What Is Tradition? | Yves Congar, O.P. | Introduction to "The Meaning of Tradition" | IgnatiusInsight.com
What 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
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."  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
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
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."
 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. 
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" .  Péguy also speaks of "the
introspection that retraces its steps through human history". 
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 ressourcementand 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.
 M. Dufrenne, "Note sur la tradition", in Cahiers Internat.
de Sociologie (1947), p. 167.
 Pascal, Opuscules (Ed. Brunschvig), p. 80.
 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).
 Preface to Les Cahiers de la Quinzaine, March 1, 1904.
 Clio 2: NRF [La Novelle Revue Française] (1932),
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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.
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