But the content of the tradition that Jesus taught was new, and inevitably there was conflict. He came up against the rabbinical traditions in their casuistic interpretations of the Law. He who brought the good news of deliverance from the Law by faith and love condemned and rejected these traditions as being altogether to human and tending to vitiate and replace the commandments of God. Jesus does not condemn the principle of tradition; he condemns the very grave abuse which allows a tradition of human origin to oust one which God himself had delivered and ordered to be transmitted.
That is why we do not find the word “tradition” used by Jesus himself except as the object of an unfavourable judgment. But at the same time the context of his remarks is clearly defined (cf. Mt 15.1-9; Mk 7.1-13). Jesus takes the opportunity, when the Pharisees and some of the scribes are reproaching his disciples for not observing certain regulations concerning ritual purity, to confront them on the whole basis of their attitude: they were enervating the genuine Law of God, which is geared to love, by purely human interpretations to which they were attributing absolute value. But the time had come for the Son of Man, who was also the Son of God, to replace the magisterium of the scribes and the masters of the Law with another power of binding and loosing, based on the messianic justice, whose working basis was faith (pgs. 7-8).
Yves Congar notes that the context is clearly defined. Not only the context, but also the extent of the condemnation.
What is Jesus condemning here?
- 6 He responded, “Well did Isaiah prophesy about you hypocrites, as it is written: ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me;7 In vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines human precepts.’ 8 You disregard God’s commandment but cling to human tradition.” 9 He went on to say, “How well you have set aside the commandment of God in order to uphold your tradition!
Quite clearly Jesus condemns a (1) human tradition which (2) is taught as if it were divinely revealed which (3) contradicts divine revelation and (4) is taken in such a way so as to oppose the central principle of divine revelation (genuine love).
I’m not sure whether I should number (3) and (4) together, for it is apparent that Jesus regards some contradictions to the letter of the law to be only apparent when one considers the deeper harmony with the spirit of the law. For instance, on the issue of Sabbath rest. (3) and (4) may need to be merged into one principle for Jesus is condemning not a merely factual contradiction of divine revelation but a performative contradiction of the divine law on the order of love.
One who is moderately familiar with Catholic doctrine and theology will see quickly that these charges do not stick to Catholics. First, Catholics present sacred Tradition as revelation; As such, it is divine tradition and not merely human tradition. For this very reason (2) cannot stick, for it is indeed divinely revealed. Now, as divinely revealed no Catholic would admit that authentic tradition could (3) contradict divine revelation. But more to the point, the uninformed Protestant polemic fails because it cannot a priori assume that any tradition contradicts divine revelation, it must rather prove it. It is not a sufficient thing to tarnish a doctrine by labeling it a ‘tradition,’ for in context Jesus is not condemning even all human traditions, but merely human traditions which contradict divine revelation.
For these reasons the common popular treatment of tradition by many Protestants– which is to dismiss it offhand– cannot be an effective tactic. The only successful way to use this biblical text against Catholics would be to prove that Catholic tradition contradicts the Scriptures. But this shifts the debate decisively. There is no longer the presumption of guilt on the part of tradition.
As an interesting note, regarding (4), many Catholic traditions including prayer for the dead, indulgences and prayer to the saints are all essentially connected to divine charity. This is another vindication of Catholic doctrine, for these practices all are supportive of divine charity and are ordered towards it. There is no essential performative inconsistency with these Catholic doctrines for they do not pervert the essential order of charity, but rather they augment it by drawing us into greater union with the dead, the saints and God in charity.
In summary. Jesus does not oppose tradition in general, nor even human tradition in general, but only human tradition which subordinates and contradicts the divine law of love. For this reason, it is very difficult to take this condemnation as binding on Catholicism. If Protestant polemic wishes to be more accurate it should instead focus on showing that the Catholic faith has added to the deposit of faith or has contradicted it. But note how this moves the debate from a misguided attack which is lopsided against Catholicism to a point which is central to any debate between all Christian denominations– namely, the question of who has held most faithfully to the the revelation God entrusted to the apostles and gave to the Church. And on this question I am confident the Catholic position fares quite well.
These thoughts should be helpful when in dialogue with Protestants on the issue of tradition.