Monday July 19, 2010

Thousands Support Catholic Prof Fired for Explaining Church Teaching on Homosexuality

By Kathleen Gilbert

URBANA, Illinois, July 19, 2010 ( – A University of Illinois professor fired for explaining the Catholic Church’s teaching on homosexuality has gathered several thousands of students, alumni, and others – including the head of the the University’s atheist club – demanding that the Catholic professor be reinstated. Meanwhile, some faculty have reacted by eyeing the local Catholic diocese with suspicion for being permitted to control the content of courses teaching the Catholic faith.

Dr. Kenneth Howell was fired from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) after an email explaining the Church’s teaching on homosexuality was sent to school officials by a student who called the professor’s words “hate speech.” Howell had taught “Introduction to Catholicism and Modern Catholic Thought” at the university’s Department of Religion since 2001, in addition to teaching at the school’s Newman Center, a diocesan-run program, for 12 years. Howell has reportedly retained his title, but is not permitted to teach at the school.

UIUC president Michael Hogan has indicated that the termination, conducted by the school’s Department of Religion, would be investigated.

The administrators of a Facebook group supporting Dr. Howell have started a fan page to handle the influx of supporters after the group, now over 5,600 members, became difficult to administer.

James Farrell, a Communications professor at the University of New Hampshire, posted to the group his letter to UIUC president Michael Hogan stating that the affair “seems to expose a decidedly anti-Catholic attitude in higher education that, while always present, is rarely visible in so bold and unabashed a character as it is at UIUC.”

“The disregard for Dr. Howell’s academic freedom is astonishing, and no rationalizations from shameless administrators can obscure this perversion of traditional academic values. This case exposes the exercise of nothing less than naked power wielded in service to a corrupt academic ideology,” wrote Farrell. “The campus thought police, like Pilate, ask mockingly ‘what is truth?'”

Ryan McDaniel, a Ph.D. student at UIUC, faculty member at Eastern Illinois University (EIU) and a leader in the fight to reinstate Dr. Howell, told that at least “dozens” of UIUC students, in addition to many others across the country, have expressed alarm over Howell’s termination.

McDaniel said that he had met with other EIU faculty over the affair, noting that “we are all disgusted by it.”

“I cannot ‘go on the record’ for any of my colleagues at EIU, but I will go on the record in voicing my own personal opinion – it is a clear injustice – and I will say that this general assessment of the injustice of what has happened to Dr. Howell is shared by many of the faculty at EIU,” wrote McDaniel.

Even non-religious students are rallying to defend Howell and free speech: Edward Clint, writing as the head of UIUC’s Atheists, Agnostics, & Freethinkers group, expressed his outrage at the silenceing of Howell.

“While I personally couldn’t disagree more with Catholic moral thought, and I do not speak for everyone in my org, we are disturbed by this move of the university,” wrote Clint on the group’s discussion board. “This is an unreasonable stultification of academic freedom unbefitting of any university.”

The group includes several documents, including a petition and the full texts of Howell’s original email, and the email of complaint sent by the offended student to University administration.

Howell’s email offered an analysis of the difference between utilitarian and natural law ethics, by which he examined homosexuality in addition to such questions as abortion, pedophilia, and rape. Before delving into homosexuality, Howell notes that “to judge an action wrong is not to condemn a person” and that “A person and his/her acts can be distinguished for the purposes of morality.” But while homosexuality is acceptable by utilitarian standards, he writes: “[Natural moral law] says that Morality must be a response to REALITY. In other words, sexual acts are only appropriate for people who are complementary, not the same.”

In the complaint letter to administration, a student offered Howell’s email, which he decried as “downright absurd,” as evidence of the professsor’s “inflammatory and downright insensitive” way of teaching the Catholic faith. “Allowing this hate speech at a public university is entirely unacceptable,” wrote the student, whose name has not been released. “It sickens me to know that hard-working Illinoisans are funding the salary of a man who does nothing but try to indoctrinate students and perpetuate stereotypes.”

Others are reacting to Howell’s firing by questioning whether the Catholic Church should have any influence at all on how Catholicism is taught on a secular campus.

A Chicago Tribune article Sunday suggested that the Catholic diocese of Peoria’s contract with the University to provide classes on Catholic teaching and “[maintain] control over how Catholic theory was taught” was a source of potential scandal.

“I have very strong inclinations that this is where things went wrong in the first place,” Nicholas Burbules, a member of the Faculty Senate’s General University Policy Committee who promised to investigate, told the Tribune.

Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors and a UIUC English professor, indicated that Howell’s firing did not violate his right to due process, saying that “outside control is very dangerous.” “If the control is not clearly with the university, ordinarily that’s something we just wouldn’t tolerate,” said Nelson, referring to the arrangement with the diocese.

In a statement from the Diocese of Peoria issued Thursday, Chancellor Patricia Gibson said that “The Diocese has been seeking contact with the University of Illinois” since learning of Howell’s termination, that the University has responded, and that UIUC “has given us every assurance that they intend to continue to offer Catholic courses in the Department of Religion.”

To contact the University of Illinois:

Michael J. Hogan, president

(217) 333-3070

Office of Public Affairs

(217) 333-5010

[email protected]

See previous coverage:

U. of IL to ‘Review’ Firing of Catholic Prof.

U. of Illinois Fires Catholic Prof for Explaining Church Teaching on Homosexuality