Monday, July 12, 2010

And So It Begins: #Catholic University Instructor Fired Over Utilitarian Application to Homosexuality

The University of Illinois has fired an adjunct professor who taught courses on Catholicism after a student accused the instructor of engaging in hate speech by saying he agrees with the church's teaching that homosexual sex is immoral.

The professor, Dr. Ken Howell of Champaign, said his firing violates his academic freedom. He also lost his job at an on-campus Catholic center.

I remember the controversy that surrounded the "Hate Crimes Bill," which was signed last year in October by President Obama, officially known as the Matthew Shepard Act. Many Christians were rightly concerned that they would be targeted by the bill and that organizations would use it to limit their freedom of religion and freedom of speech. Well, here's one example. Ken Howell.

This is what is so wrong with this scenario: Dr. Ken Howell is a known Catholic teaching Catholic doctrine. His students aren't in the dark. They didn't sign up for a Wiccan course on basket-weaving. The course is called "Introduction to Catholicism."

Mr. Howell sent an email at the end of the spring semester explaining Catholic beliefs to his students to help them prepare for an exam. (The student's email that led to his firing is here.)

"Natural Moral Law says that Morality must be a response to REALITY," he wrote in the e-mail. "In other words, sexual acts are only appropriate for people who are complementary, not the same."

An unidentified student (Don't you love that? An "unidentified student" is allowed to send an email that has in essence destroyed a man's career. But he can remain anonymous.) sent an e-mail to religion department head Robert McKim on May 13, calling Howell's e-mail "hate speech." (Hate speech? Hardly. Howell was describing utilitarianism and the application of it toward homosexuality.) The student claimed to be a friend of the offended student. (Right. The offended student couldn't be bothered to express their own disappointment/anger/rage. So they had someone else do their bidding.) The writer said in the e-mail that his friend wanted to remain anonymous.

"Teaching a student about the tenets of a religion is one thing," the student wrote. "Declaring that homosexual acts violate the natural laws of man is another." (Wrong answer. Dr. Howell was teaching students the tenets of a religion, which was clearly defined in the course description, which I'll show below. If you read the original email from Dr. Howell, you will see the context, which includes Natural Moral Law. The student's email reveals that he wasn't even tracking accurately with Dr. Howell's arguments.)

Howell said he was teaching his students about the Catholic understanding of natural moral law.
From the University of Illinois, Department of Religion RLST course catalog (emphasis and comment mine):
RLST 127
Introduction to Catholicism
Credit: 3 hours.
Introduction to the academic study of Catholicism in its historical, philosophical and religious dimensions with an emphasis on its historical diversity. ("Philosophical" may not have been thoroughly explained to the students, or some may not have understood its meaning. Philosophy addresses questions that have to do with existence, reason, and values. If that's termed "hate speech," then you may as well throw out Platonic Realism for being "hate speech" against the color green. The students were being introduced to philosophical thought as well as the tenets of Catholicism.)

After visiting the University of Illinois site, I was amazed to see they still had their announcement congratulating Howell for "being recognized for excellent teaching" for Fall 2009, voted by the students. Obviously he is admired and valued for his teaching methods. It is thus even more of an outrage that a university would oust a professor who evidently is well-respected by most students because a minority of one was offended.

This is the new rule in America: the tyranny of the minority. Instead of being ruled by law (and reason), we are now witnessing a complete breakdown of logic and fairness. From this scenario, I have concluded that no one can teach anything if it runs counter to liberal or progressive thought; even if the original email was one of sound explanation, certainly not attacking homosexuality but instead questioning the criterion used to determine right and wrong. (Interestingly, the email does not reference Scripture or God.)

Dr. Howell presents a philosophical premise: Utilitarianism (the idea that the moral worth of beliefs, choices, and actions are predicated upon the utility [usefulness] of how much pleasure it provides the individual) in its modern form, is a moral theory that judges right or wrong by its practical outcomes.

These thoughts are in themselves, fascinating -- and should have led to a lively discussion or debate. (And although I'm speculating, the email seems to reveal that the discussion became a little heated within the classroom.) Dr. Howell is in my humble opinion, the best kind of professor. He is teaching his students how to think. Nowhere in that email did I read a denouncement of homosexuality based on Scripture. Instead, Dr. Howell made a compelling argument that criterion for which to evaluate homosexuality morally, Natural Moral Law, was often left off the table. I agree. I don't know why it isn't obvious to those who support homosexuality that it is not "natural" in the sense that two men do not complimentary fit one another, but it is certainly a blind spot.

Dr. Howell also briefly talks about the progression toward separating our sexual nature from our moral decisions. Again, provocative thoughts meant to generate discussion and examination. Instead, Dr. Howell has been punished.

What is further outrageous is that the St. John's Catholic Newman Center (SJCNC), would also fire Dr. Howell. This is a Catholic organization, and -- one of their entities is The Institute of Catholic Thought. If anything, SJCNC should have supported Dr. Howell from the very beginning as initiating Catholic thought and subsequently (yes, I know...) supporting Catholic doctrine. (Some may say that should be the other way around and I would concur.)

