You have /5 articles left.
Sign up for a free account or log in.

Harrison Butker leans toward a microphone smiling.

Harrison Butker’s commencement speech at Benedictine College continues to spark debate and outrage.

Chris Unger/Getty Images

A controversial commencement speech, delivered by Kansas City Chiefs kicker Harrison Butker at Benedictine College, has thrust the Catholic institution in Kansas into the national spotlight, roiled the internet with ideological clashes and stoked ongoing, heated debates within and outside of Catholic higher ed institutions.

Even the order of nuns that founded and sponsor Benedictine College, the sisters of Mount St. Scholastica, recently weighed in and slammed Butker in a public statement for his comments about gender roles.

“One of our concerns was the assertion that being a homemaker is the highest calling for a woman,” the statement read.

In his May 11 speech, Butker hit on a number of conservative talking points and lamented Catholics supporting abortion rights (including President Biden), COVID-19 lockdowns and “dangerous gender ideologies,” among other issues.

“I think it is you, the women, who have had the most diabolical lies told to you,” Butker, a conservative Catholic, told graduates. “How many of you are sitting here now, about to cross the stage, and are thinking about all the promotions and titles you’re going to get in your career. 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.”

He said his wife “would be the first to say that her life truly started when she began living her vocation as a wife and as a mother.”

“All of my success is made possible because a girl I met in band class back in middle school would convert to the faith, become my wife, and embrace one of the most important titles of all: homemaker,” he added.

His remarks weren’t especially out of character. Butker gave the commencement speech at Georgia Institute of Technology last year, his alma mater, where he told students that one “antidote” to isolation, loneliness and depression was to “get married and start a family.”

Butker got a standing ovation at Benedictine, and reportedly a few boos, but the reactions by professional athletes, celebrities, pundits, sports fans, professors, clergy and Catholic female students and academics ranged from accolades to condemnation.

Susannah Leisegang, one of the 485 Benedictine graduates said on TikTok, that she and her roommate booed and didn’t stand up.

“You also have to keep in mind this was at a Catholic and conservative college,” she said. “So, a lot of the men were like, ‘Fuck yeah.’ They were excited. But it was horrible.”

Kassidy Neuner, another graduate, told the Associated Press Butker’s comments “felt a little degrading,” noting that men can be homemakers too. (Enrollment data on Benedictine’s website shows women made up 51.5 percent of students in 2022.)

“To point this out specifically that that’s what we’re looking forward to in life seems like our four years of hard work wasn’t really important,” she said.

Another graduate, ValerieAnne Volpe, praised Butker and told AP News he was just delivering messages “people are scared to say.” She said she thought of her dad, who was in the audience during the speech, was “probably clapping and so happy to see what he would say is a real man” with “family values” and “good religious upbringing.”

“You can just hear that he loves his wife. You can hear that he loves his family,” she said of Butker.

James Madden, a philosophy professor at Benedictine, expressed dismay in a Substack essay at the vitriol exchanged among onlookers nationally in the aftermath of the speech, noting that Butker’s comments were predictable, as was the outrage that followed.

“And yet, we persist in repeating these cycles of indignation,” he wrote. “One party to the culture war loudly and clearly utters what has been loudly and clearly uttered many times in the past. The opponents of such views, dutifully performing their role in the drama, utter a return volley of hatred and scorn. We’ve seen this movie many times before, but we keep returning for its worn-out sequels."

He wrote that the speech itself, and the conflagration over it, distract from more important issues in and beyond the Catholic Church, such as economic strains on working-class families that make subsisting on one income not an option for many couples, and sexual abuse scandals within the church.

The college didn’t respond to requests for comment from Inside Higher Ed and has thus far stayed silent on the controversy. But the sisters of Mount St. Scholastica staunchly condemned the speech in their statement on Facebook.

They said that Butker’s comments sowed division and failed to “represent the Catholic, Benedictine, liberal arts college that our founders envisioned and in which we have been so invested.”

“We sisters have dedicated our lives to God and God’s people, including the many women whom we have taught and influenced during the past 160 years,” the statement read. “These women have made a tremendous difference in the world in their roles as wives and mothers and through their God-given gifts in leadership, scholarship, and their careers … We reject a narrow definition of what it means to be Catholic.”

