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Consider a twenty-eight-year-old family man, a devoted Catholic, a handsome, celebrated NFL kicker, invited to offer words of encouragement for twenty-two-year-olds finishing college at a Catholic institution. He knows the cameras will be rolling. A commencement address is a public event—in a manner of speaking. But to whom is he speaking? To you, and to me? To critics? Influencers? The world? Or to those graduates? The latter of course, and it makes all the difference. How we speak to others is determined by who they are. It’s the price of holding onto the small communities most critical to the survival of the West: families, churches, women as women—and men as men. Communities must have a language of their own. 

Je t’adore,” my husband tells me often. I know what he means even if I don’t speak French. He knows what it means. And it means something to us. He wouldn’t say it to a stranger or a colleague. And I wouldn’t expect to hear it outside of our communion. That’s how it works. 

Our kids know about it too. Sometimes dad writes it on scraps of paper or brings me flowers with scribbling on a little bifold card. The kids giggle but they are warmed and affirmed by his words to me. His language gives witness to the reality of our union. Our kids were wanted once in our wanting to become one. That they are wanted still is revealed in our language. 

The act of speaking—how we speak, and what it calls forth—signifies the nature of a union. Who belongs? And what are we doing together? Strangers on a train share a most basic union: humanity. Perhaps nothing else. Chesterton says that’s why we talk about the weather, if even that. We say “hello,” “excuse me,” or “good day.” I myself prefer to call strangers “sir,” or “ma’am.” The formality marks out a more distant union, while signaling respect and good will. 

At work, however, I call others by name, never using “sir.” Fred and Erik are friends. We share a union more than basic. Not a mere “good will,” we actively will the good of each other, and seek it so far as we can. We search for truth together, and we invite students into our communion. Our unity arises from the possession of friendship—my colleagues, my students. Our Church and our God. “God is our light,” we say, our motto, but we say it in Latin, “Deus lux mea est,” even though we don’t speak Latin. It means something among us. That’s how it works. 

When Harrison Butker spoke at the Benedictine College commencement, he spoke as one within a community, near them in age, and testified to that union. His language signified that he is one of them: He loves the same Church and the same God, and believes Jesus Christ, God made man, changed the world forever. He believes that we are united most intimately with each other when we consume the body of Jesus Christ, and wishes to take up his cross and follow Jesus. In a vast ocean of wantonness, he announced that he ties himself to the mast daily, like Odysseus, preferring daily Mass and the happy bonds of family to the sirens of the world. He searched his soul and wrote a love letter—from his heart to theirs—encouraging their common love for Christ and his Church.

It was a resounding success. The students rose to their feet and cheered. They were warmed and affirmed. Here was shining integrity of life against a soiled backdrop of sham public figures. Are you, finally, one who is who you say that you are? Affirmative, Butker seemed to say. And he was willing to shout it from the rooftop—a commencement is a public event, in a manner of speaking. But neither the speaker nor the hearers required that the public be assimilated to their union.

Events may be public but language cannot be public. Language signifies a relation, a community. There is poetic language and scientific, romantic and filial, sacred and profane, local and national. Appropriate language gets the relation right. 

Language codes, strangely, testify to this. They try to force us into alternate communities by our language, since language by its nature gives witness to the reality of belonging. Forced language, then, denies subsidiary communities—where we are defined by unions with a particular reality, true or false. The language of husband and wife, mother and son, testifies to the reality of a particular family. The language of prayer and liturgy testifies to the community of a particular Church or religious people. The language of a region testifies to the reality of being united by a particular place. Men too share a language, as do women. We have a communion as members of a common sex. 

To remove language that testifies to the reality of what’s in common is an act of violence by the machine, aimed at the abolition of subsidiary communities—of men and women, of marriage, of worship of the true God. Speech always and everywhere declares a particular union and defines a community. Deny the speech, deny the union. Deny the union, destroy the fruits of union. Destroy the fruits of union, abolish the community.

Commentators have had a veritable field day with Butker’s speech—what they liked, and what they didn’t like. They are welcome to it. He’s a big boy, and he knew he was speaking in public. 

But most of the well-meaning criticism—as opposed to inane ideological fury—seemed to come down to whether so-and-so critic would have said it the way he said it. How precious! Butker was speaking in public, but not to the public. He was speaking to those graduates, particular kids we all want to be affirmed and welcomed on their path to Christian life as adults. What business of ours is it if Butker was too zealous, too strict, too awkward, or too bold for our ears?

And do we think those graduates are listening as we endlessly quarterback his speech? As the mother of three college graduates from three separate Catholic colleges this month, I assure you they are not listening. They heard what they heard at graduation, and if they were lucky enough to have a speaker like Butker, for instance, Fr. Mike Schmitz at Ave Maria University and Jonathan Roumie at the Catholic University of America—speeches I heard in person—they felt affirmed and welcomed into adult Christian life. It meant something to them. Because that’s how it works. 

We’ve got to find ways to check our impulse to demand intimate language be sanitized. We can turn off the cameras more often. Videos make a claim of extending the audience in a way that print doesn’t. We can refuse to make words of the heart into content. And we can denounce as retrograde the suggestion that Butker ought to have run his words by us first. 

This isn’t a plea to make speech private. It’s a plea for preserving the power of language to define and mark out a community of belief. This is the only path to preserving the truths upon which communities of life and love can evangelize in the modern world. 

Catherine Ruth Pakaluk, associate professor at the Catholic University of America, is the author of Hannah’s Children: The Women Quietly Defying the Birth Dearth (Regnery, 2024).

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Image by Theonewhoknowsnothingatall via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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