The University of Illinois has fired an adjunct professor who taught courses on Catholicism after a student accused the instructor of engaging in hate speech by saying he agrees with the church’s teaching that homosexual sex is immoral.
The professor, Ken Howell of Champaign, said his firing violates his academic freedom. He also lost his job at an on-campus Catholic center.
Howell, who taught Introduction to Catholicism and Modern Catholic Thought, says he was fired at the end of the spring semester after sending an e-mail explaining some Catholic beliefs to his students preparing for an exam.
“Natural Moral Law says that Morality must be a response to REALITY,” he wrote in the e-mail. “In other words, sexual acts are only appropriate for people who are complementary, not the same.”
An unidentified student sent an e-mail to religion department head Robert McKim on May 13, calling Howell’s e-mail “hate speech.” The student claimed to be a friend of the offended student. The writer said in the e-mail that his friend wanted to remain anonymous.
“Teaching a student about the tenets of a religion is one thing,” the student wrote. “Declaring that homosexual acts violate the natural laws of man is another.”
Howell said he was teaching his students about the Catholic understanding of natural moral law.
“My responsibility on teaching a class on Catholicism is to teach what the Catholic Church teaches,” Howell said in an interview with The News-Gazette in Champaign. “I have always made it very, very clear to my students they are never required to believe what I’m teaching and they’ll never be judged on that.”
He taught “Introduction to Catholicism and Modern Catholic Thought.”
Teaching Catholicism and Modern Catholic Thought to students in an “Introduction to Catholicism and Modern Catholic Thought” class is against the law in Illinois.
David Freddoso at The Examiner:
The e-mail in question discussed the differences between consequentialist moral thought (the idea that an act’s morality can be determined by its consequences) and morality based in natural law, which depends only on the acts themselves. It’s pretty hard to discuss morality without having this discussion.
The email offered homosexuality and other sexual behaviors that are against church teaching (everything from the use of contraception in marriage to sex with children) as examples of things that a consequentialist might approve of under the right circumstances, whereas a Catholic cannot approve under any circumstances.
Unfortunately, this conversation about the class’s subject matter is verboten. Someone who apparently doesn’t even take the class or understand the subject matter decided to report this academic conversation to the campus gestapo. This is what we call the Dictatorship of Moral Relativism. We live in America, where only Islam receives such deference.
Emily Zanotti at Chicago Now:
First off, let me say that I am Catholic – hardcore – and that I’ve had a significant amount of instruction on the subject of Catholic Social Teaching, which is why when this story came out, I went to find the emails, which, of course, had been conveniently posted for me on the Interwebs.
I have to say, I’m not buying the kid’s side of the story for a couple of reasons.
One, the Catholic Church does actually believe that homosexual acts violate the natural laws of man, and Dr. Ken does a pretty fantastic job of laying out about ten years worth of education on the matter. Like it or not (and I’m guessing, in the general population, you’ll find more people siding with the latter), the Church has some strong feelings about two men or two women doing it, and those strong feelings are not open to interpretation, though I’m sure there are some modern scholars who like to pretend that Catholicism has a liberal American brand that is a fully competing dogma rather than the slips of paper in a Vatican suggestion box they happen to be. Fr. Pfleger comes to mind. At any rate, the Catholic Church is pretty damned clear on this stuff, no pun intended, and Dr. Ken was stating, pretty comprehensively, the party line. Better than a lot of people, I might add. In other words, Dr. Ken wasn’t just making sh*t up for the purposes of pissing off an entire demographic. And, for what it’s worth, the discussion never went into a judgment on the people having Teh Gay Sex, just the nature of the act itself, which is frankly unusual when people discuss this stuff. And admirable, because it’s pretty clear he’s trying to discuss this matter in a way that doesn’t disrespect the reader.
Two, I find it hard to believe that, when one signs up for a class on Catholicism, even at a major university, that one won’t expect to be taught the tenets of Catholicism. Call me crazy, but generally, a course on Catholic teaching would probably involve teaching what the Catholic Church believes. I would suspect students might also be required to regurgitate this on a test. I suspect that some students may disagree with the subject matter. But I also suspect that by age 20, you’re more inclined to take sources into consideration and approach the subject from an academic, professional standpoint. Put more concisely, if you take a class on a religion knowing you disagree with the tenets of that religion, perhaps you shouldn’t get your panties in a bunch when the professor outlines those tenets. Professors should not be required to preface every culturally “controversial” statement they make on any subject with “If you cannot handle a viewpoint that differs from yours, please stand in the hallway until I can safely call you and your fragile viewpoint back into the conversation.”
