A former Instructor of Catholicism at the University of Illinois has claimed that he was unfairly let go from his position at the university after a student complained about a lesson on natural moral law in which the professor outlined why homosexual acts are, according to Catholicism, morally wrong. The teacher in question, Kenneth Howell, claims that his academic and religious freedom has been violated. The complaint against him says that it wasn’t what he was teaching but rather how Howell was teaching it that was the issue.
The Email that Led to Howell Losing His Place at the University
Howell had acted as a non-tenured adjunct lecturer for nine years and taught two courses at the university, Introduction to Catholicism and Modern Catholic Thought. He himself is openly religious and is a director of the on-campus Institute of Catholic Thought which is part of St. John’s Catholic Newman Center.
As part of his introductory class on Catholicism, Howell instructed students on natural moral law and the application of natural law theory. When earlier this year he was preparing one of his classes for an exam, Howell wrote an email that was sent out to students on May 4 in which he detailed how natural law theory and utilitarianism would judge “the morality of homosexual acts.”
The News-Gazette has obtained the email that prompted the complaint (and, for clarity, I recommend you read it in full). Continuing on from an earlier class discussion, Howell outlines in the email the difference between how same-sex acts would be viewed from a utilitarian perspective - there is no distinct objection so long as both parties consent – and then outlines why theistic natural moral law would differ. I have excerpted parts of the email to illustrate his points below:
… But the more significant problem has to do with the fact that the consent criterion is not related in any way to the NATURE of the act itself. This is where Natural Moral Law (NML) objects. NML says that Morality must be a response to REALITY. In other words, sexual acts are only appropriate for people who are complementary, not the same. How do we know this? By looking at REALITY. Men and women are complementary in their anatomy, physiology, and psychology. Men and women are not interchangeable. So, a moral sexual act has to be between persons that are fitted for that act. Consent is important but there is more than consent needed.
One example applicable to homosexual acts illustrates the problem. To the best of my knowledge, in a sexual relationship between two men, one of them tends to act as the “woman” while the other acts as the “man.” In this scenario, homosexual men have been known to engage in certain types of actions for which their bodies are not fitted. I don’t want to be too graphic so I won’t go into details but a physician has told me that these acts are deleterious to the health of one or possibly both of the men. Yet, if the morality of the act is judged only by mutual consent, then there are clearly homosexual acts which are injurious to their health but which are consented to. Why are they injurious? Because they violate the meaning, structure, and (sometimes) health of the human body.
Natural Moral Theory says that if we are to have healthy sexual lives, we must return to a connection between procreation and sex. Why? Because that is what is REAL. It is based on human sexual anatomy and physiology. Human sexuality is inherently unitive and procreative. If we encourage sexual relations that violate this basic meaning, we will end up denying something essential about our humanity, about our feminine and masculine nature.
I know this doesn’t answer all the questions in many of your minds. All I ask as your teacher is that you approach these questions as a thinking adult. That implies questioning what you have heard around you. Unless you have done extensive research into homosexuality and are cognizant of the history of moral thought, you are not ready to make judgments about moral truth in this matter. All I encourage is to make informed decisions. As a final note, a perceptive reader will have noticed that none of what I have said here or in class depends upon religion. Catholics don’t arrive at their moral conclusions based on their religion. They do so based on a thorough understanding of natural reality.
The Complaint that Resulted From Howell’s Email
After receiving the email, a student took offense and a complaint was made to the head of the department Robert McKim. To be clear, the student who made the complaint was writing on behalf of a friend who was a student of Howell’s. That friend wished to remain anonymous. The email notes that both the complainant and the friend self-identify as Catholic.
The complaint, which News-Gazette has also obtained, alleges that Howell took to preaching rather than teaching and that the instructor regularly made “inflammatory” and “downright insensitive” remarks to those who were not Catholic:
It sickens me to know that hard-working Illinoisans are funding the salary of a man who does nothing but try to indoctrinate students and perpetuate stereotypes. Once again, this is a public university and should thus have no religious affiliation. Teaching a student about the tenets of a religion is one thing. Declaring that homosexual acts violate the natural laws of man is another. The courses at this institution should be geared to contribute to the public discourse and promote independent thought; not limit one’s worldview and ostracize people of a certain sexual orientation.
I can only imagine how ashamed and uncomfortable a gay student would feel if he/she were to take this course. I am a heterosexual male and I found this completely appalling. Also, my friend also told me that the teacher allowed little room for any opposition to Catholic dogma. Once again, he is guilty of limiting the marketplace of ideas and acting out of accord with this institution’s mission and principles.
