The Binding Force of Tradition, by Fr. Chad Ripperger, SMD

Originally Published on Rorate Caeli, July 2013.

Didn’t you know, Vatican II got rid of that! Or so you thought. How many countless times, more than what space in this journal could recount, have traditional Catholics along with conservative minded faithful been told such and such by priests and even bishops, by “habitless” nuns running a parish office, and self-annointed apologists even. How many times have we sent our children to a “catholic” school and they came back saying that the we just need to follow the Bible and not what the Church says, or that everything can change? And on the other side when we look squarely at the real source of the problem, namely the Council and its ambiguities, we are told no, the council is great and beautiful, it is just the implementation that caused all these problems. Yet the above mentioned, even members of the magisterium1 have not gotten the memo. 

The average faithful of a conservative or traditional mind, who has the goal of recouping and restoring the tradition of the Church not only in liturgy or in devotion but also in theology, often feels assaulted on all fronts by theologians and clergy who have forgotten that Jesus Christ is pre-Vatican II. Yet most books written by and for traditionalists on current miscellanea address effects of the problems in the Church today, or various facets of the problems around liturgy, doctrine, ecumenism and the like. None of the works out there go back to the very core of the problem, they do state the effects, namely the prior magisterium universally taught “x”, but today clergy, prelates and even members of the magisterium at least appear to be saying the opposite. The real question is what is the “Tradition”, and what principles have been deviated from that we should see the crisis in the Church not only unfold but continue?

Thankfully, we have at last, a clear and concise statement of principles on the tradition and our duties toward it in Fr. Ripperger’s brief but exacting The Binding Force of Tradition (BFT). At 55 pages it is not a lengthy read, but page after page is a clear laying out of principles. In fact, it could be rightly said that the strength of the work is in the very fact that it does not attempt to take up specific examples of teaching or practice which are, or at least appear, at variance with the universal Tradition. Instead, Fr. Ripperger lays out exactly what it is, where it comes from, what authority it has, what the misconceptions are, and what the duty not only of the lay faithful, but even more of the clergy is toward it. Better still, for the lay reader who does not have the benefit of formal orthodox training in philosophy and theology, is that it is a succinct read, well ordered and to the point. As Fr. James McLucas says in his Foreword to the work, “Father Ripperger utilizes the exacting scalpel of Thomistic precision to explain the problem and its solution.”

The work is broken up into three sections, the first chapter on the Rule of Faith, the second on The Tradition as Precept, and thirdly on Sins against the Tradition. In the first chapter, Fr. Ripperger begins by explaining what the rule of Faith is from the Fathers, theologians and formal definitions, and then the misconception of Tradition as being merely Scripture. He does this by focusing on one of the main expositors of confusion, namely Yves Congar, OP. There are several figures that could be discussed, yet by focusing on Congar he is able to take the main principle which is opposed to Tradition and thus take in all the rest who are under that umbrella. Better still, he does not turn Congar into a whipping post for all that is wrong, but fleshes out where Congar had deviated from doctrine on Tradition, and where he was in fact correct.

In the first place, the Rule of Faith is God. This is important because God is immutable, the same yesterday and today. If God is the rule of Faith, then the rule is not able to change. Moreover that rule is something outside of ourselves, thus we, individually or as a community, cannot determine it. Yet how does the rule of faith get to us? This is why there must be a secondary rule, subordinated to the first. For this there can be several rules which constitute “a rule” but not “the” rule, for God alone is “the” rule of faith. From here, Fr. Ripperger begins exploring the historical usages of the term rule of faith (regula fidei), namely, what in the past Fathers and doctors have proposed as the rule subordinated to the primary rule, which is God.

The first rule he gives is whether the virtue of faith should be considered the rule. That is, the rule is the theological virtue of Faith, since this has God as its proper object. Yet, while this is so extrinsically, intrinsically the believer may not have the virtue of faith in the same degree as others, or, “[he] can say he gives assent to the proposition but he may not understand the same thing by that proposition as the Church understands. For this reason, we are forced to seek a different rule by which we can know whether what we believe is true or not.”2 This is the fundamental distinction between Catholics and Protestants, at least conservative ones. The latter hold that faith is the only rule, (sola fide) and Scripture is the only means of knowing what the rule is (sola Scriptura). On the other hand, how is this mediated to us? For Luther, the principle is that God teaches each man inwardly, yet as Cardinal Franzelin shows in his theological classic De Divina Traditione, immediate revelation, that is the grace of internal illustration by God, while theoretically possible is not what Christ promised us, and does not in fact exist:

“Yet, in the first place, the grace of internal illustration is rightly and necessarily joined with the proposition of external faith, which is also especially suited to it, in order that one is able to have assented supernaturally; grace truly ought to supply that very external proposition. Yet, there will either be nothing, or the very thing will fall away entirely, if there is one with insufficient knowledge, and therefore each man is unable to use it, because as I said the grace of illustration is immediate revelation, whether simply or equivalently. To be given illustrations of this sort in the present economy [i.e. the Catholic understanding of the magisterium to safeguard and conserve doctrine] would be an extraordinary charism as it were, which whenever God concedes it in the supernatural-psychological order there is no doubt; and we do not contend, that the economy is absolutely disagreeable, in which the charism of immediate revelation might be ordinary, where concerning the necessity of an external proposition there would then be no question; but really and historically it is certain that such an order of revelation was never promised, has not existed and does not exist. Moreover, it has never existed at any time nor can it exist.”3


Thus when we consider Revelation, how God, Who is the rule of faith, is made known to us, there is in fact a vehicle, and that is Scripture and Tradition. Before launching into Congar, however, Fr. Ripperger takes time to define what Tradition is. “Here the term “tradition” is being used in its more restrictive sense as referring to those things handed down which are contradistinguished from Scripture and not in the broader sense in which tradition is taken as comprising everything that is passed on, even the Scriptures.”4 The exactitude of laying out what terms and propositions mean before exploring them and their consequents is the very thing one can expect throughout the work.
Next, he brings to the fore that Scripture and Tradition taken together are the rule of faith and this is a dogmatic fact, taught clearly and infallibly by Trent, Vatican I, and even Vatican II. Congar’s approach, as he notes, is more nuanced, namely that everything that is true is contained in Scripture. Yet Fr. Ripperger shows, not only is it not the case since there are doctrines (which Congar himself admits) that are not in Scripture but are necessary for salvation, but even more because “THE rule is God and Scripture is a means of transmission of the Deposit, not the Deposit itself, and therefore the Deposit of Faith would take precedence even over Scripture.Thus, as he notes, Scripture can be “a” rule, but logically it cannot be “THE” rule.

Fr. Ripperger goes on to note that it is in fact Tradition which is the Rule of Faith, as a secondary rule subordinated to the first, which is God, as is clear from the Fathers and Theologians, particularly St. Vincent of Lerins in the Commonitorium. Yet even this must be subdistinguished, for though every aspect of the faith has been handed on to us, it is done so by a certain mode, which is the organ of conservation and propagation of the faith (organum conservandi et propagandi fidem), namely the Magisterium. Thus he moves to the next consideration, the Magisterium as the rule of faith, and this is done considering the whole of the prior magisterium before our time (the remote rule) and the current living magisterium (the proximate rule). This distinction will be very important when considering the question of whether the magisterium can err or be ambiguous to the point where one should question what is being taught. Nevertheless, in either sense “It is not the Magisterium as such that is the rule of faith, but the definitions of the magisterium that are the rule.”6

After laying these out, in summation he notes that Tradition, properly understood is the Rule of Faith. Yet how can this be if we examine what he said above, that Scripture cannot logically be the rule of faith since it is a means of transmission. Isn’t Tradition also a means of transmission? It is, but in a broader sense than Scripture, in as much as it embraces all the teaching of Christ handed down by the Apostles, and summarizing Cardinals Franzelin and Billot, constitutes the object of faith, that is the truth to be believed, while the rule of faith is that which contains the truth to be believed (the object of faith), and to which we must conform our belief, therefore the magisterium, the organ of Tradition, is an authoritative body established by Christ through the apostles to pass on the rule of faith.

Yet, what happens when a member of the magisterium deviates from the rule of faith? Today, most neo-conservative apologists would deny this is even possible. Yet history shows, though it is rare, that this is indeed possible at the level of the ordinary magisterium, while not in the extraordinary magisterium. Essentially, after examining the issues involved, as well as our assent, if a member of the magisterium teaches error, then the faithful should fall back to the remote rule, which is the prior magisterium. This is buttressed with an argument from St. Thomas, and works like this. God is THE rule of faith, and the secondary rule is the tradition, passed on by the living magisterium which is subdivided into the remote rule of faith (the whole prior tradition) and the proximate rule of faith (the current magisterium). Since we cannot get to God directly we need this secondary rule, so that if the proximate rule has some error in it, the remote rule should be followed since the whole Church could not have erred century after century, and the very notion of tradition is adherence to what has been passed down by the authentic magisterium. This does not make one judge of the magisterium, but rather, allows us to rest safe on the judgments of the prior magisterium for those things necessary for salvation.

One of the most important distinction to come out in the first chapter is that the Magisterium has limits, it is bound to the tradition and, as St. Thomas teaches, obligated to pass on the tradition because that is the very purpose for which Christ founded it.