This sounds like a disagreement between this kid and the Catholic Church with Dr. Ken caught in the middle, punished for just being a member. The disagreement is understandable. I mean, I get it. Try rectifying a libertarian viewpoint with a strong Catholic faith, and yeah, I get it. The firing over the disagreement, however, is not. If you don’t like the Catholic faith, take it out on the Catholic faith, not the people teaching about it. You’re not going to like the result of that little game; if it’s true that speaking the realities of a faith are enough to disqualify a professor from academia, then honesty about sex is going to disqualify pretty much every professor of any dogma at any academic institution anywhere in the United States.
Like it or not, the world is not full of people who subscribe to the happy-clappy, Sesame Street, “everyone in the world is friends and nothing you do can ever be judged as objectively wrong” progressive liberal understanding of the universe. Sooner or later, you’re going to have to deal with it, and you’re going to need to be prepared. The whole point of a university is, shockingly, to give people an education: to teach students to think critically about reality and their beliefs, and, more importantly, communicate in the real world where there are, occasionally, ideas and actions that make us uncomfortable. At least, that was the whole point. If you use “people being uncomfortable hearing something they disagree with” as the golden standard for firing professors out of a university, you’ve got a big problem on your hands. The standards of academia and the exchange of ideas that drives them will be pretty much all but lost to a four-year indoctrination program on how to become overly sensitive, easily outraged and how to petition any semblance of authority for the redress of even the most basic of grievances. Not to mention, all sense of critical thinking and rational argument will be erased. That’s cool if you’re, say, in Cuba, but notsomuch in the Western world.
So here’s the gist of it: maybe Catholicism is wrong about homosexual sex (we can hash that puppy out another time), but that doesn’t mean that someone should be fired for teaching an authentic viewpoint. When someone tries to beat an academic institution over the head with idealism, forcing professors to scrub out all the parts that their precious little angles’ ears can’t bear to hear, things get f**ked up. Look at Texas and imagine if this situation were reversed and a “liberal” professor’s head was on the chopping block for teaching the realities of evolution to a student who didn’t like how a fossil record conflicted with his carefully sheltered world view. The effect, and the result, is exactly the same.
PZ Myers at Science Blogs:
I hate to say it, but I think the student was wrong. I read the professor’s email, and I don’t think it is hate speech at all.
It’s stupid speech.
A letter that condemned students, that threatened students if they didn’t agree with his views, that discriminated against a segment of society, or that denied people full participation in the culture for their views or background or private practices…that would be hate speech. This letter, though, is a pedantic and polite explanation of the views of the professor and of the Catholic church and of his interpretation of utilitarianism, and in fact is careful to say that he isn’t condemning any individuals. We can’t endorse using this kind of discussion as an excuse to expel people from academia — we want professors and students to be able to communicate freely with one another, without fear of retaliation. I see no sign that the professor was discussing the matter in a way that disrespects any of his students.
And the student complaining was doing so poorly. The professor’s ideas made him uncomfortable. He disliked what he said. He thought the professor was insensitive.
Those are not good reasons. If a student is never made uncomfortable, that student is not getting an education.
Bad reasons are given, but I still think UI made the right decision in not renewing this guy’s contract. Kenneth Howell is in ignorant fool who mistakes his religious dogma and his personal prejudices for knowledge.
Here’s an example. Keep in mind that this fellow is a professor, supposedly teaching college students something about philosophy. Here he’s trying to explain why homosexuality is wrong.
But the more significant problem has to do with the fact that the consent criterion is not related in any way to the NATURE of the act itself. This is where Natural Moral Law (NML) objects. NML says that Morality must be a response to REALITY. In other words, sexual acts are only appropriate for people who are complementary, not the same. How do we know this? By looking at REALITY. Men and women are complementary in their anatomy, physiology, and psychology. Men and women are not interchangeable. So, a moral sexual act has to be between persons that are fitted for that act. Consent is important but there is more than consent needed.
