One 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 Far from irrelevant or outdated, tradition is the living memory of the Church.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