But if you have a Catholic student organization that is to help students explore their Catholic faith (Dare I say develop Catholic identity in a post-modern Christian culture?); then they would do well to keep one such as Dr. Howell's caliber, on staff.

What seems clear to me is that this course was presented in the student catalog as a Catholic course. Anyone who hasn't heard of Catholicism's stand on homosexuality is living under a rock. The other concern I have is that with the inexcusable sin of sexual abuse by priests (mostly same-sex abuse); a Catholic organization would fail to pursue a clear and defining answer to the increasingly ambivalent morality of the world.

Instead, a Catholic thinker who is strongly making their case for the consequences of such moral ambiguity; is targeted and denounced.

I strongly urge all Catholics to write to the University of Illinois on behalf of Dr. Howell, and the St. John's Catholic Newman Center. This is an important issue and I fear if not addressed, will only give rise to more punishment of Catholics for being Catholic. Information is below.

Please be polite when writing. Reread your comments and make them thoughtful, not inflammatory or incendiary. We need to show the University of Illinois and St. John's Catholic Newman Center that we object to the firing of Dr. Ken Howell because he is being fired for remaining true to his course objectives and his faithfulness to Catholic doctrine.

I'm not sure if this address still works for Dr. Howell, but here is his email for SJCNC:

Kenneth J. Howell, Ph.D., Director & Senior Fellow, Institute of Catholic Thought

University of Illinois
College of Liberal Arts and Sciences
Department of Religion
Dr. Robert McKim
Head of the Department of Religion and Professor of Religious Studies and of Philosophy
3080 Foreign Languages Building
MC 166
707 S Mathews
Urbana, IL 61801
Phone: (217) 265-6350

President Michael J. Hogan
University Relations
414 Administrative Ofc. Bldg.
1737 W. Polk St., MC-971
Chicago, IL 60612
Tel: (312) 996-3772
Fax: (312) 996-1836

Lisa Troyer
Chief of Staff

Loren Taylor, UI Alumni Association
Chief Executive Officer, President, and Publisher

University of Illinois Alumni Association
Board of Directors
Chair: Gary Chico
Chico & Nunes P.C.

St. John's Catholic Newman Center
Msgr. Gregory Ketcham, Chaplain and Director
Newman Hall
604 East Armory Avenue
Champaign, IL 61820
(217) 344-1266
(217) 344-6606 (fax)

Fr. Anthony Co, Assistant Chaplain

Charles Hanson, Chief Financial Officer

David Hazen, Director of Communications and Annual Giving


Margo said...

FYI: You mixed up the two courses. His "Intro to Catholicism" class was the one with the e-mail that started this whole controversy. He did also teach "Modern Catholic Thought" but he explicitly stated that he did not cover the topic of homosexuality in that course. It was only brought up in "Intro to Catholicism".

Mary Rose said...

Margo, thanks very much for the information. I corrected it. What is unfortunate is that given this is a college-level course, and given that it delves into philosophical thought; students should learn how to go deeper in questioning moral issues. Instead, I see shallow emotionalism, not so much as masquerading as higher critical thought -- but as pushing political pandering and egalitarianism; the latter falling into a completely different field of study altogether.

It emphasizes my long-held belief: students are not being taught to how to think, how to look at a concept or set of problems and evaluate it by logic or reason. Sadly, these students have missed out on having a professor who challenges the easy conclusions to encourage his students to go deeper. I hope he wins his lawsuit. If anything, it would be a win against sloppy thinking.

Sara said...

Hi Mary Rose,

Just to clear it up a little bit - Dr. Howell's contract with SJCNC was to teach courses at U of I and get paid by SJCNC (which is actually through the diocese of Peoria) to teach courses. Since U of I relieved him of his teaching duties, what was SJCNC supposed to pay him for? It only makes sense that he would be let go from SJCNC since he didn't have any more teaching responsibilities at U of I.

SJCNC is also currently experiencing financial issues with the economy the way it is and with just completing a huge building expansion (which, having lived there, let me tell you -it's incredible to have the new building and to have such a Catholic presence on campus!) it has been hard for the Newman Center to afford its operations. I can see why Msgr. Greg Ketcham might be under financial pressure to simply let Dr. Howell go if he didn't have any more teaching responsibilities at the University of Illinois.

By the way, I enjoy your blog. Thanks for writing.


Mary Rose said...

Sara, thank you for visiting! And I totally understand the paid situation with the SJCNC. However, what really bothers me is that the SJCNC has not (as far as I know) defended Dr. Howell. That to me is preposterous. That a Catholic institution would not step up to the plate and support an employee who was upholding Catholic critical thought - is to me shocking. I've not heard anything that remotely resembles support so if I missed it, I hope you and anyone else reading will notify me.

I would think that if the SJCNC employed Dr. Howell, then they agreed that he was a valuable influence for the students. What does their silence on this issue communicate?