The shape of things to come

A professor of religious studies has been fired by the University of Illinois for informing a student attending his course on Catholicism that the Catholic CensoredChurch teaches that homosexual acts violate natural moral law.

To put it another way, Dr Kenneth Howell was fired for explaining Catholicism to a student studying….Catholicism.

The implications are deeply disturbing to say the least. If an individual can be fired for teaching what the Church teaches, in a class about Catholicism, how far away is the day when the State forbids religious believers from proclaiming what they believe in regard to human sexuality?

The university informed Dr Howell that he could no longer teach in the university’s Department of Religion. The decision came after a student complained that Howell’s statements were “hate speech.”

In response to his firing, Howell wrote a letter, reported by the Catholic News Agency, to friends explaining the events surrounding his dismissal.

Howell said that he first came to teach at the St. John’s Catholic Newman Center in 1998.

At the time, courses on the Catholic faith were taught through the Newman Center but in 2000, an agreement was made with the University of Illinois’ Department of Religion, and he became an adjunct professor in the department and taught classes on Catholicism.

“Since the Fall of 2001, I have been regularly teaching two courses in the department of religion,” Howell explained. One of the classes, “Introduction to Catholicism,” includes an explanation of Natural Moral Law as affirmed by the Church as well as an application of Natural Law Theory to a disputed social issue.

“Most of those semesters, my chosen topic was the moral status of homosexual acts,” he explained.

Howell said he taught the Catholic Church’s teaching on homosexuality. He summed it up by saying, “A homosexual orientation is not morally wrong just as no moral guilt can be assigned to any inclination that a person has. However, based on natural moral law, the Church believes that homosexual acts are contrary to human nature and therefore morally wrong.”

For this, Dr Howell was accused of “hate speech”.

An e-mail from a student not in Dr Howell’s class complaining about this was sent to Robert McKim, head of the religion department. The emailer said he was writing on behalf of a friend who was in the class and wished to remain anonymous. The e-mail complained about Howell’s statements on homosexuality, calling them “hate speech.”

“Teaching a student about the tenets of a religion is one thing,” said the e-mail. “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 ostracise people of a certain sexual orientation.”

It bears pointing out that neither Dr Howell nor the Catholic Church actually ostracise people for their orientation. In fact, Dr Howell’s point was that the Church makes a distinction between orientation and action.

Nonetheless, at the end of the semester, Dr Howell was called into Robert McKim’s office and told that he would no longer be permitted to teach for the department.

Dr Howell suggested that to dismiss him for teaching the Catholic position in a class on Catholicism was a violation of academic freedom and first amendment rights. He might have added that such an action defied logic.

His arguments were to no avail. Professor McKim insisted that this decision to dismiss Dr Howell stood.

According to the local paper The News-Gazette, Dr Howell said he has had students disagree with him in the past, but never in such a manner.

“My responsibility on teaching a class on Catholicism is to teach what the Catholic Church teaches,” he said. “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.”

Dr Howell also said he was open with students about his own beliefs as a practicing Catholic. “It’s not a violation of academic freedom to advocate a position, if one does it as an appeal on rational grounds and it’s pertinent to the subject,” he said.

Howell is currently working with the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF) to seek legal redress.

David French, senior counsel for the ADF said 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.”