Fired for Teaching the Truth

Ken Howell Sacked for Presenting Church Teaching on Homosexual Sex; Support Pours In

Kenneth Howell has taught courses on Catholicism, including 'Introduction to Catholicism' and 'Modern Catholic Thought' at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign since 2001.
Kenneth Howell has taught courses on Catholicism, including 'Introduction to Catholicism' and 'Modern Catholic Thought' at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign since 2001. (photo: Photo courtesy of Bryan Berry)


JOLIET, Ill. — A Catholic professor who was relieved of his teaching responsibilities at the University of Illinois for teaching the Catholic doctrine on homosexual sex has won widespread support in his struggle to return to the classroom.

Kenneth Howell, Ph.D., was dismissed from teaching his courses “Introduction to Catholicism” and “Modern Catholic Thought” after a student complained that Howell’s teaching on homosexual sex constituted “hate speech.”

Michael Hogan, Ph.D., who became president of the university on July 1, has referred the dispute to the Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure, which is part of the Faculty Senate; the committee hopes to make a recommendation on the case by the time classes convene on Aug. 23.


A number of students, Catholics, some professors, and others have rallied to Howell’s defense.

“This was not hate speech [speech to incite violence and prejudice],” Eli Lazar, a graduate student in mechanical engineering, told The (Champaign) News-Gazette. “If we censor speech, we censor our abilities to understand each other.”

Lazar and Trisha Tan, a former student of Howell’s, are two leaders of the 8,500 students and others who had signed a petition to reinstate Howell as of July 24. (Editor’s note: The signers include the author’s son, John Berry, another former student of Howell’s, who alerted the author to the story.)

The Daily Illini, the University of Illinois student newspaper, editorialized against Howell’s dismissal in its July 13 issue.

“While we disagree with [Catholic teaching on homosexual sex] and fully support the LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender] community in its fight for equality, firing Howell for teaching the facts was wrong, and an overreaction,” the newspaper editors wrote. “Being inclusive means allowing all viewpoints to be heard, and firing a Catholic professor for expressing the beliefs of his religion is a misplaced way to take a stand for homosexual students.”

Howell’s supporters include students and professors who disagree, sometimes completely, with Church teaching on homosexual sex.

“As an atheist, I really agree with almost nothing in such a class as Dr. Howell taught,” Ed Clint, president of the student group Atheists, Agnostics, and Freethinkers, told the Daily Illini. “But I didn’t feel that anything he did solicited termination as a result.”

Officials of the Diocese of Peoria, led by chancellor (and legal counsel) Patricia Gibson, have met with UI officials to resolve the controversy. The diocese is “fully behind me on this matter,” Howell said in an exclusive interview July 21. “I attribute the response of the diocese partly to the lay faithful within our diocese very strongly urging our priestly leaders toward justice.”

How the Controversy Began

The controversy began in May, when a friend of a student in Howell’s “Introduction to Catholicism” course (who himself had not taken the course) e-mailed Robert McKim, Ph.D., head of the religion department. The student (whose name has not been released) wrote that his friend had complained to him about “how the teacher, who I believe is a priest [Howell is a layman], would preach (not teach) his ideology to the class.” “Declaring that homosexual acts violate the natural laws of man,” the student wrote, means “ostraciz[ing] people of a certain sexual orientation.”

The student sent copies of his e-mail to Leslie Morrow, director of the LGBT Resource Center, as well as Siobhan Somerville, Ph.D., associate professor of English and gender and women’s studies.

“Leslie self-identifies as a queer woman of color and advocate for change,” states Morrow’s biography on the LGBT website. Somerville’s courses include “Queer Theory” as well as “Queer Reading, Queer Writing.” The LGBT center is needed, the center’s website states, because UI “contains homophobic and/or heterosexist attitudes and beliefs which are oppressive and devaluing of LGBT people.”

The salaries of Morrow and the others at the LGBT center, as well as that of Somerville, are paid by the University of Illinois. However, the work of Howell, who is an adjunct associate professor of religion and director of St. John’s Institute of Catholic Thought, is funded by St. John’s Catholic Newman Center, which is part of the Diocese of Peoria.

The Newman Center and its predecessors have been offering courses on Catholicism at UI since the Faculty Senate and the university’s board of trustees approved them in 1919. In the 1920s, five foundations offered courses at UI: Newman, Hillel (Jewish), Wesley (Methodist), McKinley (Presbyterian) and the Illinois Disciples.

Over the years, all the foundations except Newman stopped offering their courses.

Until 2000, the university accepted the courses as transfer credits. But in 2000, Msgr. Stuart Swetland, who directed the Newman Center and Newman Foundation from 1997 to 2006 (and who hired Howell in 1998), agreed that the courses in Catholicism would be offered through the Program for the Study of Religion (the religion department’s predecessor).

The faculty members and courses in Catholicism would “be subject to the same review and supervision” as others in the religion department, the memorandum of understanding stated. “In turn, the adjunct faculty affiliated with the Newman Foundation shall have the rights and privileges” of similar faculty.

The courses in military science, naval science and other such courses on campus that are required for ROTC students, have a similar set-up. Many of the teachers are employees of the U.S. armed services who teach courses for which UI students get academic credit.

