The Holy Spirit and the Logic of Tradition

According to the French Dominican theologian Yves Congar (1904-1995), the term “Tradition” [1] (from the Latin, tradere) was originally used in Roman legal documents, where it signified the transfer of property from a donor to a beneficiary.[2] When the term was adopted by Christian theologians, it came to signify a transmission from God to humanity, with humans understood as the recipients of God’s revelation, the deposit of faith, or even Christ himself. It can therefore refer to the content of this transaction, which Congar suggests is best understood as the gospel: the saving reality or “pattern of life” that Christ determined for his disciples at a particular point in history.

However, the real significance of Tradition is only grasped when one considers that this “pattern” established by Christ is meant to be embraced by men and women living thousands of years after his death and in societies vastly different from ancient Galilee, Jerusalem, or even Rome.[3] By its very logic, the gospel is meant to traverse the gulfs of time and space and address us as something contemporary, as something we can interiorize in spite of our different historical and cultural settings. Yet considered simply as a way of life, given its shape in first-century Palestine, the gospel does not appear to possess of itself the quality needed to render it a personal and living reality to succeeding generations. If Christianity is to be more than a mere artifact of history, “Tradition” must then refer primarily to this dynamic of translation that the gospel undergoes in order to be appropriated in new times and places—while, of course, remaining consistent with the form Christ determined for it once and for all.

Theologians—especially Catholic theologians—have often tried to account for this translation by appealing to the role of institutions, to the succession of certain offices, confessions, and ministries for the handing-on of the faith. Yet while institutions can ensure that certain ways of life survive for succeeding generations, they cannot of themselves guarantee that those ways of life appeal to new hearts and minds. If the gospel is to be a living, interior, and personal reality, Congar argues, a “new act of God himself” is required, one more fundamental than the integrity of visible structures.[4] The act of translation that Tradition names should therefore be thought of as a special kind of divine act, something God does. And when we affirm that God acts in this way, we have good reason to believe that it is primarily the person of the Holy Spirit who does the translating.

The German Catholic theologian Joahann Adam Möhler (1796-1838), was one of the first to make this point: that Christians should derive their theory of Tradition from pneumatology, the study of the Holy Spirit. In his early writings Möhler argued that the church’s unity across time and space results from the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, and the church’s institutions are the objectifications of this indwelling—its outgrowth or visible expressions. The presence of the Spirit is, on this view, primary, while the institutions derive their enduring vitality from him. [5] The relationship is much like that between the soul and the body: the Holy Spirit animates the visible structures, ensuring that they bear witness to the same Spirit who descended upon Christ.[6]

The Holy Spirit is then, in a sense, the divine condition of the church’s Tradition. In fact the very features we ascribe to the Holy Spirit as a unique person of the Trinity make it fitting for him to play this role. Insofar as he alone proceeds from the Father and Son together, the Spirit personifies their union even as he emerges in distinction from them. This personifying of unity, this reconciling of identity in difference, is then something we should expect to find reflected in the Spirit’s actions within history. Thus, as Congar puts it, “the Spirit creates, from within, the unity of the community, and also the organs or expressions of its special genius, i.e., its tradition.”[7] Continuity between the “pattern of life” that Christ established and the customs of his church centuries and even millennia later, is possible because the Spirit who empowered Christ’s earthly ministry is the same Spirit whom Christ bestowed upon his church at Pentecost.

Tradition is therefore primarily something the Spirit does. The Farewell Discourse from John’s Gospel provides ample evidence that “the role vested in the Holy Spirit is the actualizing and interiorizing of what Christ said and did.”[8] He does not speak of himself or proclaim his own gospel; rather, he is sent into the world to continually bring Christ’s words to memory (Jn 14:26), to bear witness to him (Jn 15: 26), to guide the disciples into the fullness of his truth (Jn 16:13) and to make known (Jn 16:15) all that Christ revealed. What Congar refers to as the other agents and subjects of Tradition—like the prophets, apostles, and (for Catholics) the magisterium—must be seen to somehow participate in this activity of the Spirit if their proper relation to Tradition is to be understood. Their actions, though vital, only amount to acts of Tradition to the extent that they derive from and depend on the Spirit’s action. Likewise, what Congar calls traditions (lower-case and plural: institutions, rites, customs, and disciplines) as well as the “monuments” of Tradition (Scripture, dogmas, magisterial and patristic writings) represent more concrete and often limited expressions of the Spirit. They amount to the historically and culturally embedded forms by which the Spirit transfigures the gospel and renders it always new.

