But when the Sacred Human Story elevated to the status of Sacred Tradition is about some of the bigger issues in human existence—nations, blood, race, economics, sex, family, etc.—these things can often loom so large in our minds that we are tempted to elevate them to the altar and confuse them with the Word of God Himself. When that happens, it is almost a certainty that somebody is going to get hurt or killed as a result.
That’s what Paul is really warning about when he tells the Colossians:
See to it that no one makes a prey of you by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ” (Colossians 2:8).
This passage, one of the most misunderstood in Scripture, is not a denunciation of the Catholic idea of Sacred Tradition. It has not a word to say against the basic Catholic idea that apostolic Tradition comes down to us in written and unwritten form and constitutes the common life, teaching and worship of the Church. It doesn’t even have anything particularly hostile to say about human traditions, which are the lifeblood of normal human society and constitute the way in which civilizations function. (Imagine, if it’s even possible, a world with no human traditions: no birthdays, anniversaries, special meals, toasts, wedding rings, rites of passage, funerals, retirement parties, favorite games, favorite songs, or any other repeated group actions. You may as well try to imagine a world without human beings. Tradition is how we remember who we are.)
No, the only thing Paul warns about here—the only thing Scripture ever warns about human tradition—is the elevation of mere human tradition to the status of Sacred Tradition: the confusion of your own Favorite Human Thing with the essence of the gospel Jesus Christ entrusted to his Church. Against that, Paul and the Church warn us with great force and it has ever been the task of the Magisterium to help us distinguish between mere human tradition and Sacred Tradition. Every time we are tempted to make our views about some ideology, or prudential judgment, or hot button issue into Sacred Tradition, or to minimize some aspect of the Tradition in order to get away with excusing our favorite ideological sins, the teaching of the Church is there to check us.