What is the difference between a Catholic custom and a Catholic tradition?

I have noticed a trend in recent years to call Catholic customs a Catholic tradition (with a small t).

Much confusion is out there in this domain. Tradition with a capital T is less confusing for most with what a tradition with a miniscule t actually is.

The confusion I am seeing lately is confusing Catholic traditions with Catholic customs and Catholic devotions.

There is a French author out there that really explained this quite well and stated that a Catholic custom could not be considered a Catholic tradition (local) if it has not been around for less than 100 years. Unfortunately, I can not recall the source.

Any clarification would be greatly appreciated.

I imagine some local customs are now considered true local traditions.

2 Answers 2


What is the difference between a Catholic custom and a Catholic tradition?

There are Catholic Traditions and there are Catholic traditions. Equally there are Catholic Customs and there are Catholic customs.

I will try to explain!

Let us start with Sacred Tradition.

What is Sacred Tradition and how does this differ from other Church traditions?

Catholic maintain that 2 Thessalonians 2:15, upholds this stance or appeal to Sacred Tradition: "Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle."

The word tradition is taken from the Latin trado, tradere, meaning "to hand over, to deliver, to bequeath". According to Catholic theology, the Apostle St. Paul exhorted the faithful to "stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by our letter." The Pauline Epistles form part of Sacred Scripture; what he passed on by "word of mouth" is part of sacred tradition, handed down from the apostles. Both are the inspired word of God; the latter helps to inform understanding of the former. Sacred tradition can never be in conflict with sacred scripture.

There are differences between Sacred Tradition and other Catholic traditions.

At times, the early Tradition before the written New Testament is called “Apostolic Tradition”.

To begin, it is important to note that Sacred Tradition is not the same as what we commonly understand by the word "tradition." We need to distinguish between the terms "tradition" spelled with a lower case "t" and Tradition" spelled with a capital "T." When we spell the word tradition with a lower case letter, we are referring to those things that are more often referred to as "traditions" and have a meaning closer to the word "practices” which are not part of Divine Revelation itself, but are pious customs that have arisen later in the history of the Church (CCC 2651). Examples of traditions include praying the Rosary or the Divine Mercy Chaplet, devotions to favorite saints, making the sign of the cross and the like.

When Tradition is capitalized in this context, it refers to Sacred Tradition. The word tradition comes from the Latin word tradere which means "to hand on." Sacred Tradition is the Scripture as it is lived out in the Church. It is nevertheless the Word of God.

Specifically, it is the Word of God that the prophets and the Apostles received through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. This message which they received was "handed on" to the Christian world by the Church under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

The concept of Tradition has been a difficult, confusing and divisive one ever since the Protestant Reformation. For this reason, it is helpful to break down the concept piecemeal. First, tradition is a “what”—the content of the gospel proclamation given first by Jesus Christ and subsequently by the apostles, in terms of their oral preaching and teaching (2 Thess 2:15; Matt 28:19-20) and in terms of their writing (CCC 75-76). Sometimes the early Tradition before the written New Testament is called “Apostolic Tradition” (CCC 83). Those who wrote about the Christ event in the New Testament did so under the special inspiration of the Holy Spirit, "the Spirit of Truth," who is the sacred Author of the Scripture. These inspired writings came into existence within a definite Tradition, a living context of faith. Some elements of Tradition were based in the sayings and deeds of Jesus Christ, especially his death and resurrection. Other elements were not revealed directly by Jesus, but rather at the prompting of the Holy Spirit which he sent:

"I have yet many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth; for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. (John 16:12-15)

You may wish to see the Catholic Encyclopedia has to say on Custom (in Canon Law).

Now let us see what constitutes an ecclesiastical custom from a pious or local custom within the Catholic Church.

Here follows a definition what an ecclesiastical custom is:

A long-standing practice that takes on the force of law. No custom is ever valid that contradicts a divine law, whether natural or positive, nor does a custom abrogate ecclesiastical law unless it is reasonable and has been legitimately in practice over a period of forty full years. Where the ecclesiastical law explicitly forbids contrary customs, the latter can be valid only if they are reasonable and in legitimate existence for at least a century or from time immemorial.

Thus traditional Catholic ecclesiastical customs are viewed as such only after 100 years.

However pious Catholic customs often are at the local level and are more at a pious devotional level.

These may take form of historical customs surrounding Catholic living, but are not considered an ecclesiastical custom at all. They simply remain a pious Catholic custom, often at the level of a local church or country.

Here follows some local pious Catholic customs that are not of a ecclesiastical level:

  • In Oaxaca, Oaxaca, Mexico, a celebration of the Samaritan woman takes place on the fourth Friday of Lent. The pious custom of the day involves churches, schools, and businesses giving away fruit drinks to passers-by, in honour of St. Photina of Samaria! See: La Samaritana 2011 en Oaxaca

  • Behold a St. Lucy Day custom: St. Lucy is the patron saint of the city of Syracuse (Sicily). On 13 December a silver statue of St. Lucy containing her relics is paraded through the streets before returning to the Cathedral of Syracuse. Sicilians recall a story that holds that a famine ended on her feast day when ships loaded with grain entered the harbor. Here, it is traditional to eat whole grains instead of bread on 13 December. This usually takes the form of cuccìa, a dish of boiled wheat berries often mixed with ricotta and honey, or sometimes served as a savory soup with beans.

The following may be of interest to some:

In the end many so called pious traditions are simply pious customs.


Both customs and traditions are made of habits that have been there for sometime. For instance, it is a Catholic custom to say the Blessing before a meal and the Thanksgiving after it. It can hardly be said to be a tradition, in that all Catholics do not follow it, and no one makes it mandatory. On the other hand, usage of refined wheat flour in the preparation of host to be used in Holy Mass is a tradition that is followed by Catholics across the world - even in places where wheat is generally not consumed. This tradition follows from the wheat bread Jesus is believed to have used in the Last Supper. But then, there are individuals who are allergic to gluten, for whom special dispensation is given. So, if a church allows preparation of hosts with say, rice flour , for the gluten- allergic individuals for a designated period, that becomes a custom . (By the way, most Catholic churches of America outsource the host from Cavanagh Altar Bread, as a matter of 70 year-old 'custom', on account of practical difficulties in carrying on with the age-old 'tradition' of having the hosts made by the monasteries and convents associated with the individual church). As for the question on how many years it takes for a custom to metamorphose into tradition , it is as difficult to answer as categorically saying that a person ' gets old ' when he reaches such and such age . For instance, the Luminous Mysteries of the Rosary introduced by Pope John Paul II, are recited as a part of custom by many Catholics. But it is difficult to say when those Mysteries will be uniformly accepted and said by the entire Catholic Church , thereby raising the addition as a part of tradition.

  • If American churches keep outsourcing Cavanagh Altar Bread for host in Holy Mass for 30 more years, the practice will still not be called a tradition. Will it be ? Oct 2, 2023 at 2:22

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