News & Commentary

Catholic women push back at Butker graduation speech

Kansas City Chiefs' Harrison Butker celebrates winning Super Bowl LVII with his children in Glendale, Ariz., Feb. 12, 2023. In a May 11 commencement address at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kan., Butker told graduates, "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." (OSV News photo/Caitlin O'Hara, Reuters)

(OSV News) — Several Catholic professional women, as well as an order of women religious, have challenged a controversial graduation speech by NFL player Harrison Butker, during which the Kansas City Chiefs placekicker and devout Catholic opined on (among other topics) the role of women in society, and the church’s teaching on natural family planning.

“It seems to me that Butker means well, but that he doesn’t understand the first lesson of communication,” moral theologian Pia de Solenni, senior director of corporate engagement for the Catholic-oriented IWP Capital investment firm, told OSV News. “Communication is not saying or writing what one wants to get out there, it’s making sure that the audience hears what was intended. The fact that his address has caused so much disunity among people of goodwill suggests to me that he failed. So much of what he wanted to say could have been delivered in a much more constructive way.”

Butker, a three-time Super Bowl winner, delivered his 20-minute commencement address May 11 at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas, having been selected along with Benedictine alumnus Lt. Gen. Arthur J. Gregg to give seniors — who had missed their high school graduations due to 2020 pandemic lockdowns — “a truly memorable commencement experience,” said Benedictine College President Stephen D. Minnis when the speakers were announced in April.

The 28-year-old Butker certainly delivered on that promise, giving an address that sparked both backlash and backslapping among audience members and throughout the nation. He railed against “the pervasiveness of disorder” underlying American culture and even sectors of the Catholic Church itself, urging his audience to reject the “church of nice” by being “authentically and unapologetically Catholic,” especially where doing so countered “the tyranny of diversity, equity and inclusion.” Bishops, President Joe Biden, COVID-19 protocols, cultural norms regarding men and women, and hot-button issues such as abortion and surrogacy all came under Butker’s fire.

During the speech — which included an erroneous take on both an antisemitism bill and Catholic teaching on the crucifixion — Butker also advised the women in the audience about to cross the stage that they “have had the most diabolical lies” told to them about their vocation, adding “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. “I can tell you that my beautiful wife Isabelle would be the first to say that her life truly started when she began living her vocation as a wife and as a mother.”

Butker credited his success to his wife’s “embrace (of) one of the most important titles of all: homemaker” and “primary educator” of the couple’s children.

“Isabelle’s dream of having a career might not have come true,” he said. “But if you ask her today, if she has any regrets on her decision, she would laugh out loud without hesitation and say, ‘Heck no.'”

The Benedictine Sisters of Mount St. Scholastica, the order that established Benedictine College, swiftly issued a statement countering Butker’s speech, saying they did not believe his comments “represent(ed) the Catholic, Benedictine, liberal arts college that our founders envisioned and in which we have been so invested.”

The sisters expressed concern regarding Butker’s assertion that “being a homemaker is the highest calling for a woman,” saying their former female students over the past 160 years “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.”

The congregation said it had “taught young women and men not just how to be ‘homemakers’ in a limited sense, but rather how to make a Gospel-centered, compassionate home within themselves where they can welcome others as Christ, empowering them to be the best versions of themselves.

“We reject a narrow definition of what it means to be Catholic,” the sisters added. “We are faithful members of the Catholic Church who embrace and promote the values of the Gospel, St. Benedict, and Vatican II and the teachings of Pope Francis.”

Kathleen Domingo, executive director of the California Catholic Conference, told OSV News that St. John Paul II made clear in his teaching that family and professional life “are not mutually exclusive” for women.

“John Paul II had a deep love for the contributions of women … to the world,” said Domingo in response to Butker’s speech, pointing to the late pope’s 1995 “Letter to Women,” in which he lauded “women who are mothers” and “women who work” (Section 2).

St. John Paul II “invited young girls and women to know that we have a valuable role to play in every part of society — a unique ability to bring new life into the world through motherhood and a unique ability to humanize situations in politics, business, education and more,” said Domingo.

Yet Butker’s remarks at the same time aligned with aspects of St. John Paul II’s thought, said Theresa Farnan, a fellow at the Washington-based Ethics and Public Policy Center.

The NFL kicker’s “comments … reflect Pope John Paul II’s insistence in (the 1981 apostolic exhortation) ‘Familiaris Consortio’ … that the contribution of women in the home must be valued,” Farnan told OSV News. “Pope John Paul II also insists that society must be structured in such a way that women should be able to stay home with their children and it should be valued and celebrated.”

De Solenni said Butker neglected the women’s option for religious life, saying she was “struck that in talking about the role of women as wives and mothers, he never talked about consecrated women who live in this life as the bride of Christ.”

Pope Benedict XVI, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, stressed in his 2004 letter to the bishops on the collaboration of men and women in the church and the world that “women have a role in every aspect of society, one that is not based on the ‘historically conditioned model of femininity,'” said de Solenni, quoting from the letter.

“It’s a mystical consideration that will play out very differently according to the talents and vocation of each woman,” she said.

Butker also appeared to criticize natural family planning — an array of methods approved by the Catholic Church for achieving or avoiding conception based on biological markers in a woman’s menstrual cycle, as part of the church’s understanding of responsible parenthood.

“There is nothing good about playing God with having children, whether that be your ideal number or the perfect time to conceive,” pronounced Butker. “No matter how you spin it, there is nothing natural about Catholic birth control.”

But dismissing fertility-awareness-based methods for achieving or avoiding conception, also known as natural family planning, as some kind of “Catholic birth control” would be at odds with what the church actually teaches, explained Theresa Notare, assistant director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishop’s Natural Family Planning Program.

Notare spoke with OSV News addressing the church’s teaching, not Butker’s comments themselves.

Notare, whose doctoral thesis examined the historical development of Christian moral teaching and human reproduction, said that since the 19th century, the Catholic Church has explicitly held that “it’s reasonable … for Catholics to work with God to plan their families, because it’s not just having children — it’s also nurturing children.”

Among the documents Notare cited in this regard were the Second Vatican Council’s “Gaudium et Spes,” which states that parents, as “cooperators with the love of God,” should “fulfill their task with human and Christian responsibility, and, with docile reverence toward God … make decisions by common counsel and effort” in their procreation and parenting.

Notare said that St. Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical “Humanae Vitae,” which addressed the regulation of human birth, was “one-stop shopping for a nice, clear teaching on what the church has understood from the apostolic age about the good of marriage … and the place of children in marriage as being entrusted to the parents by God,” who are called by God to “work with him.”

Farnan observed that Butker “is a 28-year-old who, by his own admission, has no background in theology.

“He was speaking from the heart, and from his own life experiences,” she said of the NFL kicker, who celebrated his fifth wedding anniversary in April.

Still, Domingo said, “the church does not advocate a one-size-fits-all way of mothering.

“Instead, we uplift every mother and appreciate her contributions to her children and to the world around her,” she said. “We advocate for policies that allow mothers and families true choice in determining when and whether they work outside the home, greater flexibility to balance their roles as mothers and any other responsibilities they may have, and meaningful appreciation for all that they contribute to the world.”

By Gina Christian | OSV News