• August 29, 2015

U. of Illinois Retains Controversial Catholicism Instructor but Ends Church Role in Hiring

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has decided to retain—at least temporarily—an adjunct professor of Roman Catholicism who had faced losing his job over comments he made about homosexuality.

The university has also decided, however, to end a widely criticized financial arrangement under which it had paid the professor with funds from the church.

The professor, Kenneth Howell, will be allowed to continue teaching religion during the fall semester, but his long-term status depends on the outcome of a faculty committee's investigation of whether the university's earlier decision to end his contract violated his academic freedom, Robin Kaler, a university spokeswoman, said Thursday.

Mr. Howell could not be reached Thursday for comment, and the church official designated as a spokesperson on the issue, Patricia M. Gibson, chancellor of the Catholic Diocese of Peoria, did not return calls.

The Alliance Defense Fund, a coalition of Christian lawyers that has represented Mr. Howell, issued a statement in which its senior counsel, David French, said, "We greatly appreciate the university's move to put Professor Howell back in the classroom, but we will be watching carefully to make sure that his academic freedom is protected throughout the university's ongoing process."

Mr. Howell, who has taught classes on Catholicism in the university's religion department since 2001, had been told in May that he would not be kept on this fall, and had blamed the loss of his job on a student's complaint about an e-mail he had sent to students describing how homosexual acts would be viewed under utilitarianism and natural-law theory. The complaining student had argued in an e-mail to the head of the religion department that Mr. Howell's assertions that homosexuality violated natural law amounted to hate speech.

Officials of the campus and the University of Illinois system were barraged with e-mails protesting the decision not to retain Mr. Howell, and subsequently asked the campus Faculty Senate's committee on academic freedom and tenure to conduct an investigation to ensure Mr. Howell's academic freedom had not been infringed.

Pay Came From Church Center

The controversy over Mr. Howell drew attention to an arrangement by which the university was paying him and other instructors of credit-bearing courses on Catholic studies with church funds transferred to the university by its church-supported St. John's Catholic Newman Center, which also selected the instructors.

In a letter on Wednesday to the Alliance Defense Fund, Steven A. Veazie, a university lawyer, said Mr. Howell is being asked to continue teaching there this fall, pending completion of the review by the faculty committee.

"Like any instructor for the university, Dr. Howell will be expected to provide instruction in a manner that adheres to and does not violate constitutional principles precluding the 'establishment of religion' in a university context," Mr. Veazie's letter said. He wrote that the university "is committed to upholding principles of academic freedom and the requirements of the First Amendment," and added, "Nothing in this letter is intended to express or imply that such principles have been violated by previous events."

Under the university's employment offer to Mr. Howell for the fall semester, he would be paid $10,000 to teach Catholic thought. Like other adjuncts, he would continue to work on a semester-to-semester basis, university officials said.

A statement issued by the university said the decision to dissolve the financial arrangement through which he was paid with church-derived Newman Center funds was made at the recommendation of the Faculty Senate's committee on university policies.

"The university values its relationship with the Newman Center and plans to continue offering courses in Catholic studies," the statement said.


1. kcissna - July 30, 2010 at 07:14 am

$10K for an adjunct for one class. That's about the best adjunct pay I've heard of in the humanities and social sciences.

2. droslovinia - July 30, 2010 at 08:43 am

For that kind of money, please sign me up!

But I'm troubled that you pay someone to teach Roman Catholic thought, then want to fire him for teaching Roman Catholic thought.

3. 22205373 - July 30, 2010 at 09:07 am

Well put, Droslovinia. Here's one Protestant who's sick of all the Catholic-bashing in this country. Ask any Islamic-studies professor about homosexuality and see what you get. We don't even know what Howell said, but it sounds like it was a simple academic answer.

And I guess anyone can endow a teaching position. Anyone but a church, that is.

4. jffoster - July 30, 2010 at 09:22 am

Well 3, your last line is probably correct, or ought be. For a church to endow a faculty position in a public university such that it has any control over the professor/instructor selected for that position is probably a violation of the "Lemon" test of excessive entanglement of religion with an agency of government. These are the United States of America, not Yurp, and we don't get Writs of Mandatum from ecclesiastical organizations for professors in public colleges and universities.

