Is Tradition Rigid?

By Eric Sammons

Eric Sammons is the editor-in-chief of Crisis Magazine. His most recent book Deadly Indifference (May 2021) examines the rise of religious indifference and how it has led the Church to lose her missionary zeal.

Pope Francis
Vatican Media

Although Pope Francis has a global reputation as a humble, gentle pastor, those who follow him closely know he’s not averse to handing out strong criticisms when he sees fit, including throwing out insults at times to fellow Catholics. And no insult is more central to his repertoire than the term “rigid.” For Pope Francis, to be rigid is to be the worst kind of Catholic. What does it mean to be “rigid,” at least according to the pope? To be consumed with upholding tradition. 

For those with a surface familiarity with the Gospels, this might appear logical: after all, Our Lord often attacked the Jewish religious leaders of his time for following the “traditions of men,” which led them to put their traditions above the real spiritual needs of the people. In other words, they were being “rigid.”

The pope seems to see it in this way, as his recent interpretation of St. Paul’s life demonstrates: 

Pope Francis on the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul: “Paul was freed from the religious zeal that made him fierce in upholding the traditions he had received. The formal observation of religion and the sword-wielding of defense of Tradition made him rigid”

According to Francis, then, we can read the New Testament in a simple light: to follow traditions is bad (because it makes one rigid) and contrary to Christianity. The Christian Faith frees us from tradition so that we can follow the Spirit wherever He leads.

As a former Protestant, I find this interpretation odd, even bizarre, coming from the head of the Roman Catholic Church. It sounds like the typical Protestant interpretation of the New Testament, with all its anti-Catholicism baked in. This view dates back to Martin Luther himself: Catholics are like the rigid Pharisees, clinging to the traditions of men, while Protestants are free, just as Jesus commanded and Paul lived out after his conversion.

Yet a full understanding of Catholicism reveals a deeper understanding of tradition than the caricature concocted by Luther and his followers. Catholics have embraced, not denigrated, tradition since the very beginning. St. Paul himself wrote to the Christians in Thessalonica: “So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter” (2 Thess. 2:15). And to the Church in Corinth, he wrote, “I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I have delivered them to you” (1 Cor. 11:2). Clearly the Apostle had no issues with embracing at least some traditions.

The Early Church continued this, well, tradition, of embracing tradition. St. Irenaeus, a 2nd century Church Father, noted that the Gnostic heretics who were threatening the Church rejected tradition, unlike the Catholics: “But, again, when we refer them to that tradition which originates from the apostles, [and] which is preserved by means of the succession of presbyters in the Churches, they object to Tradition, saying that they themselves are wiser not merely than the presbyters, but even than the apostles because they have discovered the unadulterated truth.” (Against Heresies, Book 3, Chapter 2). 

To be Catholic is to be traditional. In fact, even though I call myself a “traditional Catholic,” I know the term is redundant—it’s like calling oneself a “male man” (although these days maybe that’s necessary). Every religion—including every Protestant denomination—follows certain traditions, but Catholics understand that its traditions are guided by the Holy Spirit—the Spirit of Truth which guides us (over time) into all truth (cf. John 16:13). 

Imagine the life of faith as taking a drive on a long, winding road up a steep hill. There are precarious turns throughout, which if not navigated properly could lead you to plummet over the edge to your demise. In this analogy, tradition is the guardrail on the side of the road, protecting one from falling into heresy or schism. Without these guardrails, we are likely to plunge to our (spiritual) deaths.

The idea that a Catholic embracing tradition qua tradition makes him “rigid” is thus nonsensical. We are supposed to embrace tradition. Now, that’s not to say there aren’t dangers with traditions; after all, Our Lord did warn against a certain type of tradition: the “traditions of men.” 

What are the traditions of men? Paradoxically, in today’s world these traditions are the latest zeitgeist—whatever modern man says we must embrace. Abortion, homosexuality, contraception, gender confusion: these are the traditions of men, because they “transgress the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition” (Matthew 15:3), as Our Lord said. By putting human wisdom in the form of pseudo-science and moral degeneracy above divine commandments, we create traditions of men. This is what Christ warned against, and yet we see many Church leaders falling into the same trap as the Pharisees by elevating these human traditions over the revealed will of God. 

Further, those who advocate these modern traditions of men are the most “rigid” among us. Think about what happens to the public figure who dares use the wrong pronouns or doesn’t fully support Pride Month: the Pharisees of the Left will be sure to crucify him. This rigidity impacts the Church as well: see how our bishops treat any priest who dares step away from the rigid woke party line, such as Fr. James Altman or Fr. James Parker, to just name two recent examples.

Embracing true tradition—Sacred Tradition—has rigidity’s opposite effect; it frees one to follow the Holy Spirit. Instead of chasing after the latest faddish beliefs and trying to emulate contemporary culture, the Catholic who follows tradition has a solid foundation on which to build his faith life. He can go deeper into the mysteries of salvation through the traditional Latin Mass, for example. Or he can plumb the depths of great spiritual masters like St. Teresa of Avila or St. John of the Cross. Or he can learn from the great intellectual giants like St. Thomas Aquinas. Tradition, not following the whims of the world, brings freedom and liberty.

Tradition also brings clarity. Many of the debates we have in today’s Church, such as whether pro-abortion politicians can receive Holy Communion, are actually simple yes/no questions when examined in light of tradition. Of course Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi shouldn’t receive Communion. We don’t need a USCCB document to tell us that—we can just look back to what our forefathers in the Faith did and said. 

Pope Francis wants to castigate those who love tradition as rigid. But he would do well to remember that Sacred Tradition is a bedrock of the Catholic Faith (and in fact, the bedrock of his papal office). To embrace tradition is to be free to follow the Holy Spirit. To reject it is to be a slave to the rigid whims of this fallen world.