Sunday, July 11, 2010

Truth AND Consequences

Summer is the time for reruns, so I am going to repeat excerpts from my blog entry of August 29, 2003, titled Sharing the Faith. The events I described that day took place in 1999. One of the persons named in my story is in the news today. I will explain later.

Here is some of what happened eleven years ago:

I have successfully shared my faith with others. This usually happens when the other party or some unusual circumstance leads into the conversation. The strangest example occurred at my place of work several years ago where a roll of pink tape lead to an ongoing email discussion with a professor of theology at the Moody Bible Institute. A contractor I’ll call Dave, was doing an installation which required the use of Teflon pipe tape. (Teflon tape is used to wrap pipe threads before assembly.) All the Teflon tape I had ever previously seen was white in color. Dave had pink tape.

The course of conversation took some bizarre turns. All of this occurred about the time that Evangelist Jerry Falwell was speaking out against a children’s television show called the Teletubbies. One of the Teletubby characters (I think his name was ‘Tinky Winky’) was pink and carried a purse. Falwell criticized the presence of this character on a children’s show because the character appeared to be gay, at least in the eyes of Jerry Falwell. I noted the unusual color of the Teflon tape and wisecracked that Jerry Falwell might jump to a conclusion about Dave’s sexual preference based upon the unusual color of his tape.

Dave happened to be an Evangelical Protestant and a follower of Jerry Falwell. Dave asked me what I thought of Falwell. Not knowing where Dave stood, I tried to indicate respectfully that I thought Falwell’s remarks about the Teletubbies might be a little extreme. In the course of the conversation about Jerry Falwell, I mentioned that I was Catholic. Dave perked up as though he was well prepared to challenge Catholics.

He immediately asked me why so much of what the Catholic Church teaches is not in the Bible. Caught somewhat off guard, I replied that while not every thing the Church teaches is explicitly in the Bible, nothing the Church teaches is in conflict with the Bible. I explained that the Church predates the Bible as we know it and that it was the Bishops of the Catholic Church who determined which of the early Christian writings were inspired by God and therefore, included in the Bible. Dave wasn’t buying that, so I asked him for some specific things he believed the Catholic Church taught that were not biblical.

We discussed several common Protestant objections to Catholic theology, including Mary’s perpetual virginity and the reference to Jesus’ “brothers” in the Bible. I explained how the original Greek word translated to brothers in English, could include extended family such as step-brothers or cousins, and in fact, there was no word specifically for cousin. We briefly discussed the necessity of Baptism and its cleansing of the soul. Dave was unwavering. With our time together growing short, I asked him to give me an opportunity to write down several of his most pressing questions about the Catholic Church, and I would respond to him in detail by a Fax. He left me with two: (1) Why do we pray to Mary instead of going directly to God and (2) Where in the Bible does it say to pray for the dead?

I could tell Dave had been taught how to evangelize Catholics. These are two common objections to the Catholic Faith that are often raised to make unprepared Catholics squirm. I wanted to answer his questions thoroughly and respectfully. Opportunities to share our Catholic Faith do not come often. This could be a life altering experience for Dave and his family – literally a matter of (eternal) life and death!

In the weeks that followed, Dave sent me a couple of essays by contemporary Protestant authors and asked me to respond. I did and faxed them back to Dave. I found out later that Dave had a friend with whom he was sharing my answers. This friend was a professor of theology at the Moody Bible Institute. Eventually, Dave put me in touch with the professor and we began to correspond directly by email.

Our dialogue went on for several months. We touched on many aspects of Catholic theology. I used the Bible and simple logic to back the Catholic position. I saved copies of our correspondence and hope to share it with others someday. As I look back on it now, there are things I would say differently, but overall, I think I held my own. I shared several audio tapes with him, including some by Dr. Kenneth Howell, a convert to the Catholic Faith who became an author and speaker for St. Joseph Communications. After the professor wrote a critique of one of Dr. Howell’s tapes, I requested his permission to share the critique with Dr. Howell, with whom I had also corresponded after he spoke at our parish in 1997. I don’t know whether the two of them had a subsequent conversation. At about the same time, the professor ended our exchange saying he did not have the time to continue our talks.

Now, fast-forward to the present. I would like to report that Dave, along with the professor from Moody, and all their families and friends have converted to Catholicism. I would LIKE to report that, but unfortunately, I don’t know what happened to any of them. My reason for this reprise is the third party in the story, Dr. Kenneth Howell. I do know what happened to him.

According to an article by Jodi Heckel appearing in the July 9, 2010 edition of the News-Gazette, Dr. Howell has been an adjunct lecturer in the Department of Religion at the University of Illinois in Urbana for the past nine years. Until his firing after the spring semester, he taught two courses, Introduction to Catholicism, and Modern Catholic Thought. He was also the director of the Institute of Catholic Thought at the St. John’s Catholic Newman Center on campus. His salary came from the Institute of Catholic Thought.

So, why was Dr. Howell fired? His dismissal apparently resulted from an email he sent to his students prior to final exams. (The News-Gazette article contains links to Dr. Howell’s email and an email complaint from a student who was not even enrolled in the class.) The subject of Dr. Howell’s email was Utilitarianism and Sexuality. In it, he explained the relevance of utilitarianism as applied to moral theory, and specifically in the context of homosexuality.