Howell has taught the courses on Catholicism at the university since 2001 and has been honored for the excellence of his teaching, most recently in 2008 and 2009. He holds two doctorates, one in the history of Christianity and its relation to science from Lancaster University, England, and another in linguistics and the philosophy of science from Indiana University.

The relation between science and religion is one of his primary research interests; in 2002 he published God’s Two Books: Copernican Cosmology and Biblical Interpretation in Early Modern Science (University of Notre Dame Press). He has a reading knowledge of eight foreign languages, including ancient Greek and Hebrew, and served as a Presbyterian pastor before becoming Catholic in 1996.

Mutual Consent vs. Natural Moral Law

The complaining student attached to his e-mail to McKim an e-mail that Howell had sent to his students on May 4 to help them understand the philosophy of utilitarianism, which was going to be on the final exam.
Utilitarianism, Howell wrote, is a widely held “moral theory that judges right or wrong by its practical outcomes.”

It can use the criterion of mutual consent to assess sexual activity. “It is said that sexual activity is okay if the two or more people involved agree,” the e-mail said.

By that criterion, Howell wrote, it would be okay for a dog to have sex with its master or a 10-year-old human to have sex with a 40-year-old.

By contrast, Howell wrote, “the natural [moral] law theory … assumes that human acts have an inherent meaning. NML says that morality must be a response to reality.” And reality says that “men and women are not interchangeable” but “complementary in their anatomy, physiology and psychology.”

To help his students understand how homosexual sex defies the nature of reality, Howell then described male homosexual sex, in which, “to the best of my knowledge … one [man] tends to act as the ‘woman’ while the other acts as the ‘man.’”

By engaging in sexual acts “for which their bodies are not fitted,” they can harm their bodies, “a physician has told me,” Howell wrote.

In the lengthy e-mail intended to help his students understand the competing philosophies, Howell discussed how “over the last few centuries … we have gradually been separating our sexual natures (reality) from our moral decisions. Thus, people tend to think that we can use our bodies sexually in whatever ways we choose without regard to their actual structure and meaning.”

The Catechism teaches: “Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, tradition has always declared that “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered.” They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved (No. 2357). Homosexual persons are called to chastity. By the virtues of self-mastery that teach them inner freedom, at times by the support of disinterested friendship, by prayer and sacramental grace, they can and should gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection” (No. 2359).

The examples of the dog, the 10-year-old and the homosexual man acting as a woman have elicited the most scorn from Howell’s opponents. The professor’s defenders have argued that the examples are legitimate pedagogy.

“I may want to go back and revisit whether the examples I gave were properly chosen or not,” Howell said. “But the point was not so much about the examples as getting [my students] to think about the contrasting systems of ethics. I was trying mainly to get them to understand that natural moral law is based on kind of a commonsense understanding of what reality is. My point wasn’t to get them to agree with me, but to understand natural moral law.”

“To judge my credentials by one e-mail is irresponsible and shows a lack of understanding of the subject of the e-mail and the context in which it was given; it’s making inferences that are completely unjustified,” he said.
Howell also rebutted the charges that he uses his classes to evangelize or proselytize his students or that his funding by the Newman Center is a conflict of interest with his duties as a University of Illinois professor. He said that, as a professor, he represents the university; as director of the Institute of Catholic Thought, he represents the Church. He and his past colleagues, including Msgr. Swetland, “have worked very hard to keep those things separate,” Howell said.

As for the charge of preaching in the classroom, “every semester I made it abundantly clear to my students that they will never be penalized for not agreeing with me,” Howell said.

“The academic study of religion does not aim to promote (or to challenge) any particular perspective on religious matters,” the University of Illinois Department of Religion states on its website.

“My role in the classroom was to teach the students about Catholicism, and I often did that from both the insider’s and outsider’s perspective,” Howell said. “I would often, in class, take the position of the outsider and criticize the Catholic Church and its positions and beliefs from different standpoints and then say, ‘Okay, how would a Catholic respond to these things?’”

“The thing I loved about religious studies at UI was that most of the people who taught the courses believed what they were teaching, taught their own particular belief system,” said Msgr. Swetland, who now is a professor of Christian ethics at Mount St. Mary’s University, in an interview on July 12.

Some of the professors teaching Islam are practicing Muslims. But unlike the Muslims, who also believe that homosexual sex is wrong, Howell was “penalized for believing in what he’s teaching,” said David Hacker, litigation staff counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund Center for Academic Freedom, which is defending Howell.

“At the beginning of class we made it very clear that we were just teaching what the Church teaches and why it teaches it,” Msgr. Swetland said. “It was up to people whether they believed it or not. That was a personal matter; that’s not what the course is about.”

‘Standards of Inclusivity’

On May 28, McKim met with Howell, gave Howell a copy of his e-mail of May 4, and told him, “The university has an interest in not offending people.”

“There has always been a relationship of cordial and mutual respect between Robert McKim and me,” Howell said. “We didn’t talk as antagonists but as colleagues. I responded to him, ‘Robert, you’re a philosopher. Part of our task as professors is to challenge our students to think; it’s not our job to make them feel comfortable. I have no desire to offend people, but that’s our first job.’”