5. reineke - July 30, 2010 at 09:49 am

Persons #2 and #3, please read the background story that was covered in the most depth by Inside Higher Education:


That article explains clearly why 1) there are problems with a private organization not only paying for but HIRING an instructor at a public university, and 2) how the academic study of religion differs from religious instruction in a faith setting. There are endowed positions in any number of areas at public universities; however, the person or entity that endows a position does not hire the holder of the position. The issue should be obvious: Monsanto can endow a position in crop science at Iowa State; however, were they to hire the professor who would hold that position that professor would be placed in the problematic position of being accountable to two entities, with Monsanto holding the strongest claim on the substance and quality of that professor's teaching and research. So also is it a problem if a Newman Center and diocese hires an instructor at a public university; that he works for the church but is doing so at a public university in a credit-earning course is not appropriate. As for the question what approach to Roman Catholic Thought (or other forms of religious expression) are appropriate in a public context, the guidelines are clearly set in the Abington v. Schempp Supreme Court case. The academic study of religion is not devotional. It promotes awareness of the phenomenon of religion but not acceptance; students learn about religion but are not expected to practice it; it exposes students to the subject of relgion but does not attempt to impose religion on students. So also does it seek to inform students but not ask that they conform to the religious beliefs and practices under discussion. Finally, the study of religion in a public context should neither promote or denigrate religion. See http://www.freedomforum.org/publications/first/teachersguide/teachersguide.pdf. That the instructor at Illinois sought a mandatum, a certification provided by bishops that theologians teaching at Catholic universities are doing so in accordance with Church teachings suggests that he may not teach in a manner consistent with the guidelines for the academic study of religion in a public context outlined by the Supreme Court decision. His email (which initiated review of his standing)shows additional ambiguity on this point. If he applies for the new position in Catholic Thought at Illinois (to be under the control of the university), he will have an opportunity to clarify his teaching approach and explain how it is appropriate to a public university.

6. 22205373 - July 30, 2010 at 10:26 am

#3 again: Good points #5. But seeking out how Catholic thought is taught at faith-based universities is not evidence of entanglement. It's called research on Catholic thought. I see no evidence of evangelism in the classroom by Mr. Howell.

You're right that the church should not hire or fire, but there's nothing wrong with putting a funder representative on the search committee.

7. stinkcat - July 30, 2010 at 12:59 pm

A nice unbiased overview of the whole situation.


8. d_and_der - July 30, 2010 at 02:44 pm

Is there no place to escape the dialogue of religion. I thought universities were places of research for the sciences, mathematics, engineering, etc. If someone wants to learn about religion, they can go to a theology school or church. Do not hand me a bible on my campus. Do not provide footbaths for Islam. Do not ask me to donate to Christian Children's Fund who was forced to change their name. The religions of the world have trampled on my life enough. Keep your dialogue under your own roof.

9. jffoster - July 30, 2010 at 03:16 pm

No 8, Nobody was required to take the course in question at the University of Illinois. Are you proposing that all study of religion be banned from public universities? Just what does your "etc." cover?

10. joe_in_decatur_ga - July 30, 2010 at 03:27 pm

No. 3,

Why do you say we don't know what Howell said, when the e-mail contents have long been available and are included in a link in the article above? His comments certainly do include what the Church's argument is, but it also includes obvious inflammatory red herrings such as linking homosexuality to bestiality, references to supposed injuries that occur during sex, as reported by unnamed doctors, who sound suspiciously like the author of "Everything you wanted to know about sex...". Is it the Catholic Church's position that men in a same-sex relationship either assume male or female roles? Is it the Church's position that there are injuries incurred during same-sex acts? Sorry, but that's BS...

11. grondelski - August 02, 2010 at 07:33 am

What is most interesting to me is a look at the "Religion" and "Theology" choices in the Chronicle's Jobs section.

Reading the ads, one would think America was a Hindu-Muslim-Confucianism homeland, given the number of institutions falling all over themselves to find specialists in those fields, yet the very clear absence of scholars in Christianity. Believe it or not--and as a theologian, I do--but that really doesn't matter. American and Western culture is incomprehensible absent that cultural force, and that cultural force is absent in American higher education.

12. amnirov - August 02, 2010 at 08:00 am

I think that I would readily accept a one-class adjunct slot teaching Catholic Thought. Matter of fact, I'd be perfect for the job.

13. jffoster - August 02, 2010 at 08:35 am

12, Anmirove,
Vy ne pravoslaven?

14. bestfriend2u - August 02, 2010 at 11:11 am

This class was not required and the person teaching the class is teaching what that Church believes. What about someone teaching what Baptist believe or Mormans. It's not freedom of speech if everything has to be political correct is it?

15. new_theologian - August 02, 2010 at 11:18 am

Comment 5 is worrisome to me, and illustrates why Mr. Howell finds himself in this predicament. A Catholic who proposes to teach Catholic thought has an obligation to represent it as it really is, and not to present his own opinion as the teaching of the Church. The mandatum is a juridical bond between that person and the Magisterium of the Catholic Church acknowledging that a pledge has been made in this regard. Catholics in these sorts of positions are required under Canon law to seek this sort of relationship with the Church. As far as the public institution goes, it should present no issue for them, because he is hired to teach Catholic studies, and the University has an academic interest in seeing to it that it is presented as it really is, and not according to some construct the instructor introduces on his own. The mandatum, in this case, presents no threat to the State's interest.

