Sex Miseducation: Prof Fired for Pushing Catholic ‘Natural Law’

It all started this past May with an email composed by an undergraduate student in “Introduction to Catholicism and Modern Catholic Thought,” a course offered in the Religious Studies department at the University of Illinois. The student forwarded to the department chair an email the class had received from the instructor, Catholic theologian Kenneth Howell, discussing the relative merits of utilitarianism and Natural Law in assessing the morality of homosexuality.

Howell’s letter, reprinted here, explained why Catholic Natural Law doctrine maintained that sexuality must not be separated from procreation, and did bleed into some preachiness. Howell argued that because anatomical differences between men and women were part of the “real” world, sexual morality ought not be governed by utilitarian ethics but by the “inherent meaning” of the act.

Explained Howell:

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.

The student, whose letter is republished here, complained that the professor was encouraging and expecting students to apply (Catholic) Natural Moral Law as their understanding of natural law—in particular as it relates to homosexuality. “I didn’t go to Notre Dame for a reason,” he signed. The professor’s email to his students did claim that “none of what I have said here depends upon religion,” alongside an unqualified encouragement to apply (Catholic) Natural Moral Law within their own adult thinking.

The complaint went public in a longer story published by the paper. “Teaching a student about the tenets of a religion is one thing,” penned the student. “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.”

Department Chair Robert McKim, a specialist in the Philosophy of Religion, followed up this student complaint with Howell early in the summer. What happened next is unclear, but by early July, the professor was denied renewal as a Religious Studies adjunct. Because his salary had been furnished by the Catholic archdiocese through St. John’s Newman Center’s Institute of Catholic Thought, this firing was everything but funding-related. Rather, according to McKim, Howell reflected poorly on the department by not striving to uphold the university’s inclusivity standards.

According to Howell, the firing was the result of “just a very, very deep disagreement about the nature of what should be taught and what should not be taught” in a college course on Catholicism. Both the Newman Center and the Alliance Defense Fund, “a [Christian] legal alliance defending the right to hear and speak the Truth,” are reviewing the situation as a possible violation of academic freedom. Dean Robin Kaler’s statement that Howell’s position was always only subject to renewal at the discretion of the Department Chair provokes important debates about whether adjunct professors ever receive the protections of academic freedom.

To Teach Religion or Teach About Religion?

The tension between Howell the Catholic theologian and McKim the Philosopher of Religion evokes stirring questions about the place of religious instruction on secular state-funded college campuses. What ought to be taught in college level courses on Catholic thought: An insider’s understanding of Catholicism through a study of Catholic moral philosophy and the ways their understanding of Natural Law has been debated and developed over time? Or a distanced cultural and philosophical critique of the Church as a social and political institution? I can hardly imagine a course that could achieve both of these opposite goals at the same time.

We have here not just a question of academic freedom but a stirring question at the heart of the evolving discipline of Religious Studies: Must an instructor interrogate the philosophical biases of the religion they teach to qualify their course for support in a Religious Studies department? Or does the postmodern moment accept that a Catholic theologian is like every scholar trained in a particular field—limited by the debates, literature and, inevitably, dogma, that comprised their particular training?

The culture of Religious Studies at Illinois is much like that of other Humanities departments on campus. We accept that most of the faculty privately practice the religions they study in their professional lives, but rarely do faculty draw attention to the reasons they are so invested in their subjects. According to the record I’ve been able to trace, the department agreed to list some Catholic theology courses before either McKim was department chair or Howell accepted his position.

Fully paid for by the Catholic archdiocese of Peoria, the Institute of Catholic Thought, a collaboration of clergy and laity, has sponsored these classes for years. Classes offered at the university have existed alongside much more didactic classes in Catholic theology held at the Institute in the basement of the St. John’s Newman Center residence halls right on campus. In some respects, of course, this agreement to offer theology courses in a public university may be controversial. However, it was never funded from departmental coffers. Even if we wanted to squabble about the cost of library Web space for electronic reserves and test booklets for exams, we would need to remember that the Religious Studies department took in tuition revenue that neither the instructor nor the archdiocese ever saw, so these expenses of the course to the university were more than offset.

Furthermore, the effort on the part of universities to encourage discussions about religion and ethics is nothing new. Secular universities have for years treated religious groups just like sororities, fraternities, and political organizations—by offering these organizations access to offices, bank accounts, meeting rooms, and student activities funds. Historically many of these collegiate student organizations with national networks have been able to raise funds for full-time employees to run their organization nationally, and on the local level lead their particular chapter in worship and doctrinal instruction.

