Paul L. Caron

Sunday, May 26, 2024

NY Times Op-Ed: Harrison Butker’s Very American Catholic Traditionalism

New York Times Op-Ed:  Harrison Butker’s Very American Traditionalism, by Ross Douthat:

Butker 3Across 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.” ...

[A] couple of weeks ago, writing about the future of the Catholic Church and that Associated Press story [Can Conservative And Liberal Catholics Coexist?], 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 [What Will American Religion Look Like On Easter 2050?]. 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. ...

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 worshiped. This creates a relationship of mistrust that doesn’t exist for the conservative. ...

[T]raditionalism 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 proven to be a very American movement — coming to you in this case from the place where the heartland meets the celebrity culture of the N.F.L. ...

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.

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Other New York Times op-eds by Ross Douthat:

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