle as a dove when dealing with the men of this world”
        So one may say ” my relative has gone to a safe place ” or some such sentence if you want to be that scrupulous!!

      • Rahner says:

        But what is the evil that is done in this case? According to the natural law/Thomistic theory, lying is intrinsically evil and always wrong because it involves frustrating or perverting the end of communication, which is communication the truth. But as this approach appears to give rise to counter-intuitive/implausible results perhaps the underlying theory is flawed?

      • Peter D. Wilson says:

        Quentin – the question seems to be whether, in this situation, a falsehood is evil.

      • Quentin says:

        Indeed. This is why I prefer to designate those to whom we must not lie as those who have the right to truth (see my column). Of course the default
        position is that everyone has a right to truth, except for those – like the criminal in the example – who have forfeited it.

      • Rahner says:

        For a hard line defence of the traditional view by the philosopher Edward Feser see this:

  10. John Candido says:

    ‘To speak or act against the truth in order to lead into error someone who has the right to know the truth.’

    Of course that ‘someone’ is representative of all of us, both as individuals, and as communities. This principle is the justification for opposition parties in Parliament who seek the truth from the government of the day. All parliamentary members are given immunity from prosecution for defamation, and this useful mechanism is underwritten by the need to fearlessly accuse any member of wrongdoing, in order for the community to get to the truth of any matter.

    A similar principle is in play in journalism. The fourth estate is privileged to ask questions and initiate investigations against the powerful, in order to uncover the truth of any social, political, or economic matter. Both of these institutions are vital components of a democratic society.

    ‘Ideas are the factors that lift a civilisation. They create revolutions. There is more dynamite in an idea than in many bombs.’ Bishop John H. Vincent

    How important is it to question and challenge writing, which might be dressed up as academic, which purports to convey an illusory or distorted history? Vitally important! If we didn’t, individuals and communities would believe the latest story as the facts of any matter, even if it would be demonstrably untrue. Racism, sexism, ageism, and homophobia, are serious matters that need to be confronted by society. Without which, attacks against the human dignity of any minority or recognisable group will continue to occur with sickening regularity.

    We have a warning from Vladimir Lenin who is quoted as saying, ‘A lie told often enough becomes the truth.’ Despite a demonstrable lie, its repetition is the nefarious strategy of demagogues. The role of propaganda in our community from various political groups can embody a similar ethos as Lenin’s. The scapegoated fate of European Jewry was accomplished via Joseph Goebbels’s skilful use of anti-Semitic propaganda.



    ‘Truth is incontrovertible; malice may attack it and ignorance may deride it; but, in the end, there it is.’

    Sir Winston Churchill, 1874 – 1965. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sir_Winston_Churchill

    ‘Rationality is the recognition of the fact that nothing can alter the truth and nothing can take precedence over the act of perceiving it.’

    Ayn Rand, 1905 – 1982. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ayn_Rand

    ‘Let us not fear that truth might endanger truth.’

    Bishop B. C. Butler OSB, 1902 – 1986. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christopher_Butler

    ‘The constant search for truth & the constant openness to truth are more important than the possession of truth. We must never forget the necessity for a profound humility.

    Australian Catholic Bishop Geoffrey Robinson was born in 1937.


    ‘The truth cannot impose itself except by virtue of its own truth, as it makes its entrance into the mind at once quietly and with power.’ The above quote was taken from the first paragraph of ‘Dignitatis Humanae’, which is the ‘Declaration on Religious Freedom’, and emanates from the Second Vatican Council.



    There is nothing wrong with the conveniences and innocent pleasures of life. As a people, humans can be diverted by the inconsequentialities of these same pastimes. After we peel away our material wealth, status, employment, ego, family, friends, and our public reputations, we are naked and lay bare. The truth of us is our unimpeachable remnant. As can be gleaned from the quotes about truth by various notaries, the truth is worth fighting for, because in the end, it is all that we have left that prop up our human dignity.

    • tim says:

      Kingsley accused Newman of defending lying. This provoked ‘Apologia pro Vita Sua’. Worth reading (again) – ends with a substantial survey of what people had thought about the problem. To be recommended to those who, like me, would prefer simple answers. And full of other good stuff! Maybe you’re not interested – “Hippocleides doesn’t care!”

