Catholicity, The Traditions of Men?
I remember being in the local Catholic bookstore for the first time many years ago before I converted to Catholicism. I was buying a Rosary while swearing I wasn’t going to become Catholic. (Yeah right!) I even remember my ex’s mom, who was Catholic, at the time saying, “You bought a Rosary, you’re going to become Catholic.” The story of my life has been one of trying to hold on to two shorelines at the same time, but I digress. As I was standing at the counter telling my plight (of not being Catholic, but buying a Rosary, but not knowing how to pray it, and on and on…) to the lady behind the counter, she very kindly proceeded to get a few little booklets, a bookmark with Our Lady’s 15 Promises for Praying the Rosary, and told me to be sure I got it blessed.
“I’m just so overwhelmed with all there is to learn about Catholicism.” I told her.
“Don’t worry”, she said, “there’s not as much to it as you might think. It’s not as overwhelming as it might seem once you get the hang of it.”
Many years later after a kind priest blessed my Rosary, I still look back on that moment at the counter of Sacred Heart Bookstore and wonder if it really isn’t so overwhelming. Coming from a Protestant upbringing that was about as far away from Catholicism as one could be, there seemed to be a thousand concepts with which I had to “come to grips with”. The Eucharist, Mary, the Saints, statues, candles, priests, Confession, Confirmation, the Rosary, kneeling……..” Not to mention the hundreds of devotions handed down to us with which we can draw closer to God.
The truth of the matter, and something many non-Catholics misunderstand, is that there are many elements of Catholicism which are not essential to the matter of Salvation. Many non-Catholics seem to be of the understanding that the Rosary, praying to saints, statues, and the like are “added” traditions to the Christian faith and that – for Catholics – they are requirements of faith. This isn’t true at all. In fact, there truly isn’t that much that is different as far as the nominal required beliefs which make up the neccesitative elements of attaining Salvation. Although dogmatic statements which require accent from the faithful Catholic can be overwhelmingly difficult obstacles to those who are looking at the Church, such as things like Papal Infallibility, Marian dogmas and transubstantiation, there are many things such as trinitarian belief, the belief in Christ’s absolute humanity and divinity, and that the Bible is the infallible revealed Word of God are the main points. These things are considered to have been revealed through “Public Divine Revelation” either implicitly or explicitly and cannot be denied if one is to be considered Catholic.
What most non-Catholics fail to understand is that a loyal and upright Catholic may not ever pray the Rosary in their lives. They aren’t required to do so in order to obtain Salvation. It is also not required that they pray to Mary or the saints either. As I mentioned before there are countless devotions, far too numerous to count, which have been revealed to the Church throughout her two millenia which Catholics may desire to utilize in order to increase their spiritual discipline, the flow of grace into their lives, or out of love for that particular devotion. Whatever the cause may be it is not a necessity to do these things in order to obtain Salvation. These “added on things” (As non-Catholics like to put it) are considered “Private Revelation” and while Private Revelation has to be approved by the Church as free from doctrinal error before it can officially be pronounced as a devotion for the faithful, it is not required of the laity to devote themselves to the revealed devotion. Although since it is not contrary to any Public Revelation (Divine Revelation) Catholics must be careful in knowing that it is free from doctrinal error, it is not contrary to faith, and it has been found to be theologically sound even if they do not subscribe to the belief in the event which spawned the devotion, they cannot deny the message is truth.
FOR INSTANCE, Our Lady of Fatima. It has been given the aforementioned declaration of the Church and the devotion set forth in that sighting has been approved. Nevertheless, Catholics are not necessarily obligated to believe the events actually happened as long as they do not denounce the message contained in the event. However, since the events and the message are usually tightly interwoven it is hard to nitpick through what to believe and what not to believe without discounting an essential point. Therefore, a Catholic can discount the miracle of the sun as long as they do not deny the truth of the message contained in the event since to do so would be to deny a Divine Truth.