From this it follows in chapter 2, that the Magisterium is bound to pass on the tradition, it may not block the passing on of doctrine or only pass on its particular alterations in the Tradition. With this, Fr. Ripperger examines how it is that the Tradition actually binds us as a precept, in what way and what degrees of the tradition do in fact bind us irrespective of what we may be told today. On the other hand, some view tradition through the lens of the Hegelian dialectic, which holds that change must necessarily creep in, whereas the nature of Tradition in the Church is completely opposed to this idea. In the history of the Church novelty is equivalent with heresy, at least until the 20th century. Moreover, today there is an attempt to distinguish Tradition in a novel fashion, between “big ‘T’ Tradition” (doctrine) and “small ‘t’ tradition” (not only rites, ceremonies, devotions, but even the older formulations of teachings) the former being matters of faith and morals passed down by the Apostles which, as we saw above, broadly considered take up all teaching both apart from and contained in Scripture; whereas the latter are things that can change, which in themselves are not important for the faith, good for one generation but not another.

This division is so broad as to be erroneous, though it is frequent today amongst pop-apologists. In the first place, small “t” traditions so called, cannot be defined merely as “changeable things”, because in the first place, many of them are connected with the Church’s doctrine. Secondly, changing them (when it is theoretically possible to do so) can have bad effects, such as suggesting that the teaching is no longer in force. One of the reasons for negative reaction to the 2nd Council of Constantinople was the three chapters controversy, that the Emperor Justinian wanted a condemnation of three dead catholic theologians who had at one time taught heresy but had abjured their errors and died in union with the Church, since he thought it would reconcile the Monophysites (which it didn’t). One of these three, Ibas of Edessa, was closely connected with the formulation at the Council of Ephesus, and to many in both the East and West, the condemnation of the three chapters suggested an affront to the teaching of Ephesus, and consequently many refused to even acknowledge the Council until generations after it was concluded. Little wonder that the summary change of nearly everything connected with doctrines necessary for our salvation, not just the liturgy, but even the mode of expression of the magisterium, gave rise to the idea that the whole Church had completely changed her doctrine. Small “t” traditions are not only connected with truths of faith, but they must be passed down as well and even bind us to varying degrees.

In this vein Fr. Ripperger brings to the fore an excellent quote from St. Robert Bellarmine:

“Indeed, traditions have the same force as divine precepts, either divine doctrines written in the Gospels and similarly the apostolic traditions non-written have the same force as the written apostolic traditions, as the Council of Trent in the fourth session asserts… Moreover ecclesiastical Traditions have that same force as decrees and written constitutions of the Church.”7


As Fr. Ripperger breaks down this important point, he shows that although traditions have a different degree of authority, and therefore a different degree of binding force, they must be passed down both actively, that is on the side of the magisterium, and passively, that is on our side. Furthermore to understand the principles of how a traditional teaching binds under pain of sin, he enters a discussion of the notae theologicae, or theological notes (marks). Theological notes are categories of teaching, both positive and negative, which in the case of the former, declare the status of a doctrine as being at the highest point de fide, or in the least being common teaching, and thus debatable. In the case of negative propositions, they can range from propositions properly heretical and opposed to faith, to things which are not properly heretical in themselves, but are scandalous or rash. These last two, error theologicus and propositio temeraria are the most interesting, because they are or would be readily denied to be valid or useful today. A propositio temeraria for example, the idea that it is rash to oppose the common teaching of theologians without sufficient and substantive reason, goes against the grain of modern theological thinking. Who cares what they said back then, all that matters is…Vatican II! And indeed since Vatican II there has been a constant stream of rash propositions propounded in books and pulpits. Thus, the degree of certitude to how much a prior tradition in teaching or practice binds us morally is based on what type of theological mark it would have. 

Yet, it is even deeper than that, as Cardinal Franzelin notes:

“Let us take for example the question, if one were to reject the sacred ceremonies for the administration of the sacraments and the celebration of the Sacrifice of the Mass, or of the sign of the cross on the forehead, the use of lustral water and other traditions partly apostolic and partly ecclesiastical, he likewise denies the revealed authority of both apostolic and ecclesiastical power, which is to be believed to be infallible from the assistance of the Holy Spirit in these matters pertaining to Christian morals and to the religious cult and intimately connected with revealed faith.”8


From here, he considers the way in which traditions of different degrees bind and to what degree it is sinful based on these principles to deny them, or to refuse to pass them to the next generation.