The Holy Spirit and the Logic of Liberation

If it’s true that our understanding of Tradition is principally rooted in the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, there is another tenet of pneumatology that has important implications for how we understand the vitality of Tradition. It is perhaps best categorized as a datum of political theology, and more specifically it is a notion that has only seen significant elaboration in the writings of Latin American liberation theologians. I’m referring here to the claim that, much like Tradition’s process of translation, the process of liberation from social sin or structures of sin[9] is rooted primarily in the mission of the Holy Spirit.

Far from a doctrinal novelty, one can trace this association of the Spirit with liberation to a number of biblical precedents. One could mention 2 Corinthians 3:17 for the most general justification: “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Cor 3:17 NIV). One could also cite Luke 4:18–19, when Jesus claims to fulfill the messianic prophecy of Isaiah and identifies the fullness of the Spirit with proclaiming “good news to the poor,” that is, freedom for prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind, and perhaps most importantly for my purposes, setting the oppressed free. These actions, which Jesus claims to perform in the power of the Spirit, bear a notable resemblance to those listed in similar passages like Matthew 25 and James 2:14–26: the feeding of the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, showing hospitality to strangers, healing the sick, clothing the naked, and visiting prisoners. Here these concrete acts of mercy done for the least among us are identified with acts of mercy done for Christ himself. They serve as the very measure of authenticity for Christians, distinguishing a faith that is truly living from one that is dead and ineffective for salvation.

The liberating dimension of the Spirit’s mission also finds support in a variety of the Catholic Church’s magisterial documents. The Belgian-born Latin American theologian José Comblin draws attention to section 26 of Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes, which describes the Spirit as guiding the social order toward a fuller realization of justice and freedom. Section 38 of the same text speaks of the Spirit “animating, purifying, and strengthening those noble longings” to more perfectly foster the conditions of human dignity in society. [10] The apostolic letter of Pope Paul VI (Octogesima Adveniens) describes the Spirit as a force in the world who “urges [humanity] to go beyond every system and every ideology” and empowers the Christian “in the building up of the human city, one that is to be peaceful, just and fraternal.”[11] Similar sentiments can be found in John Paul II’s encyclical, Redemptoris Missio, and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s “Instruction” on liberation theology (Libertatis Conscientia), which, while highly critical of the movement, nevertheless affirms the Spirit’s role in “[calling] man and societies to overcome situations of sin and injustice and to establish the conditions for true freedom.”[12] It is clear, then, that when theologians like Comblin describe the Spirit as “efficacious in history, promoting a concrete and temporal Reign [of God’s justice], however incomplete,”[13] they are not merely importing utopian axioms into their theologies, but are elaborating upon a teaching with magisterial authority.

Both liberation theologians and their most vocal critics in the Catholic hierarchy agree that when we speak of the Spirit’s “liberating” power, we refer primarily to liberation from sin.[14] However, as Comblin rightly points out, many of the scriptural passages linking the Spirit with liberation have an irreducibly material dimension to them: they suggest that the presence of the Spirit impels us toward concrete action— to free the oppressed, to aid the poor, to feed the hungry. Most importantly, Comblin notes that however limited such efforts will always remain prior to Christ’s second coming, the Spirit’s action in freeing us from sin can never be restricted to a purely privatized sanctification. Even the official teaching of the Catholic Church requires that we discern the Spirit’s liberating action in society.