  11. Nektarios says:

    John Candido
    & Fellow bloggers

    And what is Truth actually? Is there such a thing as your truth, my truth, someone elses
    truth, or is Truth something totally other?

    Is there such a thing as nationalistic truth? Or is there just Truth that is there in all nations?

    When I see cleverness arguing the truth, I see sin is not far behind.

    Does repetition of truth mean we are in possession of the same, or are we being merely conditioned?

    Is it possible for us to know the Truth, as we claim, and if so what is our relationship with the Truth? Do we have a relationship with the Truth or are we merely outwardly religious and acting accordingly?
    This is where Tradition comes in. Do you know the purposes of Holy Tradition?
    Do you know what Holy Tradition does in one if we let it?
    What has, if anything, the Holy Tradition to do with Truth? Has it anything do with Truth or is it mere ramblings of religious people centuries ago or is it other than that and totally necessary?

  12. JohnBunting says:

    I remember seeing some annotations by G K Chesterton, to a book of aphorisms by some other author, whose name I forget. One aphorism said, “Truth, to most people, is simply that which coincides with their own opinion”: to which Chesterton replied, “Wrong. All honest thought is an attempt to discover whether one’s own opinion is true, or not”.

    • st.joseph says:

      Or else I could invite them in while on the pretence I am was looking for an address ,while someone dialed 999 (That is if I had company)
      These are all hypothetical situations, really not consistant with Truth.
      St Francis of Asissi has a prayer revelant to this, which I can’t think of at the moment.

  13. Peter D. Wilson says:

    Anent PDW at February 25, 2012 at 3:41 pm above: I can hardly wait for a cry of “Situation ethics!”
    Circumstances (e.g concerning the seal of confession) can clearly make it wrong to tell the truth, i.e. the situation can make evil what would otherwise be good. In contrast, at least in the absolutist view, it can never justify what would otherwise be even a minor evil.
    Does this mean that evil is more powerful than good?

    • st.joseph says:

      If I had told the criminals the truth, I would have been co-operating in their evil.
      And it would be sinful on my part!

  14. st.joseph says:

    Just to clarify a comment I made (to clear up any confusion)
    If I attended a civil partnership ceremony, I would not consider it a marriage or a right to have a sexual relationship.
    To me it would be just as it is ,an agrrement to remaim faithful in each others companyI would not assume that they would be having a sexual relationship.
    Not that I would ever be in a position to attend one.
    Maybe I am splitting hairs here
    I am open to disagreement.

    • milliganp says:

      My mother in law refused to attend the (non-church) marriages of several of her children because she held the long-determined view that to do so would be to condone evil. Thomas More held back from condemning Henry’s marriage on the basis that in law silence equals assent. This is difficult territory, there might be a “right moment” for the truth (by not-attending the weddings she alienated her children and therefore lost the right and ability to affect their future actions). Truth is certainly absolute – actions are not.

  15. Iona says:

    Reading through the above posts, I was just thinking how comforting it is that everyone clearly believe that there IS such a thing as truth (“Truth?” said Pilate: “What is truth?”), when Nektarios came along at 1.19 p.m. and put a spanner in the works.

    • Nektarios says:


      Please, Iona, what do you mean, `when Nektarios came along at 1.19 and put a spanner
      in the works’?
      Once you tell me why you think I threw a spanner in the works as it were, I will tell you why I posed a series of related questions.

      • Peter D. Wilson says:

        Nektarios – I’m afraid I have to sympathise with Iona. Maybe it’s my own fault, but to me that particular contribution seemed incoherent; I could make very little sense of it.

  16. John Nolan says:

    Perhaps tradition with a small ‘t’ is better described as ‘custom’ to distinguish it from Tradition. I’m told that a seminary joke a few years back when there was a lot of liturgical innovation going on went as follows: “Do it once and it’s custom; do it twice and it’s immemorial custom”.

    • Horace says:

      There is a University joke which says:-
      “The tradition of not walking across the grass of the Quad starts tomorrow.”

