campus life

Should a Catholic Catholicism Professor Lose His Job Over Arguing Gay Sex Is Morally Wrong?

Kenneth Howell, a nine-year University of Illinois adjunct professor, was just trying to inform his Catholicism course students about the right and wrong way to answer questions about homosexuality on his final exam. He lost his job over it.

In May he sent an email explaining how to use the moral theory of utilitarianism (which he describes as “somewhat akin to a cost/benefit analysis”) to decide whether supporting same-sex marriage is right or wrong.

I think it’s fair to say that many, maybe most Americans employ some type of utilitarianism in their moral decision making. But there are at least two problems. One is that to judge the best outcome can be very subjective. What may be judged good for the pregnant woman may not be good for the baby. What may be judged good for the about-to-cheat-husband may not good for his wife or his children. This problem of subjectivity is inherent in utilitarianism for a second reason. Utilitarianism counsels that moral decisions should NOT be based on the inherent meaning of acts. Acts are only good or bad relative to outcomes. The natural law theory that I expounded in class assumes that human acts have an inherent meaning (remember my fist vs. extended hand of friendship example).

One of the most common applications of utilitarianism to sexual morality is the criterion of mutual consent. It is said that any sexual act is okay if the two or more people involved agree. Now no one can (or should) deny that for a sexual act to be moral there must be consent. Certainly, this is one reason why rape is morally wrong. But the question is whether this is enough.

Well answer the question, professor! And please don’t forget to express your limited knowledge of anal sex.

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.

Well, a student (on behalf of a friend in the class who wanted to remain anonymous) complained to the head of the university’s religion department, and said that while Howell thinks he was just teaching about what the Catholic Church has to say about homosexual acts, he was really overstepping: “Teaching a student about the tenets of a religion is one thing,” read the email. “Declaring that homosexual acts violate the natural laws of man is another. The courses at this institution should be geared to contribute to the public discourse and promote independent thought; not limit one’s worldview and ostracize people of a certain sexual orientation.”

Howell’s response? The church’s teachings are based on “natural moral law,” and that trumps everything: “My responsibility on teaching a class on Catholicism is to teach what the Catholic Church teaches,” he says. “”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. … I tell my students I am a practicing Catholic, so I believe the things I’m teaching. It’s not a violation of academic freedom to advocate a position, if one does it as an appeal on rational grounds and it’s pertinent to the subject.”

Suffice to say, Howell’s contract was not renewed. He’s since taken up house with the Alliance Defense Fund, which regularly comes to the rescue of practicing Catholics railing against homosexuality.

But should a self-identified Catholic who teaches Catholic theory at a university be punished for, uh, teaching students exactly what the Catholic Church believes? From his email to students, it sounds like Howell produced a script on what is right and wrong, from his personal viewpoint, regarding gay sex acts. Should we consider that to be just a coincidence, since he is also a practicing Catholic? Would the situation be any different if he prefaced his email to students with a caps-lock, bold-font explanation that “THIS IS JUST WHAT THE CATHOLIC CHURCH TEACHES, AND I’M NOT TRYING TO SHOVE IT DOWN YOUR THROAT.” If students in the class are required to answer questions on the final exam from the perspective of the Catholic Church, and not their own set of beliefs, then his email was really a cheat sheet in how to answer any questions about gay sex.

Professors, like anybody else, walk into the classroom with their own preconceived notions about the material they are teaching. Which is perfectly acceptable. It’s a touchier subject when the professor is teaching a course on religious beliefs, which inevitably delves into morality. But Howell shouldn’t be punished for believing certain things about gays, nor should he be punished for explicitly communicating to students what the Catholic Church believes about them, either. What he shouldn’t do is tell students there is only one proper way to view these subjects. I’ve re-read his email a number of times, and it could be argued he was just relaying Catholic theory (as is appropriate to do given his job); it could also be argued that he was proselytizing to students.

But being a devout Catholic does not preclude Howell from objectively teaching Catholic theory, the same way being Jewish or Mormon or gay or atheist would not. And then there’s this paragraph from Howell’s email, which suggests he blurred the line between teaching about the Catholic Church and teaching about his own standpoint on morality:

Before looking at the issue of criteria, however, we have to remind ourselves of the ever-present tendency in all of us to judge morality by emotion. The most frequent reason I hear people supporting same-sex marriage is that they know some gay couples or individuals. Empathy is a noble human quality but right or wrong does not depend on who is doing the action or on how I feel about those people, just as judging an action wrong should not depend on disliking someone. This might seem obvious to a right thinking person but I have encountered many well-educated people who do not (or cannot?) make the distinction between persons and acts when engaging moral reasoning.

And there’s this line: “Unless you have done extensive research into homosexuality and are cognizant of the history of moral thought, you are not ready to make judgments about moral truth in this matter. All I encourage is to make informed decisions.” That is: You cannot believe yourself to make the proper conclusion about gay people and their sex lives unless you study the field extensively; until then, we should trust what the Catholic Church believes. That’s where Howell lands in trouble.

[News Gazette, AP]