Chapter 14 of On
by Thomas Howard
To be Catholic is to be profoundly conscious of ones place in an
immensely ancient tradition.
Tradition, of course, is the bond that holds together virtually every
aspect of our mortal life. It is the matrix from which arises the varying
shapes that we, in our varying tribes, give to our existence. The Bantus
do it this way; the Finns do it this way; the Sumerians do it this way;
the Jews, or the Irish, or the Latins do it this way.
is this "it"? Well, human existence, we would all have to reply.
Eating, drinking, marrying, dying, building, garbing: the mystery that
lies at the root of our very identity as peoples steps into visibility
in the shape that our tradition gives to all those activities. The efforts
to shake off tradition discover that some shape must very quickly
be given to all that the tradition has heretofore shaped: the revolutionaries
in France at the end of the eighteenth century; the Bolsheviks; the hippies
who collected in communal farms: they all found that we mortals cannot
live together at all without some agreed-upon shape for things and that
the attempt to hammer out fresh shapes has a melancholy tendency to present
itself as a somewhat attenuated parody of what has been jettisoned, or
worse, a travesty. Very little is gained by enthroning Reason in Notre
Dame Cathedral; and who will insist that the phalanx of commissars in
heavy overcoats planted shoulder-to-shoulder on the loge of Lenins
tomb answers more auspiciously to our humanity than does the procession
of archimandrites and archpriests with smoke and brocade and jeweled crowns?
And is it to be urged that the draggled look that obtains in hippie sectors
marks an advance on your traditional farm kitchen, with Grannie with her
specs in the rocker by the hearth, the cat batting the ball of yarn, and
Mother, all apple-cheeked and hearty, rolling out dough, befloured to
Overstatement? Stereotype? Yes. The only point to be insisted upon in
this connection would be that indeed we mortals do, in fact, over long
periods of time, give a shape to things that somehow reveals aspects of
our humanity itself and that it is very difficult to recreate such a shape
The same phenomenon may be seen in the religious aspect of life. Nay,
we would all object: that is too flat a way of saying it. It is in the
religious aspect of life that we may descry most sharply this property
of tradition to disclose the most profound levels of our identity. What
is it about the Northwest Indian tribes that takes shape in totem poles?
Or about the Angles that takes shape in Anglican chant? Or the Spanish
that will surge through the streets in the enormous processions of the
This, of course, is a problematical line of thought.
Pursued much further it would find itself obliged to insist that all religious
traditions are somehow tied to ethnicity, but that is a line that will
not hold through to the end. Does Lutheranism have the shape it has because
it is German or because it is Lutheran? Is Hinduism Indian or Hindu? How
necessarily Japanese is Shinto? What we may all observe without controversy,
however, is that tradition gives a profoundly significant shape to human
life and that religious tradition touches the depths of our identity as
keenly as does any aspect of mortal existence.
To be Catholic is to be wholly at home in this awareness.
This would seem to be laboring the obvious, except that there are forms
of Christian profession that not only set virtually no store by tradition:
they explicitly disallow any real authority to tradition. They speak of
the ancient faith as though the Bible had swum into view just this morning
and as though ones approach to it is simply to open it, read, and
Once more, we find ourselves with a problematical line of thought before
us. May not the Bible be thus used? Is it not perspicuous? Must
we interpose prelates and pedants between the humble peasant and the Word
And again, it is difficult to avoid overstatement and stereotype. Things
do not always separate out into such tidy categories as humble peasants
and pedants. Indeed the Bible is the Word of God, say all the churches,
Roman and Orthodox as well as Calvinist and Anabaptist. And indeed it
is to be sought out and ingested day by day. But when we have said that,
we find ourselves with the next question, namely, who may teach this Bible?
Marcion? Apollinarius? Joseph Smith? Socinius?
All of these profoundly serious readers of the Bible are looked upon by
the principal churches in Christendom as in some sense heretical. You
may not, if you wish to think of yourself as a Christian, as that word
has been understood from the beginning, espouse their teachings.
