“Ask a Priest: What do Catholics base their beliefs on?”

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Q: I’m taking a comparative religion course and am unsure of the answer of one of my questions. I was hoping you could help. The question is: “Aside from Scripture, on what else do Roman Catholics base their beliefs?” Thank you! -T.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: When we talk about Catholic “beliefs” we are referring to divine Revelation, that is, what God has revealed for our salvation. The height of Revelation is Jesus Christ, the Son of God who took on human nature. What Christ taught us was his Gospel.

Here, “Gospel” means the broad expanse of what God revealed in Christ; it doesn’t just mean the four canonical Gospels of the New Testament.

Revelation is handed down to us by Sacred Scripture (the Bible) and Sacred Tradition (with a capital T — not to be confused with mere traditions or customs). The Second Vatican Council’s document on Revelation, Dei Verbum, says in No. 10: “Sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture form one sacred deposit of the word of God, committed to the Church.”

For most people it’s easy to understand Scripture as the word of God, even if some non-Catholic denominations don’t accept all the books of the Old Testament that the Church accepts.

What is harder to get a handle on is Tradition. Tradition is the oral transmission of Revelation. It complements Scripture.

Permit me to quote at length from Dei Verbum, No. 9: “[T]here exists a close connection and communication between sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture. For both of them, flowing from the same divine wellspring, in a certain way merge into a unity and tend toward the same end. For Sacred Scripture is the word of God inasmuch as it is consigned to writing under the inspiration of the divine Spirit, while sacred tradition takes the word of God entrusted by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit to the Apostles, and hands it on to their successors in its full purity, so that led by the light of the Spirit of truth, they may in proclaiming it preserve this word of God faithfully, explain it, and make it more widely known. Consequently it is not from Sacred Scripture alone that the Church draws her certainty about everything which has been revealed. Therefore both sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture are to be accepted and venerated with the same sense of loyalty and reverence.”

The Catechism in No. 78 explains: “Through Tradition, ‘the Church, in her doctrine, life and worship, perpetuates and transmits to every generation all that she herself is, all that she believes.’ ‘The sayings of the holy Fathers are a witness to the life-giving presence of this Tradition, showing how its riches are poured out in the practice and life of the Church, in her belief and her prayer.'”

One could think of Tradition as the living memory of the Church. The Church under the guidance of the Holy Spirit remembers what Christ taught. “The Advocate, the holy Spirit that the Father will send in my name — he will teach you everything and remind you of all that [I] told you” (John 14:26).

Why do we need to remember what Christ taught — isn’t it already in Scripture? In fact, Scripture itself gives an answer: “There are also many other things that Jesus did, but if these were to be described individually, I do not think the whole world would contain the books that would be written” (John 21:25). So Scripture didn’t record everything Jesus said and did. Were those “other things that Jesus did” lost and forgotten? No. They are, so to speak, in the memory banks of the Church. This is the stuff of Tradition.

Pope Francis, in a speech April 12, 2013, to the Pontifical Biblical Commission, said, “The Word of God therefore precedes and exceeds the Bible.” He could have also said that Tradition precedes and exceeds the Bible.

Why do I say that? Because we wouldn’t even have the Bible without Tradition. Think of St. Peter on Pentecost when he preached to the crowds and saw thousands of people baptized that day (Acts 2). What did Peter use to teach the crowds? The New Testament? No — the New Testament as we know it wouldn’t be compiled until years in the future. Peter instead relied on Tradition — the oral transmission of the Gospel message, what he learned from Christ.

Scripture needed the help of Tradition in order to be assembled. Look at the list of books in the Bible. Where did that list come from? It came from Tradition. How do we interpret the Bible? We rely on Tradition.

But where can we find the contents of Tradition? This is a complicated matter. Elements of Tradition are diffused. Elements of it can be found in the writings of the Church Fathers, in the liturgy, in the magisterial teachings of the Church (especially the popes and the Church councils). Guiding the whole process is the Holy Spirit.

All this might sound complex, and it is. But it all holds together. We couldn’t really understand Scripture without Tradition, and Tradition would likely dissipate without the anchor of Scripture.

I hope this helps you understand something of the bases of the Catholic faith. God bless.

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