Howell has defended his position saying in this News-Gazette article that, “My responsibility on teaching a class on Catholicism is to teach what the Catholic Church teaches. I have always made it very, very clear to my students they are never required to believe what I’m teaching and they’ll never be judged on that.” He also adds: “I tell my students I am a practicing Catholic, so I believe the things I’m teaching.”
It should be noted that, as he was an adjunct professor, the university rehired Howell on a semester to semester basis, therefore his position at UI was not assured. Department head McKim apparently discussed with Howell how this issue had brought up some concerns and how Howell’s statements in class might be seen to hurt the department. The department then made the decision not to invite Howell back for another semester.
The Alliance Defense Fund, a self described Christian-based legal organization, has started examining the case with an eye toward a lawsuit, saying in a written statement: “A university cannot censor professors’ speech – including classroom speech related to the topic of the class – merely because some students find that speech ‘offensive.’ Professors have the freedom to challenge students and to educate them by exposing them to different views. The Alliance Defense Fund is working with Professor Howell because the defense of academic freedom is essential on the university campus.”
Examining Howell’s Position: Did He Cross A Line?
I am keen to stress that Howell’s email is a continuation of a class discussion on natural moral law verses utilitarianism in which homosexuality was used as an example of the differences between the theories and how they assess morality, and as such must be taken within that context.
In my mind, there are large parts of Howell’s email that seem consistent with a generally accepted theistic definition of natural law. I might not agree with Howell’s offered position, but his conclusions seem germane; in respect of natural moral law, homosexual sexual acts (and, in essence, all sex acts that do not lead to procreation within marriage) do not comport with what is accepted as moral action for the Catholic Church.
That said, how Howell arrives at his conclusions is less agreeable.
Note the following:
One example applicable to homosexual acts illustrates the problem. To the best of my knowledge, in a sexual relationship between two men, one of them tends to act as the “woman” while the other acts as the “man.” In this scenario, homosexual men have been known to engage in certain types of actions for which their bodies are not fitted. I don’t want to be too graphic so I won’t go into details but a physician has told me that these acts are deleterious to the health of one or possibly both of the men. …Why are they injurious? Because they violate the meaning, structure, and (sometimes) health of the human body.
This goes beyond teaching the approach of natural moral law where it concerns homosexual acts. This is an opinion (an anti-gay opinion at that) presented as evidence to try and support natural moral law. It trades on the misinformation that gay sex is inherently diseased and as such is a poor substitute for a reasoned argument.
Though there are several more issues, for brevity I’ll skip to the closing paragraph:
All I ask as your teacher is that you approach these questions as a thinking adult. That implies questioning what you have heard around you. Unless you have done extensive research into homosexuality and are cognizant of the history of moral thought, you are not ready to make judgments about moral truth in this matter. All I encourage is to make informed decisions. As a final note, a perceptive reader will have noticed that none of what I have said here or in class depends upon religion. Catholics don’t arrive at their moral conclusions based on their religion. They do so based on a thorough understanding of natural reality.
Here Howell again crosses a line. He states that homosexual acts are against “natural reality” and infers that this is the case even when viewed outside of religious teaching. He himself removes the bounds of the class and the context with this assertion:
“As a final note, a perceptive reader will have noticed that none of what I have said here or in class depends upon religion.”
He then makes this statement:
“Catholics don’t arrive at their moral conclusions based on their religion. They do so based on a thorough understanding of natural reality.”
This is to suggest that theistic natural moral law is objective enough to stand even when one removes the Catholic Church’s perception of God and morality. This is, again, an opinion stated as fact. If this is indicative of how Howell approached teaching the rest of his classes – that Catholicism is “right” – as is alleged in the complaint, I can understand why this would make the learning environment uncomfortable.
Yet, it is worth reminding ourselves that the students joined to take a class on Catholic teaching. To hear views like this on subjects like homosexuality might be uncomfortable, but whatever else Howell might be doing here, he seems to be teaching the subject rather accurately, albeit garnished here and there with his own views. The issue centers on whether he was compromising the quality of his teaching by allowing his personal beliefs to encroach on the substance of the course and therein chilling open discussion.
So far, the university has declined to give any further official explanation as to why Howell was let go beyond saying that staffing decisions are at the discretion of department heads, though the News-Gazette notes that Howell and department chair Robert McKim have, by Howell’s own admission, had a long standing conflict over what is appropriate for the class.