The Beginner's Guide to Sacred Tradition

Catholicism gets a bad rap for maintaining doctrines that don’t appear to be dependent on Sacred Scripture. Why does Catholicism have extra-biblical beliefs?

Spoiler alert: this is Sacred Tradition, and it’s not made up!

If you have read The Beginner’s Guide to Catholicism or The Beginner’s Guide to Sacred Scripture, you are probably wondering more about Oral Tradition, Written Tradition – what is Tradition?


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What is Sacred Tradition?

The word “tradition” means to hand something down.

Sacred Tradition is the handing down of faith and Divine Revelation from Jesus Christ and his Apostles.

This is where Apostolic Succession plays an important part in the life and continuation of the Church (read more on Apostolic Succession in The Beginner’s Guide to Catholicism). Because bishops are direct, handpicked successors of the Apostles, this means that the Sacred Tradition that has been passed down through the Church for centuries is a Living Tradition.

Other Resources:
1. What Exactly Does the Church Mean by Tradition?, Catholic Answers
2. Apostolic Tradition, Catholic Answers
3. What is Sacred Tradition?, National Catholic Register

This doesn’t mean that Sacred Tradition is just a series of made-up laws and doctrines by man, though – just as with the making of Sacred Scripture, the Holy Spirit guides the Church and her leaders in order to further expound upon existing doctrines. The Church never makes stuff up out of thin air: it maintains that doctrine does not change and stands the test of time since it was given to us directly from God. With new ages comes new questions, and as the world changes the Church comes to new realizations about Divine Revelation; someone has to interpret and manage it, and who better than the successor of St. Peter?

Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture both simultaneously inform faith as we live it out, regardless of what day and age it is.

Other Resources:
1. Oral Tradition in the New Testament, Catholic Answers
2. Scripture and Tradition, Catholic Answers
3. Can Dogma Develop?, Catholic Answers
4. The Bible… and Other Traditions, Catholic Answers

Learning More About Sacred Tradition

Thankfully, the Catholic Church has plenty of documents to pore over in studying Sacred Tradition. Plus, the Catechism expounds upon Tradition, as well. I highly recommend reading Dei Verbum and the Catechism of the Catholic Church to get straight to it; both documents are, themselves, great examples of how Tradition lives on today.

Other Resources:
1. “The Transmission of Divine Revelation,” Catechism of the Catholic Church
2. Dei Verbum (Word of God), Pope Paul VI
3. Tradition with a Capital “T”, Catholic Answers

In understanding Sacred Tradition, know that for the first 1500 years of the Church’s existence – of Christianity’s existence – there wasn’t much questioning about the importance of Sacred Tradition alongside Sacred Scripture. Jesus Christ and the Apostles grew up in a culture and religion which was focused on Oral Tradition; this is because most ancient people were illiterate, and knowledge had to be passed down somehow! With Christianity being an ancient religion still, doctrine and salvation history had to be passed down orally until biblical authors began converting Oral Tradition into Written Tradition.

Sacred Tradition in the Catholic Church

Jesus Christ led and taught the Apostles first; then, the Apostles went out throughout the world to lead and teach what would become the Church. Various books of the Bible was written at different times, and the Bible didn’t become the Bible until 382 A.D. – how did early Christians receive the Word of God without the Bible?!

That’s right: Sacred Tradition.

Read more about Sacred Scripture in The Beginner’s Guide to Sacred Scripture

Teaching Sacred Tradition

Tradition is made up of a lot of things not found in the Bible:

  • the celebration of Christmas, and on December 25
  • Mass celebrated on Sunday instead of Saturday
  • the Rosary and other well-known prayers and devotions
  • holy water and its usage
  • celibate priesthood (in the Latin Rite)
  • and more!

The Magisterium is the teaching authority given to the Church by Christ, through the succession of St. Peter (and in union with the Roman Pontiff as part of this succession). This teaching authority is entrusted to interpret the Word of God, be Written or Tradition.

Seeing as the world is a constantly changing place, people will ask new questions in each new age – the Magisterium teaches the faithful what is right and correct in the eyes of God as new issues pop up.

There are two forms of Magisterium:

  • Ordinary: this is your every-day type of teachings that you may hear from your local priest or parish. These teachings are not whatever the priest or religious education director makes up off the top of their heads, but it is what has already been taught before through things such as papal documents. Thus, the Pope has already taught this and is simply a reiteration of previously explored teachings.
  • Extraordinary: this form of Magisterium is when the Holy Father himself teaches directly, which is not typical (hence, it’s the “extraordinary” form of the Magisterium). Such teachings are the product of ecumenical councils or the Pope teaching ex cathedra (“from the chair” in Latin), both of which are infallible teachings and are what define/refine doctrine.

Infallibility:
“‘The Roman Pontiff, head of the college of bishops, enjoys this infallibility in virtue of his office, when, as supreme pastor and teacher of all the faithful – who confirms his brethren in the faith he proclaims by a definitive act a doctrine pertaining to faith or morals. . . . The infallibility promised to the Church is also present in the body of bishops when, together with Peter’s successor, they exercise the supreme Magisterium’,” above all in an Ecumenical Council. When the Church through its supreme Magisterium proposes a doctrine “for belief as being divinely revealed,’ and as the teaching of Christ, the definitions ‘must be adhered to with the obedience of faith.’ This infallibility extends as far as the deposit of divine Revelation itself.” (CCC 891)

“‘The Roman Pontiff, head of the college of bishops, enjoys this infallibility in virtue of his office, when, as supreme pastor and teacher of all the faithful – who confirms his brethren in the faith he proclaims by a definitive act a doctrine pertaining to faith or morals. . . . The infallibility promised to the Church is also present in the body of bishops when, together with Peter’s successor, they exercise the supreme Magisterium’,” above all in an Ecumenical Council. When the Church through its supreme Magisterium proposes a doctrine “for belief as being divinely revealed,’ and as the teaching of Christ, the definitions ‘must be adhered to with the obedience of faith.’ This infallibility extends as far as the deposit of divine Revelation itself.” (CCC 891)


It should be noted here that the Church does not abuse ecumenical councils or ex cathedra teachings. There have been 21 ecumenical councils (which I think we all can agree have been necessary in order to refine doctrine to get everyone on the same page) and two ex cathedra pronouncements.

