The Debate on Tradition

I have just been reading parts of the debate at Vatican II on the sections of Dei Verbum dealing with Apostolic TraditionRatzinger summarizes the debate in his commentary, and now I have read translations of some of the actual speeches of the council fathers. Part of the debate is quite similar the discussion that has been going on in the comment thread of my post on unwritten Tradition. I have been defending there the account of Tradition developed by by Pope Benedict XVI long before he became pope. He understands Tradition as “the living process whereby the Holy Spirit introduces us to the fullness of truth and teaches us how to understand what previously we could still not grasp (cf.  Jn 16:12-13),” and the “remembering” by which the Church “can come to recognize what it had not caught sight of previously and yet was already handed down in the original Word.” Aelianus and Thomas Cordatus have been objecting that Ratzinger’s account seems dangerously close to the modernist idea of continuing Revelation. They insist that Tradition must be the handing on of definite ideas, though not in set formulas.

Very similar objections were brought up by some of the council fathers in the debate on Dei Verbum. The peritus Ratzinger had given a speech which had influenced the 4th draft of the Document–especially Article 8–and several of the fathers objected to this. Here is Ratzinger’s summary:

The dynamic concept of tradition, with which the Council here develops its positive conception of traditio, was strongly attacked from two quite opposite directions. On the one hand, Cardinal Ruffini rejected it from his position of traditionally neoscholastic theology, but on the other, Cardinal Leger attacked it from an ecumenical standpoint. In spite of the sharp division in their general theological orientations, the arguments of these two Council fathers were astonishingly similar Ruffini firmly emphasized the idea of revelation being concluded with the death of the last Apostle, rejected the idea of including disciples of the Apostles among the origins of revelation, and opposed the idea of a living and growing revelation, for, in accordance with the text of Trent and Vatican I, he considered that this should be mentioned only in connection with a strong emphasis on the strict unchangeability of a revelation that had been concluded once and for all, with which he referred to an appropriate text by Vincent de Lerins, quoted at both Councils. In the concept of the schema, and especially in its emphasis on spiritual experience as a principle of the growing knowledge of revelation, he detected theological evolutionism, condemned as modernism by Pius XII. In another tone and with other reasons Cardinal Leger insisted on the same point, He found that the Schema, especially in its idea of progress, which seemed to refer not only to the knowledge of tradition, but tradition itself (Haec … Traditio … proficit), blurred the strict distinction between apostolic and post-apostolic tradition and endangered the strict transcendence of divine revelation when it was confronted with the statements and actions of the teaching office of the Church. The Cardinal was concerned that the Church should bind itself firmly to the final and unchangeable word of God, that does not grow, but can only be constantly assimilated afresh and cannot be manipulated by the Church. The Theological Commission considered the question carefully, but decided not to make any major alterations in the text. It pointed out that the clause ” … Traditio proficit” is explained by a second clause “crescit … tam rerum quam verborum perceptio“, i.e. the growth of tradition is a growth in understanding of the reality that was given at the beginning. (Commentary pp.186-187)

A key question here is the interpretation of John 16:12-13: “I have yet many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.” The two sides interpret these verses in almost opposite senses. Ratzinger takes it to refer to the “livingness” of tradition through all the ages, Ruffini takes it to refer to the completion of the Revelation in the Apostolic Age. Here is a translation of a translation of Ruffini:

The Divine Revelation, which we must accept with that faith which we owe to God alone, was completed with the death of the last Apostle, which the historical tradition tells us was the Apostle John. For, on the night before His death, Jesus said to His Apostles gathered in the cenacle: “I have yet many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.” These words are as clear as the sun. If the Holy Spirit will teach the Apostles all truth, then one cannot expect any more truths after the time of the Apostles which could be part of  the depositum revelationis […] The draft says of Tradition that it lives and grows. These words the Council of Trent borrowed from Vincent of Lerins; but here in this draft the words of Trent are sadly mangled and abbreviated. Therefore I beg, for the love of truth, that the witness of Trent might be quoted in full: Hence, too, that meaning of the sacred dogmas is ever to be maintained which has once been declared by Holy mother Church, and there must never be any abandonment of this sense under the pretext or in the name of a more profound understanding. May understanding, knowledge and wisdom increase as ages and centuries roll along, and greatly and vigorously flourish, in each and all, in the individual and the whole Church: but this only in its own proper kind, that is to say, in the same doctrine, the same sense, and the same understanding. I will boldly speak my mind, venerable fathers […] the draft presented can scarcely be reconciled with the magnificent teaching of Trent. [For we read in the draft that] Tradition grows not only through contemplation […] but also through the interior experience of spiritual things. Such experience seems at least hardly distinguishable from the “religious sense” that the courageous defender of the Catholic Faith, Pope St. Pius X, condemned in  his encyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregis.

