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Traditional or Habitual?

What is a tradition? A standard definition would refer to the customs and usages of a particular group that are handed down from generation to generation. In other words, tradition relates to something that is long term and not limited to a small period of history. In fact, we could go so far as to say, tradition is not fully a reality until the people who started it are all dead. It is sort of like the definition of "classical": something around long enough to have been forgotten.

Thus, we would not normally say that an individual has a "tradition". No, for a single person we would say he has a "habit". It may be a very ingrained habit, but it does not become a "tradition" until it has been around longer than he has and has been consistently passed down to subsequent generations no matter how much he or anyone else likes it.

Most Catholics have heard G.K. Chesterton's comment on what tradition is:

Tradition means giving a vote to most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father.

Hence, when we consider the history of the Church, we have to maintain the proper understanding of tradition itself if we are going to understand properly those absolute Traditions that we have been given. With the fact that the Church is about 2000 years old, it does not seem possible to refer to anything that is only 50 years old as a "tradition" (50 of 2000 is only 2.5 percent!). Something that has only been going on in the Church for 50 years is more properly called a "habit". It may be a good habit or a bad habit, but is not proper to refer to it as a "tradition".

For someone to seek to guard a 50 year old habit and reject a centuries old tradition is hard to reconcile with the Catholic understanding of tradition. We do not reject the solid and firm foundations of the past in order to replace them with unstable inventions of the present; that is the way the Protestants do it (trust me, I have been there). In the past, the Church was very slow to accept anything new. She would often wait around for a few generations, or even a few centuries, before she considered something worth her time. "If it is new it is not true, if it is true it is not new."

Thus, those of us who wish to hold to tradition in the Church (i.e. those seeking consistency with the Catholic faith of our fathers), must be very slow to accept anything that was not around, or had no true source, merely 50 or 60 years ago. Regardless of how many people (even those with authority) approve of it, we must be slow and cautious in responding to those things. Furthermore, we should never treat those things as "this is the way it is, and no one can ever question it"; that is the heart of arrogance and will always lead us to error.


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