Ill. Uni Prof Fired After Teaching Catholic Anti-Gay Dogma

by Kilian Melloy
Monday Jul 12, 2010

A non-tenured adjunct professor was let go from his position at the University of Illinois in Champaign after teaching his students that according to the Catholic conception of "Natural Moral Law," acts of sexual intimacy between consenting adults of the same gender are wrong.

Catholic news sites, including the Catholic News Agency, reported the firing of Kenneth Howell as a matter of suppression of free speech. However, the student who complained about the course material made a similar argument, saying that, "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."

The complaint was made by a student who was not in Dr. Howell's class. Rather, the student told department head Robert McKim that he was writing on behalf of a friend who was in the class. The complaint followed an email that Howell sent to his students in which he discussed "natural moral law" and homosexuality. "Natural Moral Law says that Morality must be a response to REALITY," wrote Dr, Howell, according to a July 9 article in local newspaper the News-Gazette. "In other words, sexual acts are only appropriate for people who are complementary, not the same."

Catholic teaching holds that gays and lesbians do not "choose" their sexual desires, and that those desires in and of themselves are not sinful. It is the expression of such desires, however, that the church has branded "inherently evil." One basis for the church's views on homosexuality comes from the Catholic conception of "natural law," greatly influenced by the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas. Those who cite natural law seek to bolster arguments regarding the legislation of human morality and human conduct by claiming that the order of nature itself outlines laws that are universal.

According to Catholic notions of natural law, gays are "sexually disordered" because they do not, of their own inclination, seek the sexual company of members of the opposite sex. Sexual congress between individuals of differing genders is viewed, by those who argue from a viewpoint of natural law, as a matter of complementarity. That argument also rests on the assumption that the primary function of human sexuality is procreation.

In his course Introduction to Catholicism, Howell had explained the concept of natural moral law to students. His approach, news sources said, included drawing on the idea of natural law to examine contemporary social issues.

In the email that led to the complaint, Howell explained in a letter sent to friends after his firing, "I tried to show them that under utilitarianism, homosexual acts would not be considered immoral whereas under natural moral law they would. This is because natural moral law, unlike utilitarianism, judges morality on the basis of the acts themselves."

Howell claimed that his firing constituted a violation of his right to free speech, and noted that as an instructor in Catholicism, it was his responsibility to teach his students about the views held by that faith, however socially unpopular those views might be. "My responsibility on teaching a class on Catholicism is to teach what the Catholic Church teaches," Howell wrote in his letter. "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."

"Teaching a student about the tenets of a religion is one thing," the email sent by a student to McKim read. "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."

Catholic news site Catholic Online seized on the story in a July 12 article as an example of what it called the "Dictatorship of Relativism," with reference to a claim made by Pope Benedict XVI. "This egregious violation of the Professors constitutional rights and overt censorship of speech which is unpopular to the Cultural revolutionaries who have grabbed the reigns of Western society, is now being reviewed by the Alliance Defense Fund for a legal response," exclaimed the Catholic Online article.

The article reprinted the text of Howell's letter explaining his firing. In that letter, Howell recounted the Catholic view that teaches, "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. This is what I taught in my class."

Catholic Online commented on Howell's account, calling the former adjunct professor a "hero" and slamming "the terrible intolerance of those who claim that they are enforcing tolerance." Added the article, "Professor Howell has been fired for teaching truth. He is a freedom fighter. Authentic Human Freedom cannot be realized in decisions made against God and against the Natural Law. Authentic freedom has a moral constitution. It must be exercised in reference to the truth concerning the human person, the family, our obligations in solidarity to one another and the common good.

"This is a serious warning to all who hold that truth exists in an age which has followed the pied piper of relativism into bondage," the article went on. "Professor Howell is a hero."

The Allied Defense Fund ADF), which seeks to "keep the door open for the spread of the Gospel through the legal defense and advocacy of religious freedom, the sanctity of human life, and traditional family values," is examining at the case, reported the news-Gazette.

"A university cannot censor professors' speech --including classroom speech related to the topic of the class--merely because some students find that speech 'offensive,' " the News-Gazette quoted ADF lawyer David French. "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."

Because of the nature of the employment agreement between adjunct professors and the university, no guarantee of employment from one semester to the next was offered, according to the university's associate chancellor for public affairs, Robin Kaler.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


  • , 2010-07-12 16:57:46

    I ask this simple question. I am Hispanic...if he was teaching that acting or being Hispanic is against Nature, would that be permitted? It makes no sense to claim that natural urges and attractions are against natural law. Obviously the people who coined ’natural law’ didn’t spend enough time observing natural behavior in nature. Homosexuality occurs in nature regularly (and not just in humans). Gay people should be treated like any other minority...with the same protections against slander and racist opinions.

  • , 2010-07-12 20:32:53

    I’m not convinced that it was right to fire this professor over this. I could see a justification in firing him had he insinuated that the teaching of the Catholic Church was morally superior to other views. But, given that this was a course in Catholicism, and that apparently he presented an alternative perspective (utilitarianism) without necessarily endorsing one view over the other, then what’s the problem? I disagree with more than a few teachings of the Catholic Church, and as a gay man I am especially offended by some Catholic teachings on issues of human sexuality. However, it doesn’t hurt me to be aware of those teachings. In fact, such awareness enables me to be more secure in my own views. Universities should encourage free expression- not stifle it.

