What Is Tradition? | Yves Congar, O.P. | Introduction to "The Meaning of Tradition" | IgnatiusInsight.comWhat Is Tradition? | Yves Congar, O.P. | The Introduction to The Meaning of Tradition


The following story was told to me by an Anglican friend. He was a member of the delegation sent to Moscow in August 1956 to establish theological relations between the Anglican and Orthodox Churches. During the discussion the question of tradition and its relationship with Scripture was raised. The Russian interpreter, doubtless unacquainted with ecclesiastical terminology, spontaneously translated the word "tradition" by the expression "ancient customs".

Many people, and possibly some of the readers of this little book, may have the same idea of tradition as did the Russian translator. For many, tradition is simply a collection of time-honored customs, accepted, not on critical grounds, but merely because things have always been so, because "it has always been done". Any attempt at innovation is opposed in the name of tradition, which is considered first and foremost as a conservative force in society, and a safeguard against a dangerous liking for novelty, or even against any suggestion of a wider outlook. Tradition is favored because it prevents change.

We speak of the traditions of a school or of an organization: the traditions of Oxford or Harvard, of the army or navy, and equally of the different religious Orders or simply of certain families. We speak of national or regional traditions. In these examples the word "tradition" connotes something more than mere conservatism; something deeper is involved, namely, the continual presence of a spirit and of a moral attitude, the continuity of an ethos. We might even say that just as rites are the expression of a profound religious reality, so these traditions, which enshrine and safeguard a certain spirit, should comprise external forms and customs in such perfect harmony with this spirit that they mold it, surround it, embody and clothe it, so to speak, without stifling its natural spontaneity or checking its innate strength and freedom.

These traditions lead us to suspect that tradition is not just a conservative force, but rather a principle that ensures the continuity and identity of the same attitude through successive generations. A sociologist defined it accurately: "Tradition, in the true sense of the word, implies a spontaneous assimilation of the past in understanding the present, without a break in the continuity of a society's life, and without considering the past as outmoded." [1] In its different forms, tradition is like the conscience of a group or the principle of identity that links one generation with another; it enables them to remain the same human race and the same peoples as they go forward throughout history, which transforms all things.

Paul Claudel compared tradition with a man walking. In order to move forward he must push off from the ground, with one foot raised and the other on the ground; if he kept both feet on the ground or lifted both in the air, he would be unable to advance. If tradition is a continuity that goes beyond conservatism, it is also a movement and a progress that goes beyond mere continuity, but only on condition that, going beyond conservation for its own sake, it includes and preserves the positive values gained, to allow a progress that is not simply a repetition of the past. Tradition is memory, and memory enriches experience. If we remembered nothing it would be impossible to advance; the same would be true if we were bound to a slavish imitation of the past. True tradition is not servility but fidelity.

This is clear enough in the field of art. Tradition conceived as the handing down of set formulas and the enforced and servile imitation of models learned in the classroom would lead to sterility; even if there were an abundant output of works of art, they would be stillborn. Tradition always implies learning from others, but the academic type of docility and imitation is not the only one possible: there is also the will to learn from the experience of those who have studied and created before us; the aim of this lesson is to receive the vitality of their inspiration and to continue their creative work in its original spirit, which thus, in a new generation, is born again with the freedom, the youthfulness and the promise that it originally possessed.

Many of the mental attitudes previously responsible for the vitality of the higher disciplines--such as art and theology nowadays grown rigidly formal, have today found a home in the world of scientific research, whose very name reveals its wide scope. In this connection, Pascal's formula is very relevant and is manifestly the motto for the true scientist: " The entire succession of men, throughout so many centuries, should be thought of as one and the same man, ever-present and learning continually." [2] This well-known passage expresses, in its own way, an important aspect of the nature of tradition.

The "tradition" that is the subject of this little book is not scientific, artistic, sociological or even moral tradition; it is Christian tradition, in the dogmatic sense of the word. It was an advantage to introduce the reader to it on the basis of more familiar meanings. Yet the theological problem of tradition will not be entirely new to the reader, since the history of his country, and the conditions of life amid the religious divisions and entanglements of this world of ours will scarcely allow him to remain unaware of the existence of the controversy between Catholics and Protestants--the latter claiming the authority of Scripture alone, the former adding to it "tradition".

For every Catholic, Scripture (the Old and the New Testament) enjoys pride of place, since its value is absolute. Thus he knows that he is bound to read holy Scripture in a "Catholic Bible", even though he may be unable to say in exactly what way a Catholic Bible differs from a "Protestant" one. He knows that the Bible by itself, left to personal interpretation, may result in erroneous positions in Christian belief the Christian sects remind him of this daily. He knows that since the Reformation there is controversy between Christians on "Scripture versus tradition", a controversy on the rule of faith. He knows that in the Catholic Church we do not refer exclusively to the Bible in a purely individual way; we read the Bible under the guidance of the Church and according to her interpretation; and so, while reliance on the Bible remains the supreme rule, it is not relied on as the Protestants rely on it, or as they are supposed to do. The Catholic lives on something else besides, even at those times and in those acts when he lives on the holy Scriptures. This something else is the Church, it is tradition; does this mean that the Church and tradition are equivalent, or even identical? In the first place tradition is something unwritten, the living transmission of a doctrine, not only by words, but also by attitudes and modes of action, that includes written documents, documents of the Magisterium, liturgy, patristic writings, catechisms, etc., a whole collection of things that form the evidence or monuments of tradition.

