The Idea of Tradition in Querida Amazonia

Pope Francis leaves unspoken the relation of Tradition to the normative Scriptures, the Sacraments and Liturgy, creeds and confessions, councils, the theological exposition of the Church’s dogmas and doctrine, and the magisterium of the Church.

Icon of St. Vincent of Lérins (Wikipedia); Right: Pope Francis celebrates Mass during the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Vatican Congregation for Eastern Churches on Oct. 12, 2017, at St. Mary Major Basilica in Rome. (CNS photo/Max Rossi, Reuters)

In the recent post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation, Querida Amazonia (Beloved Amazon), Pope Francis refers to the transmission throughout time—the traditionary process—of the “authentic Tradition of the Church” (§66). Tradition here is spelt with a capital T. He does not say what he means by “authentic Tradition.” Nor does he tells us what the content of the Tradition is. However, we can surmise that he is referring to the Tradition of the Gospel message itself. “The kerygma . . . [that] proclaims a God who infinitely loves every man and woman and has revealed this love fully in Jesus Christ, crucified for us and risen in our lives” (§64).

Aside from Tradition’s transmission through the proclamation of Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, Francis leaves unspoken the relation of Tradition to the normative Scriptures, the Sacraments and Liturgy, creeds and confessions, councils, the theological exposition of the Church’s dogmas and doctrine, and the magisterium of the Church. The closest he comes to stating something about this relation is some five years earlier in a 2015 video Message he gave to participants in an International Theological Congress held at the Pontifical Catholic University of Argentina. In that Message, Pope Francis does reject the opposition between the Tradition and contemporary life: “to break the relationship between Tradition handed down and practical reality would be to endanger the faith of the People of God.”

One presumes here that breaking that relationship involves an unfaithful transmission of the Gospel, indeed, a distortion of it. Here we raise the problem of the criterion for distinguishing between legitimate and illegitimate transmissions of the Gospel. In this connection, Pope Francis repeatedly states that the Holy Spirit guides legitimate interpretations of the Gospel. However, this does not solve the problem of criterion. I will return to this problem below.

Yes, Francis does speak of the liturgy and forms of ministry (§§81-90), but not with respect to the Tradition. Rather, he speaks of them entirely in the context of inculturation. However, in that context he is referring to the “law of evangelization,” which he cites in note 84 (Gaudium et Spes §44). The core idea of this law is that “accommodated preaching of the revealed word ought to remain the law of all evangelization. For thus the ability to express Christ’s message in its own way is developed in each nation, and at the same time there is fostered a living exchange between the Church and the diverse cultures of people” [emphasis added]. Inculturation involves enriching the culture with the transforming power of the Gospel as it is recontextualized and reinterpreted in a specific context. It also involves “the Church herself undergoing a process of reception that enriches her with the fruits of what the Spirit has already mysteriously sown in that culture” (§68). Thus, there is a mutual enrichment in the process of inculturation.

Furthermore, Vatican II’s theology of inculturation includes two dimensions: not only the clarifying and critical transformation of good cultural values, purifying them from their embeddedness in the culture’s counter-values, its native worldview, and hence from evil, and restoring to them their full meaning in light of the Christian faith, but also the insertion of the Christian faith in the indigenous culture. The former critical transformation is missing from Francis’ understanding of inculturation. Reception is critical: “[T]est everything; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil” (1 Thess 5:21-22). Thus, truths and goods of this native culture need to be broken open and freed from their native perspective in the direction of Christ by a “clarifying transposition,” which involves cleansing these fragments, as Hans Urs von Balthasar noted, polishing them “until that radiance shines forth which shows that [they are] fragment[s] of the total glorification of God.”

No wonder Vatican II’s Ad Gentes §9 takes the Church’s missionary activity to involve a “purg[ing] of evil associations [of] every element of truth and grace which is found among peoples.” Or that Lumen Gentium, §16-17 speak of “deceptions by the Evil One” at work in a man’s resistance to God’s prevenient grace as well as that the gospel “snatches them [non-Christians] from the slavery of error and of idols” and the “confusion of the devil.” Indeed, Ad Gentes §9 speaks of the fragments of truth and grace to be found among the nations that the gospel “frees from all taint of evil and restores [the truth] to Christ its maker, who overthrows the devil’s domain and wards off the manifold malice of vice.”