  • , 2010-07-12 23:09:36

    There’s is big difference between outlining the beliefs of a religion and proclaiming that acts of homosexuality are against "natural order." I am Catholic, and the churches stance on homosexuality upsets me. Catholic leadership has clearly set forth a policy of blatant discrimination, and declares anyone who speaks out about it as inherently sinful. I am a confirmed Catholic, but I reserve the right to question church leaders, and refuse to believe that discrimination has any place in either religious teaching or university lecture halls.

  • , 2010-07-12 23:37:02

    Thanks to Anonymous (Catholic). Isn’t it a shame that you have to be anonymous. Are you afraid of be3ing kicked out of your church, which IMHO would be blessing in disguise. BTW, if the professor taught that Nazi-ism was the true faith, would he have been kept employed? Actually that is almost what he did. How many realize that Hitler was a baptised cathlic, born in very catholic Austria in 1888. And he documented in Mein Kampf his hatred of the Jews, which btw came from the cAtholic church over a millenia. And we all know how his leveraging that hatred got him elected, and the results. If any course on the Catholic church is given, it should focus on the endless crimes of the church, not supporting its propaganda. eg The endlsee molestation and cover up of children all over the world. The hatred of part of Gods creation, the gays. WWII and the Holocaust. The Pope telling Africans not to use condoms in a continent where AIDS is rampart, with 23 million victims. He just wanted more people to corrupt their minds. During WWII Hitler told his people to have more babies - for the Wehrmacht (draftee army) The Pope in 2009 UNexcommunicated a Bishop williamson who is a holocaust denier.. I could go on and on. If the church lost its religious freedom in this country, the entire hierachy would be tossed in Jail under the RICO (racketeering....) act. The prof had no seniority as an adjunct professsor, btw, I was one for a couple years. The school has the right to terminate him, or not renewe his term by term contract. They did the right thing. BTW, the Alliance Defense fund is one of the hate groups that works against gay people.

  • , 2010-07-12 23:54:15

    What absurd and disturbing news! If you’re going to take a class on Catholicism, and the professor tells you what Catholicism teaches, why get him fired because he taught you what you paid him to teach you regardless of how "offensive" the teachings seem to you??? Natural Law is based on human reason. It’s not some subjective doctrine. If you don’t agree with it then defend your position in a rational manner. If you can’t reasonably defend your position, then seriously consider the possibility of truth in what seems "offensive." To say something is "offensive" isn’t making a reasonable argument. The professor of Catholicism taught Catholicism. How does that limit independent thought and "ostracize people"? So, we want to promote independent thought by not only censoring but firing someone who expressed seemingly "offensive" ideas. What the hell is wrong with people today?!?!?

  • , 2010-07-13 00:14:28

    Oh, the same old "arguments" using the scandals and crimes of the few members of the Church to attack the rationality of Church teachings. It’s getting old people. Read "How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilzation" and honestly compare Catholicism to other religions before you make such comments. If there’s a professor who teaches a course on Nazism and makes a strong arguement that it is good then respond by making an even stronger claim that it isn’t good. If you know there is such a professor in your school, then you can either take his class and challenge him and in doing so challenge yourself in defending truth, or avoid the class, knowing very well that you don’t have the stomach to stand up for what you believe, if you believe in anything. "I am Hispanic...if he was teaching that acting or being Hispanic is against Nature, would that be permitted?" What an absurd statement. Again, the Natural Law doctrine is based on reason. It’s complex, not perfect,but well thought out and well argued. Do your research! It’s not the same as saying that being Hispanic is against nature. So, nice try, but this analogy fails. But if someone does happen to reasonably argue this thesis, would you be able to prove him wrong? Or, are you going to pull a North Korea on him and take him out?

  • fernsky, 2010-07-14 14:52:24

    Gay or not the most beautiful thing in the world that may happen is being attracted to that other human being and with just one look you know that person wants you too it is only sexual,the feeling and need of another body nothing to do with gender orientation or anything else, just that feeling and sex, the next morning no questions asked, was it a dream, it must have been, it was too good to be true and yet. Who’s to say what we did was wrong?

  • fernsky, 2010-07-14 15:02:54

    On morality; It is quite moral for some Muslims to blow themselves up killing hundreds, what are morals? Is there such a thing as morality? What about introspection? What are we really? How does Monseigneur Daneels feels? Oh well have a nice 14th of July and long live la révolution.

  • , 2010-07-14 21:36:06

    Typical French apathy. What condemns our immoral acts, you ask? Reason. What happens after La Revolution? La Terreur.

  • , 2010-07-17 13:58:01

    What Dr. Howell failed to point out in his teaching about Natural Moral Law was the fact that it is his preferred opinion of his religion. It is the Catholic teaching of natural law that in order for acts to be "ordered" they have to be directed toward an "end". Homosexuality is a natural orientation, but its "acts are not ordered to the marriage of two individuals; therefore, the end does not justify the means. Marriage is between two individuals, in this case, of opposite sexes, and has a two fold purpose: union and procreation. If the two-fold purpose is not utilized in the relationship, according to Catholic teaching, then sexual acts are disordered. The professor understands then this teaching and so comments that people of the same gender cannot be acting according to the Natural (Judeo-Catholic) Moral Law. Since his conclusions were based upon a religious understanding, the question is, did he have a right to teach about his religion in a public school, backed by his own authority, and not the institution to which he was attached?

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