Rorate Caeli

Sermon for the 11th Sunday After Pentecost: The Tradition of the Catholic Church

Fr. Richard G. Cipolla 

Brethren, I make known unto you the Gospel which I preached to you, which also you have received and wherein you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast after what manner I preached unto you, unless you have believed in vain. For I delivered unto you first of all, which I also received. (I Corinthians 15: 1-3)


To receive and to pass on. That is the essence of what the Catholic Church means by Tradition with a capital T. We are not a people of the Book, like Islam, the basis of which faith is entirely the Koran.  And there are Protestant Christians who are also people of the Book, but their book is the Bible.  And for them the whole faith is contained in the Bible and the purpose of study is to constantly read and examine and analyze the text of the Bible.  That this foundation is shaky should be obvious:  for the original languages of the Bible are Hebrew and Greek, and therefore every translation is subject to that fundamental dictum that translation always involves in a sense a betrayal, for every translation bears the marks and prejudices of particular people and of a particular culture.  There is no total objectivity in translation and in a faith like Christianity that insists that the ultimate truth is found in the person of Jesus Christ whose words are recorded in the gospels this problem is acute.  But we Catholics have always believed from the very beginning that what has been handed down, the Tradition, is not merely what is recorded faithfully in the Bible, especially in the New Testament, but also includes the oral tradition handed down from Jesus to the Apostles and to the Church.  

But it goes deeper than this. For the Catholic, the Tradition is a living entity.  It grows and develops under the power and protection of the Holy Spirit.  If this were not true, then the Church could never confront in a real and faithful way the new challenges of every age.  And it is the magisterium of the Church, the Pope and the bishops, who are entrusted with the authentic passing down of the Tradition. But this is not magic.  It is not the case that the bishops and the Pope can be personally inspired apart from the authentic Tradition and declare things that claim to be true that are obviously in contradiction with what has been handed down organically for two thousand years.  In accordance with the narrow definition of papal infallibility as defined by the First Vatican Council, the Pope can define only what has been believed and is believed by the Church.  He can never define anything as true and to be believed that does not have its roots and basis in the Tradition of the Church that always precedes him.  


The development of doctrine always takes place in a particular time and place, a particular culture.  The doctrine of the full humanity and divinity of Christ and the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, were debated and developed in a particular time in history.  And these truths were defined at a particular time and place and yet transcended that particular time and place, because the unfolding of Truth is not ultimately in the power of man—although the exercise of man’s intellect, even clouded by sin, can work towards the truth.  


Now we live in a time and place in which those who call themselves Catholic openly support those who declaim moral positions that are antithetical to the teaching of the Catholic Church.  We cannot speak to those in Europe who have deliberately turned their backs on the very essence of their culture, which essence is Christianity.  We can only speak to our own situation in this country.  That both situations are related there is no doubt.  But we can only speak about the peculiar situation that is American culture.  From the beginning there were those bishops in this country who saw that to be Catholic in this country is a different thing than to be Catholic in Europe. And they were right, for Americans did not carry the baggage of a long history in which the Catholic Church played a central role and often ambiguous role.  But these bishops often confused what Americans understood as freedom and liberty with what the Church understands as freedom—which freedom is defined by the Cross of Jesus Christ.  They were happy that the American government tolerated Catholicism and that, despite some real outbreaks of anti-Catholicism in this country, Americans are a tolerant people--as long as you keep your religion to yourself and do not try to claim moral truths that are absolute. 


 I have been blessed in my priesthood to be able several times to be one of the Sacred Ministers at a Solemn Mass at the shrine church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in East Harlem.  That parish was the home of the Italian immigrants who came to this country at the beginning of the 20th century to escape the poverty of southern Italy.  The archbishop of New York at that time was furious that these people on their patronal festival that meant so much to them brought their religion into the streets and carried the statue of Our Lady of Mt Carmel in procession and had a big festa designed to remind them of what they left in Italy and to show the world their devotion to the Mother of God.  The archbishop was furious, because he had made his peace with the radical individualism of an America that relegated the Christian faith to the closed doors of church and home.  


But you see, that view has triumphed in this country in so many ways, where  Catholicism has been tamed, from being a smelly, threatening and majestic  lion, to being one more teddy bear of denominations.  Baptist, Episcopalian, Pentecostal, Catholic.  Just different flavors of something called Christian.  But Catholic means universal. The Catholic Church with its historical roots in the city of Rome is that Church founded by Jesus Christ that preaches and teaches one Lord, one faith, one baptism, a Church that knows no man- made boundaries, a Church that embraces every man and woman from every race throughout the world. 


St. Paul’s words:  Brethren, I make known unto you the Gospel which I preached to you, which also you have received and wherein you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast after what manner I preached unto you, unless you have believed in vain. For I delivered unto you first of all, which I also received.


We must love our bishops, the successors to the Apostles, those ordained to pass on the Tradition of the Church in a living way. We must pray for their manhood, that they have the courage and insight to fight against those elements of our culture that deny in the name of personal freedom the moral truths that come from God .  We Catholics know only one freedom that is absolute:  the freedom bought for us by our Lord Jesus Christ on the Cross.