The most cultured of the faithful in religious matters are not unacquainted with this literature; they are aware or at least have some inkling of its existence. St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas mean something to them, as do the Council of Nicaea and the Council of Trent. They know that Catholicism is not limited to the catechism and that its present form has its roots in a long past, rich in thinkers, saints and creative minds who have fashioned its culture, its devotion, its liturgy, and so on, and that the catechism itself is the fruit of a considerable development through the ages. By his possession of a faith that is personal, every Catholic with a minimum of culture is conscious of receiving an immense heritage at the hands of his Christian predecessors, although he has not made a detailed inventory, or even less a critical appraisal, of this inheritance. He is aware, in a way that is confused or precise to a greater or lesser extent according to the depth of his culture, that it contains much that is valuable and ancient, in varying degrees.

There are simple local customs, on occasion bordering on folklore, but there are also the decisions of the Councils and the succession of teachers whose commentaries enrich our religious culture. Instinctively, and also following the example of preachers who quote from them, we lend more authority to the most ancient writers, to those who lived, meditated and suffered during the years more immediately succeeding the apostolic age. The fact that they are near to the foundations seems to endow them not only with that solidity and venerable patina that endear ancient monuments to us, but with a kind of providential grace of authenticity, on the pattern of that bestowed on founders and pioneers. And so, reference to the primitive Church has enjoyed a privileged position at all periods of the Church's history. John XXIII referred to it on several occasions, notably in his first announcement of the Ecumenical Council and in his speech closing the Roman Synod. [3]

In the seventeenth century it was current to base the "perpetuity of the faith" on one or other of the articles of faith, the Real Presence, for example, or the primacy of the Pope. This was done by going through the testimony left by successive generations. Proofs of this kind, often reduced to two or three passages isolated from their historical and philological context, are to be found in our theological manuals, under the somewhat laconic heading Probatur ex Traditione (Proved frorn Tradition), following the heading Probatur ex Scriptura (Proved from Scripture). Today. however, this appeal to "tradition" is made in a new way; ressourcement (a return to the sources) is in fashion. This splendid word, coined by Charles Péguy, implies a return to the origins, or more often an advance to the present day, starting from the origins. This idea springs from Péguy's conception of revolution and reform as "the appeal made by a less perfect tradition to one more perfect; the appeal made by a shallower tradition to one more profound; the withdrawal of tradition to reach a new depth, to carry out research at a deeper level; a return to the source, in the literal sense" . [4] Péguy also speaks of "the introspection that retraces its steps through human history". [5]

Considered at this level, the problem of tradition, which we are to study, is not purely speculative and theoretical, and still less is it merely academic; even if it were it would still be worthy of our attention: it is fundamental to the present religious situation. For that situation is dominated on the one hand by the admirable effort toward renewal in the Church (though without essential change)–the stamp of the sound reforming instinct and of ressourcement–and on the other, by an ecumenical hope, enthusiasm and dialogue, which in the new climate of opinion has made the relationship between the Scriptures, the Church and tradition a topical problem.

The first object of this book will be to examine what every Catholic knows already about the tradition by which he lives, for the purpose of clarifying what is usually a confused view of the subject. Matters will probably appear more complicated than he had suspected. It will be impossible to avoid mention of the points at issue between our separated brethren and us, but I shall avoid all polemics, even with regard to those questions that were formerly the cause of the argument and the fuel which fed it. This dialogue, however, will necessarily be the confrontation of opposing views, but put forward in all fairness and mutual respect.

Footnote references have been kept to a minimum, but a more detailed treatment of the subject with full references will be found in my two-volume work La Tradition et les traditions: Essai historique, volume one, and Essai théologique, volume two (Paris: Fayard, 1960 and 1963). I refer to these on occasion, using the abbreviations EH and ET.


[1] M. Dufrenne, "Note sur la tradition", in Cahiers Internat. de Sociologie (1947), p. 167.

[2] Pascal, Opuscules (Ed. Brunschvig), p. 80.

[3] Speech of January 25, 1959: "This fact arouses in the heart of the humble priest, who. in spite of his unworthiness, has been raised to his present position of Supreme Pontiff by the unmistakable will of divine Providence, a firm intention of returning to certain ancient forms of doctrinal pronouncements and wise rulings of ecclesiastical discipline" (Documentation catholique, 1959, Col. 387). In his speech closing the Roman Synod, opposing certain possible excesses in regard to Marian devotion, John XXIII said: "We wish to invite you to keep what is the simplest and the most ancient in the practice of the Church" (ibid., 1960, col. 215).

[4] Preface to Les Cahiers de la Quinzaine, March 1, 1904.

[5] Clio 2: NRF [La Novelle Revue Française] (1932), p. 230.

Related IgnatiusInsight.com Links:

Foreword to The Meaning of Tradition | Avery Cardinal Dulles
Tradition | Thomas Howard
Motherhood of the Entire Church | Henri de Lubac, S.J.
Approaching the Sacred Scriptures | Scott Hahn and Curtis Mitch
How To Read The Bible | Peter Kreeft
The Bible Gap: Spanning the Distance Between Scripture and Theology | Fr. Benedict Ashley, O.P.
The Divine Authority of Scripture vs. the "Hermeneutic of Suspicion" | James Hitchcock
Exploring the Catholic Faith! | An Interview with Diane Eriksen
What in Fact Is Theology? | Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) Understanding The Hierarchy of Truths | Douglas Bushman, S.T.L.

Fr. Yves Congar, O.P. (1904-1995) was a highly regarded French Dominican theologian, author and influential consultant during the Second Vatican Council. Noted for his works on ecumenism, he wrote on numerous topics, including the Holy Spirit, the Eucharist, the life of Christ, the role of the laity, and Scripture.

Visit the Insight Scoop Blog and read the latest posts and comments by IgnatiusInsight.com staff and readers about current events, controversies, and news in the Church!