Cardinal Ruffini’s rhetoric is magnificent, but it had hardly any effect on the final version of Dei Verbum, which left almost unchanged the passages to which he objected. Bl. Pope John Paul II saw this question, or rather the Ruffini-ite answer to it, as the main error of Archbishop Lefebvre. In the Motu Proprio Ecclesia Dei he has written:

The root of this schismatic act can be discerned in an incomplete and contradictory notion of Tradition. Incomplete, because it does not take sufficiently into account the living character of Tradition, which, as the Second Vatican Council clearly taught, “comes from the apostles and progresses in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit. There is a growth in insight into the realities and words that are being passed on. This comes about in various ways. It comes through the contemplation and study of believers who ponder these things in their hearts. It comes from the intimate sense of spiritual realities which they experience. And it comes from the preaching of those who have received, along with their right of succession in the episcopate, the sure charism of truth”.

16 thoughts on “The Debate on Tradition

  1. I’m not sure what test there is by which Ratzinger’s account of living tradition can in practice be distinguished from a claim to continuing revelation. If when the Church began teaching some ‘new point of doctrine’ (to use John Paul II’s phrase in the Motu Proprio Ecclesia Dei), someone were to object, ‘Hang on! We’ve never heard that before – you must be claiming a new revelation’, it would always be open to the teacher in question to say, ‘Not at all! It was always there in the deposit, it’s just that we’ve only now seen it properly for the first time.’ But if there is no empirical test by which a claim to continuing revelation can be distinguished from the Ratzingerian account, are they really different?

    The ‘growth in insight’ mentioned by Vatican II – I forget the Latin, but I seem to remember that the translation is good – enables a sharper expression of the same idea, e.g. the idea of our Lady as the New Eve being expressed by later churchmen as her freedom from the inherited sin of the race in virtue of the foreseen merits of her Son. But it can’t be used to justify a jump such as going from ‘ignorance of the Assumption’ to ‘knowledge of the Assumption’.

    In the Motu Proprio of John Paul II, the expression ‘new points of doctrine’ is, I believe, unfortunate. But we can interpret it in meliorem partem as referring simply to new expressions of doctrine,


    • Sancrucensis, do you agree with Newman’s proviso “there is nothing which the Church has defined or shall define but what an Apostle, if asked, would have been fully able to answer and would have answered”?


        • Well, I agree, as I am bound to do, with the Council of Tent! I think John 16:13 means what Ruffini says it does but it can additionally be understood to refer to the extrapolation of the logical consequences of the Deposit and to the bringing of new contingent realities into judgement before the principles revealed therein.


  2. A few hasty observations: Isn’t Lefebre’s error the assumption that to preserve the deposit of faith it was necessary to work outside of the confines of the hierarchical Church which received that deposit? That claim is not made by Cardinal Ruffini in the text cited.

    Tradition can refer to what is passed on, or to the passing on itself. Ratzinger insisted that the Latin word traditio referred to the second. But are these two meanings contradictory? The second includes more, and I think that is why Ratzinger liked to used it, but it is not clear that it always more helpful. Ratzinger also held that the whole of Revelation is included in Scripture. Tradition is the key to understanding Scripture.

    Now, just as in Scripture some things are taught but not explicitly, and these must understood through things taught explicitly, as St. Augustine and St. Thomas, and tradition generally, teach, so there are things in tradition which are ambiguous and must be understood through things which are explicit, and finally, in reference to explicit statements in Scripture. Ambiguity and room for a modernist interpretation would exist if we only had, for example, bowing and this could be considered as adoration or simple veneration or just humility, without any further reference point which might decide the question. Moreover, not all arguments give the same amount of certainty.

    The deposit of faith can be considered as an “idea” insofar as what it contains has a certain unity with given characteristics. But in fact it is a series of propositions – I remember reading this in the Introduction to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, though I don’t have with me right now (please forgive me). Either one must say that these propositions are not all explicit, or that one is referring to them thus without regard to whether they are explicit or not. To the objection that what Christ left the Church with is the mystery of his presence, which is beyond propositions, I would respond that we are united to Christ through knowledge and love, love depending on knowledge. Therefore there is something which he left us by which we are united to him through knowledge, and this I call the deposit of faith. Can I not give it some name?

