A Disturbing View Of What It Means To Be Catholic

Judith Valente
6 min readMay 19, 2024
Benedictine College President Stephen D. Minnis on a stage shakes hands with a 2024 male graduate of the Catholic college in Atchison, KS.
Benedictine College President Stephen D. Minnis (left) congratulates a 2024 graduate. Minnis invited controversial, ultra-conservative Kansas City Chiefs player Harrison Butker to give the commencement address.

Commencement addresses. Those tedious annual rituals in which celebrities and other public figures receive carte blanche to unload their favorite bromides and supposed life lessons on the latest crop of graduates. Most graduates promptly forget these speeches. I hope that proves the case with the address Kansas City Chiefs football player Harrison Butker gave at Benedictine College last weekend.

I normally wouldn’t care a bit about what a football kicker has to say about the meaning of life. However, Benedictine College was co-founded by the monks of St. Benedict’s Abbey and the sisters of Mount St. Scholastica Monastery of Atchison, KS. I am very close to the Mount sisters. I wrote a book, “Atchison Blue: A Search for Silence, A Spiritual Home and a Living Faith,” about the profound effect the many visits I’ve made to their monastery has had on my life. These sisters epitomize the Benedictine values of listening, community-and-consensus-building, hospitality, humility, prayer and work.

It pained me to think their good work might be tainted by a speech in which Butker managed to denigrate:

  • Women who choose careers over family
  • Gay Pride
  • Transgender people
  • Bishops and priests who supported the Covid lockdown
  • Couples who conceive through in vitro fertilization
  • Supporters of diversity and inclusion programs
  • The current president of the United States

That’s just to name a few of his targets. In Butker’s view, society risks being overwhelmed by “degenerate cultural values.”

The footballer’s comments clearly took Mount St. Scholastica’s sisters by surprise, if not the college’s current administration led by president Stephen D. Minnis. He persuaded Butker to speak and has steered the college toward a highly traditional — some would say backward-looking — practice of the faith.

To their credit, the sisters issued a statement saying the address “seemed to have fostered division” instead of “promoting unity in our church, our nation, and the world. ”

“We reject a narrow definition of what it means to be Catholic,” the sisters said. “We want to be known as an inclusive, welcoming community, embracing Benedictine values that have endured for more than 1,500 years.”

Butker particularly offended many women with comments addressed to “the ladies” in the graduating class.

“Some of you may go on to have successful careers in the world,” he began. “I would venture to guess the majority of you are most excited about your marriage and the children you will bring into the world.”

Really???

These young women and/or their parents just doled out close to $180,000 to earn a degree. In Butker’s universe, the most important “title” a woman can earn is “homemaker.” He said his own wife’s life “truly started” when she married him and became a mother.

Welcome to 1950! Even then all women didn’t measure their worth with respect to the men in their lives.

Side view of Kansas City Chiefs team member Harrison Butker addressing at podium during commencement address at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas.
Kansas City Chiefs kicker Harrison Butker praised women who choose to become homemakers, but was silent on the contributions and service of women religious..

Though he pronounced himself “authentically and unapologetically Catholic,” Butker failed to mention the countless contributions of tens of thousands of religious sisters, like those of Mount St. Scholastica, who chose to forgo marriage and family to educate other people’s children, establish hospitals and orphanages. To this day, the sisters minister in prisons, soup kitchens, and hospices and along the southern border.

Need I remind Butker that the distinguished club of unmarried women also includes Jane Austen, Emily Dickinson, Clara Barton, Susan B. Anthony, Queen Elizabeth I, Condoleeza Rice and Oprah Winfrey, to name a few. Oh, and shall we forget St. Teresa of Calcutta and Joan of Arc?

In their statement, the Mount St. Scholastica sisters noted, “Our community has 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.”

Butker’s generous Chiefs salary allows his wife the freedom to be a stay-at-home mother. That’s not so for a vast number of women who work to help feed and clothe their families, and yes, in many cases, pay the tuition for their children’s Catholic education — as did my mother and my husband’s mother. Butker ignored that fact.

Catholicism is a big tent. It’s what the word catholic means — universal. I don’t deny Butker’s right to speak about and practice his faith as he sees fit. What I object to is deciding that one version of the faith is true and genuine — his. That version includes returning to the Latin Mass, marrying only a fellow Catholic, and dominant roles for men in both the family and the church.

“Be unapologetic in your masculinity,” Butker told Benedictine’s male graduates.

Butker also trained his ire on President Joe Biden, a lifelong Catholic and only the second Catholic ever elected president. To Butker, Biden is a faux Catholic. True, the man is not perfect. However, Butker said nothing about our other presidential candidate: a man, twice divorced, found guilty in one court of sexual assault; currently on trial in another court for an adulterous sexual liaison with an adult film actress that he tried to conceal with hush money; and caught on tape bragging about grabbing women’s genitals.

Butker also never mentions the clergy sexual abuse scandal and the church’s attempt to cover it up. That has done far more lasting damage to the faith than the switch from the Latin Mass to English some 60 years ago.

The National Football League issued a statement disavowing Butker’s views as “not those of the NFL as an organization,” and said it is “steadfast in our commitment to inclusion.” The Chiefs have not commented.

Butker’s address contrasts with the one actor Jonathan Roumie gave at Catholic University of America in Washington DC. Roumie portrays Jesus in the acclaimed series “The Chosen” and is a convert to Catholicism. Like Butker, he spoke of respecting life, the centrality of prayer, and the importance of receiving the sacraments (all of which I agree with, by the way). He did it, though, without tearing down groups of people.

Roumie told the Catholic University graduates that it is far less important to play Jesus than to be Jesus for others. He challenged them to “offer a blanket of peace” and pray for those with whom they disagree, adding, “Let restraint be your guide.”

I don’t know what gospels Butker reads. But they are certainly not the ones that have been unfolding throughout the Easter liturgical season. In an extended farewell address to his disciples in the gospel of John, Jesus famously says:

“As the Father loves me, so I also love you. Remain in my love.” He goes on to say, “I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and your joy might be complete. This is my commandment: love one another.”

This is my commandment: love one another.

Butker told the Benedictine graduates we must stop being “the church of nice.” How about we start being the church that Jesus meant us to be: the church of compassion?

A view of the red brick monastery Mount St. Scholastica in Atchison, Ks surrounded by a short stone wall that says Mount St. Scholastica, Benedictine Sisters.
The sisters of Mount St. Scholastica issued a statement saying much of Harrison Butker’s comments in his commencement address for Benedictine College did not represent their Benedictine values.

Watch Jonathan Roumie’s commencement address at Catholic University of America:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VtKZzcRGHmM

Watch Harrison Butker’s commencement address at Benedictine College:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-JS7RIKSaCc

“Atchison Blue: A Search for Silence, A Spiritual Home and A Living Faith,” Judith Valente’s chronicle of her time with the Benedictine sisters of Mount St. Scholastica in Atchison, KS, is available at https://www.amazon.com/s?k=Atchison+Blue&crid=30SGNFCMO5D8F&sprefix=atchison+blue%2Caps%2C126&ref=nb_sb_noss_1 and wherever books are sold.

--

--

Judith Valente

Author of 4 spirituality books & 2 poetry collections. Award-winning reporter for Wall Street Journal, PBS-TV, Washington Post & 2 IL public radio stations.