One of the tricky subjects for a Catholic to talk to a Protestant about is the word “Tradition,” and the role it plays in the Catholic Church. Say anything about how we have Tradition, and you will turn off many a Protestant ear. The word itself, is a barrier to further discourse. This is true often- because, in many ways Catholics and Protestants are using different words when talking about the same or similar things. Though, there are definite and significant differences in the two understandings of Christianity, many times, even on the areas where we agree there is a language barrier. Tradition isn’t one of those areas where we agree, but it is an area where the language barrier is a hinderance to understanding.
Here is one way that helped me, at least in a limited sense, understand Catholic Tradition, and something that may perhaps be helpful when talking to others and attempting to overcome the language barrier in this area.
The fact is that everyone interprets scripture through a lens. You can’t read the Bible as a Christian and not get meaning out of it through interpretation. In fact… you can’t be a literate person and not read anything and not get meaning out of it through the interpretation of your understanding.
In this sense, everyone kind of has their own Tradition. Though Biblical interpretation isn’t the sum and whole of what Catholic Tradition encompasses, it is an important part of it. Tradition, in part, consists of the lens through which Catholics interpret Holy Scripture.
One of the main struggles Protestants have with Tradition is that Catholics place it on par with Scripture, instead of holding Scripture itself as the highest. The problem with that is, our interpretation of Scripture, Catholic or Protestant, is inseparable from Scripture, period. Because a Bible un-interpreted is a book on a shelf without meaning. One could say that interpretation is the way we construct meaning out of Scripture. The problem Protestants run into, is whose interpretation is correct? On any given Sunday at any Protestant church throughout America , a pastor might cite books by theologians as sources for his sermon. Well… what evidence do we have that those theologians are interpreting Scripture correctly? And it also happens all. the. time. that two, or tens, or thousands of Protestants could read the same exact passage of Scripture and come to completely different conclusions about what it means. Baptism, Communion, Genesis… again, whose interpretation is correct? By its very nature, Truth cannot contradict itself. It’s can’t be that Jesus meant Holy Communion to be both symbolic and his actual Body and Blood. He meant one of the two, but not both. And if the answer to that question is important, what did he actually mean, then the lens through which we interpret Scripture is also important.
Scripture requires interpretation, that meaning be drawn out of it. And due to the thousands of Protestant denominations (over 32,000, to be closer to precise), I reject personal interpretation as adequate.
Catholic Tradition has long stood the test of time, more than any other Christian group claims to have had interpretation at all (all the other denominations have 1500 less years to work with!). So I have no problem putting it on level with the written word of Scripture. It is the lens through which I view Scripture. And we all have a lens we put in the exact same spot by the necessity of interpretation.
And that’s also why, in short, I accept the teachings of Tradition that may exist, in a strict sense, “outside of Scripture.” I don’t believe that Truth is contained only within the words of the Bible. God inspired the Bible but I don’t believe that’s God’s last breathed word to humanity. The Bible itself declares Jesus to be the “Word made flesh.” Catholics believe we still have the Word made flesh Himself present and among us today in the Eucharist. He’s still the Word. And He’s still talking. Through His Church.
Walk into any Protestant church and at some point someone will have a Word from God to share with someone else about their life. Nearly all Christians believe God still speaks today in some form, and often to them personally. And if God is actually speaking things to people (if it is indeed God speaking), then what is being spoken is True. And Truth is Truth, whether it’s on the pages of the Bible or spoken by a believer. There is no way to put some Truth (the Bible) on a different level than other Truth (God’s extra-Biblical Word revealed to humanity.) If it’s from God, it’s Truth. And thus they are the same, as they stem from the same ultimate Truth, God Himself.
Catholic teachings corroborate with the Bible in the most logically sound and deeply comprehensive way of anything I’ve found to exist. I cannot pretend that God is not in it, because only Catholicism mirrors (best as any earthly thing can) the richness and vastness and deepness and intensity of our Creator to a level that feels like it is approaching appropriate. The Gospel is simple, but also amazingly complex. God is able to be understood by young children, but one could spend lifetimeS growing in that understanding (and Catholicism as a whole has!). God is personable, but also unfathomable.
And, in short, that is why, to this former Protestant, Tradition as a word and a belief has brought an increased richness to my faith and understanding of both the Bible and Christianity as a whole, and not detracted from it in the least.