3 Types of Tradition 21

To understand the Gospel in today’s liturgy, we need to be able to distinguish between traditions and Tradition (with a capital “T”).

Regarding the former, our Lord plainly says:

“This people honors me with their lips,but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me,teaching as doctrines human precepts.” You disregard God’s commandment but cling to human tradition.

Regarding the latter, there is a lot more to be said, a lot of distinctions to be made. One of my all time favorite Broadway musicals finely depicts those subtle distinctions between traditions and Tradition. See if you can pick out the difference between the two “modes of tradition” in the opening scene from Fideler on the Roof. (Come on. It’s Sunday, a day of rest. You are supposed to take time to enjoy these things — and reflect on them. Give it a shot.)

In this short clip from the musical, I find 3 typical trademarks of tradition:

  • Formulaic traditions (ritualism)
  • Tradition with a capital “T” (Sacred Tradition)
  • And healthy folkloric custom (good ol’ family tradition)

I would like to delve deeper in to each aspect, but first, I would like to know your thoughts. When you hear the word tradition, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? What did Jesus condemn when he rebuked the Pharisees over their traditions and what did he not mean to condemn? Is there a proper role for tradition in our lives and what do you think is the right role of Tradition in the Church?

I plan to explore these questions in the scope of two separate posts this week, brining in some of my reflections on the musical Fideler on the Roof with a few notes from Church teaching on the matter to balance it out with some objectivity. In the meantime, I look forward to any brief thoughts you would like to share on the topic.

Tomorrow, in keeping with our national traditions, I am going to take it easy and enjoy the three-day weekend. Hope you do too!


  1. I am participating in all three of these traditions this weekend, visiting family, eating too much, and attending Mass… All these traditions are desirable and necessary to obtain fullness in the human experience. To deny any one of these is to deny what makes us human. Nonetheless, the traditions built by man in a way to make loving God into a legalistic, some-better-than-others, self-righteous pattern is not desirable, and Jesus constantly scolded against this way that the Pharisees adopted. They were more interested in lording over a religion instead of humbly submitting to God’s religion.

  2. I immediately think of Tradition with a capital T! The Tradition of the Church with regard to the order of the Mass, the Tradition that underlies the foundation of our Faith since the beginning of Christianity regarding the Eucharist, Our Lady, the Papacy, the Saints, the Sacraments.
    I think the Jesus was rebuking the Pharisees for placing such huge importance on the outward signs of the Jewish Faith eg, washing of hands/sprinkling of water and denouncing obviously good men for not washing their hands before they ate. (being more concerned about the unnecessary traditions of their faith.) He used Isaiah’s quote to emphasize the importance of that which comes from the inside of a person: what they say, do feel, profess, ie, the quality of love in a man’s heart for his fellow human being (ultimately God), shown through his actions. If our hearts are not in line with the tenets of our Faith and we merely perform empty actions while behaving in a ‘pious’ way, this is unacceptable. Feeble. Empty.
    He calls them hypocrites for being so concerned about the outward, empty symbolism of tradition (man-made) and says they are empty and worthless in the worship of Him.
    There is definitely a place for tradition in our lives as humans: we need routine, predictability and togetherness as a society. It’s the ‘glue’ that holds us together. Imagine a life without family lunches, birthday parties, holidays together!!!!
    The Church’s Tradition is there to maintain and uphold the Truths of the Faith over the centuries past as well as those to come. It’s there to prick the social conscience as reminders of what is True, Right and Just in an ever-changing society. It points True North.

    On the question, ‘and what was he not mean to condemn,’ I await further discussion for clarification here.

    I look forward to reading further comments.

    • Whoops! It looks like you caught a typo in my text: should have said ‘did’ and not ‘was.’ Thanks for bringing that to my attention. I make sure to further the discussion so as to bring more clarification to that point. Thanks for your comment!

  3. Formulaic tradition is what I guess you think of that the Pharisees practiced (some 613 of them). Nothing at all wrong with the traditions as long as those requiring them are practicing them and enforcing them for the same reason: their symbolic help in revealing greater mysteries contained in Sacred Tradition. We have these ourselves and we can modify and change them if they do not suit our culture anymore or if we have quit teaching the symbolic reasons for the traditions.

    Sacred Traditions are those that were passed on to us Apostolically from Christ and His apostles. They cannot be altered or changed.

    And Family Traditions can be retained or lost: but they are a great way for families to remember who they are and where they came from. They are tie to our ancestors and give us a feel for our heritage and why each family is unique and meaningful.

    • This is an important point you make here: “Sacred Traditions are those that were passed on to us Apostolically from Christ and His apostles. They cannot be altered or changed.” As a true source of Revelation, Tradition in this sense does not change, although our understanding over time has developed. This is one of the more difficult aspects for many protestants to understand and accept. Thanks Servus!