Moreover, inculturation may be taken to refer to traditions, meaning thereby the diversity of forms of cultural expression serving “to bring out and develop different facets of the inexhaustible riches of the Gospel” (Evangelii Gaudium §40; see also 117, 131). Francis elaborates, in Evangelii Gaudium §41:

[W]e constantly seek ways of expressing unchanging truths in a language that brings out their abiding newness. “The deposit of the faith is one thing… the way it is expressed is another.” [John XXIII, Gaudet Mater Ecclesia] There are times when the faithful, in listening to completely orthodox language, take away something alien to the authentic Gospel of Jesus Christ, because that language is alien to their own way of speaking to and understanding one another. With the holy intent of communicating the truth about God and humanity, we sometimes give them a false god or a human ideal that is not really Christian. In this way, we hold fast to a formulation while failing to convey its substance. This is the greatest danger. Let us never forget that “the expression of truth can take different forms. The renewal of these forms of expression becomes necessary for the sake of transmitting to the people of today the Gospel message in its unchanging meaning”. [John Paul II, Ut Unum Sint §18].

Inculturation is necessary, according to Francis, because the Tradition of the Church, he says, “is not a static deposit or a museum piece, but a constantly growing tree.” In note 86 to this statement about Tradition, Francis gives a gloss on this claim by citing a passage from the Commonitórium primum XXIII of Vincent of Lérins: “It [the Gospel?] progresses, solidifying with years, growing over time, deepening with age.” This sentence seems to be a favorite of Bergoglio/Francis because it is also cited in other works, e.g., Evangelii Gaudium, Laudato Si’ and in his co-authored work, On Heaven and Earth, 26; as well as in numerous speeches, such as the 2017 “Address of His Holiness Pope Francis to Participants in the Meeting Promoted by the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization.”

Significantly, what is not clear is what solidifies, grows, and deepens over time. Francis leaves out Vincent’s claim that it is dogma that progresses in this fashion. Francis suggests that it is the Gospel. Vincent adds, “dogma of the Christian religion . . . must remain incorrupt and unadulterated: it may attain to fullness and perfection in all the proportions of its parts, and as it were in all its proper members and senses, admitting no change, no waste of its distinctive property, no variation in its limits.” In this connection, it is important to note that Vincent also influences St. John XXII, in his opening address to Vatican II, Gaudet Mater Ecclesia. John argues that the Church must “transmit whole and entire and without distortion Catholic doctrine.” He explains:

What instead is necessary today is that the whole of Christian doctrine, with no part of it lost, be received in our times by all with a new fervor, in serenity and peace, in that traditional and precise conceptuality and expression which is especially displayed in the acts of the Councils of Trent and Vatican I. As all sincere promoters of Christian, Catholic, and apostolic faith strongly desire, what is needed is that this doctrine be more fully and more profoundly known and that minds be more fully imbued and formed by it. What is needed is that this certain and unchangeable doctrine, to which loyal submission is due, be investigated and presented in the way demanded by our times. (emphasis added)

It is also important to note that Francis does not give the full quote from John XXIII referred to above precisely where John distinguishes between truths and its formulations. Francis cites the Italian version of John XXIII’s statement—not the official Latin publication—distinguishing between the substance of the deposit of the faith, and the way it is expressed, but he leaves out the subordinate clause, namely, “according to the same meaning and the same judgment [eodem sensu eademque sententia].” The subordinate clause in this passage is part of a larger passage from the constitution of Vatican Council I, Dei Filius, which is earlier invoked by Pius IX in the bull of 1854, Ineffabilis Deus, also cited by Leo XIII in his 1899 Encyclical, Testem benevolentiae Nostrae, and this passage is itself from the Commonitórium primum 23 of Vincent of Lérins: “Therefore, let there be growth and abundant progress in understanding, knowledge, and wisdom, in each and all, in individuals and in the whole Church, at all times and in the progress of ages, but only within the proper limits, i.e., within the same dogma, the same meaning, the same judgment” (in eodem scilicet dogmate, eodem sensu eademque sententia).

