Thursday, July 15, 2010

Professor Fired for teaching Catholic Doctrine

Dr. Kenneth Howell was an adjunct lecturer in the University of Illinois Department of Religion for nine years. Howell was told after this year’s spring semester that his tenure with the Department of Religion had ended. This decision came after a Howell, who is Catholic, wrote an email about the morality of homosexual activity in light of Natural Law to his students in an introductory course on Catholicism. A student complained on behalf of an anonymous friend that Howell was engaging in “hate speech.” This complaint resulted in Howell’s termination.

The student complained that Howell’s statements about homosexual activity “ostracize[d] people of a certain sexual orientation.” The student suggests that it is acceptable to teach “a student about the tenets of a religion” but not to declare “that homosexual acts violate the natural laws of man...” This complaint is odd insofar as his two concerns would have been nullified by attentively reading Howell’s initial email.

Howell carefully distinguished between actions and persons: “In short, to judge an action wrong is not to condemn a person. A person and his/her acts can be distinguished for the purposes of morality.” Howell made this statement before diving into his discussion of homosexual activity. The student’s complaint (and UI’s response to it) reflects an intellectual immaturity that cannot distinguish actors from actions. Under this student’s theory, and that which UI has apparently adopted, any condemnation of action is condemnation of a person (a.k.a. “hate speech”).

Howell also addressed the second prong of the student’s complaint that Howell went beyond his role to teach Catholic tenets by addressing Natural Law. “Catholics don’t arrive at their moral conclusions based on their religion,” Howell wrote, “They do so based on a thorough understanding of natural reality.” Insofar as this statement is true, UI and this student might prefer that Howell simply tested his students on a comprehensive list entitled “What Catholics Believe” with the footnote, “For an honest discussion of why, please consider the University of Notre Dame.”

UI, according to its chancellor for public affairs, remains “absolutely committed to teaching the theory of Catholicism.” In Howell’s email, Howell was doing exactly that. Yet the associate dean for the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences said that, “the emails sent by Dr. Howell violate university standards of inclusivity, which would entitle us to discontinue his teaching arrangement with us.” This forces me to toy with the absurd conclusion that Howell was fired for doing his job. I am stuck here unless I consider some alternative explanations.

One explanation was addressed above, that UI simply does not want a rigorous discussion of the Catholic faith. Perhaps this is because the UI’s Department of Religion does not subscribe to the apparently radical notion that a religion can have a “why” or be based in, as Howell’s email suggests, reality and human nature.

If this isn’t the case, I’m left to conclude that Howell wasn’t fired for teaching what he taught with the depth that he offered. Rather, he was fired for having the chutzpah to actually believe what he was teaching, thereby giving credibility to the incredible “theory” of Catholicism. Perhaps at UI, professors are forbidden from being what Fr. Luigi Giussani said teachers need to be, namely, reference points of a tradition, at least when that tradition is as archaic, unsubstantiated and politically incorrect as Catholic moral thought.

Whether UI’s leadership cannot distinguish between actors and actions and fired Howell for hate speech; whether he was fired for suggesting that religion is reasonable and that the Catholics are Catholic because of (not despite) reality; or whether UI acted because Howell is foolish enough to believe what he says, UI has publicly borne intellectual shortcomings within its Department of Religion, and a distaste for academic freedom. All in all, it looks like UI’s decision was as much an indictment of Catholicism, as it was of Howell the person and teacher, who was recognized for excellence in both 2008 and 2009.

Regrettably, any reason for UI’s action also shows an unwillingness to engage diverse viewpoints because of a distrust of reality or uncertainty that its positions will stand successfully when weighed against it. When one has certainty about a belief (or, for UI’s sake, a theory) there is little reason to fear engaging those who uphold a different perspective. Especially when, as in this case, one’s opponent has carefully avoided personalizing discussion about an action’s merit. What would UI and its students have to lose through honest engagement of reality as proposed by Howell?

UI is currently reviewing Howell’s termination, according to a recently released statement from UI’s president. I hope that UI will honestly and objectively examine Howell’s circumstances. Doing so should force the conclusion that the decision to fire Howell was overly hasty and ill-conceived. If UI determines otherwise, we can expect Howell to stay in the news. He is currently working with the Alliance Defense Fund, a Christian organization that litigates on behalf of religious freedom.
— Joseph Orrino