Harrison Butker’s commencement speech and the danger of a Catholic ‘dead traditionalism’ (2024)

Kansas City Chiefs kicker Harrison Butker speaks to the media during NFL football Super Bowl 58 opening night Monday, Feb. 5, 2024, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel, File)

Well, it isn’t the first time that Harrison Butker has missed wide right.

Last weekend, the placekicker for the Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs delivered the commencement address to the class of 2024 at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kan.

Benedictine College was recently featured in a report from the Associated Press under the headline, “‘A step back in time': America’s Catholic Church sees an immense shift toward the old ways.” Enrollment at the school has doubled in the last 20 years, and it boasts a vibrant Catholic life in both its curriculum and extracurriculars.

“[A]t Benedictine, Catholic teaching on contraception can slip into lessons on Plato, and no one is surprised if you volunteer for 3 a.m. prayers,” the A.P. reports. “p*rnography, pre-marital sex and sunbathing in swimsuits are forbidden.”

Mr. Butker, who has been vocal about his devout Catholic faith, pro-life views and love of the traditional Latin Mass throughout his N.F.L. career, was a natural pick for the school, and his address was applauded by many in the audience.

But outside what some students call “the Benedictine bubble,” Mr. Butker’s remarks on several culture war issues were less well received. On May 15, the N.F.L. distanced itself from the address, saying in a statement that “[Mr. Butker’s] views are not those of the NFL as an organization. The NFL is steadfast in our commitment to inclusion, which only makes our league stronger.”

In secular outlets, Mr. Butker’s discussion of gender roles caught the most attention. Addressing the “ladies” in the class of 2024, he said:

Some of you may go on to lead successful careers in the world, but I would venture to guess that the majority of you are most excited about your marriage and the children you will bring into this world. I can tell you that my beautiful wife Isabelle would be the first to say her life truly started when she started living her vocation as a wife and as a mother.

He mentioned that while his wife’s dream of a career has not come true, she has excelled in “the most important” role of “homemaker.”

Mr. Butker also spoke out against “bad policies and poor leadership [that] have negatively impacted major life issues. Things like abortion, I.V.F., surrogacy, euthanasia, as well as a growing support for the degenerate cultural values and media all stem from the pervasiveness of disorder.”

While Mr. Butker’s address has drawn a great deal of media attention for the ways his worldview clashes with mainstream liberal opinion, it’s worth noting that just as much of what he said pushed beyond what might be considered “traditional” Catholic beliefs.

Mr. Butker casually mentions that “Congress just passed a bill where stating something as basic as the biblical teaching of who killed Jesus could land you in jail,” a not-so-thinly veiled reference to a recent bill passed in the House to combat antisemitism.

Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene has criticized the bill because she believes it “could convict Christians of antisemitism for believing the Gospel that says Jesus was handed over to Herod to be crucified by the Jews.”

The Catholic Church teaches that the Jews are not responsible for killing Jesus. In “Nostra Aetate,” the Second Vatican Council’s declaration on interfaith relations, the church teaches that “what happened in [Jesus’] passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today.”

Mr. Butker also pushed the envelope in his comments on birth control. Most people know the Catholic Church is against artificial contraception. The church does, however, support the practice of natural family planning, which the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops outlined in a document marking the 25th anniversary of “Humanae Vitae”:

With proper instruction, married couples can readily understand the cycle of fertility and they are able to plan and space births in a way that is both consistent with God's law and supportive of their own intimacy and unity.

Mr. Butker seemed to suggest that even practicing N.F.P. is not Catholic enough for him:

Heterodox ideas abound even within Catholic circles, but let’s be honest, there is nothing good about playing God with having children, whether that be your ideal number or the perfect time to conceive. No matter how you spin it, there is nothing natural about Catholic birth control (emphasis mine).

Finally, Mr. Butker is not shy about his liturgical preferences. He unabashedly discusses his love for the traditional Latin Mass (a love that I once shared) and encourages students to seek it out to bring order to their lives. He says:

I do not attend the T.L.M. because I think I am better than others or for the smells and bells or even for the love of Latin. I attend the T.L.M. because I believe just as the God of the Old Testament was pretty particular and how he wanted to be worshiped, the same holds true for us today.

Pope Francis, with his motu proprio “Traditionis Custodes,” restricted the celebration of the T.L.M. Mr. Butker has a solution for the graduates: Don’t simply consider cost-of-living when deciding where to live after graduation—seek out a place where the T.L.M. is readily available. This advice suggests that God has perhaps not spoken through an ecumenical council or subsequent popes who have moved the church away from the traditional Latin Mass. It’s one thing to prefer the Latin Mass. It’s another to argue that the “Novus Ordo” just won’t cut it.

Near the end of his speech, Mr. Butker tells the graduates, “Everything I am saying to you is not from a place of wisdom but rather a place of experience.” But to my ear, his speech sounds less like the result of experience than an all-encompassing ideology. There is no other reason that gender roles, Covid-19 policies, liturgical preferences and abortion should all fall under the same coherent theme of a commencement address. Unless, of course, you wear your views like a team uniform—and everyone who disagrees is an opponent if not an enemy to be defeated.

There are many Catholics that do have opinions that fall on the conservative side of the political spectrum, and Catholics who have liturgical and devotional practices that borrow more from the Middle Ages than the St. Louis Jesuits. Oftentimes, those preferences do not even overlap.

But the ideology espoused by Mr. Butker goes beyond that. It reminds me of what Pope Francis has warned about repeatedly throughout his pontificate. Here he is in 2022:

...there is the fashion—in every age, but in this age in the Church’s life I consider it dangerous—that instead of drawing from the roots in order to move forward—meaning fine traditions—we “step back,” not going up or down, but backwards. This “back-stepping” makes us a sect; it makes you “closed” and cuts off your horizons. Those people call themselves guardians of traditions, but of dead traditions. The true Catholic Christian and human tradition is what that fifth-century theologian [Saint Vincent of Lerins] described as a constant growth: throughout history tradition grows, progresses: ut annis consolidetur, dilatetur tempore, sublimetur aetate. That is authentic tradition, which progresses with our children.

Without a doubt, there are things in our culture that the church should stand against. But we should beware that we do not close ourselves off to the world in doing that. For my money, if the church has any chance of growth in our culture, it will need to come from attraction—from beautiful liturgies, yes, but also from our humble service to the vulnerable and prophetic calls for a more just society. And for all the media coverage and viral TikToks about his speech, there was not much in there that was attractive. Mr. Butker quoted the lyrics of his “teammate’s girlfriend” (Taylor Swift), “familiarity breeds contempt.” But he demonstrated what contempt for the outside world breeds.

One of the few pieces of advice that was not controversial was one he seemed to ignore: “Being locked in with your vocation and staying in your lane is going to be the surest way for you to find true happiness and peace in this life.”

How’s that for a kicker?

More: Sports / Catholic Identity

Harrison Butker’s commencement speech and the danger of a Catholic ‘dead traditionalism’ (2)

Zac Davis

Zac Davis isan associate editor and the senior director for digital strategy for America. He also co-hosts the podcast, Jesuitical.

@zacdayviszdavis@americamedia.org

Harrison Butker’s commencement speech and the danger of a Catholic ‘dead traditionalism’ (2024)

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