Many times I have found myself overwhelmed at all the devotions that have been revealed to the Church by Our Lord, Our Lady, St. Michael, or others. Do I have enough time to pray the Rosary, the Divine Mercy, the Chaplet of St. Michael, the Office of Our Lady, The Divine Office, First Friday’s Novena, First Saturday’s Novena, or any of the many other Novenas, and Stations of the Cross Daily? Why not just jettison daily life and join a religious order for all that?! It makes Protestant detractors look right when they quote Matthew 23 or Mark 7 as a proof text that the Church is “adding on” to faith with the traditions of men. Well, one, none of it is required and two, if we did adhere to every single devotion revealed to the Church throughout the ages we’d be so overwhelmed we wouldn’t be able to do anything else. No one said these devotions needed to be adhered to every day “or else!”. However, a good Christian will gain great graces by praying the Rosary every day, for example, by exercising spiritual discipline.
Let’s look at Matthew 23 in the context of what Jesus is talking about. The Pharisees chastise the disciples to Jesus because they didn’t wash their hands and they’re eating. Are they talking about the disciples having dirty hands and eating the food in a hygienic sense? No. That’s not what they were talking about. The Jewish religious leaders who had the Seat of Moses (Mt 23:2) had supplanted God’s law and held in higher esteem the rituals created by themselves for external piety’s sake. These external traditions didn’t uphold or bring one closer to the law of God, they were not instituted to give glory to God, they were devised in place of God’s law in order to give one the external appearance of being righteous. They were required by the Pharisees in order to make one ritually, not spiritually clean. Unlike the previously mentioned Catholic devotions whether devotions, Holy Water, or praying the Rosary, they didn’t “add” anything but burdens to the people (Mt 23:4). They also didn’t practice any of these things themselves, but put on great airs to make themselves look really righteous (Mt 23:5&6)
This is nothing like the traditions of the Catholic Church. Catholic Tradition stands along with Scripture in forming the one single deposit of the Faith. For Catholics, Sacred Tradition isn’t in opposition to Scripture, they compliment and confirm one another. When Catholics refer to Sacred Tradition or “Capitol T” traditions they’re referring to traditions that were directly handed down from Christ to the Apostles and from the Apostles to the believers. Small ‘t’ traditions are those which are simply customs or disciplines and can be changed. The celibacy of priests for example or wearing a mantilla. That isn’t doctrine, it’s a discipline. A small ‘t’ tradition. The Sacred Tradition we speak of is spoken of in the Bible.
St. Paul tells the Thessalonians, “So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter.” (2 Thess 2:15) (Note that not everything was written down in the Bible.)
He also tells Timothy in his instructional letter,
“…I know whom I have believed [Jesus], and I am sure that he is able to guard until that Day what has been entrusted to me. Follow the pattern of the sound words which you have heard from me, in the faith and love which are in Christ Jesus; guard the truth that has been entrusted to you by the Holy Spirit who dwells within us.” (2 Tim 1:12-14) (also, nothing about following the written word, follow verbal instructions – the handing down of oral Traditions)
“You then, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus, and what you have heard from me before many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.” (2 Tim 2:1-2)
These articles of Truth handed down through oral and written Sacred Tradition are articles of faith and cannot be changed or renounced. They are followed from Pope to laity for the edification of faith and to draw closer to God. Devotions while not “necessarily” Sacred Tradition are tied intricately into Sacred Tradition and although devotions such as the Rosary, or praying to Mary or the Saints are not “absolutely necessary” they do nothing but draw the practitioner into a deeper relationship with God. This is why Sacred Traditions, devotions, and Sacred Scripture is all inextricably intertwined with each other.
A matter of disciplines or devotions one is able to engage in is simply a matter of where God leads the believer. Sometimes it’s the call to pray for sinners. Sometimes it’s prayers for vocations or for healing the sick. Whatever it is know that anything we consider Traditions, devotions, or disciplines can only lead us into a deeper more reverent love of God. The journey for me has been a long one, not always uncomplicated, but always a learning experience that has only helped me grow in absolute love for my God.