Q. Recently in an article you cited a Pope Stephen and his injunction against introducing anything in Church practice that is not strictly according to tradition. How can this be a norm? What about introducing English into the Mass? What about allowing a Pope to resign? Where can I read about all this?
A. Remember, the Church is 2,000 years old, the oldest institution in world history; hence, it would take countless volumes even to summarize – if that were even possible. If one is simply researching the issue today, of course, all one need do is Google Pope Stephen or Church innovation, either in English or in Latin. It can be found there without any problem.
The question here pertains to Pope Stephen, who succeeded to the Chair of Peter in 254, and died a martyr a little more than three years later. (He was the first to bear the name of “Stephen”; nine other Roman Pontiffs chose the same name.) The famous citation, properly referred to Pope St. Stephen, is, Nil innovetur nisi quod traditum est. Its meaning is, “Nothing should be introduced [in Church usage] unless it is founded upon the Tradition.”
In other words, everything in Catholic usage is somehow based on the key elements or practices that have a basis in Apostolic Tradition, at least implicitly. “Tradition” here means that which has been handed down from Apostolic times, beginning and ending with Sacred Scripture as read by, or within, the Church. I usually spell it with an upper-case “T,” if only to contrast it from so-called “traditions” that do not per se reflect the essentials and/or key components of authentic Catholic doctrine and morality.
Pope Stephen’s maxim was expressed in the “Answer … to the Decisions of St. Cyprian.” The context was considerable confusion as to whether Baptism, when conferred by heretics, is valid. Saint Cyprian of Carthage, one of the greatest of the Church Fathers, insisted that heretics seeking acceptance into the Church needed to be “rebaptized” in the Catholic Church. Cyprian called two synods, in 255 and 256, to adjudicate the matter in his favor. But Pope Stephen was determined not to allow Cyprian’s erroneous view to prevail. In his written “Answer” to Cyprian, he reinforced that there was no precedent for “rebaptizing” heretics or schismatics. On the contrary, he argued, Cyprian’s proposal was an “innovation,” not at all supported by Apostolic Tradition.
Interestingly, Saint Cyprian’s erroneous position here became popular not only in North Africa but also among a majority of bishops in Asia Minor. The dispute even occasioned a note of disharmony between Rome and the Churches of Asia Minor and Africa. In Africa, Cyprian’s error remained popular until the Council of Arles in 314.
Pope Stephen’s caution is and will always be the true rule, of course: Nil innovetur (literally, “nothing should be introduced” that cannot be somehow supported by Tradition.