Who says so? What court of appeal so rules?
The tradition of the Church, say the Catholics. And so say most Protestants,
in one form or another. Socinius reading of various texts was faulty
and is not to be allowed: the correct understanding of the New Testament
is that Jesus of Nazareth was the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity
incarnate of the Virgin Mary. Socinius has it wrong. So says tradition.
But then what of the questions that bedevil "traditional" Christian
groups? Did Jesus die for the elect or for the whole world? John Calvin
will tell you one thing, John Wesley, another. Is the bread at the Lords
table only bread, or is it the Body of Christ? Zwingli will tell you one
thing; Luther, another. Is the Church to be governed by elders and general
assemblies or locally, by democratic vote of the congregation itself?
The Presbyterians will tell you one thing, and the Congregationalists
another. Will there be a "secret rapture" of believers exempting
them from the great tribulation to come upon the world, or must the Church
brace herself for just such tribulation? A hundred voices clamor here.
To be Catholic is to look to the teaching of the Church herself rather
than to ones private efforts to piece Scripture together on such
questions. This teaching, understood by Catholics, in the light of St.
Pauls words in 1 Timothy 3:15, to be authoritative, is called the
Magisterium of the Church. In this Magisterium a Catholic finds the authority
granted by the Lord to the apostles guaranteed for as long as history
lasts. Things did not suddenly fray out into a hermeneutical donnybrook
when the last apostle died. The unction to teach continues, from the apostles
to their successors the bishops. If it comes to a choice between Marcion
and your bishop, then you as a Catholic must listen to your bishop. Both
men will cite Scripture for you, just as both Zwingli and Luther will
do in connection with the bread. Where does this leave you?
A Catholic finds himself in a tradition of teaching that stretches back
to the beginning.
But tradition is such a human thing, it may be objected.
How can you tell when it has become destructive? Surely the Lord himself
attacked with great vigor the traditions of the scribes and the Pharisees
that had made a farce of Gods revelation? And what about sinful
bishops and popes, to be found right at the center of the tradition? How
can you trust what they say?
A Catholic is aware of just such unhappy points. But he is also aware
that just such anomalies have beleaguered Gods purposes from the
beginning: Noah, Gods own servant and yet falling into debauchery;
Jacob, very far from admirable quite often; David, the very psalmist himself,
unfaithful; Israel herself, disobedient, idolatrous, perfidious, corruptand
yet Gods own Spouse.
It is often put to Catholics that it is mad for them to insist that this
great juggernaut called the Roman Catholic Church, rumbling down through
history heavy with paraphernalia, fat prelates, bric-a-brac, subtle diplomacy,
and crusading armiesthat this is to be understood as the Body of
Christ. No one, surely, can adhere to a notion as manifestly absurd as
Well, yes, actually, says your Catholic. I do. Oh,
the strictures are all too true, alas. It is a shabby record, full of
sin. worldliness, ignorance, pride, avarice, venality, and crueltv. But
let us recall Gods people Israel: How can it be that the Most High
is pleased to have His Name associated with that lot capering around the
golden calf? But he does. O populus meus: my people. To be Catholic
is to be keenly aware of just such an anomaly. The people of God is still
the people of God, even when they are being licentious; and no one has
the warrant to hive off and start Israel anew, ten miles away, in the
interest of purity.
It is in such a light that a Catholic sees the history
of the Church. The Christians have not done much better than the Jews.
If it is dreadful Borgia cardinals and popes you are thinking of, then
what you have there (replies your Catholic, not proudly) is wolves in
sheeps clothing, just as the New Testament anticipates. If it is
ignorance, sin, worldliness, and terrible catechesis you are thinking
of, then you have, alas, the Church as she emerged from the labor of the
holy apostle St. Paul himself (see his letters to the Corinthian church).
Multiply the shabby record those Christians achieved in a few years by
2,000, add a billion people, and you have the Roman Catholic Church.
And yetand yet: outsiders, and her enemies, may well list such defects.