Although Howell left the meeting thinking that the matter was unresolved, McKim e-mailed him on June 2 “to reiterate that the decision has already been made to have someone else teach our courses on Catholicism.” McKim then sent an e-mail to all the students in Howell’s course “disassociating our department, college and university” from the views expressed in Howell’s e-mail of May 4.

In response to the Register’s request for an interview, McKim said in a July 19 e-mail: “I am not at liberty to discuss the case. … I think that the university administration will take the conclusion arrived at by the … Faculty Senate committee … very seriously, and I expect that the process will be fair to all parties.”

Elsewhere in the e-mail, McKim referred to “the decision [about Howell] that the university made,” and it is clear that other university officials besides McKim were involved in the decision to relieve Howell of his teaching responsibilities.

In one e-mail, Ann Mester, associate dean for the university’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, wrote that “the e-mails sent by Dr. Howell violate university standards of inclusivity, which would then entitle us to have him discontinue his teaching arrangement with us.”

Free Marketplace of Ideas

Although the issue that led to Howell’s dismissal was Church teaching on homosexual sex and Howell’s belief in that teaching, Howell, the Alliance Defense Fund and many of Howell’s supporters have been taking their stand on another principle: freedom of speech, protected by the First Amendment, and academic freedom.

“My dismissal is unjust and in fact a betrayal of all that a university is supposed to stand for,” Howell wrote in his June 24 e-mail to his former students. “My free-speech rights have been violated.”

“Dr. Howell should not have been dismissed simply for sending a pedagogical e-mail explaining and continuing a class discussion,” Hacker said. “What happened is that Dr. Howell sent an e-mail to his class, someone was offended, and he got fired. That’s unconstitutional.”

In his final e-mail to McKim, which McKim never answered, Howell wrote, “Please do not underestimate my resolve on this matter.”

“I knew my rights had been violated,” he says, “and I wasn’t going to stand by idly and let that happen.”

Howell’s dismissal from the classroom also “is a violation of the Jeffersonian free marketplace of ideas,” Msgr. Swetland pointed out. “One of the things that made U of I a great place to teach when I was there was that they were legitimately open to the free marketplace of ideas. Now they’re saying the free marketplace is suspect.”

“A lot of colleges and college students nowadays think they can silence people who they disagree with,” said legal counsel Hacker. “They don’t want to hear other points of view. They want to be fed what they want to hear.
“Dr. Howell’s situation is a prime example,” he added. “He was teaching on a particular topic. Someone who wasn’t even in the class disagreed and wanted him silenced because of it.

“That’s a fundamental danger that we’re seeing, as ADF attorneys. More and more, across the country, colleges use nice words like ‘diversity’ and ‘tolerance,’ but then use them in the wrong ways in order to silence opposing viewpoints. They implement speech codes that punish students and faculty for not saying the right things or offending other people. It’s actually quite an epidemic in higher education.”

“I deeply believe in education, but it’s been damaged by this kind of ideological control that is going on,” said Howell. “This is what’s so personally hurtful to me. I’ve always believed in a Socratic kind of education. You pose questions; you examine; you pose arguments for and against. I don’t expect people to agree with me, but I expect them to engage in rational discussion, and that rational discussion is being pushed off onto the margins today.”

Although the controversy has been painful to everyone involved, the good thing about it is that, in the website discussions, Catholics and their opponents are debating, sometimes in substantive ways, the Church teaching on homosexual sex. Catholics and their allies are defending the content of Howell’s teaching as well as his right to teach Catholic doctrine in a course on Catholicism.

“For whatever reason, in God’s providence, he has chosen me at this time in some ways to simply be a voice for many people whose voices have been silenced,” Howell said.

“This is a very complex situation, with allegations coming from a number of different corners having to do with academic freedom, discrimination, and ‘hate speech,’” the university’s president Hogan wrote in his e-mail response to the many people who have e-mailed him about Howell.

In the view of Howell and his supporters, the situation isn’t complex at all.

“So much light has been shed on Dr. Howell’s situation,” said Msgr. Swetland, “and the university looks so bad, that I hope they come to their senses and reinstate him. It seems so obvious that that’s the right thing to do.”

Bryan Berry, Ph.D., has taught journalism, writing and literature at several universities.

For an excellent history of Catholic courses at the university, see “The Catholic Presence at the University of Illinois” by Winton Solberg (a University of Illinois professor of history until 1992) in Catholic Historical Review, October 1990. For Howell’s e-mail of May 4 and the student’s e-mail to McKim, go here. For other documents, see the Alliance Defense Fund’s blog.

Archbishop of San Francisco Salvatore Joseph Cordileone attends the mass and imposition of the Pallium upon the new metropolitan archbishops held by Pope Francis for the Solemnity of Saint Peter and Paul at Vatican Basilica on June 29, 2013 in Vatican City, Vatican.

A New Era?

A NOTE FROM THE PUBLISHER: Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco has a profound understanding of what the U.S. bishops have called the preeminent issue of our time, and his stand is courageous.