Faith of our Fathers: Why Tradition Matters

tumblr_n7yfh6ISBs1sdmdqoo1_1280One of the most painful faculties for a person to lose is memory. This is one reason why diseases like Alzheimers are so tragic. When a person loses his or her memory, it is almost as if they have ceased to exist both to themselves and those around them. There are few things more painful than speaking to a mother, father, or spouse who no longer knows who you are, who can’t tell you from a stranger in the street.

Our memories very much make us who we are. To a large extent, our identity is bound up in them. Memory of people, places, and experiences gives context and meaning to our lives. Without memories, it would be nearly impossible to function, to move forward in any meaningful way.

Memory is so vital that movies, books, and novels have been written to explore what happens to human person when memory is erased (the Bourne movies are one example from pop culture). Culturally, we are fascinated at how debilitating the loss of memory truly is.

Tradition: The Memory of the Church

Just as it is impossible for a person, or even an animal, to function without memory, so it is impossible for the Church to function without tradition. Far from irrelevant or outdated, tradition is the living memory of the Church. Without tradition, the Church makes no sense. There is simply no Catholicism without tradition. 

The Church, after all, is a body, a living organism with a distinct identity. Without tradition, without memory, this body has no context, no knowledge of where it came from or where it is going, what its mission is or why it should even exist. Without tradition, the Church is doomed to be swept along by passing fads and prevailing moods, like a patient with no memory is led helplessly along a hospital hallway.

The inevitable outcome of a loss of memory is a crisis of identity. And that is why it should come as no surprise that the last 50 years of Catholicism have been defined by a terrible identity crisis, just as many Catholics eagerly jettisoned the traditions of the faith.

What does it even mean to be Catholic anymore? When Catholics like Democratic Vice Presidential nominee, Tim Kaine, who openly rejects Church teaching on fundamental moral issues, receives a standing ovation at Mass, it is indicative of a severe identity crisis.

Despite this lack of Catholic identity, many have made tradition a dirty word. Some laymen and prelates scowl and snarl, “Dead traditions! We are never going back!”

“Worthless pining for the past! Empty nostalgia! A waste of time!” others mock.

I firmly believe these people prefer the helpless and neutered Church, the church without memory, aim or direction, because they can make of it what they please. Severed from tradition, the Church becomes a blank slate for them to manipulate at will, creating a personalized religion of their own taste. This traditionless Church becomes a rudderless ship for them to steer as they please.

The Faith is a Gift

There is another reason tradition matters: The faith is a gift that is handed down. It is not something we create to suit our preferences. When we are baptized into the Catholic faith, we enter a world and embrace a creed that is not of our own making. We receive a faith that has been watered by the blood of the martyrs, a faith preserved and passed on by holy monks, laypeople, nuns, popes, bishops, priests, and scholars for two millennia.

It is the height of folly and pride to believe the faith is something we create. No, if one is to truly be Catholic, there must always be an element of surrender—surrender of personal preferences, whims, and opinions to the higher wisdom of the Church. In the age of relativism and whatever-suits-you religion, this is profoundly countercultural.

Yet, no other kind of Catholicism makes any sense at all, for the Faith is the antithesis of a personal religion. It is Catholic faith, universal, transcending time and space, and therefore it must be a gift that is handed down and not a slave to the impulses of the ever-changing culture. As one saint said, “Truth does not change from day to day.”

An Unchanging Faith?

Now, some would argue that there is a difference between “small t” traditions and “big T” traditions, what Catholics believe and how they behave. These people believe we can surrender the small traditions without harming the big ones. This simply isn’t true. You cannot discard the practice and piety that have been handed down for centuries without inevitably harming the whole fabric of the faith. It’s like trying to rip the intricate embroidery from a tapestry without harming the larger cloth. It is impossible. They are bound up inextricably together.

But that is not to say that new threads cannot be added to the tapestry, to continue the analogy. Tradition is not something static or unchangeable. The Church has and always will respond to the needs of the times, but she should always do so without abandoning her traditions.

A Lutheran pastor I knew prior to my conversion had more wisdom than many Catholics today. His mantra was, “No innovation without tradition.” He was right. While we can explore new avenues of cultural engagement and even dialogue, it must always be in the wider context of what has been received, and without doing violence to the traditions we have received.

As any traveler knows, there is nothing more satisfying than returning home after a long journey. There is no point adventuring without a familiar home to return to. Frodo and Sam could endure Mordor only because they had the Shire. Likewise, the Catholic can engage a hostile culture only if he has the safe home of a coherent faith to return to.

Faith of our Fathers

Much more could be said, but the summary of the matter is that Catholicism without tradition is a contradiction in terms. The Faith must always be rooted in the firm foundation of tradition, or it simply ceases to exist. A traditionless faith may be a religion, but it is not Catholicism.