      • tim says:

        Originated (or possibly purloined) by Peter de Vries in (I think) “The Tunnel of Love”:

        University Notice: “Effective Saturday, there will be a tradition….”

  17. Nektarios says:

    Peter D. Wilson

    You think it is incoherent?
    I was not proposing an argument to follow.
    But if you want to, see it in a bullet form, as individual, though related questions regarding Truth and Tradition.
    What I am aiming at, is that one actually knows the Truth and the Holy Tradition that flows from Christ’s teaching.
    One may say I know the Truth and I know the Holy Tradition, but if there is no change, no enlightmement, no sactification, then I am afraid, pretense to know is meaningless.

    • mike Horsnall says:


      “You think it is incoherent?
      I was not proposing an argument to follow..”

      Endearing though it may be it is hardly likely that we are all going to latch on to your programme for enlightenment any time soon or ever. Mainly on here we are doing arguments to follow- and you bursting out of the blazing bush all the time does ‘throw a spanner in the works’ so to speak -even adding, if I may, a welcome hint of Monty Python….
      But, correct me if wrong Iona, the spanner in question was seen as a useful one rather than a crooked tool?

      • Rahner says:

        “a welcome hint of Monty Python….”
        More than a hint, one feels.

      • Nektarios says:

        mike Horsnall

        I accept the criticism.
        I was concerned however, that immediately the topic appeared, the first 14 or so postings
        started nit-picking about the ins and outs about lies. Nowhere was there any mention what tradition – with a small t was, or what Tradition with a capitial T was.

        In posing the series of inter-linked questions was to slow us down a bit, to be more thoughtful than you all usually are. So I accept the criticism, that I was not successful
        in posing that set of questions.

        If you want to mix up Holy Tradition with tradition, you need look no further than the history of the Rosery for example – do look into it!

        Concerning Truth – yes, of course I know that the Truth is the Son of God, Jesus Christ,
        a person, the God-man. I would simple reminding ourselves that that Truth, as God, has no beginning or end.Then to ask, what is our relationship to Him or the Truth that has so beginning or end? That was all.
        This in turn was to bring us face to face with Traditon with a capital T. What does the Holy
        Tradition actually say and deal with?
        Then to ask us, what is the purpose of that Holy Tradition? What does it actually accomplish?

        So Mike and my fellow bloggers, I am sorry if I put a spanner in the works and seemed incoherent – perhaps this goes someway to provide that which we can all follow more clearly – I hope?

  18. Can I just chirp in by pointing out that the commandment says something like “thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour”.
    The situations where untruth causes damage are easy to see; if I steal the chocolate on teachers desk and deny it, I put others under suspicion; If I deny that I am a Christian because I’m afraid my work colleagues will laugh at me, I deny Christ; If I weaken the faith of another by telling them that missing Mass on Sunday isn’t such a big thing I harm the unity of the church.
    Perhaps the greater issue is when we don’t speak out for truth when we haven’t even been asked, remember the Priest and Levite who passed by on the other side of the road.

    • tim says:

      This commandment was strictly interpreted in the practice of the Courts in Ireland (at least by witnesses). It says nothing against false witness in your neighbour’s favour – hence a pronounced willingness (allegedly) to provide bogus alibis.

  19. st.joseph says:

    The natural Law is or ought to be in the heart of man.
    Faith is a free Gift from God by Grace!.

    Our Blessed Mother was full of Grace!
    That is our inheritance as Christians.

    If that makes sense!

  20. Going off-topic from truth-as-a-specific-idea for a minute and back to tradition, we used to believe in the divine right of kings which, had one opposed it in the 12th century, might have led to the charge of either treason or heresy. We really do need to be careful of that which we canonise.

    • Nektarios says:

      Paul Milligan

      The issue of the divine right of kings has nothing to to with the Holy Tradition, but was a politicalization of religion and of secular power.

      This is tradition wit a small t, and nothing to do with the Holy Tradition we share.

      • Nektarios says:

        Paul Milligan

        Sorry about the typing errors – it should have read: has nothing to do with….

