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Harrison Butker’s bad advice
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Harrison Butker’s bad advice

The first rule of a successful graduation speech? Don’t limit your audience’s options.

Every so often, a graduation speech will transcend its time and place, echoing in the culture long after its original hearers have settled into the disappointments and compromises of adult life.

By now, it’s safe to say that Harrison Butker did not give such a speech.

Generally, a speaker’s best shot at immortality is to include the kind of bite-sized whimsical nuggets of wisdom that appeal to the wide-eyed, rarin’-to-go 21-year-old in all of us. These can be cutesy, nonbinding reflections on the meaning of life (David Foster Wallace: “This is water”), reminders that there is no authority higher than the individual (Steve Jobs: “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life”), or vague, quasi-religious exhortations to express yourself (Neil Gaiman: “Make good art”).

Instead, Butker went with clunkers like: “Never be afraid to profess the one holy, Catholic, and apostolic church, for this is the church that Jesus Christ established, through which we receive sanctifying grace.”

Don’t get me wrong, this played very well with Butker’s intended audience: the devout young Catholic men and women comprising Benedictine College’s class of 2024.

But nonbelievers found such language baffling when encountering it on social media. Benedictine College could have avoided the confusion by having a simultaneous interpreter on stage. “Jesus Christ” doesn’t sound so threatening when you realize it’s merely Christianese for “the universe” or “living your truth.”

In speaking so rashly and honestly, Butker misunderstood the assignment. In place of the usual harmless bromides, he dared to give actual advice.

Strangely, many Catholic observers found Butker’s remarks troubling as well. Mainly, his contention that most of the young women in the audience would be happiest if they emulated his wife, Isabelle, who abandoned her career dreams to stay home and raise their children.

Again, the Catholics to whom this was addressed didn’t seem to mind. After Butker choked up describing how much he and his family owed to Isabelle, the audience applauded for 18 seconds straight.

But older, wiser members of the church rolled their eyes at Butker’s gall in thinking he could extrapolate from his wife’s example a prescription for all young women. A multimillionaire professional athlete is insulated from the economic and social conditions that make single-income families (especially with many children) increasingly difficult to pull off.

Even more crucially, Butker doesn’t seem aware of how difficult it is to find a suitable husband in the first place. The lingering effects of the sexual revolution, newly energized by app-based dating, encourage feckless, noncommittal behavior in men. The marriage market is broken, and even the most proactive bride-to-be must consider the possibility that she may be on her own for well into her twenties and even thirties.

Excellent points, all. But I detect in some of the criticism a hint of disdain for Butker’s lack of nuance and sophistication. I detect it in myself.

It’s a bit of the valedictorian’s disdain for the homecoming king. Who is this dumb, good-looking jock, so handsomely rewarded by secular society, to speak about the challenges of living a truly Catholic life? Is this half-baked collection of clichés, delivered in stilted, halting speech and interrupted by maudlin sentimentality, supposed to pass for wisdom?

The same questions occur to me. Speaking as someone who’s only been Catholic for a few years, I humbly suggest that here we might check our own pride.

Catholics with an unconventionally large number of children (as someone with a relatively modest three, I don’t count myself) may be familiar with a certain passive-aggressive defensiveness beneath the well-meaning comments of strangers. “Oh, I could never handle that many kids. Just two drive me nuts as it is!”

It’s as if the mere choice to live differently — to defy the unspoken agreement about what’s “normal” — is a personal indictment.

Of course, we’re used to thinking of this defensiveness as running in the opposite direction. As H.L. Mencken famously defined it, puritanism is “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”

Fair enough, but this suggests a corollary definition for liberalism, surely more prominent than its counterpart these days: “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, has rejected your assumptions about what it means to be happy.”

Convicted by conviction

I vividly recall the disorientation of my first serious encounter with such alternative beliefs. That it didn’t happen until my early 40s is either a testament to God’s providence or my arrogance.

It was during the lead-up to the 2016 election. I had reconnected with an old high school friend, only to discover that the gothy, rebellious drama-club girl of my fond recollections had somewhere along the line become a Catholic pro-life activist.

She promulgated her beliefs with the same unyielding, impolitic vigor with which she used to adhere to punk orthodoxy. After a few pointless skirmishes in the replies, I figured it was better to agree to disagree.