As a result, we can affirm with the Episcopal Conferences of Medellin and Peubla, both foundational events for Latin American theology, that the Spirit arouses the desire for a “liberative salvation” among the poor.[15] When we Christians encounter the self-liberating and self-humanizing movements of the poor in history, we are forced to acknowledge the Spirit in them, renewing the face of the earth. What the theological lens alone discerns in these events is the fact that states of oppression, slavery, and economic injustice are at their roots the products of sin. They depend, for their very rationale, on the fallenness of humanity, the deeply desolate state of human nature. They are, in a way, sin ideologized and institutionalized, especially insofar as they systematically undermine the conditions of charity, mercy, and solidarity. So when efforts to overcome these conditions arise —when the poor begin to claim freedom; to have a voice; to form living, functional communities; and to act in history to alter these structures[16]—then we are forced to identify God’s immanent activity, in some way animating these changes. For the condition of overcoming the power and effects of sin is by definition divine, a condition that only God’s direct activity can bring about.

As Comblin rightly points out, however, such claims about the Spirit cannot serve to determine the legitimacy of particular revolutionary movements nor the conditions for such movements.[17] They do not themselves allow one to invoke the support of the Spirit for any party platform or ideology. Concerns of this kind will always involve complex acts of discernment and prudential judgment in order to determine what changes in social structures truly amount to overcoming social sin in diverse contexts. To affirm that the Spirit is present if and when liberation from social sin occurs is, in contrast, a point of theory, a determination at the level of principles. It is merely to extend the doctrine of the Spirit’s freedom from sin to the church’s reflection on its social teaching.

The Holy Spirit and Liberative Tradition

Why, then, would a concept of Tradition like the one I’ve described be of value for political theology? In short, much like Tradition, liberation from structures of sin is also primarily something that the Spirit does. If both liberation and Tradition have their common foundation in pneumatology, a concept of Tradition emerges that is fundamentally liberative: one that is only alive, like faith in the Letter of James, to the extent that it is capable of embodying and fostering the liberation of the oppressed.

On the one hand, consider what becomes of Tradition when the Spirit’s role is either ignored or denied. As I’ve argued, such a theory of Tradition would be ignoring or denying the one thing capable of ensuring authentic transmission of the gospel, i.e. that which enables it to be translated into new spatial and temporal contexts while remaining vital and effective. To discount the Spirit’s role leaves the visible, structural, or institutional aspects of Tradition vulnerable to becoming religious commodities. Cut off from their living source, they would effectively mirror the dead faith that James impugns; one easily drawn into the service of worldly powers, made to reinforce countless dehumanizing ideologies. Examples abound of appeals to Tradition made in order to justify and perpetuate structures of sin rather than combat them, as when many in the Latin American church sought to align Catholicism with the sins of colonialism and repressive political regimes.

But when, on the other hand, Tradition is rooted in the activity of the Spirit, and the institutional aspects of Tradition are seen as his objective manifestations, there is then a clear and supernatural mechanism for the purification of these aspects. This purifying by the Spirit is not then to be understood as a radical break with the visible order of the church, but, rather, as the means to constantly disassociate the church’s structures from sinful ideologies. If the Spirit is at work in the church translating the form of the Gospel in and through things like creeds, councils, and magisterium, and if he is also at work in the world animating movements of liberation among the poor, then those movements ought to have a profound effect on our understanding of the vitality of the gospel here and now.

An account of Tradition permeated by the Spirit’s liberating activity is, in other words, capable of shaping the features of Tradition into instruments of liberation. As Congar notes, Tradition only becomes concrete in and through the various ‘traditions’ that embody though never exhaust it; those “practical conclusions connected with doctrine, to determine Christian practice or the life of the church according to the Gospel.”[18] These traditions include customs, sacramental rites, local devotions, and particular forms of church discipline and observance. Their character is culturally specific and their doctrinal validity restricted to certain times or regions. Yet it is through them that the gospel becomes something more than abstract, that is, something livable in a particular context. As expressions of the Spirit’s liberating function, it’s possible for such traditions to embody resistance to structures of sin and to reflect the true spirit of a people striving for justice. They could, in other words, facilitate the liberation and humanization of a people in the concrete. Examples could include the church promoting spiritualities that seek to reform society; applying the corporal works of mercy to specific cultural contexts; canonizing saints who serve as potent witnesses of the gospel’s political message (like Oscar Romero or Dorothy Day); endorsing the cults and charisms associated with such saints; and finally endorsing rites and prayers that bear the stamp of a people’s social struggle.