Against this background, we can understand the import of Vincent’s distinction between progress and change. This distinction means that he understands the development of faith as progress that is organic and homogeneous and occurring within the boundaries of the dogma. In other words, the faith remains identical with itself in its progress. He distinguishes this idea of development from another in which an understanding of faith’s development involves “a thing [being] turned out of one thing into another, that is, of change.” The point here is made clear by Vincent: progress in understanding may result in new modes of expression, but such expressions are authentic and legitimate only if they keep the same meaning and the same judgment [eodem sensu eademque sententia]. In other words, the same datum of faith is said in different ways. In short, truth is unchangeable, development of dogma is not a development of truth, or a change in Church teaching, but a development in the Church’s understanding of the truth.

Now, we come back to the question regarding the relation of Tradition to the normative Scriptures, the Sacraments and Liturgy, creeds and confessions, councils, the theological exposition of the Church’s dogmas and doctrine, and the magisterium of the Church. As Jaroslav Pelikan rightly sees, “underlying the creedal and conciliar definitions of orthodoxy from the beginning have been three shared presuppositions: first, that there is a straight line… from the Gospels to the Creed; consequently, second, that the true doctrine being confessed by the councils and creeds of the church is identical with what the New Testament calls the ‘faith which was once for all delivered to the saints’ [Jude 3]; and therefore, third, that continuity with that faith is the essence of orthodoxy, and discontinuity with it the essence of heresy.” How, then, is a single and unitary revelation homogeneously expressed, according to the same meaning and the same judgment, in alternative linguistic and conceptual formulations?

The particular importance of this question is underscored the Dutch Reformed master of dogmatic and ecumenical theology, G.C. Berkouwer (1903-1996):

That harmony [between various dogmatic formulations] had always been presumed, virtually self-evidently, to be an implication of the mystery of the truth ‘eodem sensu eademque sententia.’ Now, however, attention is captivated primarily by the historical-factual process that does not transcend the times, but is entangled with them in all sorts of ways. It cannot be denied that one encounters the undeniable fact of the situated setting of the various pronouncements made by the Church in any given era.

He adds, “of time-conditioning, one can even say: of historicity” of the Church’s various dogmatic pronouncements. Berkouwer insightfully states, “All the problems of more recent interpretation of dogma are connected very closely to this search for continuity.… Thus, the question of the nature of continuity has to be faced.”

Vatican II—but not Pope Francis—faced this question head on by embracing Vincent of Lérins criterion that legitimate formulations of dogma must mediate the same meaning and the same judgment of truth—in eodem scilicet dogmate, eodem sensu eademque sententia. Against this background, it would be helpful to have an overall specification of the characteristics of dogma. Wolfgang Beinert righly notes: “[Dogma] is (a) an expression of the truth of revelation (b) in the form of a judgment (proposition) that is (c) the infallible expression of faith and therefore (d) binding in conscience; each dogma (e) arises on account of a specific historical problem.”

Earlier I quoted Pope Francis stating, “Breaking the relationship between Tradition handed down and practical reality would be to endanger the faith of the People of God.” In light of Vincent of Lérins, we can state Francis’s point more fully since some interpreters of Francis’s idea of tradition—e.g., the German Episcopacy—have embraced a historicism that relativizes the development of Christian doctrine such that it denies not only the enduring validity of dogmatic truth, and hence endangers the faith, but also the distinction between authentic growth and cancerous aberration is unavailable.

For example, the Preparatory Document of the German Episcopacy on sexual morality endangers the Catholic faith, in particular, Christian anthropology and the corresponding sexual morality of the Catholic tradition (see the Catechism of the Catholic Church §§2331-2400). The document draws on Pope Francis’s idea of tradition for inspiration. “Tradition is a living reality and only a limited view can imagine faith as something immovable. You cannot put the Word of God in moths as if it were an old woolen blanket that had to be protected from pests. No! The Word of God is a dynamic reality, always alive, and it develops and grows, because it is designed for a fulfillment that people cannot stop […]. The teaching cannot be preserved without allowing its development. Nor can it be tied to a narrow or unchanged interpretation without humiliating the Holy Spirit and his actions.”

