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Opinion: Harrison Butker’s very American traditionalism

No less than any progressive form of Catholicism, Butker and his movement are the fruits of a weakened hierarchy, a disillusioned-but-empowered laity and a democratic age.

You can see in Harrison Butker’s judgmental zeal the obvious ways in which traditionalism can be self-limiting. But the idea that it simply represents a kind of atavism, a medieval relic unaccountably preserved, misunderstands the nature of its strength, Ross Douthat writes. (Alain Pilon/The New York Times)

Across almost two weeks of controversy over the commencement speech that Kansas City Chiefs kicker Harrison Butker gave at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas, one of the most useful pieces of commentary came from Kevin Tierney, writing in Catholic World Report. Tierney neither defended nor attacked Butker’s 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 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 anti-abortion 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.

When you think about conservative Catholics, even in the present age of disillusionment, you are thinking about a category of believers that’s comfortable with hierarchy and authority, that wants to trust its priests and bishops, that may have doubts about the current pope but still probably views him favorably (as nearly two-thirds of Republican-voting American Catholics do), that maybe parish-shops a bit but does so within the local options, that gives generously to the Archbishop’s Annual Appeal.

You’re thinking about a population that embraces old-school Catholic devotions like Eucharistic adoration but in a way that’s largely integrated into post-Second Vatican Council liturgical life, with the Mass in English and just a few Latin flourishes here and there. And you’re thinking about a population that includes a lot of full-time mothers and home-schoolers but also takes for granted the work-and-family juggle — with a figure like Amy Coney Barrett as much a model as any stay-at-home mom.

Traditionalism, by contrast, starts from a basic, primal form of alienation: a belief that in the 1960s, the institutional church suppressed the “essential” form (Butker’s word) of the church’s liturgy, the form that represents how God himself wishes to be worshipped. This creates a relationship of mistrust that doesn’t exist for the conservative. After such knowledge, what forgiveness? How can you ever trust the pope or bishops fully if they made that kind of error?

As Tierney writes in his essay, the alienation from the institution also yields a practical difference in how this kind of Catholic culture works. Traditional Latin Mass adherents often cannot operate through the usual channels of Catholic life. They can’t just show up at a parish, participate in its programs, work with but also defer to the vision of its priest. Instead, the traditionalist laity often has to create a subculture that operates much more independently. Here’s Tierney’s description of a version of that process:

“A TLM community takes root within a diocese, and it wants to spread the news about the TLM. Rather than just promote their own community, one individual takes a trip to a neighborhood parish and asks the priest if a single TLM could be celebrated there, as an act of solicitude for the flock. That priest does not even need to say the TLM, but it would be nice if they came to the social afterward. If the priest agrees, that individual then calls up a few local priests he knows who can come say the Mass. If someone needs to learn how, that individual is put in touch with lay associations/groups that train priests in saying the TLM. They then either provide the priest YouTube videos or do a private training session, many times absorbing the costs themselves.

“To advertise that Mass, a few key individuals in the location are contacted, and they send out an email or post on social media. They spread the word in their own communities. In addition to individuals in the area attending, those communities send “delegations” from their community to be present in order to answer questions and show people what they have found to work best at their community. Maybe, by this point, the parish priest has advertised it in his parish bulletin, yet that bulletin is likely not to be read widely, and most of the people in that community who are attending aren’t from that parish. Once that Mass takes place, this cycle is set up for another parish, and people who want to help out are identified, and the cycle begins anew.”

Two points are worth making about this description. First, this kind of church-within-a church dynamic is exactly the justification offered by church authorities for their attempts to suppress or limit access to the traditional liturgy (attempts that include restrictions on advertising in parish bulletins). The fear is that the traditional Mass creates a sect of believers that operates without normal ecclesiastical supervision, which then recruits from among the much larger population of conservative Catholics — through, say, a traditionalist commencement speech at a conservative college — and draws them into its alienated ranks.

Even Tierney, broadly sympathetic to the traditionalists, describes their movement as “dynamic but also chaotic,” with the potential to “go off the rails without a lot of corrective mechanisms in place.” If you don’t sympathize at all with the desire to maintain the old liturgy, if you regard traditionalism as entirely retrograde, you’ll see it the way many of Pope Francis’ allies do: as a dangerously divisive force within the church.

But then here is the second point and the great irony: The kind of lay-led organizing described above, in which ordinary Catholics get together and create culture and community without priestly leadership or hierarchical direction, is exactly what Vatican II was supposed to usher in. And if you just gave a general description of the TLM movement, it could easily code as “progressive” — with the assumption being that if a bunch of lay Catholics are getting together to do something that cuts across the lines of parishes and dioceses and that the hierarchy regards with disapproval, they must be seeking a more liberalized and modern church.

In reality, traditionalism itself has turned out to be one of the most successful movements of the entire post-Vatican II era, using one manifestation of the spirit of the age (disputatious, populist, anti-authority) to organize against a different manifestation (the renovation of the liturgy). It’s thrived with the advance of the internet, which has made community-building easier and enabled immediate documentary access to the pre-1960s Catholic patrimony traditionalists are eager to restore. And it’s proved to be a very American movement — coming to you in this case from the place where the heartland meets the celebrity culture of the NFL. (Nor is it a coincidence that the other center of traditionalism is France, another revolutionary nation where the national Catholic Church has always had a complex relationship with Rome.)

I think you can see in Butker’s judgmental zeal the obvious ways in which traditionalism can be self-limiting. But the idea that it simply represents a kind of atavism, a medieval relic unaccountably preserved, misunderstands the nature of its strength. No less than any progressive form of Catholicism, Butker and his movement are the fruits of a weakened hierarchy, a disillusioned-but-empowered laity and a democratic age.