Readers who remember our recent coverage of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Newman Center know that we’ve called it “perhaps the best Catholic campus ministry program in the country.” We told you why in our Feb. 28, 2010, Nov. 30, 2008, and Feb. 25, 2007, issues.

Now we have another reason to be proud of the St. John’s Catholic Newman Center staff and the students they serve.

As our July 27 article on told you, Kenneth Howell was summarily “Fired for Teaching the Truth” about the Catholic doctrine on homosexual sex at the University of Illinois. Due process: none whatsoever. The catalyst: a student’s anonymous complaint that Howell’s simple presentation of Catholic teaching constituted “hate speech.”

It’s a shame to see the “hate speech” card being played so frivolously nowadays. True hate speech is a vicious menace to society, and we all have an interest in suppressing it. No one’s First Amendment rights extend to inciting violence or discrimination.

But when hate speech is invoked to enforce academic groupthink by trampling on someone else’s First Amendment rights, it’s a cowardly bluff.

And this bluff was called.

Not by the university, mind you. It was called by the thousands of active Catholics who realized that Howell’s predicament was their own.

Thanks to the active leadership of the Newman Center, a “Save Dr. Ken” page and group were launched on Facebook and accumulated some 9,500 fans. One of the leading First Amendment advocacy groups, the Alliance Defense Fund, took Howell’s case. Some 3,000 e-mails flooded the university’s board of trustees. Catholic news outlets and blogs brought the case to the attention of thousands more. Thanks to that publicity, officials of the Diocese of Peoria were able to steer behind-the-scenes negotiations with university officials to a successful conclusion.

True, as this issue of the Register went to press, questions remained about the university’s intent in its July 29 announcement of Howell’s partial reinstatement and whether the professor would accept it. That decision strips the Newman Center of its role in selecting Catholic instructors, demotes Howell from adjunct professor to visiting instructor, offers him the mere pittance of $10,000 for a fall-semester class, while saying nothing of any spring semester position, and promises that the Faculty Senate review of the situation will continue.

Many observers called it a calculated political move designed to deflect criticism for the moment and then quietly force out Howell on some pretext when circumstances allow. Time will tell.

But if it comes to that, the same solution will work again.

For better or worse, your First Amendment rights are only worth the effort you put into defending them. So as long as active Catholics are willing to stick together and shine light on blatant anti-Catholicism, there is hope for true academic freedom at the University of Illinois’ flagship campus. Despite the university’s best efforts.

If a teacher in an “Introduction to Catholicism” course can’t teach Catholic thought, who among us can? But this is about more than that.

A mere fracas among academics can be far more relevant than we realize. Cardinal John Henry Newman, who will be beatified in September by Pope Benedict, said as much.

University classes, he wrote in his The Rise and Progress of Universities, are “but periodical, and only partially represent the idea of a university.” He took a much broader view: “In every great country, the metropolis itself becomes a sort of necessary university, whether we will or no.”

The great city is the seat of high society, of politics and law, of letters and the mass media, of the libraries and museums, of the academies and the scientific societies.

In an extremely prescient turn of phrase, the cardinal wrote: “We cannot then be without virtual universities; a metropolis is such: The simple question is, whether the education sought and given should be based on principle, formed upon rule, directed to the highest ends, or left to the random succession of masters and schools, one after another, with a melancholy waste of thought and an extreme hazard of truth.”

In short, the university that educates our youth today is globalized society itself. But this is key: Society still takes its cue from the academy.

It may appear that opinion-making and religious instruction have been decentralized, but the dictums of academia still trickle down to us, filtered through politics, media and Hollywood. Whether the education we give ourselves is “based on principle and formed upon rule” depends on our great schools.

So the Church’s role in universities is crucial, and Howell’s fight belongs to all of us.

Cardinal Newman charged in his Idea of a University that the religious world — following the evangelical movement — falsely believes “that religion consists, not in knowledge, but in feeling or sentiment.” The connection between faith — as an intellectual act — with truth and knowledge is a very Catholic idea. We aren’t in the universities because we want to impose feelings or sentiments, but because we have been given the fullness of truth.

So we have no right to remain silent, because we’re not merely offering another opinion. We have something that society desperately needs: the truth about God, sex and homosexuality. If we can’t talk about why homosexual sex is bad for people and violates God’s law, how can we show that Catholics are the ones who really want what’s best for those with homosexual tendencies?

Nothing could be further from “hate speech” than that.