    I believe it is a great danger is to think of the deposit of faith as some idea distinct from and in between the realities and the propositions by which we know those realities. I would call this at least semi-modernism. The Nouvelle Theologie theologians often speak in this way in order to explain the possibility of a plurality of theologies in the Church. But being as such is one, therefore so is its expression in truth. Theology is one science, deriving its formal unity from God revealing. Theologians can consider different truths in revelation, but there is always an order among all of them in the whole of the one science.


    • Peter, I know you are more attuned to divine things than I am, so I should probably just recant.

      On the Lefebvre thing: looking at Ecclesia Dei again the idea seems to be that his account of tradition is wrong both because it is doesn’t take the living nature of tradition into account, and because (as you say) it opposes tradition to the rulers of the Church: “The root of this schismatic act can be discerned in an incomplete and contradictory notion of Tradition. Incomplete, because it does not take sufficiently into account the living character of Tradition …. contradictory [because it] opposes the universal Magisterium of the Church possessed by the Bishop of Rome and the Body of Bishops.”

      You write “there is something which he left us by which we are united to him through knowledge, and this [is] the deposit of faith.” I certainly didn’t mean to deny that. What I did mean to deny is that knowledge=a series of propositions. Can you say more about why you think that is so?


  3. Well, I said they were hasty observations, so looking things over things I will have to correct a few things, and will try to be clearer in the main point. This is a fascinating topic, and I am glad that we can mutually profit from this discussion. I agree that Lebevre does not take into account the living nature of tradition. The error that I mentioned, opposing tradition to the hierarchy, contradicts this living nature. I do disagree with Ruffini when he opposes what would become the text of the Council, but I think that he is not holding anything false, but rather not seeing that there is a further meaning of progress in Tradition. The disagreement seems to be one of words, though arguably one use of these terms is more appropriate. What is passed on does not increase, but the participation of the subject does – the “perceptio.” This happens on an individual level through theology, prayer, etc. But the Church itself can increase, above all insofar as there are further doctrinal determinations. This is analogous to the individual’s increase in understanding: the Church as such has been given the deposit of faith and its magisterium is, as it were, the “mind” of the Church, since what it determines is the belief of the Church. But just as the individual’s knowledge is always derived from some first principles, likewise in the case of the Church I was thinking that there are always some propositions in which the rest are virtually contained. The error would be to treat the propositions as isolated from what they contain virtually, as Protestants treat Scripture. So I was trying to understand the deposit of faith as an ‘idea’ in this sense. True, the life of the Church is not simply propositional, but it flows from and returns to propositions, and through them, to divine realities. A non-propositional aspect of the life of the Church, with regard to its theological force, would be like the matter of a sacrament: though certainly not without significance, it stands in need of being determined by something formal, .

    This position seems confirmed by what we profess as our faith, e.g. Jesus is the Christ, Jesus rose from the dead, God is in three Persons. These are propositions united in their order to the formal cause of faith, God himself. Is there a better way of understanding what an ‘idea’ is? Certainly, knowledge is not the same as propositions. Knowledge is the presence of the known to the knower through and in propositions. Also, explicitly held propositions are not the limit to what one knows, but contain further propositions virtually, for the truth reveals itself according to our capacity, but in its richness as well.

    The distinction of the idea from the propositions not only secundum rationem, but secundum rem, would seem to lead to the danger I mentioned in the last paragraph. This kind of distinction is often used these days to make all theologies equal, giving to the parts of theology the multiplicity and equality proper to metaphors, using metaphors inordinately, and thereby creating much confusion.


  4. “What is passed on does not increase, but the participation of the subject does – the “perceptio.” This happens on an individual level through theology, prayer, etc. But the Church itself can increase, above all insofar as there are further doctrinal determinations. This is analogous to the individual’s increase in understanding: the Church as such has been given the deposit of faith and its magisterium is, as it were, the “mind” of the Church, since what it determines is the belief of the Church.” But there is not literally a mind that belongs to a literal person called the magisterium. So what would it be for the Church’s ‘perceptio’ to increase? St Thomas seems to think that grace is less abundantly present in the world the further we move away from Pentecost. Since perception of spiritual realities is dependent on the gifts of the Holy Spirit, which are possessed in proportion to sanctifying grace, it would follow that in some important sense, perception of spiritual truths decreases with the passage of time.