As Catholics, we are faced by a cultural dictatorship of relativism, pluralism, and enforced political correctness. It is all a bit overwhelming, and it would be easy to succumb to this onslaught if we do not have some rock to cling to. That rock is nothing less than the unchanging Catholic faith, as received through 20 centuries.

“Faith of our fathers, holy faith! We will be true to thee till death.” – Fr. Frederick William Faber

“So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter.” – St. Paul

19 Responses to “Faith of our Fathers: Why Tradition Matters”

  1. This past weekend I went to a neighboring “Catholic” Church (wasn’t able to make usual mass at our Church), and see how “Protestant” it has become- lay ministers in “Pokeman Go” t shirts- nobody “dressed up” , “rock band” and modern songs for hymns, people clapping, not kneeling at correct times, etc. It makes you wonder about the state of our Church. And no, I’m not a “Latin mass” only Traditionalist.

  2. Daniel Kubinski Reply

    Thank you, Mr. Guzman, this is very well said. I agree completely that we can ill-afford to jettison tradition. To propose an additional nuance to the conversation, however, I would respectfully point out that, in reality, the only reason Frodo and Sam were able to endure Mordor was not the thought of returning to the Shire; it was precisely because they abandoned any hope of ever seeing the shire again that they were able to go on (witness Sam relieving himself of the burden of his precious cookware, no point in dead hobbits lugging pots and pans). Or rather, they were able to go on because of the hope that the Shire might be saved, not because they dared hope to see it again. Considered this way, (to say nothing of the otherworldly bread which sustained them on the way), I think your analogy holds beautifully!
    Peace.

  3. Guzman makes sensible claims; Guzman writes well; Guzman wisely references LoTR; but Guzman also avoids specifics, which means that his essay is an introduction and conclusion without a real body.

    He almost begins to make a detailed argument when he claims that slacking off on little-t traditions leads to slacking off on larger-T traditions. But he gives no examples. Why? Because then he’d have to prove cause and effect?

    Little-t traditions have changed throughout Church history. For several centuries, for example, we used leavened bread for the Eucharist — yet Latin Christendom didn’t fall apart when we changed the recipe for Christ’s body (I don’t mean to seem irreverent here, btw). Would Latin Christendom fall apart if we switched back to leavened bread?

    The article seems like a vague shout-out to people of like minds. I want more details, Mr. Guzman.

    • I regretfully have to agree. I would like to see this essay fleshed out a bit more. It has a hollow feel. I’m sure the comments will be few….. What is here to debate?

  4. Mr. guzman, Thank you for your thoughts. In this time of crisis we need to hear this repeated more often.

  5. Sharing this! I really like the idea and balance of adding to the tapestry and meeting the needs of the time without taking from the old. I appreciate you thoughtful and challenging post. I am thankful for our great tradition that has been handed down to us and enjoy passing it along. Keep up the good work!

  6. @Marcabru, the degree of specificity which you’re after requires, as my father would say, “many nights of conversation over many pints of beer.” For Mr. Guzman to address each individual t-radition would be not only tedious, but also an affront to our own abilities to discern liturgical abuses from ecumenism. I appreciate that he writes in a “Catholic style”; one which is designed not to nitpick our actions, but rather to call us to examine our consciences. Well played, Mr. Guzman. Well played, indeed.

  7. Nick Santoro Reply

    I’m fairly new to this site, however I feel that this is the best article I’ve read thus far. In these times, with this world in such turmoil, the vast importance of tradition (in all forms) can’t be overstated. Very well said sir.

    • Indeed, I think the need for tradition is deep in our DNA. There are differences, to be sure, between Sacred Tradition and simple tradition, and we need to be careful not to confuse the two. But we humans secure and develop our lessons about the world in the form of tradition. Some human traditions become corrupted, as we all know. But tradition itself is important.

      Which may be why, it seems to me, that the young today, who grew up in a world in which many traditions were torn down by the Boomer generation of the 60s, seem to crave tradition and work to restore it.

  8. Phil Hannaman Reply

    Excellent! As a child, a tradition was begun in my family to attend the daily meal in the evening (6pm.) You were there or else. No one wanted to miss it because we all ate and talked together. I carried this tradition into my own family. Today, when my children are home, they do not plan anything with friends until after our family meal.

  9. I remember very little from my youth when it comes to the Church. However, I distinctly remember in 1958 at seven years old, being confirmed by the Bishop in my hometown. I do not know if this is a small t or a large T, However, it was powerful, and I would hope this tradition continues.

  10. I believe Chesterton said tradition is giving the dead a vote. The martyrs, monks, priests, popes, and scholars of the ages have voted, and they should carry the day.

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