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

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Monday July 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.

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