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Complementarity is the Lie We’re Told

Olivia Hastie Reacts to Harrison Butker’s Commencement Remarks

“We must always speak and act in charity.” These are words that Harrison Butker used in his commencement speech at Benedictine College. In the same speech, Butker commented directly to women and grossly assumed that we are the group of people who have had the most “diabolical lies told to us.” Among these lies, he believes, are career advancement, promotion, achievement, bodily autonomy, and the right to a robust education. 

Butker asserted that “the majority of [the women graduating from Benedictine] are most excited for [their] marriages and the children they will bring into this world” and not  the major accomplishment of completing a bachelor’s degree (which he notes happened during the chaos and pain of the pandemic, but we’ll save a response to that for another article). He highlights how his wife embraced “the most important title of all, homemaker,” and encouraged the students in the audience to lean into their God-given gendered vocation, even if it was something that they didn’t totally enjoy. I’m glad his wife is happy in her role as mother, but it is not for everyone. 

News flash, Harrison Butker, John Paul II is no longer the Pope! It’s 2024 and we know more and better! 

My gut reaction to the speech is anger, because in my niche field inhabited by feminist theologians and ethicists, I receive a brief reprieve from the false assertions of gender complementarity that are still so rampant in this Church. There are amazing women who’ve paved the way for me to be where I am. This reprieve is brief, but it’s there. 

“As far as I am concerned, gender complementarity perpetuates and enables violence against women.”

Most of all, I am deeply saddened that people forget that complementarity is the lie we are told – and not those messages of wholeness and liberation. All people are of equal dignity, and can be whoever  they discern God is calling them  them to be. This is the unconstrained invitation to answer the call to a myriad of vocations, not a singular identity. The harms of gender complementarity extend far beyond the limitation of women to motherhood or homemaker, and may as well be called ecclesial misogyny and inherently anti-woman. As far as I am concerned, gender complementarity perpetuates and enables violence against women.

When listening to Butker’s speech, I couldn’t help but think of my own mother, who, although retired, was and remains  a go-getter. Her vocation to motherhood was not the only vocation she lived, and through my entire childhood, I watched her accomplish nearly everything she set her mind to – big and small. She inspired me to do the same. I am writing this piece about to graduate from Harvard Divinity School and as an incoming doctoral student at Boston College where I will complete my PhD in theology. None of that would be possible without the inspiration of the countless women who answer their vocations to achievement, intelligence, front-facing careers, and/or motherhood (yes, it’s a choice, not a mandate). We need women’s voices everywhere, not just at home.

It is true, “we must always speak and act in charity.” When I looked up the dictionary definition of “charity,” I came across two applicable definitions: kindness and tolerance in judging others, and a love of humankind. There is little kindness in constraining women to one vocation, and in my opinion, a deep hatred of non-men in gender complementarity. An agapeic trinitarian God of love does not desire anyone to enter a vocation that doesn’t feel right for them or an identity that does not make them feel like their truest, holiest self.

As a woman preparing to walk across the graduation stage next week, I pray for all graduating women: That you feel celebrated for your accomplishments, who you are in this moment, and all you are becoming. The world needs your voice, and less of Harrison Butker’s.