It is a commonplace of Catholic theology that there are two sources (fontes) of divine revelation from which we receive the truths which we have to believe and the moral laws which we have to obey if our conduct is to be pleasing to God.
When Luther was challenged by Catholic defenders of the faith, who pointed out that some of his views contradicted doctrines that had been defined as articles of faith by councils of the Church, he denied that he was obliged to conform his teaching to their definitions, for he had received it directly from God, and in particular by the inspiration he received as he read the sixth chapter of St Paul's Letter to the Romans.
From there he went on to generalise. Holy Scripture, he asserted, is our only source of absolutely certain teaching about what Christians have to believe and the moral norms which we must obey if our conduct is to be pleasing to God. These indeed can be reduced to a living faith that our sins have been covered over because of our belief in the all-sufficiency of the redemptive sacrifice of Jesus offered on the cross.
The inadequacy of this theory soon became apparent. For within a few years, great numbers of sects emerged, all claiming that their mutually contradictory doctrines were derived from Holy Scripture.
This became very evident in 1529. Protestant sympathisers arranged a conference at which Luther and Zwingli would meet and put forward a doctrine regarding the Eucharist which both would find satisfactory. The meeting broke up in disarray with Luther shouting, "Zwingli, you can't get round the fact that Christ said 'This is my Body'."
The most perfect embodiment of Catholic tradition is in the Church of Rome where it has been cited by popes to end disputes over matters of Catholic doctrine.
So it was in the third century. St Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, was then teaching that, before repentant heretics or schismatics could be admitted to the sacraments, they must be re-baptised.
In 254, Pope St Stephen I settled the matter with the declaration: "The Roman Church does not re-baptise."
In our own day, John Paul II settled the dispute about the ordination of women to the priesthood in the same way. He wrote: "The Roman Church holds that she has not received from her Divine Founder the power to confer the priesthood on women."
Some biblical scholars in Australia were of the opinion that the arguments from the New Testament which the Pope had cited in support of his infallible teaching that women cannot receive ordination to the priesthood, e.g., that all the Apostles were male, were not very convincing.
Even if this were true, I do not think it would have worried His Holiness. For the argument from tradition was enough to settle the matter.
One could add that it was the tradition of the Roman Church that, without any explicit declaration, settled the debates about the Canon of the New Testament in the second and third centuries. There were disputes, for example, about the Apocalypse and the Epistle to the Hebrews, but these books were in the Roman Canon and this settled the matter.
Fr G.H. Duggan SM is a New Zealand theologian.