But I remained fascinated by the posts and articles she shared. Who were these people, and how could they believe such nonsense? I gaped at such oddities as a hipster atheist chick who considered abortion misogynistic, a cheerful black guy who unironically proclaimed “all lives matter” when explaining the skewed demographics of terminated pregnancies, and a gay dude who truly believed his faith demanded that he remain celibate.

What first drew me to these characters were the pleasures of hate-reading: not only were their opinions beyond the pale, but they were also expressed in thuddingly earnest and prosaic language. I could never agree with writers who wrote with so little cleverness and panache.

What I didn’t realize then was that obsessive focus on style is often in inverse relation to the belief that you have something important to say. The more I reveled in their bumpkin-like obliviousness to how they sounded, the more I had the sneaking suspicion that what really kept me reading was their utter conviction.

Had I been less confident in my total immunity to religion, I might have walked away. But I wasn’t about to let this growing awareness spoil my fun. This was simply too delightfully cringeworthy to stop. So, I kept reading and clicking and watching and relishing the sheer misguidedness of it all until one thing led to another, and I was received into the Catholic Church during Easter Vigil in 2019.

I guess I showed them!

Benefit of the doubt

Any Catholic convert who is remotely online quickly realizes that the church is no haven from the ideological bickering and name-calling that divides the larger world. In fact, it might even be worse.

I try to stay out of it for the health of my soul, but I’m only human. In life, I’m hardly “trad.” My wife makes more money than I do and often travels for work. We didn’t marry until age 34 (after a few years of cohabitation) and didn’t have our first kid until 36. I made no attempt to drag her or my kids along with me into the One True Faith. I go to Mass every Sunday. They don’t.

And yet, I do find myself leaning “conservative” in my thinking. I faithfully attend a Novus Ordo parish pastored by priests I greatly respect, yet part of me wishes the local Latin Mass were closer. I’m allergic to anything that suggests “outreach” or “changing with the times,” from calls for female priests to Fr. James Martin’s bridge-building.

For the most part, I believe I’m right but will be the first to admit that despite my voracious reading, I’m still a relative beginner. And that my rigidity may betray a certain insecurity. If the church is wrong about divorce and gay marriage, what else is she wrong about?

Nonetheless, the twists and turns of my “faith journey” (as they called it in Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) have led me to give a guy like Harrison Butker the benefit of the doubt. I think back to long-forgotten Facebook posts that first baited the hook.

Had my old friend been more moderate in how she stated her beliefs, I barely would’ve noticed. Had she used the language of certain prominent liberal Catholics and framed abortion as a “complicated” problem requiring “dialogue” and “listening to women’s experience,” I would’ve said “that’s nice” and moved on, happy to let my intellectual inferiors enjoy their demented little hobbies.

But someone I knew, someone I thought was one of us, coming right out and saying abortion was murder? That aggression simply couldn’t stand.

Many of Butker’s critics, including the Benedictine Sisters associated with the college, seemed to interpret his remarks as a veiled declaration that working outside the home is fundamentally incompatible with womanhood.

Even if this were a wholly reasonable interpretation, surely the young Catholics exposed to Butker’s rhetoric are catechized well enough not to mistake his opinion for official church teaching. And surely, they’ve seen enough of the modern world in their 20 or so years to realize that he may not be right, exactly, but he isn’t necessarily wrong, either.

Either way, Butker’s address was for them, not us. In speaking so rashly and honestly, Butker misunderstood the assignment. In place of the usual harmless, carpe-diem-but-also-be-nice bromides, he dared to give actual advice.

The problem with advice is that it implies the existence of a wrong thing to do. That’s always going to ruffle some feathers. But if we really believe that college is a time for students to confront ideas that challenge their habits of thought and cherished assumptions, there’s no harm in giving them one last thing to grow on as we send them off.

Even from as unlikely a sage as the player with the second-highest field goal percentage in pro football history. If something good can come out of Nazareth, then why not the NFL?

Note: A previous version of this article incorrectly identified the Benedictine sisters as founders of Benedictine College.

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Matt Himes

Matt Himes

Managing Editor, Align

Matt Himes is the managing editor for Align.
@matthimes →