As the Catholic Church in the 20th century has rebounded from its Reformation-induced four-century hunkered-down posture, one of the things it has done is to recover a gracefulness of apologetics that has become one of its greatest attributes. The works of such authors as Jean Guitton (e.g., The Church and the Gospel and The Problem of Jesus), Rene Girard (I See Satan Fall Like Lightening), Jean-Luc Marion (God Without Being), Hans Urs von Balthasar, Romano Guardini, and Louis Bouyer (e.g., The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism and Word, Church, and Sacrament in Protestantism and Catholicism)--not to mention those of John Paul II and Benedict XVI--have positioned the Church more in the stance of dialog partner than of antagonist even as she has maintained the integrity of her position as bearer of the fullness of the faith.
This great little book by Yves Congar, long out of print but now once again, thankfully, available, solidifies the Church's well-deserved reputation as a gentle warrior for truth even in relation to those who find themselves, largely through no fault of their own, outside its precincts.
In my thirty-year journey to Catholicism from evangelical Protestantism, I don't ever recall encountering a formal delineation of the Catholic understanding of Tradition. Even though I had come to a position where I felt I could substantially affirm Catholic self-understandings, I can't remember ever coming face to face with the Catholic position on Tradition. Yes, I had arrived at essentially the same view the Church takes on Tradition--that the threefold ministry (bishop, priest, deacon), the Catholic form of worship (variously called the Mass, the Eucharist, the Paschal Mystery), and the Catholic understanding of authority (expressed normatively through the Magisterium) are all essential aspects of the Church--but without actually encountering the Catholic concept of Tradition. In other words, I deduced the necessity of such a thing as Tradition in Catholic self-understanding without actually having made its acquaintance. Which was fine, except that if I had had the opportunity to read this wonderful treatise by Yves Congar, I might have resolved my difficulties about becoming Catholic far earlier.
The greatest thing about this book is its clarity. In little more than 65,000 words, the renowned French theologian and architect of Vatican II succinctly and elegantly lays out the Catholic view of Tradition--the handing on of unwritten understandings--from the Lord to the Apostles to their successors, the Bishops, up to the present. For a Catholic this Tradition is authoritative, because it came from the Lord himself, who handed it on or over to the Apostles, who in turn handed it on to their successors. The Latin word for Tradition literally means a handing on or handing over. The contents of this Tradition are, essentially, the Eucharist, the threefold ministry, and the Petrine prerogatives. Since Tradition has a divine origin and Apostolic pedigree, it cannot be changed: its Worship, Ministry, and Authority are something received from the Lord through the Apostles and then the Bishops; these things, therefore, are not subject to correction or reconfiguration. They may be developed, but not altered.
From a Catholic perspective, Protestants also share in the Church's Tradition, although imperfectly and incompletely: The breach that occurred in the sixteenth century between Catholics and Protestants caused the latter to lose certain essential aspects of Tradition in terms of Worship, Ministry, and Authority. In Worship, Protestants devised novel liturgies that often incompletely expressed the fullness of Catholic understanding, especially, for example, in relation to such essential concepts as Eucharistic sacrifice. Interestingly, many of these incompletions have been recovered in contemporary Protestant liturgical churches (e.g., Lutheran and Anglican) in consequence of the Liturgical Renewal. In ministry, many Protestant churches lost the threefold ministry, and those that retained it have struggled to find a way link it to historic apostolicity. There is also a critical problem of jurisdiction, as the Catholic Church regards its Bishops and none others as the Apostolic Ordinaries in any given geographical area. As regards authority, Protestantism tended to lose the ability to speak definitively about doctrine as well as to exercise discipline on wayward members, especially in relation to clergy and theologians who depart from received understandings.
As Protestants are more and more coming to see that the Catholic Church has resources that they lack, this eloquent book will help them understand how it is that she came to possess these resources. Perhaps it will also be a source for increased understanding among divided Christians. For Catholics, it will help them understand how the bounteous riches their Church daily experiences came to be, how they were passed on and preserved, and how they continue to give it life.