Theology by the Slice: Jesus fighting the Pharisees
On November 5, the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology Newman Center hosted an event titled, “Theology by the Slice.” Students were able to ask a panel questions about the teachings and traditions of the Catholic faith. The following is one of the questions. The panel included Bishop Peter Munich; Father Mark McCormick, Newman Center chaplain; Sister Christine Hernandez, SCTJM, chancellor; Sister Rachel Gosda, SCTJM, director of Faith Formation; Sr. Maria Belen Musgrove, SCTJM, religion teacher, RCCSS; Seminarian Robert Kinyon; and Michael Pauley, director of the South Dakota Catholic Conference.
As a Protestant, it seems Catholics put tradition on a higher pedestal than scripture. Isn’t that what Jesus was constantly fighting against with the Pharisees?
Bishop Peter Muhich: That’s a very good question. No, he wasn’t fighting about that. With the Pharisees, he was fighting about their smaller traditions. When the Catholic Church says tradition, it means the handing on of the faith. That’s what the Latin word means. Jesus didn’t write anything down so he didn’t leave a written record of teaching. He left an oral record though. He preached, and he did things. He performed miracles and of course, the most important thing he did was to go to the cross for our sins and to rise from the dead. He did all of those things without writing it down, and entrusted the preaching of his deeds and words to his disciples, especially the apostles.
The church existed without a set of Scriptures, including the New Testament, for quite a while before things were written down when the eyewitnesses were dying out. Then they put down in writing the things that they had been preaching orally since Jesus sent them out to make disciples of all their nations.
Tradition is the handing on of the faith and that oral period at the very beginning shows you that that Scripture is born out of tradition in the Catholic sense. There was a lot of prayer and discussion about which works would form what we call the Canon of the New Testament, and it was under the influence of the Holy Spirit that the bishops of the church formally met together to find the Canon of the New Testament. They did the same for the Old Testament.
Robert Kinyon: So the bishop spoke to the distinction between big “T” traditions and small “t” traditions. An example of a small “t” tradition would be me wearing this collar, which is kind of ironic because I’m not even a priest. I’m just confusing people. We have some small “t” traditions but they don’t really speak to the essence of the Gospel. Going back to what a bishop said; there was a long period of time, decades where we didn’t have anything recorded. From those practices, which followed the command of Jesus, we formed the Scriptures. Scripture itself didn’t really help us with that process, but the traditional practice did. I will say even the practice of following scripture is a tradition. Even Protestants have traditions because they follow Scripture and that’s a traditional practice.
To teach is a tradition. To baptize is a tradition. Furthermore, Scripture over time, is that canon as or that body of text was developed, which came to tell us to do stuff that helps determine our traditions. There’s a reciprocal relationship, a give and a take, between tradition and Scripture as time goes on. Some of those things would be what we call the sacraments — the celebration of certain rights, like baptism, or the Mass or holy Communion.
Michael Pauley: There’s not a tension here between tradition and Scripture. Looking at the tradition of the church is what’s going to help you interpret Scripture correctly, because it is just ultimately examples of sola scriptura. Looking at Scripture alone as the sole source of revelation to the exclusion of anything else has led commercially to a lot of error. I even see this to some extent in my public policy work. I’ll have somebody come up to me and say, “well, you Catholics are pro-life but show me in the Bible where it says abortion.”
Well of course you know you’re not going to find that word in the Bible, but there’s a document from the very early church that dates back to about 140 AD. We’re talking about a document that dates back to the earliest years of the church. In that document you do find abortion mentioned and it’s clearly condemned by the Christian community. So that’s an example of looking to history, looking to tradition to say what were the earliest Christians thinking and doing about these issues. If you look at it that way I think it’s a safeguard to make sure you interpret Scripture in an authentic way.
Sister Rachel Gosda, SCTJM: I think it’s Saint John’s Gospel that says, if everything would have been written down that Jesus said, and did, I don’t think the whole world contains the books that would be written. We experience that in a very small way in the realities of our life — the way that we honor sister’s anniversary, the way that we make our bed, the way and these are kind of more small traditions that the bishop and Robert were speaking to. There’s no way that we could write down every single tiny detail of how a servant lives. You learn it by living it. That’s who we are. Just because it’s not written in the manual of life it doesn’t mean it’s not who we are and what we do.
Father Mark McCormick: Every time I preach, I first read the word of God. I do a Lexio Divina for all the scripture passages and I pray fervently to the power of the Holy Spirit to move my heart. Often the Holy Spirit will give me a word or phrase that I can take, and I begin to do study on it and begin to read commentaries on it. One of my favorite Bibles is the Didache Bible. It’s a dedicated Bible to the official teaching of the church, and so when I preach, it’s marked preaching in light of the tradition of the church. I love the Didache Bible because it helps me to read Scripture in light of the tradition of the teaching of the church. I’m just not preaching what Father Mark thinks about the scripture. Hopefully, my preaching is first inspired by the Holy Spirit with my relationship with Christ.