Church teaching and academic freedom


By Frank Wessling

It can be dangerous to tell college students what the Catholic Church says about homosexuality. This past spring it cost one man his job at the University of Illinois.

Kenneth Howell was dropped by the university as an adjunct professor of Catholic studies, which meant he also lost his position as director of the St. John’s Institute of Catholic Thought at the UI Newman Center. Not that the Peoria diocese, which supports the center, dismissed him for what he tried to teach about homosexuality. Like the arrangements at a number of public universities, the salary for Howell’s UI teaching position was paid by the diocese, with the St. John’s Institute as the funding recipient. When he was no longer accepted by the university, he no longer qualified for that salary slot in the diocesan budget.

The firing of Howell, a nine-year teacher at UI and convert to Catholicism who had been a Presbyterian minister, came after a student complained of “hate speech” in his treatment of homosexuality. A long-standing conflict with the university’s religion department head, Robert McKim, may be involved in the swift action against the teacher, which appears to violate common principles of academic freedom. Howell told the Urbana News-Gazette that the two men had “a very, very deep disagreement about the nature of what should be taught.”

Despite tension in the department, Howell was cited for excellent teaching in 2008 and 2009.


But the topic of homosexuality is a lightning rod for controversy, especially when Catholic teaching is laid out as “natural law” in a university setting. That’s what Howell did, apparently shocking some young students unfamiliar with such language.

In a May e-mail to his students prior to the final exam of the spring semester, Howell said he intended to help them understand how judgments are made about the rightness or wrongness of human acts, the context in which homosexuality had been discussed in the classroom. He contrasted the utilitarian perspective with that of natural law as understood in the Catholic tradition — warning the students against a tendency to be influenced in their thought by feelings because they know and like, or dislike, “some gay couples or individuals.”

He explained that a utilitarian judgment is based on the practical outcome of an act; whether it benefits the actor or not. He gave the example of a man deciding whether or not to cheat on his wife. If he can do it without bad consequences, as far as he can see, it will be acceptable. If he can’t see a good outcome clearly, he won’t. There is no deeper consideration.

The natural law stance is different. It assumes “that human acts have an inherent meaning,” in Howell’s words. “The nature of the act itself” must be considered, he wrote, and we can know what is natural by looking at “reality,” which points in a particular direction: “sexual acts are only appropriate for people who are complementary, not the same.”

Howell continued in his e-mail: “Men and women are complementary in their anatomy, physiology and psychology … not interchangeable. So, a moral sexual act has to be between persons (who) are fitted for that act.”

Moreover, “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.”

 This is a fair enough presentation of the Catholic natural law view in contrast with utilitarian philosophy, but it was too much for at least one person — who was not in the class but said he was reacting on behalf of “a friend” who thought Howell was “inflammatory and downright insensitive.”

In an e-mail to religion department head McKim, that person wrote, “Teaching a student about the tenets of a religion is one thing. Declaring that homosexual acts violate the natural laws of man is another. … (A)llowing this hate speech at a public university is entirely unacceptable.”

It may be “unacceptable” in the sense of political correctness on a college campus, but what if a religion includes a teaching that homosexual acts violate natural law? That is far from all that Catholicism has said and says about homosexuality, but it should be included in any honest academic setting. Does the University of Illinois condone censorship of its teachers when some students are offended by a forthright presentation of certain facts?

Does it coddle its sensitive customers or challenge them to think, study and debate ideas, learn some history, and in the process toughen up their self-understanding as well as their understanding of the world? Such challenging is what universities should accept as their natural role. The University of Illinois needs a self-check on its integrity as an academic institution.

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