Kenneth Howell, an adjunct professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, was not rehired for the Fall 2010 semester. He claims that his right to free speech was violated when he taught a course on Catholic theology that included the notion that same-sex relationships are in violation of natural law. He made no secret of the fact that he agreed with the institutional Catholic Church’s teaching and by all reports offered no other Catholic positions on the question.
Predictably, the institutional Church is unhappy, conservative media including the local Fox affiliate are all over the story, and Dr. Howell is being supported in his efforts at redress by the Alliance Defense Fund. The Fund was created in 1994 in response “to the urgent need for the legal defense and advocacy of religious freedom” by religious leaders including Bill Bright, Larry Burkett, and James Dobson, among others. “Their prime concern was the dramatic loss of religious freedom in America’s courts and the resulting challenges to people of faith to live and proclaim the Gospel.” It is a good guess that a court case is in the offing.
A reflexive progressive response might be to argue that Dr. Howell’s theology was so outdated as to render him incompetent. One could explore whether he is sufficiently acquainted with the range of Catholic views on homosexuality that make the matter far more complex than a simple recitation of the Catechism. But I detect something more problematic is at hand; namely, why he or anyone else was teaching such a course at a state college paid for by a Roman Catholic diocese.
As I understand it, he was the director of the Institute of Catholic Thought which he founded as part of the UI’s St. John’s Catholic Newman Center. The whole operation received funding from the Catholic Diocese of Peoria. He taught courses at the university with his salary paid by the Institute. Patricia Gibson, Chancellor of the diocese, said “We funded the position so he could teach at the UI. He has been told he cannot teach these classes in the future.” So he was also let go from the Institute/Newman Center.
This arrangement strikes me as odd. If I were a student at UI or a local resident in Champaign I would be more worried about this financial matter than about the inadequacy of his narrow theological scope, though that raises questions of quality education. I presume it is uncommon, if not also unethical, perhaps illegal but surely unseemly, for a denomination to fund the salary of someone teaching in a state institution. Ms. Gibson is a lawyer who undoubtedly considered the problems of such entanglements when crafting the deal, but it is something to be investigated.
Does this mean that if Dr. Howell had not been reported by a student for teaching the party line without any reference to other Catholic positions that the State of Illinois would have been happy to grant credits to students of a professor whose wages were underwritten by the religious institution he was promoting? Maybe at University of Notre Dame or Loyola, Dr. Hewitt. But at a state school? I think not. I await further word from the courts. Meanwhile, I advise those working this case to follow the money. The theology will take care of itself.