However, since at least the 1960s many of these student organizations, especially Hillel (Jewish), the (Catholic) Newman Center, and a number of evangelical interdenominational organizations (such as Intervarsity Christian Fellowship and Campus Crusade for Christ) have become increasingly organized and stocked with human and financial resources. As we continue to blur the boundaries between student organizations and classroom instruction in this age of severely shrinking state funding for public education, we are confronted anew with the mission of the public, land-grant university. Ought state universities to support religious literacy by extending the opportunities to religious organizations to hold college level courses that explain their particular teachings? Or, are the people most fit to instruct in religious literacy the well-distanced academy of secular academics?

In Urbana-Champaign, opportunities for students to learn confessional theology abound, but they are only available to those who can pay. This was the last set of theology courses offered free of charge to students already enrolled in the university. If an Illinois student wants to take a protestant course in Church History, Christian Ethics, or “Christian History and Thought,” credits from the local Urbana Theological Seminary would transfer to an Illinois’ student’s transcript through sponsorship of a neighboring institution, but the cost would be several hundred dollars per credit. Auditing the course for extracurricular study, a more popular alternative, would still cost a resounding $200 per course.

The Central Illinois Mosque and Islamic Center offers courses in Arabic language, culture, and the Qur’an, but it comes with a price tag. Even in this information age, the cost of a college-level class does not just amount to the time the instructor spends in and outside of a classroom, but it must subsidize the years of preparation the instructor invested in their own coursework and continues to invest in research and scholarly engagement. Slowly over the last hundred years, we have decided that state tuition dollars and secular university departments would be better dedicated to religious instruction from people with some distance from their believing subjects rather than those peddling an insider’s rationale for all tenets of doctrine. Is it time we shift this modernist paradigm for the postmodern moment?

The Modern, Secular Dismissal of Catholic Doctrine on Sexuality

The other begging question at the heart of Howell’s dismissal is whether conservative religious doctrine on the subject of sexuality is ever appropriate for discussion in the university classroom, outside of the context of its extensive critique as a matter of social justice. Conservative Protestants, Catholics and Jews in the early twentieth century put up a great fight against the army of “moderns” who promoted birth control. Margaret Sanger, chief writer for the Birth Control Review, chief organizer behind many Birth Control Leagues and the Birth Control Federation of America (which would become Planned Parenthood) spent a large majority of her career fighting against the Natural Law doctrines of the Catholic Church. Her network of medical clinics for women promoted not only a set of devices then ruled illegal, such as diaphragms, vaginal suppositories, and eventually the pill, but they endorsed a lifestyle and belief system that urged the separation of sexuality from procreation.

As historian Kathleen Tobin writes in her book, The American Religious Debates over Birth Control, 1907-1937, Archbishop Hayes of New York worked very hard to shut down the activities of Margaret Sanger because he believed that such technology violated the “natural” connection between sexuality and new life. In November 1921, he literally contacted the police to stop Sanger from using a public town hall for the American Birth Control Conference, telling the New York Times:

Heinous is the sin committed against the creative act of God who through the marriage contract invites man and woman to cooperate with him in the propagation of a human family… To take life after its inception is a horrible crime but to prevent human life that the Creator is about to bring into being is satanic.

Sanger responded with a very modern, secular dismissal of the archbishop’s authority to speak on behalf of humanistic morality:

He knows no more about the fact of the immortality of the soul than the rest of us human beings… we who are trying to better humanity believe that a healthy, happy human race is more in keeping with the laws of God than disease, misery and poverty perpetuating themselves generation after generation.

Sanger’s narrative on moral philosophy obviously won out in popular culture, and even convinced many religious leaders to shift their opinions. In 1931 the Federal Council of Churches (an interdenominational network of liberal protestants) endorsed birth control technologies as acceptable within the course of a marriage dedicated and open to a family, and began to shift their language on the purpose of marriage from a unit promoting children to a unit promoting love, support, and fellowship.

In 1927, Jewish professor of Talmud, Jacob Lauterbach, famously presented his “Talmudic–Rabbinic View on Birth Control,” which maintained that as long as a couple was able to have both a boy and girl over the course of their marriage, their responsibility to propagate the race was fulfilled and therefore contraceptives weren’t inappropriate. It was only the Catholic Church which held its ground on Natural Law philosophy. Other than Catholic Schools, however, there were not many opportunities for most poor and working-class Catholics who did not attend college to learn the philosophical basis of this moral position.