  4. Jesus definitely condemned formulaic tradition. Those were man made rules the Pharisees adopted and enforced. For example, “Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to be called ‘Rabbi’ by others” (Matthew 23:5-7).

    • These are indeed the types of man made tradition that Jesus emphatically condemned. He especially condemned laws the Pharisees burdened on the common people with, such as telling people they were unclean if they did not perform ritual hand washing. Their teaching had lost the meaning and heart of the law that was meant to purify hearts from within and make people pure before God. It was all appearances and lip service. Thank you for the comment, Noel. God bless!

  5. Been helping Mom and Dad all week, by the way Mom came home Friday. Again thanks for prayers. Due to my tired mind and body I will answer this tomorrow, when I can think with a clear head. God Bless and have a great tomorrow! SR

  6. Some brief thoughts: tradition seems to me to mean actions, rituals, things you do to provide familiar, comforting things. to hold us together. like a birthday party, or coloring Easter eggs on Holy Saturday, or saying God bless you when somebody sneezes. These are human, bonding things.
    Sometimes they can become more important than their purpose. LIke rules with the meaning lost. Thus they no longer bond people, no longer point to a greater meaning, but seem to exist just for their own sake. They can be oppressive, then, and no longer serve a good purpose.
    Tradition with a capital T, to me, means not actions but a collection of wisdom and developed ideas over time. How to best celebrate something. How to best say something. Which stories to teach by, and how to tell them, that sort of thing. The Tradition gives richness and depth to the traditional actions, keeps them alive.
    or something like that. It is almost midnight, maybe I will try to clarify later when I am actually awake.

    • Great insights! When tradition — a handing on — fails to be a bearer of meaning, it no longer serves its purpose. When it does serve its purpose it educates and enriches our lives with deeper meaning and a more elevated purpose. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  7. Mic 6:8 NKJV – He has shown you, O man, what [is] good; And what does the LORD require of you But to do justly, To love mercy, And to walk humbly with your God?
    If tradition complies, then good. If not, then why do we cling to it?

    • Very true. When traditions teach us to walk with God, we can call them just. When they deviate from that, they lose their salt and fail and only fools would cling to them. I would say that in that case, they should no longer be called tradition, but praxis, or in some cases, ideology.

  8. Formulaic tradition (ritualism)- When I thought about this I did not go to the Church instead my thoughts went on something Scott Hahn wrote. (Not direct quote same meaning) He said more are less “we are ritual by nature, because we are made in the image of God, and God is a very ritual God. Therefore, we function very well with the rituals in our daily lives.” That is where I went with it. I got to thinking how most of us will get up at a certain time to pray, how (at least in my life) I have certain days in which I do certain things, such as shopping, house cleaning, dog baths etc… However I have found these “rituals” in my life can lead to a lot of “stress” if I cannot get them done on “that day” or wake up an hour later to pray. It feels as if I did not do what I was supposed to do, and if I start my day an hour late, then it feels as if I am behind all day. Make sense? I am trying to explain it and it feels like I am rambling.

    Tradition with “T”- my thoughts went straight to the Church, and how Sacred Traditions are so important to hold the “unity of believers” together. I also thought about how they are loved and revered. Without them we as Catholics would have an empty “hole” inside of us. Sacred Traditions to me are some of what makes us Catholic.

    Family tradition- I agree a lot with Reinkat on “human bonding.” Family traditions help us to do that with our families. Like getting together on a certain of the year for a family reunion, holidays, birthdays, etc… I am learning though “family tradition” can also come with a “twinge” of guilt if one is not able to fulfill their role in them. Like this year I am not having the usual “holiday meal” etc.. at my house. I told my “family” we can all go out to eat this year and I will provide dessert, due to the year I have had with everyone sick. I am just too tired to even think about it. I have noticed though I am feeling a “twinge of guilt” for not doing what is “traditional.”

    Good post and God Bless, SR

    • Thank you for your comment, SR. I can empathize with what you are saying about family tradition. Sometimes we raise the bar on ourselves and others and get frustrated about meeting the right expectations. We can also run the risk of falling into routine.

      Routine can be a danger in all three types of tradition we are talking about. It may be hard to see how that could apply to Sacred Tradition. However, when one does not reflect enough on it and put one’s heart into it, what we hold to be sacred can diminish in importance and lose its meaning for that person.

      I think Jesus scolded the Pharisees for placing what had become meaningless human institution on a sacred pedestal. Their holding people to a ridiculously high standard over petty things ultimately made a mockery of the sacred, because they had lost sight of the essential.

  9. I can see very much what you mean by the word “routine.” I can apply the “danger” to Sacred Tradition with that word. In my mind I could not find anything wrong with Sacred Tradition which there is not, but I can see where how we handle it, “could be very wrong” and make it less than it is. Thanks for that input as usual, “My Helper of the Brain:>)” God Bless, SR

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s