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Harrison Butker’s Very American Traditionalism

Across almost two weeks of controversy over the commencement speech that Kansas City Chiefs kicker Harrison Butker gave at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kan., one of the most useful pieces of commentary came from Kevin Tierney, writing in Catholic World Report. Tierney neither defended nor attacked Butker’s sweeping condemnation of modern secular culture and lukewarm forms of Catholic faith. Instead he identified the kicker’s worldview as part of a distinctive tendency that Tierney calls “DIY traditionalism” — a form of Catholic piety that offers a “radical emphasis on personal accountability, is inherently populist, and has little direct connection to Church authorities.”

A little context: Butker is a Latin Mass Catholic as well as Travis Kelce’s teammate. Benedictine College is a conservative Catholic college that featured prominently in a recent Associated Press report on the rightward turn in American Catholic piety and practice. The most controversial portion of the kicker’s graduation speech, the part that zipped from social media to “The View,” urged the college’s female graduates to ignore the “diabolical lies” that emphasize “promotions and titles” over “your marriage and the children you will bring into this world.”

But the speech did more than just champion “one of the most important titles of all: homemaker” while denouncing “degenerate cultural values” in society at large. Butker also delivered a sweeping condemnation of the church’s bishops, whom he cast as weak-kneed bureaucrats and denounced especially for suspending Masses and disappearing from the lives of the faithful during the pandemic. He criticized priests for being “overly familiar” with their parishioners — “because as my teammate’s girlfriend says, familiarity breeds contempt.”

He appeared to throw some shade, not just on the use of artificial contraception, but on the use of Natural Family Planning, the church’s approved method of fertility regulation. (“No matter how you spin it, there is nothing natural about Catholic birth control.”) He urged Catholics to prioritize the traditional Latin Mass over other aspects of Catholic life — “even if the parish isn’t beautiful, the priest isn’t great, or the community isn’t amazing.” And he argued that while ordinary Catholics shouldn’t all be amateur theologians, they also shouldn’t hesitate to go in search of teachings they aren’t getting from the current hierarchy: “We have so many great resources at our fingertips that it doesn’t take long to find traditional and timeless teachings that haven’t been ambiguously reworded for our times.”

Just a couple of weeks ago, writing about the future of the Catholic Church and that Associated Press story, I mentioned a journalistic tendency to collapse different kinds of right-leaning Catholicism together, instead of recognizing the ways in which a conservative American Catholic who prays the rosary, votes pro-life and admires Pope John Paul II differs from the typical adherent of the traditional Latin Mass.

When discerning national trends, that collapse of categories is somewhat forgivable; I do it myself in imagining a broad “neo-traditionalism” in American religion. But Butker’s speech is a good example of what the difference looks like and why it matters.

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