Dr. Kenneth Howell was an adjunct professor in the Department of Religion at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Congratulated by the university for excellence in teaching in the Fall of 2009, he was recently fired for affirming, in an e-mail to the students of his "Introduction to Catholicism" course, the teaching of the Catholic Church on homosexuality. According to The News-Gazette:
In early May, Howell wrote a lengthy e-mail to his students, in preparation for an exam, in which he discusses how the theory of utilitarianism and natural law theory would judge the morality of homosexual acts.
"Natural Moral Law says that Morality must be a response to REALITY," he wrote in the e-mail, obtained by The News-Gazette. "In other words, sexual acts are only appropriate for people who are complementary, not the same."
He went on to write there has been a disassociation of sexual activity from morality and procreation, in contradiction of Natural Moral Theory.
The offensive e-mail was forwarded by an irate student to university officials, and the rest is history. It appears that he was fired from the Newman Center as well. At this point the diocese does not seem to be standing behind him, but according to an update on a Facebook page in support of Dr. Howell, Bishop Jenky is trying to get him re-instated. There are stories here, here, here, here, and here.
So, let's not expect any more tolerance from the Tolerant Ones. I am reminded of Msgr. Benson's "Lord of the World" in which the humanitarians turn on a dime from gentle doves to ferocious persecutors, the logic being that the intolerant Catholics must be eliminated to create a tolerant world. Don't get me wrong - the firing of a Catholic university professor is far from red martyrdom - though, perhaps, not quite as far as it seems.Imagine everything in reverse.
Suppose the LGBT center on campus has a director who teaches adjunct in the philosophy department, and because of an arrangement with the university he teaches one course every semester, "A Philosophical Introduction to Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Studies." The professor is a good teacher and tells the students that they do not actually have to agree with him, but because he is an honest and forthright teacher, the professor says that these are his views. Over the course of the semester several students write him concerning his views, and he proceeds to dialogue with them in a variety of email notes in a candid though respectful manner. One of the students, a devout Catholic, expresses offense about comments made by the professor. In a lecture and several email notes the professor asserted his belief that the Catholic view of human sexuality is mistaken, disordered and ultimately harmful to gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgenders. Even though the professor is respectful, offers reasons for his position, reminds the student that he need not agree with him, etc., the student complains to the Dean that he feels "excluded" from the university community because of the professor's comments. The student also makes the point that the message sent to him is that Catholics are not welcomed as full participants in the life of the university. The Dean is moved by this complaint and does not renew the professor's contract. He offers the very grounds offered by the Dean to justify the university's termination of Dr. Howell: "the e-mails sent by the professor violate university standards of inclusivity, which would then entitle us to have him discontinue his teaching arrangement with us."
If this had actually occurred, no one would have seen this as anything but the employment of naked power to punish a professor who is properly exercising his academic freedom. But the real case of Dr. Howell, in terms of the issue of academic freedom, cannot be distinguished from this fictional case in any meaningful way.
When I was in college (79-83), I was told by my professors, who ranged from liberal to Marxist, that at the university I would hear and read things that would challenge what I learned at home and church. In fact, my favorite professor, Randy Sheldon (a Marxist sociologist), called it "culture shock."
But, as Randy would sometimes put it, if you disagree with your professor, your job is to offer contrary arguments, and it is the duty of the professor and your fellow students to answer you with reasoned respect, even if they find your views as troubling as you find theirs.
This was the animating spirit of university life that drew me to it. It was not a place for crybabies or bullies. It was a place for serious men and women willing to undergo mutual interrogation in a climate of brutal honesty in which recrimination for holding controversial views was worse than being wrong.
The aggrieved student in the Howell case is the product of a generation of institutional coddling that rewards intellectual immaturity if it can feign personal offense.
(For those who want to know more about Dr. Howell and his academic pedigree and accomplishments, see his CV posted on the website of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology)