How did the Catholic Church choose which Sacred Tradition is infallible when there are conflicting traditions, such as the Filioque controversy, especially considering that both the Catholic and Orthodox Churches have valid apostolic succession according to the Catholic Church?


2 Answers 2


How did the Catholic Church choose which Sacred Tradition is infallible?

Sacred Tradition stems from Apostolic origin and thus all Sacred Traditions are infallible. That is why the term Sacred Tradition is always capitalized (T) in order to distinguish them from church traditions not capitalized (t). These traditions developed over time and are simply piously followed or held to be true.

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. - What is Sacred Tradition

Let us remember that not everything is written in the Sacred Scriptures. This is evident by the writings of both St. Paul and St. John:

15 So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter.

16 May our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and by his grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope, 17 encourage your hearts and strengthen you in every good deed and word. - 2 Thessalonians 2:15-17

29 Jesus saith to him: Because thou hast seen me, Thomas, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and have believed. 30 Many other signs also did Jesus in the sight of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31 But these are written, that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God: and that believing, you may have life in his name. - John 20: 29-31

23 This saying therefore went abroad among the brethren, that that disciple should not die. And Jesus did not say to him: He should not die; but, So I will have him to remain till I come, what is it to thee? 24 This is that disciple who giveth testimony of these things, and hath written these things; and we know that his testimony is true. 25 But there are also many other things which Jesus did; which, if they were written every one, the world itself, I think, would not be able to contain the books that should be written. - John 21: 23-25

The New Testament, while being the primary source for all that God revealed in Christ, is itself a product of Tradition. Tradition is a living and active process which the Church experiences from one age to the next while meditating on the Word of God and the events of salvation history. The Holy Spirit guides the Church in this process and guarantees that Tradition will be an authentic expression of God’s Word for each generation. After the writing of the New Testament, subsequent generations could reflect not only on Jesus’ teaching but also on that privileged experience of first generation Christians who knew Jesus when he walked the earth.

The Church in each generation, through prayer, study, and contemplation, reflects on God’s Word in Scripture and gives new interpretation to it while never altering the Revelation it contains. In every generation, she expresses anew the Word of God against an ever changing landscape of human society and culture. The diversity of devotions and styles of worship is beautiful and expresses the Church’s catholicity or universality. But these various local traditions are not what we mean when we speak of Tradition. As times change and in light of Tradition, these religious customs and practices may be changed or discarded. Sacred Tradition does not change. It is expressed differently from one age to the next but is always consistent with the truth of God’s Revelation.

Examples of some Sacred Traditions are as follows:

  • Peter is the Head of the Church.

  • Mary retained her virginity before, during and after the birth of her Son, Our Lord Jesus Christ.

  • Mary was born without Original Sin.

  • Mary was assumed into heaven body and soul.

  • Terms such as “Trinity” are not in Scripture but come from Sacred Tradition. Even Protestants use this term in their theology.

A question often asked has to do with the relationship between Sacred Tradition and Scripture.

The New Testament itself sheds light on this relationship in the Second Letter to the Thessalonians where the author writes: "This passage makes it clear that there were important traditions passed on by word and not only by letter. As the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council noted, "It is not from Sacred Scripture alone that the Church draws her certainty about everything which has been revealed. Therefore, both Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture are to be accepted and reverenced with the same sense of devotion. Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture form one sacred deposit of the word of God, which is committed to the Church." So we see that we need both Scripture and Sacred Tradition to understand God's life among us properly.

Most of the beliefs and practices found in Sacred Tradition have their basis in Scripture, but some do not. Catholics' belief that Mary was assumed into heaven is an example of a Sacred Tradition that has no reference in Scripture. The Assumption of Mary was nonetheless an important belief in the early Church and that is why it has been passed on through the generations as part of Sacred Tradition.

A few examples of beliefs and practices which do have their basis in Scripture would include the following:

  • The Apostles' Creed, an early summary of important Christian beliefs.

  • The role of bishops, priests, and the Pope in Christian ministry.

  • The authority of the Pope - the belief that the Pope cannot teach falsely when he speaks officially as head of the Church on matters of faith and morals.

  • Our understanding of the Sacraments and their place in Christian life.

Although Scripture touches on these matters, it is through Sacred Tradition that we fully understand their meaning and significance to the Church.

Finally, we must note that there are many traditions in the Catholic Church which do not belong to Sacred Tradition. These traditions, with a small "t" if you will, include such things as special prayers and devotions and stories concerning certain Saints. These traditions may help people grow closer to God, but they are not as important as Sacred Tradition, with a capital "T". Sacred Tradition, together with Scripture, includes those beliefs and practices that are most important to the Church because they have been revealed by God and because they have been affirmed by the teaching authority of the Catholic Church. That is why Sacred Tradition can help us to live a better Christian life.For a detailed study please refer to "Catechism of the Catholic Church" pages 74-84. - What is sacred tradition, and why is it important?

  • Is the belief that Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture are to be accepted and reverenced with the same sense of devotion itself a Sacred Tradition? Commented Nov 20, 2023 at 12:41

The answer turns on one's definition of apostolic succession (AS).

If one thinks AS merely means a "blood line" of bishops back to an apostle, then it doesn't matter what one teaches. Contradictions, like the filioque, don't matter. It is all valid.

If one believes AS means "teach the same as apostles", then your only source is the "it is written".

So, which Sacred Tradition is correct? All of them.

TO ADD. For the Catholic Church, Sacred Tradition is assumed on par with Sacred Scripture. It as a whole is the Sacred deposit of the faith.

The apostles entrusted the "Sacred deposit" of the faith (the depositum fidei),45 contained in Sacred Scripture and Tradition, to the whole of the Church. ... CCC 84

How do they know what is Sacred Tradition?

"The task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition, has been entrusted to the living teaching office of the Church alone. Its authority in this matter is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ."47 This means that the task of interpretation has been entrusted to the bishops in communion with the successor of Peter, the Bishop of Rome. CCC 85

Thus, we find that Apostolic Succession is not "teach the same", "teach the Sacred deposit of faith", but rather that unbroken line from bishop to apostle that has to do with sacerdotalism. This explains its Anglican rejection of communion.

In short, how did the Catholic Church choose which Sacred Tradition, like "Peter is the head of the Church" is infallible? It proposes it.

When the Church through its supreme Magisterium proposes a doctrine "for belief as being divinely revealed,"419 and as the teaching of Christ, the definitions "must be adhered to with the obedience of faith." CCC 891

  • 1
    This answer would be improved if a) it included sources to back-up its claims, b) it actually identified which variants of Catholicism or Orthodoxy except the claim that Sacred Tradition is rooted in apostolic succession to the degree that "it doesn't matter what one teaches" (implying that no bishop has ever been accused of heresy) and c) it didn't imply that a Catholic doctrine was a contradiction (since that would both be at odds with Catholic doctrine and contradict the idea of Sacred Tradition)
    – eques
    Commented Nov 19, 2023 at 20:05
  • @eques hope the addition helped. If not, let me know.
    – SLM
    Commented Nov 19, 2023 at 22:31
  • I don't follow your argument even after the changes. You seem to talk more about apostolic succession than Sacred Tradition, when Sacred Tradition is the focus of the question and Apostolic succession is only incidentally related.
    – eques
    Commented Nov 21, 2023 at 15:54

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