What the “Illinois professor fired for giving Catholic teaching on homosexuality” really said
July 12th, 2010
Dr. Kenneth Howell was fired by the University of Illinois when a student complained that Howell, who taught a course in Catholic theology, actually preached to his students instead of instructing them and made statements that consisted of hate-speech. Anti-gay activists are crying martyr.
The Catholic News Agency describes Howell’s comments this way:
Howell said he taught the Catholic Church’s position on homosexuality. He summed it up by saying, “A homosexual orientation is not morally wrong just as no moral guilt can be assigned to any inclination that a person has. However, based on natural moral law, the Church believes that homosexual acts are contrary to human nature and therefore morally wrong.”
Gosh, that doesn’t seem so bad. That’s just a fact based statement about the teachings of the church, one that I or anyone else might make.
But – not to challenge the integrity of the good folk at the Catholic News Agency, of course – but in his email of instruction to all of his students, Howell also said a good deal more.
If two men consent to engage in sexual acts, according to utilitarianism, such an act would be morally okay. But notice too that if a ten year old agrees to a sexual act with a 40 year old, such an act would also be moral if even it is illegal under the current law. Notice too that our concern is with morality, not law. So by the consent criterion, we would have to admit certain cases as moral which we presently would not approve of. The case of the 10 and 40 year olds might be excluded by adding a modification like “informed consent.” Then as long as both parties agree with sufficient knowledge, the act would be morally okay. A little reflection would show, I think, that “informed consent” might be more difficult to apply in practice than in theory. But another problem would be where to draw the line between moral and immoral acts using only informed consent. For example, if a dog consents to engage in a sexual act with its human master, such an act would also be moral according to the consent criterion. If this impresses you as far-fetched, the point is not whether it might occur but by what criterion we could say that it is wrong. I don’t think that it would be wrong according to the consent criterion.
Interesting. I don’t think it is official Catholic theology to equate homosexuality with pedophilia or bestiality. But, as a position of logic, that might not be beyond the pale.
But what else did he have to say?
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.
Natural Moral Theory says that if we are to have healthy sexual lives, we must return to a connection between procreation and sex. Why? Because that is what is REAL. It is based on human sexual anatomy and physiology. Human sexuality is inherently unitive and procreative. If we encourage sexual relations that violate this basic meaning, we will end up denying something essential about our humanity, about our feminine and masculine nature.
I know this doesn’t answer all the questions in many of your minds. All I ask as your teacher is that you approach these questions as a thinking adult. That implies questioning what you have heard around you. 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. As a final note, a perceptive reader will have noticed that none of what I have said here or in class depends upon religion. Catholics don’t arrive at their moral conclusions based on their religion. They do so based on a thorough understanding of natural reality.
Oh… so this isn’t just Catholic theory he was teaching. It was his own personal beliefs, not – he says – based on his religion, but universally observably true. Based on what he imagines a sexual relationship between two men to be and on what “a physician” told him (something he calls “extensive research into homosexuality”). And, as his students are “not ready to make judgments about moral truth in this matter,” they should just accept his own beliefs as their own.
I’ll let you decide whether you think that this was an offense worthy of firing.
Kenneth Howell was an Adjunct Associate Professor of Religious Studies. He wasn’t fired but his contract was not renewed.
I’ll let you decide whether you think that this was an offense worthy of being denied a renewed contract.