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Teaching Catholicism and sexual morality

posted by David Walker

The dismissal of Kenneth Howell, a University of Illinois adjunct professor of Catholic history and thought, has generated much discussion and commentary in the last week, most of it focusing upon the appropriateness and logic of an email that he sent to students prior to their spring semester exam. The email, an attempt at a clarification of utilitarian and natural law arguments regarding sexual morality—in particular, the morality of homosexual acts, a topic of previous course discussion—suggests that Catholics “arrive at their moral conclusions based [...] on a thorough understanding of natural reality.” According to Howell, (Catholic) Natural Moral Law, contra utilitarian consent theory,

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.

[...]

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 email closes by encouraging each student to “approach these questions as a thinking adult,” to “question [...] what you have heard around you,” and to “make judgments about moral truth in this matter” only after “extensive research into homosexuality and [...] the history of moral thought.”  But as for Howell’s own adult stance (insofar as it is articulated in this instructional email), references to a prior conversation with a physician and to a study of the ways in which “we have gradually been separating our sexual natures (reality) from our moral decisions,” evince a heteronormative, gender-binary notion of nature and sexual morality—one consistent with the above.

A student, who was not enrolled in Howell’s “Introduction to Catholicism” class but claimed action on behalf of an acquaintance therein, forwarded Professor Howell’s email to University of Illinois administrators, along with charges of “hate speech” and religious dogmatism unbefitting of a public institution.  This may have informed the University’s decision not to renew Howell’s adjunct appointment; in any case, Howell has decried his dismissal as an “egregious violation of academic freedom.”

Reactions to this case differ across academic blogs on American history and religion. At Religion in American History, Janine Giordano Drake seizes the opportunity to discuss the complicated and diverse history of Catholic theological debate on sexuality and birth control—a history often shortchanged in discussions of Catholic moral thought—and she encourages fellow scholars to pursue responsible ways of teaching sexuality in religious studies classes.  Meanwhile, Tenured Radical considers the need to expose students to potentially objectionable socio-religious argumentation—and the need to identify and cultivate academic strategies for such exposure without fear of third-party retribution. One pedagogical suggestion made by both authors—either implicitly or explicitly—is to make this case itself a classroom datum by discussing the email, the response, and subsequent debate transcripts as primary sources in religious argumentation and contest.

At Religion Dispatches, Mary E. Hunt, reflecting upon the financing of Howell’s original appointment (he was supported by the Institute of Catholic Thought and the Catholic Diocese of Peoria), and upon the institutional identity of Howell’s current supporters (he is supported by the Alliance Defense Fund in his efforts at redress), predicts ongoing controversy and discussion in court cases.  If she is right, scholars of religion will have ample new opportunities to discuss the meaning of the Supreme Court’s now classic distinction between teaching about and the teaching of religion in public educational contexts. (For one organization’s reflection on its relevance to public school curricula, see here.)

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