Note here that Francis’s vague claim about tradition leaves unclear the problem of the criterion for distinguishing between legitimate and illegitimate transmissions of the Gospel. It also leaves unspoken the matter of the nature of continuity between the Tradition and the normative Scriptures, the Sacraments and Liturgy, creeds and confessions, councils, the theological exposition of the Church’s dogmas and doctrine, and the magisterium of the Church. Furthermore, inculturation, given Francis’ vague idea of tradition in Querida Amazonia, leaves us with an ongoing accommodation of the Gospel—and hence a perpetual hermeneutics, which is a continual reinterpretation and re-contextualization of the Tradition according to the cultural and historical diversity of the situation of those to whom the Gospel is transmitted, preached.

In conclusion, the “law of evangelization” may only be properly understood when the alternative but complementary – rather than conflicting – formulations of revealed truths show a deeper penetration, better understanding, and more suitable presentations of those truths, of the revealed mysteries of the Catholic faith (cf. Unitatis Redintegratio §17). These formulations, according to St. John XXIII, Vatican I and Vatican II in light of Vincent of Lérins, must remain, in the words of the last named figure, within the “proper limits, i.e., within the same dogma, the same meaning, the same judgment [in eodem scilicet dogmate, eodem sensu eademque sententia].” Although the truths of the faith may be expressed differently, we must always determine whether those re-formulations preserve the same meaning and mediate the same judgment of truth, and hence the material continuity, identity, and universality of those truths, even when reformulations bring correction, modification, and complementation.

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About Eduardo Echeverria 33 Articles
Eduardo Echeverria is Professor of Philosophy and Systematic Theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. He earned his doctorate in philosophy from the Free University in Amsterdam and his S.T.L. from the University of St. Thomas Aquinas (Angelicum) in Rome.


  1. The Immutability and Eternal Unchanging Essence of True Catholic Spirituality and Holy Doctrine expresses DIRECTLY to all Creation and all of us the Immutability and Eternal Unchanging Essence of God HIMSELF. Severing in any way and/or in any degree that Most Holy Connection with Holy Doctrine, severs all Creation and all of us away from the True God. The hard push from Pope Francis (through Weaponized Ambiguity, Unclarity, Confusion and Compromise – “Confuse, Divide and Conquer”) and many others to use inculturation as a DISTRACTION and COVER for diluting and compromising the True Faith and Holy Doctrine, sees those two Holy Treasures as mere IDEOLOGY, infinitely leveled DOWN to mere human ideologies.

    That Francis-style “inculturation” also implies the Weaponized Virulent Feeling of Inferiority that has infected much of American Society, Christianity, Europe and the world. This demented, Anti-Christ Inferiority (Philippians 2:9-11) has been pushed into the Catholic Church for centuries but has been more successful since the end of Pope Pius X Papacy when Pope Benedict XV (Monsignor Giacomo della Chiesa), a pupil of Cardinal Rampolla, himself a great friend of Modernists, Freemasons and political liberalism; allowed Modernists to start infiltrating the Church, which continues up to this day.

    Benedict XV appointed men to high positions who were not zealous defenders of the True Faith (what Pope Francis is doing now). Pope John XXIII also demonstrated this Inferiority Complex and strangely begged sympathy from the world. When you get a cunningly fabricated, manufactured, unwarranted Chronic Feeling of Inferiority, you get dumbed-down, infantilized and sentimentally ready to compromise with the most unholy, toxic trash, fabricated by human delusions and demented self-worship.

    Therefore, it’s high time to get rid of that evil-enabling, blinding, enslaving Inferiority Complex and remember that Our Lord Jesus is Absolutely Supreme and so is His Catholic Teaching in the 2,000 years Magisterium of the Church! It is that Infinite Absolute, Total, Exclusive, Immutable, Unchanging Superiority of Jesus Christ nd His Doctrine that has saved in the past, saves today and will save humanity in the future and for all Eternity: “NO ONE comes to the Father except through me”, (John 14:6)!! False Catholic Inferiority and its associated compromise come from the Evil One!

  2. Thank you! Our Church needs another few hundred souls like yourself, able to articulate the problem and point out the true path through the current papal fog. Bishops, please help us!

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