Lastly, in the 3rd part of the book, Fr. Ripperger widens the discussion of what virtues are violated when one does not pass on the tradition. Perhaps he best summarizes the whole section in his examination of sins against justice:

“Wholesale modifications in the past, would have been considered, by the saints, as an act of impiety because the sweeping modifications block or deny to the subsequent generation the perfection of form of worship and the feasts of the saints that were removed. Our ancestors would have considered the constant drive to change each and every aspect of the Catholic tradition, the inability to leave any aspect of the tradition unchanged, as a sign of moral and spiritual problems and disorders. It is also impious because wholesale modification presumes that prior saints were not adequately directed by the Holy Spirit in the composition of the prayers of the Mass. No saint would dare to presume to affect the liturgy passed to him by his ancestors to such a degree, particularly because of the reverence he would have had regarding the guidance of past saints by the Holy Spirit. To presume to block the passing of a monument, not by perfecting it, which is actually an authentic part of the tradition, but by modifying it in such a way as to deny many of the elements in that monument is to presume that one is greater than one’s ancestors.9


That is precisely the problem with modern man in general, and modern ecclesiastics in particular. Modern man presumes on the basis of technology that we are so much better than those who came before us, even though more people have been murdered and systematically exterminated throughout the world not merely by numbers but also by percentage than in any previous age. Likewise, in spite of the banality and lack of precision in theological expression today, the massive loss of faith around the world, banal liturgies and liturgical abuse that does not get better, and the continual attack on priests by the state and hierarchy alike, some pretend we have a renewal, that everything is better than in bygone ages, when that is manifestly not the case.

What is manifestly brilliant about this work, is that it is not another “traditionalist tract” that will end up being limited to the traditionalist sphere, and by prescinding from critique of particular elements, either of Vatican II or of the subsequent issues, and instead by delineating clear principles, he has produced a work that is a timeless and excellent summary of the relevant principles and teachings on Tradition’s binding force and necessity otherwise contained in lengthy Latin treatises. Therefore, this is a work for everyone, if for no other reason than to raise awareness of how everyone in the Church, including “traditionalists”, are required to recoup and maintain the tradition that has been passed down to us by generations of Catholics, of saints both known and unknown, of theologians and simple laity, through temptation, persecution and the sword.

Fr. Ripperger’s Treatise on the Binding Force of Tradition can be purchased at Amazon.


1 For instance, as was reported on Rorate Caeli, an ecclesial authority is reported to have recently called the practice of  counting a certain number of rosary bouquets to present to him “pelagian” and of a bygone age, which suggests to us that he follows the modern idea that grace cannot be quantified, which is contrary to the tradition on Grace, and has a questionable notion of what pelagianism actually is, or he reached for whatever term came to mind to cast aspersions on the prior tradition. Either way, even though Vatican II says nothing on the quantification of rosaries to express devotion and love for the Church, Francis seems to see it in the spirit.
2 Ripperger, Binding Force of Tradition, pg. 12.
3FranzelinDe Divina Traditione, Thesis VI pg. 45, (1875 edition, Rome): “At enim gratia in primis internae illustrationis sane necessario coniungitur cum propositione fidei externa etiam maxime accommodata, ut assensus possit esse sicut oportet, supernaturalis; gratia vero, quae suppleat ipsum propositionem externam, quia haec aut nulla est aut, quod eodem fere recidit, non idonea, et qua ideo singuli, uti non possunt, talis inquam gratia illustrationis est revelatio immediata, vel simpliciter vel aequivalenter. Dari huiusmodi illustrationes etiam in praesenti oeconomia tamquam charisma extraordinarium, quod Deus aliquando in ordine psychologico supernaturali concedit, nullum est dubium; nec etiam contendimus absolute repugnare oeconomiam, in qua charisma revelationis immediatae pro singulis esset ordinarium, ubi de propositionis externae necessitate iam nulla esset quaestio; at realiter et historice talem ordinem revelationis nec promissum esse nec umquam exstitisse, nec existere, prorsus constat. All Translations are my own unless noted otherwise.
4 Ripperger, loc. cit.
5 Ibid, pg. 15 (my emphasis).
6 Ibid, pg. 22 (emphasis in the original).
7 Ibid, pg. 34.
8 Franzelinloc. cit., Thesis I pg. 15-16: “[I]ta qui e.g. sacras cerimonias in administratione sacramentorum et celebratione sacrificii, crucis signationem in fronte, usum aquae lustralis aliasque Traditiones partim apostolicas partim ecclesiasticas reiiceret, eo ipso negaret revelatam auctoritatem et potestatem apostolicam et ecclesiasticam, quae ex assistentia Spiritus Sancti in his ad mores christianos et ad religiosum cultum pertinentibus et cum fide revelata intime nexis credenda prorsus est infallibilis. (My emphasis).
9 Ibid, pg. 51-52, my emphasis.

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