Catholics, Please Stop Saying “Capital-T Tradition”

I have a problem with what people insist on calling “capital-T Tradition versus lowercase-T tradition.” It’s not as extensive as my problem with calling single life a vocation, but it’s among my pet peeves.

First of all, no one talks like that! No one ever uses the phrase “capital-T Tradition” unless they are attempting to explain the difference between the kinds of tradition in the Catholic Church.

Second, it’s confusing when people say “capital-T Tradition” because we don’t usually specify capitalization when we speak. If we do attempt to specify that kind of non-spoken language, we sound like Victor Borge doing “Phonetic Punctuation.”

Third, there are two kinds of Catholic tradition, so we might as well give them different names.

Sacred Tradition

One kind of tradition means “teachings and practices of the Church that are not explicitly Scriptural but still mandatory to believe or do.” I call that kind “sacred tradition” to help clarify.

  • Sacred tradition in practice: Genuflect toward the Blessed Sacrament. We do this when entering a room where the Blessed Sacrament is reserved or exposed, when leaving such a room, or passing by the tabernacle. It’s a sign of our faith. Not doing it is a sign of ignorance (the kind where you didn’t know Jesus was home or didn’t know that you’re supposed to genuflect, not the “you’re stupid” kind) or of disbelief.
  • Sacred tradition in belief: Mary remained a virgin her entire life. The Bible doesn’t say “Mary had no other children after Jesus,” but everyone understood and believed that from the beginning of Christianity. The “brothers of Jesus” mentioned in Scripture are stepbrothers, cousins, or just buddies. (Notice that Jesus doesn’t confirm that the men mentioned are his brothers. In fact, he specifically says that everyone is his brother, sister, and mother. I don’t hear anyone saying Jesus had more than one mother.)
Eucharistic adoration. Just don't call it "capital-T tradition."

See this; genuflect. Easy peasy.
(photo CC BY-NC-SA by the Office of Youth Ministry in the Archdiocese of Saint Louis)

Pious Tradition

The other kind of tradition, in the sense of “teachings and practices of the Church that have been around a long time” is what I call “pious tradition.” That is much clearer than “lowercase-T tradition.” It’s the kind of tradition you keep because it enriches the faith and culture, not because it’s set in stone, mandatory, and immutable.

  • Pious tradition in practice: Roman Catholic priests are unmarried. There are married Roman Catholic priests; they’re just the exception and not the rule. The rule could change, although I don’t think it will.
  • Pious tradition in belief: St Joseph was an old man, widowed and maybe with older children, when Jesus was born. You can believe that if it helps you grow in holiness. You can also believe something else about St. Joseph’s age, marriage history, and parenthood. In The World’s First Love, Venerable Fulton Sheen makes a solid case for St. Joseph’s having been a young, never-married, childless man when Jesus was born.

So what?

Changing the requirement of celibacy for Roman Catholic priests or believing St. Joseph was a young man doesn’t make you a heretic. (For the record, I support priestly celibacy, and I’m ambivalent about St. Joseph’s age and all that.) They might not be popular opinions, but you shouldn’t be run out of the Church for having them.

Not believing that the Eucharist is the True Presence of Jesus Christ or not supporting Mary’s perpetual virginity? That’s a different story. Pious tradition is open to debate. Sacred tradition is not.

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