In the email, Dr. Howell said, “One of the most common applications of utilitarianism to sexual morality is the criterion of mutual consent.” He uses various examples to point out deficiencies in the mutual consent argument. He goes on to say “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.” Again using examples, he explains how homosexual acts are contrary to the laws of nature.

Dr. Howell’s email concludes with the following: “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.”

Nowhere in Dr. Howell’s email does he say we are to hate homosexuals. In fact, he says, “to judge an action wrong is not to condemn a person.” The student complaint purportedly referring to Dr. Howell’s email, accuses him of “hate speech at a public university” and expresses disdain that “hard-working Illinoisans are funding the salary of a man who does nothing but try to indoctrinate students and perpetuate stereotypes.” I see no truth in any of those complaints. Ironically, the student says courses at Illinois should contribute to the public discourse and promote independent thought. Why is it that people who promote independent thought are the first ones to suppress any thought different from their own?

Dr. Howell was doing exactly what he was hired to do in explaining Modern Catholic Thought. This isn’t so much an issue with his conduct. Rather, it is a manifestation of the hatred of the Catholic Church by modern secular academia. So much more could be said about the persecution we find ourselves in today. This story isn’t over. The Alliance Defense Fund may take up Dr. Howell’s case. Stay tuned.

UI v. CC Update

An article published in the Chicago Tribune on July 18, 2010, shed more light on the dismissal of Dr. Kenneth Howell as adjunct instructor of Catholicism at the University of Illinois. While his remarks on homosexuality were cited as an excuse for his firing, the real reason is more complex.

Although the two classes he taught on Catholicism were credit courses, Dr. Howell was employed by St. John’s Catholic Newman Center funded by the diocese of Peoria. Dr. Howell therefore answered to both the church and the university. Being a very orthodox Catholic, he taught Catholicism as absolute truth rather than a mere presentation of the Catholic position. In fact, Dr. Howell sought a mandatum from the local bishop, an acknowledgment by church authority that a Catholic professor of a theological discipline is teaching within the full communion of the Catholic Church. Sadly, even professors at Catholic institutions are often reluctant to seek a mandatum for fear it will compromise their academic credibility.

As a secular institution, it is perhaps understandable why the University of Illinois would be uncomfortable with this arrangement. According to the article, other religious foundations, primarily Protestant, had given up teaching religious courses for credit, but this one remained due to persuasion by Monsignor Edward Duncan over the objections of the university administration. The university feels that they should have control of the content of what is taught as part of the curriculum. Is this need for control limited to religious studies or does it apply in other academic disciplines?

Suppose the University wanted to offer a course on Apple Computers. If the Apple Corporation came forward offering to supply an instructor at no cost in the hope that they might recruit qualified future employees, would the university find this arrangement acceptable? Or, would the administration be concerned that the class would become a commercial for Apple Computers, glossing over any possible flaws in their product? Would potential propagation of the Apple brand concern the administration as much as the potential propagation of the Catholic Faith?

The situation with Dr. Howell and the Catholic Church is really no different. Is he hoping to recruit future Catholics? Of course, he is. So what? In his conversion story, Dr. Howell talks about how his faith perspective changed when he began looking at scripture though Catholic glasses. Once you put those glasses on, your vision improves so dramatically that you never want to take them off. I cannot picture him in the classroom without them. What is wrong with a professor truly believing in the material he is teaching? When an academic makes an exciting discovery, he wants to share it with the world.

The Tribune article quotes Ayesha Khan, legal director for Americans United for the Separation of Church and State as saying “a person hired by the diocese (but) being put in a public institution having, at a minimum, a conflict of interest.” I doubt that Dr. Howell’s interest was conflicted in any way. His loyalty to the Catholic Church is clearly evident. Advocacy groups for the separation of church and state typically concern themselves with keeping religion out of the state when the framers were really intending to keep the state out of religion. We have a situation here where church and state were actually separated. State money was not being used to pay the instructor or influence class content. The extent of state involvement was in providing the class for those who wished to take it. Ironically, what they are apparently advocating is more state control in what is being taught in a religious class.

The UI administration must examine its own objectives. Are they really interested in an accurate presentation of Catholic teaching, or do they want a critique of the Catholic Church? Their actions would seem to indicate the latter, in which case they need to openly describe the class as such, and hire their own instructor.

On the other hand, if the religion department at the University of Illinois is really interested in providing courses called Introduction to Catholicism and Modern Catholic Thought, there is probably no better-qualified person to teach those courses than Dr. Kenneth Howell. Advertise his mandatum as assurance that course material will be an accurate presentation of what the Church teaches, complete with all the politically incorrect facts that should not bother anyone truly open to alternative ideas and academic freedom. There are probably very few secular institutions that can offer courses on Catholicism taught by a professor with a mandatum.

No matter how this turns out, the diocese should continue to make Dr Howell’s class available. If that means moving it to the campus Newman center for non-credit, then so be it. Those truly interested in learning about the Catholic Faith for the right reasons will still seek it out.


On July 29, Dr. Howell was reinstated under pressure from the Alliance Defense Fund. He will now be paid by the university. Whether this situation is resolved remains to be seen.