Patricia McGuire, president of Trinity Washington University, a historic Catholic women’s undergraduate college in Washington D.C., said she too was left “aghast” by the speech.

“All I have to say to Harrison Butker is, ‘look out if you get the nuns mad at you,’” she said. She noted that the ideal of womanhood expressed in Butker’s speech seemingly didn’t include the women who started many Catholic colleges. The vast majority of Catholic higher ed institutions were founded by religious orders, including orders of nuns, who historically served as trustees, administrators and faculty members.

“In insulting working women, he also sort of insulted generations of religious women who built these institutions themselves,” McGuire said. “They built colleges and schools and healthcare centers. And in many ways, it was the nuns who set the example for Catholic lay women also to go to work.”

She said suggesting that women should be full-time homemakers is “classist” and “racist” and noted that women don’t always have the financial option to be stay-at-home mothers, including many women from low-income backgrounds and women of color. Trinity disproportionately serves students of color and low-income students.

“It’s a message that might resonate with upper middle-class people,” McGuire said of the speech. But “it also insults working women who are also very good mothers and leaders of families. Millions of women have demonstrated that it’s quite possible to be great moms and great in the workplace.”

She pointed out that Butker’s own mother has had an accomplished career. Elizabeth Keller Butker is a medical physicist in the Department of Radiation Oncology at Emory University and has worked at the university for more than two decades.

Massimo Faggioli, a professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University in Pennsylvania, said he was surprised the football star was asked to speak at commencement in the first place.

He noted that Benedictine is among the more conservative Catholic colleges. It is also among the colleges recognized by the Cardinal Newman Society, an organization that describes itself as existing “to promote and defend faithful Catholic education” and “vigorously vetting Catholic colleges” to ensure their “they have strong policies and standards that uphold Catholic identity from academics and athletics to faculty hiring and campus life.” Faggioli said it wouldn’t be uncommon or unexpected for professors, administrators or speakers to express a conservative view on gender to students at such an institution, but it would have been done more thoughtfully.

Faggioli said the speech didn’t feel representative of the ideological nuance he knows exists on campus. He believes the choice of Butker as the commencement speaker was probably based on the idea that a celebrity appearance would be good for the college’s image, but the result was just the opposite.

“It's not strange that some Catholics in the U.S. say these things and think these things,” he said. “It’s surprising that someone at the college thought it was a good idea to have him address graduates.”

Faggioli believes the controversy should be a lesson to other colleges and universities that celebrities may not be the best speakers to impart wisdom to future alumni.

“Choosing these kinds of speakers can end up making the identity of the university a caricature,” he said. Now Benedictine College is “identified with this extreme kind of culture war Catholicism, which is not the Catholicism of all students and all faculty at Benedictine.”

As for the nuns’ reaction, he said their condemnation was “predictable.”

“Nuns don’t want to be told by a young man who plays football about what being a woman is,” he said.

The controversy over Butker’s speech reflects long-simmering debates within and among Catholic colleges and universities and Catholics at large about the direction and future of Catholic higher education, McGuire noted. She highlighted that in 1967, a group of Catholic higher ed leaders came out with the Land O’Lakes statement, a declaration that a Catholic university needed to be “a university in the full modern sense of the word” with academic freedom and autonomy, even from the Catholic Church.

Then, in 1990, Pope John Paul II issued Ex corde Ecclesiae, a directive that espoused his vision for Catholic higher education.

That document spurred another “10 or 15 years of discussion about what it meant to be Catholic back then,” McGuire said, “and again, this tension between those who felt that we were too liberal, those who wanted more conservative [values] …” Those tensions have stretched on “for decades” and continue today in debates over all kinds of issues, such as whether a Catholic university can host a speaker in favor of abortion rights or have an LGBTQ+ club. These are particularly live debates under Pope Francis, who’s taken a “less judgmental and more caring” approach to LGBTQ+ Catholics, she said.

Butker “does not speak for the Catholic Church,” McGuire said, “nor does he speak for Catholic higher education.”

Next Story

Written By

More from Religious Colleges