Papal doctrines on theologies of the body were not widely read by Catholics in the mid-twentieth century, nor extensively discussed in homilies, and historian Leslie Woodcock Tentler finds that many priests were too rushed in the 1930s to give adequate attention to the complexity of birth control inside confessionals. By the 1930s, recounts Tentler in Catholics and Contraception: An American History, “the average Catholic almost certainly lacked complete understanding of the natural law argument against contraception, but that same Catholic clearly knew that his church regarded contraception as a grave moral evil.”

Catholic doctrine on homosexuality comes directly out of these decades of doctrine that defined the purposes of a sexual relationship.

Howell’s Mistake

In Professor Howell’s letter to his students of May 4, he argued that it is necessary to understand Natural Moral Law, as understood by Catholics, as a rejection of utilitarian moral philosophy. “Utilitarianism in the popular sense,” he wrote, “is fundamentally a moral theory that judges right or wrong by its practical outcomes. It is somewhat akin to a cost/benefit analysis.” Catholics hold that the morality of sexual acts should not be judged by their outcomes (such as pleasure by mutual consent), he argued. Rather, because men’s and women’s bodies are complementary in form and function—what his email hastily describes as “REALITY”—the sexual union has an “inherent meaning” to Catholics. That meaning is the Christ-like expression of love that is open to new life.

Howell got into the most trouble in his final sentences, where he encouraged students to employ Natural Moral Law (which he abbreviates NML) within their own thinking about sexuality. He probably should have specified here that Natural Moral Law is a Catholic interpretation of moral philosophy, and should not be confused with its homonyms in our contemporary vernacular, “natural law” and “moral law.” While NML has a particular meaning for Catholics, the meanings of these lowercase terms are debatable. Further, he should have reminded students that there are many ways to understand morality and still qualify as what he calls a “thinking adult.”

Instead, Howell made a mistake common to passionate professors at the end of a long semester of discussions: he used his authority as teacher to unapologetically advocate his own position. In this case, he made the inappropriate assumption that all his students accepted the underlying principles of his version of Catholicism, and wanted to judge the world by their Natural Moral Law.

“Unless you have done extensive research into homosexuality and are cognizant of the history of moral thought,” he entreated them, “you are not ready to make judgments about moral truth in this matter.” He went on to awkwardly suggest that Natural Moral Law transcends Catholicism, and even religion. While this is an entirely accurate estimation of Catholic philosophy, Howell’s mistake came in advocating this philosophy as the truth rather than merely explaining it as the Catholic truth among many possible truths. Because he was addressing the topic of homosexuality, this statement was judged to violate his agreement with the pluralistic Religious Studies department, working as it did against the goal of fostering a comfortable atmosphere of inclusivity—especially to GLBT students and their allies.

Scores of books have been written in recent years about the secularization of higher education and the displacement of theological education by secular and pluralistic models of knowledge. Intellectual and religious historians George Marsden, James Turner, Jon Roberts, and Mark Noll, all quite prolific, are only among the most recent scholars to draw attention to these changes that have been meditated upon since the moment it began.

The irony of this scholarship, however, is that few of these discussions ever make their way beyond the walls of religious and post-religious institutions. As Brett Smith argues in Labor’s Millennium, his new book about the agricultural mission of the University of Illinois, land-grant universities like Illinois were founded in a millennial attitude toward the purpose of agricultural laborers in the developing nation, long before the advent of secularism distinguished Christian from basic rational thought. However, land-grant universities, unlike colleges founded by scores of other Christian denominations, never had a very explicit religious mission either.

Our public university’s mission is now, and arguably always was, quite modern. Today we aim to provide students with “the freedom to consider conflicting views and to make their own evaluation of data, evidence, and doctrines.” A liberal arts education aims to put students in the driver’s seat among various ideas, and ask them to evaluate these ideas with the tools of scholarly interpretation developed in the most current scholarship. But which categories of the most current scholarship? Does the university’s mission to achieve pluralism foreclose the possibility of highly biased instruction?

The university’s statement asserts that, “Faculty members have a responsibility to maintain an atmosphere conducive to intellectual inquiry and rational discussion.” Buried in this statement is the vicious knot challenging the next generation of scholars and teachers of religion. We are tasked to research, teach and write about believers in an irrational world, but arm ourselves only with the modern tools of rationality.