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Culture Warring

The Religious Battle Behind Harrison Butker’s Culture-War Speech

The rise of trad Catholicism is sowing discord at religious institutions—including Benedictine College, where the NFL kicker made his controversial remarks.

Harrison Butker gave the commencement speech at Kansas's Benedictine College
YouTube/Benedictine College
Harrison Butker gave the commencement speech at Kansas’s Benedictine College on May 11.

With pro-Palestinian demonstrators roiling campuses across the country, few could have predicted that the most controversial commencement of the season would occur at Benedictine College, a small liberal arts college in northeast Kansas, courtesy of a 28-year-old NFL player. But Harrison Butker’s speech on May 11 seemed lab-engineered to generate outrage. The Kansas City Chiefs kicker referred to Pride Month as one of the “deadly sins”; declared that “things like abortion, IVF, surrogacy, euthanasia, as well as a growing support for degenerate cultural values in media, all stem from the pervasiveness of disorder”; implored men to be “unapologetic in your masculinity”; and, addressing the graduating women specifically, said, “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.”

While plenty of people who were not at the graduation ceremony (and likely had never heard of Benedictine College before this news) were angered by Butker’s speech, it would appear that most of his actual audience was nothing short of delighted, judging from the standing ovation he received at the end. That’s not surprising to religious scholars, like me, who had heard of Benedictine. This conservative Catholic school of just 2,200 students is actually a microcosm of a major trend in American religion. Like many other Catholic institutions, it has been taken over by one of the fastest-growing religious movements in the country: “trad Catholicism.” And not without strife. The Sisters of Mount St. Scholastica, an order of nuns who co-founded Benedictine College, last week released a statement condemning Butker’s speech, saying it did not “represent the Catholic, Benedictine, liberal arts college that our founders envisioned and in which we have been so invested.”

This disparity between the applause on the ground and the rebuke from the nuns speaks to tensions within American Catholicism that can be found even in Butker’s speech. He criticized President Joe Biden as “a man who publicly and proudly proclaims his Catholic faith” while “pushing dangerous gender ideologies onto the youth of America.” He also went after Catholic church leaders who adhered to pandemic restrictions, noting “the chaos in our parishes, and sadly, in our cathedrals too.” Meanwhile, he claimed that “people, young and old, are embracing tradition,” then launched into an extended discussion of the Traditional Latin Mass.

TLM, as it’s known among its fans, is a Roman Catholic liturgy celebrated in Latin according to the Roman Missal of 1962, characterized by its solemn rituals, Gregorian chant, and the priest facing ad orientem (that is, toward the altar). The celebration of this mass untouched by the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council has become a major symbol of traditionalist Catholic identity, so-called trad Catholics. It is the liturgical manifestation of a theological, cultural, and ideological position that is fundamentally about the rejection of modernity and especially about disdain for anything that could be understood as an embrace of that modernity by the Catholic Church.

Over the past two decades, Benedictine College has become a center of the trad Catholic movement. Earlier in the month, before Butker’s speech, Benedictine College featured prominently in an Associated Press story on the rise of traditionalists in Catholicism. At Benedictine, reported Tim Sullivan, “Catholic teaching on contraception can slip into lessons on Plato, and no one is surprised if you volunteer for 3 a.m. prayers. Pornography, pre-marital sex and sunbathing in swimsuits are forbidden.”

But it was not always this way. Benedictine College was formed in 1971, out of the merger of two earlier Catholic liberal arts colleges in the area: St. Benedict’s College, a men’s college run by St. Benedict’s Abbey, and Mount St. Scholastica College, a women’s college run by Benedictine nuns. Sister Mary Noel, of Mount St. Scholastica, oversaw the merger and served as the college’s first president.

Mount St. Scholastica, a convent founded in 1863, is arguably on the other side of the Catholic culture war from the trad Catholics. The nuns removed their habits soon after Vatican II permitted it. An entire section of their current website is titled “Gospel Justice” and focuses on issues like climate change, racial justice, and the conflict in Gaza. These are modern, and one might even say progressive, nuns. The sisters of Mount St. Scholastica are in some ways the very things that trad Catholics like Butker fear.

So how did an institution founded by these sisters end up as a base of the “other side”? The answer begins with the college’s current president, Stephen D. Minnis. An alumnus who won high praise from Butker throughout his speech, he has been at the helm of Benedictine for 20 years, making him by far the college’s longest-serving head. Previously, he was a corporate lawyer, and he remained active at his alma mater as president of the alumni association. But his qualifications to head Benedictine were neither academic nor professional. Long before his hire, Minnis was active in traditionalist Catholic groups and had cultivated relationships with major conservative activists—including Federalist Society co-chair Leonard Leo, the massively influential conservative donor and legal activist who was Benedictine College’s commencement speaker last year.

Under Minnis’s leadership, the college’s Religious Studies program was replaced by the much less pluralist Catholic Theology program. He also has promoted devotion to the Virgin Mary, which has become a hallmark of public piety among traditionalists; one of his first acts as president was to dedicate the campus to her, and he also had a Marian shrine built in the heart of the campus. This deeply conservative turn seems to be working. Benedictine College’s enrollment is growing at a time when colleges in general, and small liberal arts colleges in particular, are shrinking and in financial crisis—proof, some say, that young Catholics are likely more conservative than their predecessors.

Harrison Butker is one of those young Catholics, born decades after Vatican II, who has come to reject the council’s reforms and its embrace of modernity. In particular, he has spoken openly about his dissatisfaction with the assimilated, reformed Catholicism of his childhood and the spiritual center he found in the traditionalist’s interpretation of the faith. It is a shift that is playing out not only in the lives of individual believers like Butker but also in Catholic parishes, dioceses, and colleges around the country. It is the same conflict that has transformed Benedictine College—and that will shape American Catholicism for decades to come.