        And: This is tradition with a small t……

    • milliganp says:

      Nektarios, I’m very concious that how one capitalises tradition is really important! Contrary to the impression I might have given in another post (because I was addressing a different matter) I do appreciate the Orthodox concept of Holy Tradition as opposed to Tradition or tradition! The Catholic church believes that those things we hold as Tradition come to us from the Apostles as matters which have always been held as true but not stated definitively in the canon of scripture.

  21. st.joseph says:

    Paul are you saying that ‘we’ canonise, can you make that more simple to understand.
    Thank you!

    • Canon is one of those dangerous words like tradition, we talk about “the Canon of Scripture” – those books accepted as being of Divine origin or the “Canon of the Mass” -the unchanging part that effects the sacrament. Wikipedia ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canon ) has a useful entry on the use of the word. My intent was to say that there is a tendency to attribute “absolute truth” to matters that are mere custom or the accidents of history.
      To mix my posts, an example would be the post of Nektarios early in this discussion. I might suggest that the Orthodox tradition is merely a fossilised form of religion, frozen in time; similarly I find Icons a useful gateway to the spiritual but do not attribute to then the same status as do the Orthodox. I say this not to be specifically contentious but to illustrate that one groups certainty is not that of all.

      • Nektarios says:

        Paul Milligan
        I suppose I cannot convince you differently when you say, `the Orthodox Tradition is merely a fossilised form of religion, frozen in time.’?
        You are of course entitled to your opinion, for that is what it is, just your opinion. I don’t know how much you actually understand of Orthodoxy? Had you understood it correctly,
        you would have known, for example Orthodoxy is not a religion. Christianity is the religion,
        and the Holy Tradition of Orthodoxy is the theory and praxis of Orthodoxy.

        Christianity and the Holy Tradition is what we as Orthodox and Roman Catholics share.
        It is far from fossilised, but a living actuality and has depths of spirituality that even I as an Orthodox believer have not yet plummeted.

        So my dear Paul, I can only encourage you to freely explore the Orthodox Tradition and the Holy Tradition that we share – it’s our Christian heritage.

  22. st.joseph says:

    That ‘is’ something we share with the Orthodox, if I understand it right!
    The Reformation did away with a lot of Icons.
    I am pleased the Catholic Church retained them, I noticed in the programme on Thursday BBC 4 Priests. The Statues were considered to be helpful in our prayer life.

    We went through a time that they were looked on as superstitions,as one priest told me they were props, what ever that meant. After sawing up the Altar rails and putting all the statues down the cellar of an old Church.
    Certainly they are not for all,
    It is wonderful we have a church still full of tradition in Images.
    The Anglican Church in Walsingham has them all,Statues I mean!!!

    • st.joseph says:

      Nektarios you explained it well.
      I can only add to that by saying to Paul ‘we also share respect for all faiths and none especially with good manners’!

      • Nektarios says:

        st. joseph

        Yes, in as much one loves one’s neighbour as oneself?
        Or, to put it another way, do as you would be done by?

        I was glad I explained what I meant sufficiently well to receive your, “You explained it well,”
        Thank you

      • milliganp says:

        Does nobody read anyone else’s posts, I specifically added “might” in my statement to illustrate the fact that we don’t necessarily agree on everything. As for mutual respect the lecture by C Cavarnos on tradition is a diatribe against Roman Catholicism which he holds as utterly heterodox. He goes on to condemn all ideas of mutual respect in religious belief among Christians on the basis that the Orthodox Tradition is the only one which holds the fullness of faith and that all others are in error.

  23. JohnBunting says:

    Another bit of Chesterton:
    “Tradition is the democracy of the dead. Why should the franchise be limited to those who happen to be walking about?”.
    If he used a capital ‘T’, maybe it was just because the word started a sentence.

  24. Peter D. Wilson says:

    Nektarios – Thank you.

  25. Nektarios says:


    You know, this is the sort of hardline positions that people adopt. Such hardline positions are there in the Roman Catholic Church too, where I have also been at the butt of Priests and others with their abuse of me on points of historical fact, which there is no need to go into here.