But to be Catholic is to know that the spectacle of sheer holiness radiates
in and from this ancient Church, in her Magisterium, in her liturgy, in
her sacraments, and also in the lives of the faithful, that immense throng
moving along through the history of this world, beginning with the apostles
and followed by Polycarp, Felicity and Perpetua, Augustine, Benedict,
Martin, Colurnban, Thomas, Dominic, Francis, Ignatius, Teresa, and the
whole host of fathers, confessors, widows, virgins, doctors, and all the
nameless faithful who remain in obedient, visible, and organic unity with
the ancient see in Rome whither Peter and Paul brought the gospel.
A Catholic feels about the Church a sentiment not altogether dissimilar
to the sentiment a Jew cherishes touching Jerusalem. There may be rats
and offal in the streets, and jerry-built blocks of flats, and waste and
corruption in the government: but if I forget thee, 0 Jerusalem, let my
right hand forget her cunning. I shall wish thee prosperity. For a Jew
there is no question of hiving off and building another Jerusalem somewhere,
in order to get it right this time. For a Catholic there is no question
of hiving off and building another Church somewhere, in order to get it
right this time.
He is as much a part of this ancient tradition as the Jew is of Jerusalems.
There are not two Jerusalems, much less ten thousand. There is only one,
for better or worse. But in that one, the Jew sees Zion, City of our God,
dearly beloved of God on high. And in the one Church that there is, a
Catholic sees the Body of Christ, or, in another figure, the Bride of
Christ. No matter how deeply stained she may be now, she will step forth
on the final Day, immaculate. (The sort of perception at work in this
paradoxical, even absurd, Catholic attitude is called faith, which is
the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.)
Tradition implies a continuity developing slowly among a given people
over a long period. You cannot create a tradition this morning. You may
inaugurate something, but it Will not be a tradition until many years
have passed. A non-Catholic Christian may urge in this connection that
he and his denomination have an august tradition five hundred years old.
But to be Catholic is to find oneself with St. Augustine, who, as a Catholic
bishop, had to defend the only Church there was against the inroads (or
the exits, rather) of the Donatists, who wanted to split off and start
the thing over in the interest of purity. No, says Augustine: you cannot
do that. For, of course, the Church herself is infinitely more than a
tradition, although she is full of tradition(s). She is a holy mystery,
created by God himself and, like Israel, taking a specific, visible, single
identity and shape in history. She is not an aggregate, or a network,
or an association of associations. She is as visible and solid as Peter
or Polycarp or Augustine.
The Church is full of traditions. Everyone, both Catholic and non-Catholic,
knows that. Her structure, her teaching, her worship, her piety, her "constituency"
are all profoundly traditional.
Howard was raised in a prominent Evangelical home (his sister is well-known
author and former missionary Elisabeth Elliot), became Episcopalian in
his mid-twenties, then entered the Catholic Church in 1985, at the age
Dave Armstrong writes of Howard: "He cites the influence
of great Catholic writers such as Newman, Knox, Chesterton, Guardini,
Ratzinger, Karl Adam, Louis Bouyer, and St. Augustine on his final decision.
Howard's always stylistically-excellent prose is especially noteworthy
for its emphasis on the sacramental, incarnational and 'transcendent'
aspects of Christianity."
Howard is a highly acclaimed writer and scholar,
noted for his studies of Inklings C.S. Lewis (C.S. Lewis: Man of Letters
) and Charles Williams (The
Novels of Charles Williams ), as well as books including
Christ the Tiger (1967), Chance
or the Dance? (1969), Hallowed be This House (1976), Evangelical
is Not Enough (1984), If
Your Mind Wanders at Mass (1995), On
Being Catholic (1997), and The
Secret of New York Revealed. The story of his journey to Catholicism,
Lead, Kindly Light: My Journey to Rome, will be published in October
2004 by Ignatius Press.
Read more about and by Thomas Howard at
his IgnatiusInsight.com Author's Page.