What are papal documents, though?

  • Papal bulls: these are public decrees from the Pope, authenticated with a seal (bulla – hence, the name), which typically serve as decrees or dispensation of or revocation of privileges, but most simply are papal decrees.
  • Papal encyclicals: Latin for “circular,” this is a document meant to, well, circulate around the world. Encyclicals touch on important issues and concerns contemporary to the time. Think of these as reminders of the Ordinary Magisterium to remind the faithful what they believe in.
  • Papal briefs: these are like papal bulls but much shorter. Bulls are notoriously lengthy, so for the sake of brevity and simplicity briefs eventually became the norm for popes to release.
  • Apostolic exhortations: these don’t clarify doctrine, but are actually calls to the Church for particular actions.
  • Apostolic letters: yet another name for papal bulls and briefs.
  • Motu proprios: Latin for “on his own impulse,” this is simply an official act by the initiative of the Pope himself addressing a part of the Church.

Other Resources:
1. Tradition and the Living Magisterium, Catholic Encyclopedia
2. What are Extraordinary Magisterium and Ordinary Magisterium?, Dummies

Beginner's Guide to Sacred Tradition

Sola Scriptura: Bible Alone

Isn’t it heretical to not rely solely on the Bible?

If you’re a Protestant, then yes, it’s considered heretical.

However, the Catholic Church has never relied on sola scriptura, or Bible alone, like Protestants have and do. Again, the Church believes Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition both complete the entirety of Divine Revelation and one cannot be considered without the other.

“Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture, then, are bound closely together, and communicate one with the other. For both of them, flowing out from the same divine well-spring, come together in some fashion to form one thing, and move towards the same goal.”40 Each of them makes present and fruitful in the Church the mystery of Christ, who promised to remain with his own “always, to the close of the age. Sacred Scripture is the speech of God as it is put down in writing under the breath of the Holy Spirit. And [Holy] Tradition transmits in its entirety the Word of God which has been entrusted to the apostles by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit. It transmits it to the successors of the apostles so that, enlightened by the Spirit of truth, they may faithfully preserve, expound and spread it abroad by their preaching.” (CCC 80-81).

Other Resources:
1. Tradition and Scripture, Catholic Answers
2. The Complex Relationship Between Scripture and Tradition, Catholic Answers
3. Sacred Scripture Depends on Sacred Tradition, Catholic Answers
4. Does Scripture Bash Tradition?, Crossroads Initiative

Where can I learn more about sola scriptura?

If you really want to dive in deep into sola scriptura, check out this series of posts on Catholic Answers. There are plenty of posts to keep you busy for a while!

1. Why I’m Catholic: The Foundational Error of Sola Scriptura
2. Why I’m Catholic: Sola Scriptura Isn’t Historical, Part I
3. Why I’m Catholic: Sola Scriptura Isn’t Historical, Part II
4. Why I’m Catholic: Sola Scriptura Isn’t Historical, Part III
5. Why I’m Catholic: Sola Scriptura Isn’t Historical, Part IV
6. Why I’m Catholic: Sola Scriptura Isn’t Logical, Part I
7. Why I’m Catholic: Sola Scriptura Isn’t Logical, Part II
8. Why I’m Catholic: Sola Scriptura Isn’t Workable, Part I
9. Why I’m Catholic: Sola Scriptura Isn’t Workable, Part II
10. Why I’m Catholic: Sola Scriptura Isn’t Scriptural, Part I
11. Why I’m Catholic: Sola Scriptura Isn’t Scriptural, Part II
12. Why I’m Catholic: Sola Scriptura Isn’t Scriptural, Part III
13. Why I’m Catholic: Sola Scriptura Isn’t Scriptural, Part V

And here are a few more resources, should you be so inclined. Of course, all of them are from Catholic Answers, but I highly recommend reading through these if you choose to skip the “Why I’m Catholic” series!

1. A Quick Ten-Step Refutation of Sola Scriptura, Catholic Answers
2. Ten Deficiencies of Sola Scriptura as a Rule of Faith, Catholic Answers
3. The Protestant Achilles’ Heel, Catholic Answers

The Last Thing You Need to Know about Sacred Tradition

Ultimately, Sacred Tradition goes hand-in-hand with Sacred Scripture. It isn’t made up and it isn’t heretical – quite the contrary! Sacred Tradition is just as important as Scripture simply because not everything was written down in the Bible. Even the Gospel according to John says:

“Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of [his] disciples that are not written in this book. But these are written that you may [come to] believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through this belief you may have life in his name.”

JOHN 20:30-31, NABRE

I’d say that’s a pretty good case for Sacred Tradition within Sacred Scripture!


Hopefully, this has been a helpful guide for you in Sacred Tradition. Let me know if you have any questions or would like to see something in particular explored more in the comments!

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