    If you can overlook his rant against others( difficult I know – even for me) and see what he is actually saying about the Holy Tradition perse it might be helpful for the discussion?
    I can only beg your forgiveness that his view is so extremly exclusive, when in fact the Holy Tradtion is something Roman Catholics and Orthodox believers share.
    C Cavarnos view is the view of a self walled off section in the Orthodox Church and is not the general view at all. In fact you are no doubt aware that our Patriarch Batholomew and Pope Benedict XV1 are regularly visiting each other and services.

    Nailing down what the Holy Tradition within the Orthodox Church is and its puropse, and if lived, its effects on us, we can pehaps leave to another posting.

    • milliganp says:

      Nektarios, I won’t reply in detail because sometimes words are inadequate to the task. Ultimately our faith is a revealed mystery – always ultimately beyond our comprehension. I find myself close to God sometimes in those utterly transcendent moments when Liturgy transports us to the gates of heaven and sometimes in the deeply human moments when a family brings their child to the sacrament of baptism. What I do know is that what I do and believe is a gift handed down to me by those who have gone before. I have no concept of a church without Tradition because mere words, whether Scripture, Liturgy or the homilies of the Ancients never quite bring us to the Divine Light which is the author of each -but the unwavering faith of those who have given the faith to me are the best human witness to the God I one day hope to be united with in heaven – together with those who have passed the faith down thorough history to me.
      I’m concious that I said I wouldn’t reply in detail, what I meant is that I feel that I don’t want to argue or debate, just to appreciate.

  26. mike Horsnall says:

    Just in case anyone is interested, Pope Benedicts ‘Spirit of the liturgy’-reccomended to me by John Nolan covers all the above stuff quite beautifully-it is only a small book and quite cheap!

    MilliganP- people will read your posts more carefully when you make them lucid, informative, clear and kind. If you are anything like me this style may well take a considerable time to perfect. Until such time.. don’t hold your breath….!

    • John Nolan says:

      Mike Horsnall

      You said you had been on retreat with the Redemptorists. Was this at Hawkstone Hall by any chance? We had a Schola Gregoriana weekend there two years ago and are going there again in April. The setting is marvellous and the Redemptorists made us feel very welcome. But the chapel … oh dear. Looked like a nonconformist conventicle (if that’s the correct word). It took some effort to turn the table into an altar for ad orientem Masses (luckily we brought frontals and candlesticks) but it really needs gutting and reordering as a Catholic chapel.

  27. mike Horsnall says:

    John Nolan

    Yep that would be the place..Even I have to agree about the chapel. Great people though and as you say a marvellous place all round. I liked the relaxed atmosphere which was much easier than the jesuit rigour I am used to. I guess if you have spent your working life facing the nitty gritty in Africa as these people mainly have-then I expect you can afford to be a bit more relaxed!

  28. Nektarios says:

    Fellow bloggers
    Getting back to the topic in hand, namely, `When tradition is not Tradition.
    I can see from the postings, that most have turned their attention to the circumtances in which they live, and we are drawn into a whirlpool of thoughts that can neither have peace nor tranquility – such seems to me to be the tenor of the discussion so far, so can we make some progress now?

    There is a clear distinction between the traditions of men, be the cultural, national, social, and dare I say it, even religious, and that of Tradition with a capital T or Holy Tradition that Orthodox and Catholic Christians share.

    I think it is fairly easy to determine what the traditions of men are all about which is essentially to bring and keep order in a disordered world of mankind with its darkeness, sorrows, fears, struggles, violence, wars misery and death.
    Obviously, the tradtions of men, be they social, religious, secular, or political has only worked to a point and keeps falling back into its disordered state of warring with each other and so on.
    There are of course traditions of men, those of the family, of the tribe and ways of doing things. Mankind adapted wonderfully, especially technologically, until it got too big population wise, and the traditions of men, the whole thing broke down again and again to where today we see society, which is mankind, with all his sorrows and miseries fragmenting.
    This fragmentation in mankind is now global. Fear, violence, a world where they talk of peace, peace and there is no peace. The Christian institutions or Churches are not exempt and one can see the various ways they are using the ways and traditions of men to keep and maintain order is a disordered world of mankind.

