There are many non-binding disciplinary, liturgical (meaning ceremonial), and/or devotional traditions that arose in the local churches over time. Those are “small t” traditions that can and often do change with time or circumstance. “Big T” Tradition is distinguished from various theological, disciplinary, liturgical, or devotional traditions, born in the local churches over time.
In the light of Tradition, these traditions can be retained, modifed, or even abandoned under the guidance of the Church’s magisterium. But sacred Tradition is part of the deposit of faith preserved for us by the Church throughout two millennia. Because Tradition is the word of God, it is authoritative, and we capitalize the word.
Other written expressions of Tradition are the writings of the Fathers and doctors, papal encyclicals, and council writings, but they are not referred to as “inspired” or called “the Word of God.”
They fall into the “Four D’s”: Dogma are truths proposed by the Church as being part of or necessarily connected to Revelation in a binding, defnitive way, which comprise the unchangeable part of the deposit of faith (the Holy Eucharist, for example); Doctrine is what the Church believes, teaches, and confesses on the authority of the Word of God (Jesus Christ), the understanding of which can develop over time but never change (the structure of the Mass and teachings in the documents of Vatican II, for example); Disciplines, which are widely practiced but changeable (as in meatless Fridays and priestly celibacy); and Devotions, which are often a matter of personal preference or matter of duty and station in life (as in a daily rosary). Doctrines, disciplines, and devotions are part of the growth in insight into the realities and words being passed on. As the Holy Spirit guides the Church “into all truth” (John 16:13), she “penetrates it more deeply, applies it more.”
Jesus Christ entrusted the authentic interpretation of Scripture and Tradition to the living teaching office of the Church alone, the magisterium, whose authority is exercised in Christ’s name. Ultimately, there is only one source of Revelation, the person of Christ, which has two expressions, Tradition and sacred Scripture. Both are directed at the life of the Church. Together, sacred Scripture and Tradition convey the Word of God. Apart from the living teaching authority of the Catholic Church, we are easily led into serious mistakes and error by the enemy.
Because Tradition goes back to when the Bible was written, we know what the Bible was and was not meant to communicate to us. Because the Holy Spirit “guides us into all truth” ( John 16:13) through the teaching authority Jesus gave his apostles and which they handed down through the Church, the Church’s teachings on faith and morals is infallible (Matthew 18:18).
The word of God is inspired, meaning “God-breathed” (2 Timothy 3:16). The Bible is sacred literature because God is the author. He inspired and guided its writing through various human authors, but the Bible is God telling his own story. Because God continues to speak to us through it, “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerns the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12). So sacred Scripture remains the primary written expression of Tradition. Through both written and oral Tradition, God invites us to share his life.
Once we are comfortable with daily lectio divina and are ready to embark on deeper study, it is essential to keep this maxim to heart, and always study with the mind of the Church so we are not misled by persuasive, but incomplete and even erroneous interpretations. How do we know what the golden chain of Tradition says about a passage? How do we avoid the interpretative confusion we encounter throughout Christendom? There are many wonderful ways!