Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Why Doesn’t Tradition Run Out?

This is painful to admit, but anyway— There is an old Sufi story involving the Mullah Nasrudin that still influences how I think about Catholic tradition. I first heard the story about 40 years ago, while chasing Eastern spiritual notions. Here it is.

A friend brings the Mullah a duck. They cook and eat it. Some time later a friend of the friend shows up and Mullah feeds him too. Then another day a man identifying himself as a friend of the friend of the friend comes looking for a meal. When finally a friend of the friend of the friend of the friend shows up, Mullah serves him a thin watery soup. The guest asks what sort of soup it is, and Mullah says, “That is the soup of the soup of the soup of the soup of the duck.”

The story always seemed wise to me. Like other tales and parables, it can be interpreted several ways. On one level, it seemed to speak about how any teaching (food for the soul) thins out over time, even becomes a travesty of itself—like the old game of telephone, where you whisper a phrase around a circle, and “true tradition” becomes “shoot your fishes.”

The question is, why isn’t Catholic tradition like that? Why isn’t the message garbled? After 2,000 years why haven’t so many foreign thoughts been added to the recipe that we don’t have the soup of the soup of the soup of the soup?

The answer, like so many Catholic ones, is in the Catechism (CCC).

Paragraph 84 reads, “The apostles entrusted the ‘Sacred deposit’ of the faith (the depositum fidei), contained in Sacred Scripture and Tradition, to the whole of the Church. ‘By adhering to [this heritage] the entire holy people, united to its pastors, remains always faithful to the teaching of the apostles, to the brotherhood, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. So, in maintaining, practising and professing the faith that has been handed on, there should be a remarkable harmony between the bishops and the faithful” (source Dei Verbum, article 10).

But how does “the entire holy people” remain “faithful” without changing the deposit of faith? The CCC says that there must be a “harmony between the bishops and the faithful”—in other words, that the sensus fidelium, as it is known, requires us, the supposedly faithful, to adhere to the teaching of the Magisterium of the Church.

But there is more.

According to paragraph 94, the Church’s understanding of its heritage of faith not only doesn’t thin out, it grows! This is in part because the Church’s understanding of divine revelation has three supports, like the three legs of a stool:

1. “the contemplation and study of believers who ponder these things in their hearts,” particularly those who engage in “theological research [which] deepens knowledge of revealed truth”;
2. “the intimate sense of spiritual realities which [believers] experience,” because for one truly engaged in a life of faith and not seeking to criticize the Church’s teaching from outside, “sacred Scriptures grow with the one who reads them”; and
3. “the preaching of those who have received, along with their right of succession in the episcopate, the sure charism of truth.”

Together, theologians, the faithful, and the clergy (led by the bishops) act together to assure that we are not sipping the soup of the soup.

But the Catechism adds one more ingredient—the indispensable one—to this arch-tasty soup: “the assistance of the Holy Spirit.” It is an article of faith for every Catholic that the continuity of Tradition is assured because Jesus Christ promised that it would be, “until the end of time.”

* * *

This post continues a series on the CCC, following the guidance of the official “handbook” known as the Compendium of the CCC. Today’s question is #15— 

Question: To whom is the deposit of faith entrusted?

Answer: The Apostles entrusted the deposit of faith to the whole of the Church. Thanks to its supernatural sense of faith the people of God as a whole, assisted by the Holy Spirit and guided by the Magisterium of the Church, never ceases to welcome, to penetrate more deeply and to live more fully from the gift of divine revelation.

The Compendium refers the reader to these paragraphs in the CCC—84, 91, 94, and 99—which I have tried to summarize in this post.

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