Our memories are our identity, they very much make us who we are. To a large extent, our identity is bound up in them. The memories of people, places, and experiences give context and meaning to our lives. In fact, without memories, it would be nearly impossible to function, to move forward in any meaningful way.
For a person to lose his memory is one of the most painful faculties of man. That is why diseases like Alzheimer’s are so tragic.
When a person loses his or her memory, it is almost as if they have ceased to exist both to themselves and those around them, and there are other things more painful than speaking to a mother, father, or spouse who no longer knows who you are, who can’t tell you from a stranger in the street.
Human memory is so vital that movies, books, and novels have been written to explore what happens to a human being when his memory is erased. Culturally, we are fascinated at how debilitating the loss of memory truly is.
Tradition is the Memory of the Church, and just as it is impossible for a person, or even an animal, to function without memory, so it is impossible for the Church to function without tradition.
Even though most times they are considered irrelevant or outdated, tradition is the living memory of the Church. Without tradition, the Church makes no sense. There is simply no Catholicism without tradition.
After all, the Church is a body. It is a living organism with a distinct identity. Without tradition, and without memory, this body has no context. Without tradition, and without memory, it has no knowledge of where it came from or where it is going, it has no idea of what its mission is or why it should even exist. Without tradition, the Church is doomed to be swept along by passing fads and prevailing moods, like a patient with no memory, is led helplessly along a hospital hallway.
A crisis of identity is the inevitable outcome of a loss of memory. And that is why it should come as no surprise that the last 50 years of Catholicism have been defined by a terrible identity crisis, just as many Catholics eagerly jettisoned the traditions of the faith.
Despite this lack of Catholic identity, there are many who have made tradition a dirty word. Some laymen and prelates scowl and snarl, “Dead traditions! We are never going back!”
I believe these people prefer the helpless and neutered Church. They prefer the church without memory, aim or direction because they can make of it what they please. Severed from tradition, the Church becomes a blank slate for them to manipulate at will, creating a personalized religion of their own taste. This traditionless Church becomes a rudderless ship for them to steer as they please.
The Faith is a Gift
This is another reason why tradition matters. Faith is a gift that is handed down. It is not something we create to suit our preferences. When we are baptized into the Catholic faith, we enter a world and embrace a creed that is not of our own making. We receive a faith that has been watered by the blood of the martyrs, a faith preserved and passed on by holy monks, laypeople, nuns, popes, bishops, priests, and scholars for two millennia.
It is the height of folly and pride to believe the faith is something we create. No, if one is to truly be Catholic, there must always be an element of surrender—the surrender of personal preferences, whims, and opinions to the higher wisdom of the Church. In the age of relativism and whatever-suits-you religion, this is profoundly countercultural. Yet, no other kind of Catholicism makes any sense at all, for the Faith is the antithesis of personal religion. The Catholic faith is universal.
It is an Unchanging Faith
Some would argue that there is a difference between “small t” traditions and “big T” traditions, what Catholics believe and how they behave. These people believe we can surrender the small traditions without harming the big ones.
This simply isn’t true. You cannot discard the practice and piety that have been handed down for centuries without inevitably harming the whole fabric of the faith. It’s like trying to rip the intricate embroidery from a tapestry without harming the larger cloth. It is impossible. They are bound up inextricably together, but that is not to say that new threads cannot be added to the tapestry, to continue the analogy. Tradition is not something static or unchangeable. The Church has and always will respond to the needs of the times, but she should always do so without abandoning her traditions.
No innovation without tradition
Why we explore new avenues of cultural engagement and even dialogue, is because it must always be in the wider context of what has been received, and without doing violence to the traditions we have received.
As any traveler knows, there is nothing more satisfying than returning home after a long journey. There is no point adventuring without a familiar home to return to. Frodo and Sam could endure Mordor only because they had the Shire. Likewise, the Catholic can engage a hostile culture only if he has the safe home of a coherent faith to return to.
The faith of our Fathers
A lot has not been said, but in summary, Catholicism without tradition is a contradiction in terms. The Faith must always be rooted in the firm foundation of tradition, or it simply ceases to exist. A traditionless faith may be a religion, but it is not Catholicism.