Thursday, July 9, 2015

Newman on Catholic Tradition

"We hear it said," I then observed, "that they [the Catholics] go by Tradition; and we fancy in consequence that there are a certain definite number of statements ready framed and compiled, which they profess to have received from the Apostles. One may hear the question sometimes asked, for instance, where their professed Traditions are to be found, whether there is any collection of them, and whether they are printed and published. Now, though they would allow that the Traditions of the Church are, in fact, contained in the writings of her Doctors, still this question proceeds on somewhat of a misconception of their real theory, which seems to be as follows:—By tradition they mean the whole system of faith and ordinances, which they have received from the generation before them, and that generation again from the generation before itself. And in this sense undoubtedly we all go by Tradition in matters of this world. Where is the corporation, society, or fraternity of any kind, but has certain received rules and understood practices, which are nowhere put down in writing? How often do we hear it said, that this or that person has 'acted unusually;' that so and so 'was never done before;' that it is 'against rule,' and the like; and then, perhaps, to avoid the inconvenience of such irregularity in future, what was before a tacit engagement is turned into a formal and explicit order or principle. The need of a regulation must be discovered before it is supplied; and the virtual transgression of it goes before its imposition. At this very time, great part of the law of the land is administered under the sanction of such a Tradition: it is not contained in any formal or authoritative code, it depends on custom or precedent. There is no explicit written law, for instance, simply declaring murder to be a capital offence, unless, indeed, we have recourse to the divine command in the ninth chapter of the book of Genesis. Murderers are hanged by custom. Such as this is the Tradition of the Church; Tradition is uniform custom. It is silent, but it lives. It is silent like the rapids of a river, before the rocks intercept it. It is the Church's ... habit of opinion and feeling, which she reflects upon, masters and expresses, according to the emergency. We see, then, the mistake of asking for a complete collection of the Roman traditions; as well might we ask for a collection of a man's tastes and opinions on a given subject. Tradition in its fulness is necessarily unwritten; it is the mode in which a society has felt or acted, during a certain period, and it cannot be circumscribed, any more than a man's countenance and manner can be conveyed to strangers in any set of propositions."

-Lectures on the Present Position of Catholics in England (but quoting from a previous work by Newman)

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