Msgr. Stuart Swetland, the Most Reverend Harry J. Flynn Professor of Christian Ethics at Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Md., served as director of the St. John’s Catholic Newman Center at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign from 1997 to 2006. In 1998, he hired Kenneth Howell as the John Henry Newman Scholar in Residence. Msgr. Swetland and Howell taught courses on Catholicism at the university.
This June, Howell was informed that he would not be teaching Catholic courses this fall because the university disapproved of his teaching of the Catholic doctrine on homosexual sex.
In late July, the university decided that Howell could resume his teaching of Catholicism (see related articles here and here) and that his course salary would be paid by the University of Illinois; the Newman Center is paying him for his work for the Newman Center. As Howell says in his latest update on the “Save Dr. Ken” Facebook page, there’s “more to this than appears, but, for now, we move on.”
In July, Register correspondent Bryan Berry interviewed Msgr. Swetland about the situation.
In your view, why was homosexual sex the issue that the University of Illinois attacked Dr. Howell over?
If you look nationwide, this issue is contentious to the point where many people are confusing sincerely held beliefs with bigotry, which is not the same thing.
Recently, a federal court judge in Massachusetts ruled that the Defense of Marriage Act was motivated by “irrational prejudice.” In 2003, another judge in Massachusetts ruled that the state had “arbitrarily deprived” homosexuals of marriage. How do you respond to this view that Catholic teaching on homosexuality is bigoted or arbitrary or culturally bound?
Catholicism is not the only religion that holds this position. Devout Muslims, evangelical Protestant Christians, many religious traditions, hold this position.
What is bothersome to many individuals is that the Catholic Church doesn’t just hold it on religious grounds. The Church’s position is that this isn’t something that is known to us just based on revelation, based on what our revealed Scriptures say. The Catholic position — and this is where Dr. Howell was specific in his teaching — is that this is something that is based on what the moral/natural-law tradition calls right reason.
How do you respond to people who say that’s bigotry, pure and simple?
Well, many would argue that the tradition of natural law is the basis of the founding of our country. An interpretation of natural law is that you can know moral truth through reason alone. Throughout human history, most people have come to understand that there is a purpose and meaning for sexual union.
The problem is that the other side thinks that any opposition to same-sex sexual union means being opposed to those individual persons, judging those individual persons.
The student who wrote the e-mail to Religion Department head Robert McKim complaining about Dr. Howell’s teaching called it “hate speech.”
I didn’t think we’d ever be up against this, because, from a teacher’s point of view, there was always an acceptance of the idea that there was a distinction between disagreeing with the morality of an act and not judging [specific] persons.
Let’s take it off homosexuality for a minute. I personally believe that divorce and remarriage is wrong. I also believe that you can know that, through reason alone, that the vows that one agrees to when he or she enters into a marital union mean what they say: “until death do us part.”
So, for a valid, consummated marriage, I don’t believe that divorce and remarriage is legitimate if they’re in a valid first marriage.
We’ve taught that for 2,000 years. But no one has ever accused us of being bigoted toward divorced people because we teach that. There’s no clamoring in any course I’ve ever taught, rallying groups of people who find themselves to be divorced, or the children of divorced people, who are wanting us fired because we’re teaching about the sanctity of marriage when it comes to divorce and remarriage. Because they understand totally that you can disagree with someone’s actions without being bigoted towards them.
This is something completely new and very recent, where any opposition, expressed in any way, to those particular [homosexual] sexual acts becomes, in the minds of those who don’t agree with us, tantamount to bigotry.
But that position seems so illogical, that one has to question whether they really believe it.
Well, that’s what we’re up against as far as the intellectual climate goes, that people can’t make a distinction. We’re trying to find moral truth; we think we have found moral truth about how best humans should use their sexual powers and gifts, and to put forward a position, which isn’t a new position but one that has been held for a long time and has the test of time behind it as well as everything else.
But to put forward that position, they can’t see it as anything but condemning — not just that we disagree about the purpose and meaning of sexuality — but condemning a whole group of people.
To put traditional Catholic teaching in that category [of bigoted, unacceptable ideas] is quite unfortunate for the university. Think of all the contributions that Catholic ideas have made to intellectual tradition in the sciences, law, political science. I used to teach the just-war tradition at UI. The just-war tradition began in the West with the thinking of Augustine and Ambrose and in the East with people like Basil and Chrysostom. You’re dealing with intellectual traditions that are hundreds or thousands of years old and that are part of the intellectual heritage that the university is now saying is no longer acceptable at the university.
Some think that this struggle is more difficult than the struggle over abortion, because a lot of people know homosexuals and don’t want to offend them, whereas the unborn are silent.
It’s true that when a lot of people think about this issue they’ll immediately personalize it to a friend or a family member they know. And they think that any condemnation of the act is condemning the person or friend or relative they know. But that’s not what’s going on, and that’s just a problem of rhetoric.
If I have a relative who’s struggling with alcohol or drugs, I wouldn’t say that it’s condemning of my cousin on drugs if I favor enforcement of drug laws. I want what’s best for my cousin, and what’s best for my cousin is that he get sober. But that’s hard for people to see; that’s a hard distinction to make.
People have forgotten that there’s such a thing as weakness in human persons. We’re all weak; we all sin; we all fall short of the goal. We keep our goals high, knowing we’re going to fall short of them, but we continue to be the best we can be.
Yes, the Church’s teaching on everything — from how we are to take care of the poor, how we are to deal with people who hate us, how we are to deal with our sexual powers, everything — the Church’s teachings are very precise and very demanding.
There is a reason for that. God calls us to a certain perfection — knowing that we’re going to fall short — and that’s why we have confessionals in every church and chapel. We recognize that we’re in need of healing.
Bryan Berry writes from Joliet, Illinois.