    Now, let me turn to Tradition with a capital T. By this I mean the Holy Tradition. I think most of us agree that the Holy Tradition is that which Our Lord Jesus Christ taught the Apostles and what they taught orally, because at that time the Gospels had not been written down nor the whole of the New Testament which would be about another 400 years before they were completely written down.

    Many men and women who were taught by Christ and the Holy Apostles went and lived in the desert where they sought to put what was taught to the test. Periodically, they came together and discussed what they had discovered. This essentialy is where the Holy Tradition stems from.

    I don’t want to say too much here, or this posting would be too long, but to ask the question,
    what is the purpose of the Holy Tradition?
    Here let me quote from an Elder Thaddeus -a Serbian, who lived the Holy Tradition. He tells us it works at three different levels: ” cleansing from the passions (practical philosophy), enlightenment of the nous and the heart,(natural contemplation), and diefication or sanctification, true communion with the Holy Spirit (mystical theology).”
    I shall stop there. Can we now discuss, `when tradition is not Tradition?’. I hope we have enough information to proceed a little perhaps?

  29. st.joseph says:

    I am looking at my very old worn out Catechism 1921 maybe a bit old fashioned, but kept me in good stead before the new CCC 1994.It says=

    Rule of Scripture. Our Rule of Faith is the teaching of the Catholic Church; and all other Rules of Faith are unsatisfactory. The Catholic Church that Christ came down from heaven to establish, must be the only true Church, since He is Truth itself. could not teach contradictory doctrines
    But to take Scripture, or the Written Word of God,*as the only Rule of Faith, as some do, breaks the rule of plainness,since in all ages there have been countless numbers who could not read; while even among the learned, many have been unable to agree as to the true. sense of some of the most important passages. St Peter himself in Scripture tells us that in St Paul’s Epistles there ‘are somethings hard to be understood, which the unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other Scriptures to their own destruction ‘(St Pet.iii.16). How dangerous then, is the position of those who rely on their own private interpretations of the Sacred Writings.
    Neither does the Rule of Scripture alone satisfy that of the universality , since the Scriptures do not include every revealed truth .
    Nor is the Rule of Scripture alone a certain rule.Those who follow this Rule often appeal to Scripture to prove contrdictory doctrines; and each is satisfied that he alone has hit upon the genuine meaning; hence the inumerable sects that have arisen from following private judgement, exercised on Scripture, as their Rule of Faith .

    I could go on on but most probabley take up numerous space for others
    If this is a little understanding of what Tradition is not tradition or tradition not Tradition, tell me and I will write more as I can learn as I go along
    I am going for a 2 mile walk now in the Cotswolds,so wont be back for a while

  30. Nektarios says:

    st. joseph

    I can but agree with you for the most part.
    Leaning to one’s own understanding and interpretation, even by others, of that which has now been written down by holy men, `the Apostles, as they were moved and guided by the Holy Spirit and called the Holy Bible or Holy Scriptures, is as you say, can be dangerous.
    Attacks on Holy Writ has been going on since the Old Testament times, when for example, the Jewish boffins after the time of the Maccabees tried to expunge any reference to the Messiah from Scripture of the Old Testament.

    When you say,… the teaching of the Catholic Church; and all other Rules of Faith are unsatisfactory, needs qualifying. The teaching or Rule of Faith did not start with the Roman Catholic Church, but with the Orthodox Church – it would be another 800 years until the Roman Catholic Church would come into being.
    So, the Rule of Faith which we share is actually Orthodox.
    Even Thomas Aquinas saw that, way back in the 1260 odd and desired the Orthodox Church and Roman Catholic Church be united again, for he recognised not only the roots and cradle of our Faith as handed down to us, lay in the Orthodox Church.
    But politics and corruption and various other religious aspects had been introduced, so the Orthodox Church found it increasingly difficult and it reached a point around 1054 when the Roman Catholic Church totally went it’s own way, although this transition had been going on for around 200 years previous to 1054 – the Great Divide as it is called.

    I don’t want to get into arguments with anyone on this, these are historical facts.

    Even with the Great Divide, came other changes within the Roman Catholic Church, of which
    Thomas Aquinas was largely rsponsible for and that was, taking the Church down the road of Scholasticism. This approach changed the way and importance of the Holy Tradition into a matter of reason and intellectual philosophic enquiry.