Liberation becomes, in this way, an essential criterion for the Spirit’s ‘traditioning,’ in the sense that the Spirit translates the gospel into the forms most appropriate for a particular time and place. It follows then that in oppressive social contexts those translations of the gospel pattern which support or instantiate the authentic liberation of a people are the most fitting, and thus those which the Spirit inspires. If the church builds up rites, cults, prayers, and practices that do not reflect the struggleof the oppressed, of those longing for justice and the kingdom of God, they risk building up idols to a privatized Christianity, instruments for reinforcing structures of sin. The Spirit whom Christians on the Feast of Pentecost invoke as “Father of the Poor” (Pater pauperum), cannot be found among such idols, for there no freedom exists. Just as real, corporal acts of love for neighbor reveal when our faith is living, so too our traditions are shown to be living when they speak to and for the least among us.


[1] Throughout this essay I attempt to track Yves Congar’s distinction between “Tradition” and “traditions” by capitalizing the term in the singular when referring to the general and universal theological meaning: “the transmission of the reality that is Christianity: this is really the Tradition” (Congar, The Meaning of Tradition, trans. A.N. Woodrow [New York, NY: Hawthorn], 46.

[2] Ibid. 14.

[3] Yves Congar, Tradition and Traditions (London, UK: Macmillan, 1967), 342.

[4] Ibid. 342.

[5] I have chosen to use the masculine pronoun for the Holy Spirit for the sake of consistency, as the majority of the authors and all of the magisterial texts I cite do so. For an account of the Spirit’s femininity among the authors cited, see José Comblin, The Holy Spirit and Liberation, trans. Paul Burns (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1989), 49-50; and Leonardo Boff, Trinity and Society, trans. Paul Burns (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1988), 196-198.

[6] See Johann Adamn Möhler, Unity in the Church, or, The Principle of CatholicismPresented in the Spirit of the Church Fathers of the First Three Centuries, trans. Peter C. Erb (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1996).

[7] Congar, Tradition and Traditions, 340.

[8] Ibid. 342.

[9] In Catholic social teaching, social sin refers to sins committed against justice in relations between individuals, between an individual and the community, and especially as concerns personal and social freedoms. Structures of sin are defined as social structures (like racism, unjust economies, and other ideologies) derived from personal sins which consolidate, condition human conduct, and become sources for other sins. The two notions are inextricably connected, and I refer to them interchangeably. See The Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, “Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church,” Vatican, June 29, 2004, sec. 118–119,

[10] Vatican Council II, Gaudium et Spes (Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World), Vatican, December 7, 1965, sec. 26 and 38, Cf. Comblin, The Holy Spirit and Liberation, 51.

[11] Pope Paul VI, Apostolic Letter, Octogesima Adveniens, Vatican, May 14, 1971,

[12] Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Instruction on Christian Freedom and Liberation, Libertatis Conscientia, Vatican, March 22, 1986, sec. 60,

[13] Comblin, “The Holy Spirit,” in Mysterium Liberationis: Fundamental Concepts of Liberation Theology, ed. Ignacio Ellacuría and Jon Sobrino (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1993), 475.

[14] Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Libertatis Conscientia, sec. 51–54 .

[15] Comblin, “The Holy Spirit,” 462.

[16] Ibid. 463–71.

[17] Comblin, The Church and the National Security State (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1979), 29–30.

[18] Congar, The Meaning of Tradition, 39–40.