    Sancrucensis, in answer to your question above about whether Newman’s tests of development would allow one to distinguish continuing revelation from what I called the Ratzingerian approach, I’m not sure if I understand them well enough to know. If they are all of them meant to be true together, then since one of them is “logical sequence of ideas”, then there would seem to be no problem, if that means an extrapolation of conclusions from revealed principles. In fact, I don’t myself see any incompatibility between Newman and Archbishop Lefebvre on tradition (the latter would have agreed with the former in saying, about the prospect of disobeying a papal command, ‘unless a man can say as being in the presence of God, “I dare not obey”, he must obey’. Whether the archbishop was right in the particular case is another matter, of course; but I don’t see a disagreement on principles.)


  5. I think that there is both increase and decrease. What increases is explicit propositional knowledge, what decreases is implicit knowledge and (as it were) “intuition” into the mysteries.

    On the notes of true development: I don’t think Newman means them to be applied to each propositional statement of a truth of the faith, but rather to the “idea” of Christianity as a whole.


  6. Cordatus, you rightly ask me to explain what it means for the Church to increase in its perception of divine reality, since it is not an individual with a mind.

    When I know some truth, I may do so through my own mind and my own thought, such as when I know a conclusion of geometry. But I may know by believing another, I know through the other’s mind and thought. Therefore, I participate in that other’s mind. In the case of divine faith, I participate in God’s mind and thought (“We have the mind of Christ”). But this participation by the believer’s mind in the mind of God is brought about through the Magisterium expressing God’s thought. The Magisterium, then, mediates between two minds, and shares something of each one of them. I proposed calling it the mind of the Church by analogy, because a) like any mind, it contains truth; b) it expresses the divine Mind; and c) it causes truth in the minds of the faithful. This last point (c) is particularly worth considering. I am trying to consider the thought of the multitude of the faithful in what is common, insofar as they are believing members of the Church, and to see how this develops.

    If I know that Christ had infused knowledge of all created things, this knowledge depends on God’s mind, since it is founded on principles of faith, and through my mind, since it also depends on my reasoning. The first belongs to me as a Catholic, the second, as an individual. If I want another Catholic to agree with me, if is not enough to say that he must as a Catholic. Starting with common principles of faith, I must lead him through my reasoning, so that he also holds the conclusion through his own reasoning. But the doctrine of the Trinity, of the Immaculate Conception, and other defined doctrines, I hold as a Catholic. In these cases, the Church thinks for me. But unlike the divine Mind, there is progress in this thinking of the Church insofar as further propositions are made explicit. This progress is progress in the capacity of the Magisterium to cause truth in the minds of the faithful. The knowledge of the faithful thus becomes more explicit, immediate, and certain. More explicit, though it was always believed. More immediate, because human reasoning does not intervene. More certain, because God’s thought does not err, whereas human reasoning does. This is a difference in the manner in which the faithful are able to adhere to the truths of faith, and it changes over time. In this respect, it is much better to be in the Church later in its history than earlier. St. Thomas would have greatly liked to know about the dogma of the Immaculate Conception and many other teachings that came later. Who would prefer to learn Christology in the third century rather than in the 16th? This is not to deny that the apostles had a superior knowledge in other, perhaps more important respects. Moreover, even if the Magisterium has such a capacity to cause truth, it is not always taken advantage of by the faithful. Thus, theology may flourish more at an earlier time than at a later time.

    I have been discussing a progress in the realm of knowledge, but there is another kind of progress according to the mode of inclination which St. Thomas explains in the Summa Th. I, qu.1, art.6, ad 3. This is the penetration of the faith and experience and taste of the mysteries of faith which is the wisdom of the saints. Here also there is a progress according to the perfection of love of God. But while the development I spoke of above progresses each century in the history of the Church, the wisdom which perfects charity and is a gift of the Holy Spirit progresses according to charity. It begins with the charity one has at baptism and naturally proceeds to habitual union with God and to heaven. Certainly, charity has not been greater in the Church on earth after Our Lady was assumed into heaven. Finally, it is important that that though these two kinds of wisdom are distinct, they do each contribute to the other’s progress.


  7. Given the Holy Father’s recent interview I must say the story and players Sancrucensis recites above take on something of a different light. What a change a few days make!


    • Is this the passage of the interview that you are thinking of: “St. Vincent of Lerins makes a comparison between the biological development of man and the transmission from one era to another of the deposit of faith, which grows and is strengthened with time. Here, human self-understanding changes with time and so also human consciousness deepens. Let us think of when slavery was accepted or the death penalty was allowed without any problem. So we grow in the understanding of the truth. Exegetes and theologians help the church to mature in her own judgment. Even the other sciences and their development help the church in its growth in understanding. There are ecclesiastical rules and precepts that were once effective, but now they have lost value or meaning. The view of the church’s teaching as a monolith to defend without nuance or different understandings is wrong.”?


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