    This is perhaps why it is, the perception of Orthodox believers appears so different now to Roman Catholic believers, but it was not always so.

    I will stop there – hope you enjoyed your walk st. joseph?

    • st.joseph says:

      Nektarios Thank you.
      I was always under the understanding that the Orthodox believers did not accept the Authority of the Pope.
      I am really ignorant on all this I know we are in Communion with each other with theReal Presence.
      I saw the meetings with Pope Benedict with the Patriarch Batholomew on EWTN and prayed with them for unity, I thought it so important at the time thatsall I know . Quite ignorant really. But very pleased that we share the same Eucharist-I think , I hope they can sort something out between them both.
      Yes thank you I had a lovely walk 3 miles. Exhausted now.!

  31. Nektarios says:

    st. joseph

    Perhaps here on Secondsightblog.net we further Christian unity – what a acolade – what a blessing that would be hmm?

    • st.joseph says:

      Hmm yes, I pray for it!

      • Nektarios says:

        Fellow bloggers,

        Perhaps our fellow bloggers will have read the posting between us, I am so surprised
        they have fallen silent – perhaps they are busy at present?

        Yes, certainly pray for unity, but until we ourselves are unified what hope is there of Unity? Shall I say a little about that?

        We all want Unity we say, but the trouble is our starting point is usually wrong. Instead of beginning with ourselves, we want to change others first and ourselves last.
        If everyone of us were to start with ourselves first, there would be peace all around.

        But, unfortunately, that is not the case. Following the traditions of men – we find there is very little peace in the world.
        Our thoughts disturb the whole fabric of the world, and further, even the cosmos.

        So it becomes plain to us, our traditions out of our natural state, produces disorder and is the atmosphere of hades. That is one of the main differences between tradition and the Holy Tradition. One has the atmosphere and disturbance of hades in our thoughts, in our thought up traditions, in the family, in the workplace, between nations and so on.
        The other has the atmosphere of heaven about it, lifting our thoughts to, loving our enemies – not for their sake, but ours.
        Our thoughts, if they stem from the Holy Tradition we will come to know that the responsibility of God’s Children is to further peace and harmony in the world.
        So we have to change, not expect others to change, we have to change. We have to be clear examples to the world, that there is indeed an alternative.

        Now the question is: how are we going to change from walking, thinking, blogging according to the traditions of men with the atmosphere of hades about it, attacking us constantly, to walking in that Holy Tradition with that heavenly atmosphere of kindness, gentleness, self-reproach, warmth and so on?
        How are we going to change the habits and conditioning of a lifetime?
        How are we going to proceed from A to B?

      • Quentin says:

        Nektarios, I don’t know what is going on in other people’s minds but you must recall that you described the Catholic Church as splitting from the true tradition maintained by the Orthodox. Now a verdict on an historical split tends to depend on which side of the split you happen to be. It may well be that contributors would be willing to look at suggestions about how we can communicate better, but feel that a controversy about who has been more loyal to Tradition is not likely to lead to a better understanding– either of each other or of the truth.

        But the Blog is a free world. We put forward issues, and people choose whether they want to answer.

  32. John Nolan says:


    Eighteen months ago I was privileged to sing at a Pontifical High Mass celebrated by Bishop Athanasius Schneider, auxiliary in Kazakhstan and author of ‘Dominus Est!’ which urges a return to a more reverent way of receiving Holy Communion in the Latin Church. In a talk he gave afterwards he said the Muslims were considerably more cordial towards him than were the Orthodox Church, and it was a long time before gained the confidence of its representative in the region. (He won him over in the end, for he is a modest, patient and holy man who may be Pope one day – and he has the ear of the present Pontiff.)

    Forget the Protestants, who left of their own volition and will return in like manner; the main ecumenical task facing us is the healing of the schism between Eastern and Western Christendom, hopefully before the millennial of 2054. The Catholic Church has never severed its ties with Tradition, but the face it presents to the world often belies this. This is most evident in the debased state of the liturgy as performed (le mot juste) in most places, and this is why Benedict XVI has made liturgical reform a priority of his papacy. A risk is that some may defect to protestantism in order to continue with the informal and subjective style of worship they have become accustomed to over the past half-century, but I believe this is a price worth paying.