Comment 8 is simply beyond the pale. The commentator appears ignorant of the fact that the Church actually invented the university in the Middle Ages, and thus, that to exclude the study of religion from the university in later ages on the grounds that it is, somehow, antithetical to what a university exists to do, is sheer nonsense.

Comment 10 takes issue with the instructor's reasoning, not with his actual approach to the teaching of religion. For the sake of discussion, Mr. Howell was introducing arguments along the lines of the paradigms (natural law and utilitarianism) that he was attempting to illustrate for his students. One is not obligated, in so doing, to get all the premises factually right, but only to construct valid arguments. If factual correctness in these cases was an absolute requirement, few professors at public institutions would be able to hold on to their jobs for long, because most (in my experience) make factual errors when they comment about Catholicism in similar contexts.

Still, factually correct or not, it is certainly reasonable to say that because in heterosexual relationships we can spot romantically-involved couples (look out the window and see what you see) because their interaction takes on a certain dynamic involving a kind of "dance" between male and female, homosexual relationships would involve a similar "dance" if they are to be recognized as "romantic." How that plays out may be hard to imagine for a heterosexual observer, but, that the "male" and "female" poles of this "dance" would still be present is not an unreasonable hypothesis, even if it turns out to be incorrect (although, I've observed it myself in some cases with homosexual acquaintances). Again, that homosexual acts can be physically harmful is not an unreasonable conclusion to draw in the face of the increased incidence of certain diseases in the homosexual population--particularly the male homosexual population. Accounting for the increases in those diseases by some cause other than the sexual acts themselves presents a challenge for those who want to say that such acts are not intrinsically harmful.

By the way, the same acts performed in a heterosexual context also correlate with increased incidence of disease, and would be subject to the same assessment, so this is not an exclusively homosexual issue; and Mr. Howell cannot, on the basis of his comments here, be accused of any impropriety. The university setting is supposed to be about seeking truth and examining questions without fear of the answers. It seems to me that it is not Mr. Howell, but the University that has violated this principle.

16. olivia55 - August 02, 2010 at 06:14 pm

Religion should be taught at public institutions. Proselytizing is another matter.

Wonder what would happen if Howell taught that slavery was justified according to the Bible? Or that women should be subservient to their husbands? Or that women cannot preach (as some Christian denominations still believe)? Would many advocates champion such bias? If Howell and other religion professors provide instructions that clearly contextualize what the students need to learn, i.e., argue why the Bible suggests that homosexuality is sinful versus trying to personally teach that it is indeed a sin, then there shouldn't have been a problem.

Having spoken with some in his class, he chose the latter route. Therein lies the problem.

I don't believe in white supremacy, but I can direct students to provide a supporting argument for it based on what they have read so they can learn how to develop a good versus bad argument. I'm betting that many of us do this, despite our conservative, liberal, atheist, queer, etc. inclinations.

Students should be instructed to evaluate all sides but not pointed towards one direction/religion as being The Gospel.

Take time to visit the Champaign, Illinois News-Gazette's rather biased, saintly depiction of Howell, and carefully look at his troubling and spotty career path pre-U of I.

Hope he will re-evaluate how he approaches religious argument and not see his reinstatement as validation to continue foisting his beliefs onto students.

Hope his former and future students will learn that university professors, regardless of discipline, often (unfortunately) teach from the "It's My Way or The Highway" model, instead of encouraging open, honest arguments that cultivate intellectually stimulating dialogues instead of didatic, dictatorial monologues.

17. new_theologian - August 02, 2010 at 06:59 pm

Can Olivia55 show, textually, where Mr. Howell "tries personally to teach that homosexuality is, indeed, a sin?" I'm not seeing it. That said, we can't be ignorant of the fact that he may also be responding to in-class discussion or even widely-accepted theses which are so seldom contested that they need not be re-presented in his presentation. Now, I don't think this is at all the same issue, but I do know that many of my colleagues here on these blogs think it is--but imagine that Mr. Howell were presenting the perspective of people who thought the earth was flat. He would not have to present arguments against this thesis right up against the arguments in favor of it, since the problem is getting anyone in the room to consider any the possibility of any alternative view to a spherical earth on its own terms. Why waste time on the commonly-held position? Today, in the university setting and in the mass-media (which is a major cultural and valuative touchstone for today's youth) homosexuality is completely normalized. It is the exception to find anyone who does not think it acceptable. The Catholic Church teaches in contravention of the accepted standard, and is a distinctly minority voice in the establishment.

By the way, we should only be suspicious of a "saintly depiction" of Mr. Howell if either: a) he is not a saint (and I have no personal judgment in this matter) or b) he is a saint, but we think that being a saint is a bad thing.

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