One example applicable to homosexual acts illustrates the problem. To the best of my knowledge, in a sexual relationship between two men, one of them tends to act as the “woman” while the other acts as the “man.” In this scenario, homosexual men have been known to engage in certain types of actions for which their bodies are not fitted. I don’t want to be too graphic so I won’t go into details but a physician has told me that these acts are deleterious to the health of one or possibly both of the men. Yet, if the morality of the act is judged only by mutual consent, then there are clearly homosexual acts which are injurious to their health but which are consented to. Why are they injurious? Because they violate the meaning, structure, and (sometimes) health of the human body.
Here’s reality. A penis fits nicely in the hand, and a hand is usually better at stimulating the clitoris than a penis in the vagina, and our anatomy is such that our arms are of the right length to comfortably reach our genitals. Therefore, masturbation is a moral sexual act. We can extend this to point out that a man’s hand can stimulate a clitoris and a woman’s hand can stimulate a penis, and therefore, mutual masturbation, as is being practiced by tens of thousands of teenagers on this Friday night, is also a rightful act. There is no practical difference in anatomy or physiology between mutual masturbation between a heterosexual couple and a homosexual couple, so these acts are also entirely natural.
This reasoning can be extended to a great many sexual acts: oral and anal sex, frottage of various kinds, fantasy play, sadomasochism, etc. There are more aspects of male and female anatomy in which they are alike than in which they differ, and in fact the only act which can be uniquely performed by a male and female couple is penile-vaginal intercourse. So this one act out of many is all that this professor can point to in order to justify heterosexuality as the only proper interaction, but this requires ignoring the majority of human sexual behaviors. I have to wonder if all Catholic teaching permits in the bedroom is genital-genital contact. How sad for them.
Read the professor’s own account of his dismissal. I hope we hear the university’s side. Before people take their usual culture-war positions, understand that if the facts are as the professor relates them, this is not essentially a question of whether or not one approves of homosexuality. This is about academic and religious freedom. The professor was teaching a course on Catholicism and Catholic morality. The Catholic Church unambiguously teaches that homosexual expression is immoral. You are perfectly free to disagree with that in a university, but that’s what the Church teaches, and the professor is obligated to present that teaching in a course on Catholicism. According to the professor, students in the past have argued against that position in class, always respectfully. This was the first time an aggrieved student went to pieces over it, and demanded that the university take action against the professor — which it did.
Again, we await the university’s side of the story. But if the facts are substantially the same, then we have a case in which a professor cannot even teach his subject in a straightforward, accurate manner, without putting his job at risk. Is this really the kind of scholarly atmosphere we want? Is it conducive to a free exchange of ideas, and actual learning? As Beckwith writes in his blog commentary, imagine the reverse, and that a Catholic student complained to the university that he felt “excluded” by a gay professor’s arguments in favor of the licitness of homosexuality in a class on LGBT Studies. In what conceivable world would the university fire the professor? What kind of university lets a whinypants student dictate the content of a professor’s course?
I well remember sitting in a history course at LSU in which the professor, an avowed secularist, was making fun of the medieval church. One student stood up, yelled at him for “anti-Christian bigotry,” and stomped out. I felt that the professor really had been laying it on thick re: the Church, but he was an excellent professor, and I could put up with his prejudices because I learned so much from him. Besides, we could dispute him in the classroom with no problem. This isn’t exactly the same thing as the University of Illinois case here, because this history prof could have taught his subject matter that day without snarky editorial commentary about medieval Christianity; it’s hard to see how a professor teaches a class on Catholicism while ignoring the Church’s teaching on sexual morality. Still, that people are so willing to be grievously offended by thoughts that conflict with their own beliefs, and universities and other institutions are willing to kowtow to the most delicate student sensibilities — provided they are expressed by members of politically approved demographic groups — is dreadful for robust, honest discourse, to say nothing of actual scholarship.
Stories like this make one see the university as an increasingly Orwellian place where “tolerance” means putting up with people who already agree with you. To paraphrase Dorothy Parker, their tolerance for religious and academic freedom runs the gamut from A to B.