    • Nektarios says:

      John Nolan

      Please read my last posting to st. joseph and fellow bloggers. – March 1 at 2.37pm.
      perhaps this may be helpful and leads us forward a little practically speaking?

  33. st.joseph says:

    John Nolan.

    You express your thoughts on the worhip in Holy Mass.
    Can I ask you who you think is ‘Responsible’ for the way Worship changed over the decades?
    Or in other words where did it all go wrong.? In reality whose fault is it?Who do we blame?

    • st.joseph says:

      As we do on secondsight.net, look to our Catholic Faith first,before we get even close to unity with others.
      My understanding of Tradition means something that has been delivered or handed down, not something dreamed up to fit the supposed needs or requirements of the moment.

      The question I asked John Nolan above Who takes the blame.? Maybe you know the answer to that!

    • John Nolan says:

      Actually, the public worship (liturgy) has changed over the centuries; Pius X, regarded as a pillar of orthodoxy, meddled a lot, with not altogether happy results; similarly Pius XII gave Annibale Bugnini the task of reforming (although the usual term ‘restoring’ was used) the Holy Week services – the result (the 1955 Ordo) was never regarded as particularly satisfactory, and Bugnini’s second stab at it, post-Vatican II, is arguably better.

      Before the Reformation, there were many local usages, some of which survived into the 20th century, and the Dominican rite is at present undergoing quite a revival – it predates the so-called Tridentine Mass by three centuries. But they only differed in details, and the Canon of the Mass was more or less fixed in the Latin Church. Crucially, the ars celebrandi was the same.

      Between 1964 and 1967 there was a complete revolution. Language, orientation, ritual gesture, music, even the idea of what the Mass was about, were changed to the extent that someone who, for example, had gone to the Antarctic at the beginning of 1964 and returned three-and-a-half years later would not have recognized it as a Catholic Mass.

      The blame? Primarily Paul VI, who gave the revolutionaries a free hand and when he finally realized the extent of the damage and tried to apply the brakes was far, far too late.

  34. Nektarios says:

    I am not interested or focused so much on the historicity of the split , it was much more, and more far reaching than a mere ittle slpit or division of opinion.
    What I am however focused on in the blog at the moment, is the definition of tradition with a small t an Tradition with a capitial T.

    As we share the Holy Tradition and Pope Benedict encourages Roman Catholics to read about the Holy Tradition we share.
    I think you are being a little unfair to me to suggest I am somehow festering arguments about who or who is not upholding the Holy Tradition as such. I am not discussing that.

    On upholding the Holy Tradition, there are those who do and those who don’t, and those (like myself) struggling to live not after the old nature and worldly thinking, but to lay hold of the spiritual nature of the Holy Tradition, that Christ is fully formed inwardly and put into practice.

    I am not causing division, division already exists, and I have tried over many years to get
    people especially religious theologians and others to look into the whole nature of division, not in abstraction, but actually, and seeing that bring it to an end in ourselves.
    Until we do, we can and will only produce further division in ourselves and in others.
    No, I don’t accept, I am responsible for the division in the Church, but it exists and that division has been going on for nearly 1000 years.

  35. Nektarios says:

    Fellow bloggers,

    Have we finished with `When tradition is not Tradition?’
    We have not discussed much, in fact we have hardly scratched the surface yet and we
    have left the topic for another – which could have been more edifying.
    After reading all that, how important to come back and discuss is more detail the above topic?
    But if you are not interested…?

  36. John Nolan says:

    I am in no doubt whatsoever that the Eastern Orthodox Churches fully embody the Tradition of the Universal Church, and being acquainted with the liturgy of St John Chrisostom I have no problems as far as worship is concerned. I would only receive Communion in a Byzantine-rite Church that is in communion with Rome, not because I regard it as invalid (I certainly do not) but because I do not want to scandalize my eastern brethren with whom reconciliation is both possible and desirable, and which in God’s good time will certainly be achieved.

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