E-mail complaint from student about UI religion instructor

Prof. McKim,

This past semester, a friend of mine took RLST 127: Introduction to Catholicism. Throughout the semester, he would consistently tell me how the teacher, who I believe is a priest at the Newman Center, would preach (not teach) his ideology to the class. Many times, my friend (whom I wish to remain anonymous) said the instructor would say things that were inflammatory and downright insensitive to those who were not of the Catholic faith–it should be noted that my friend and I were both brought up Catholic. Anyways, my friend informed me that things got especially provocative when discussing homosexuality. He sent me the following e-mail, which I believe you will agree is downright absurd once you read it.

I am in no way a gay rights activist, but allowing this hate speech at a public university is entirely unacceptable. It sickens me to know that hard-working Illinoisans are funding the salary of a man who does nothing but try to indoctrinate students and perpetuate stereotypes. Once again, this is a public university and should thus have no religious affiliation. Teaching a student about the tenets of a religion is one thing. 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.

I can only imagine how ashamed and uncomfortable a gay student would feel if he/she were to take this course. I am a heterosexual male and I found this completely appalling. Also, my friend also told me that the teacher allowed little room for any opposition to Catholic dogma. Once again, he is guilty of limiting the marketplace of ideas and acting out of accord with this institution's mission and principles.

I have Cc'd Leslie Morrow, director of the LGBT Resource Center, on this e-mail as well as (name redacted), former features editor at the Daily Illini (I'm sure they'd like to hear about this), and Siobhan Somerville, a former teacher of mine and the founder of the queer studies major.

I didn't go to Notre Dame for a reason,

(name redacted)


Comments for this post are read only.

mclark486 wrote on July 09, 2010 at 8:07 am

I'm sorry, but geesh! You go to a class about Introduction to Cathoicism and you get offended when you hear something you dont' like? It would be like me, a person of faith, getting offended when I hear something in a class about Introduction to homosexuality. I would EXPECT to hear things I probably didn't like to, but I expect that as part of the class. We are all adults and make our own decisions and I don't always like what I hear. I work at a University as well, and at least once a week, I hear adversisments about LBGA. Do I get out on a soapbox or send e-mails to 10 people that express my irritaion about what I saw/heard? NO, I suck it up and realize I work at a University and will hear ALL TYPES of viewpoints.

lhamil948 wrote on July 09, 2010 at 10:07 am

"it should be noted that my friend and I were both brought up Catholic." Call me confused, but if you were raised Catholic, how can the statements made by Prof. Howell be such a shock to you that it prompts you to write this email? If you were raised Catholic, you should be fully aware of what the Church does condone and what it does not. Your friend made the choice to take an Introduction to Catholicism class. No one forced him to enroll and sit through the lectures.

Tony wrote on July 09, 2010 at 1:07 pm

This email is absurd and misrepresents the facts. I can't believe the religious studies department would cave into people who obviously don't respect the true 'marketplace of ideas' the university should represent!

CrazyIvan wrote on July 09, 2010 at 8:07 pm

The student's email brings to mind the following assessment:

"What you've just said is one of the most insanely idiotic things I have ever heard. At no point in your rambling, incoherent response were you even close to anything that could be considered a rational thought. Everyone in this room is now dumber for having listened to it. I award you no points, and may God have mercy on your soul."

The scary thing is that there is nothing even remotely nuanced about this situation.

1. Professor writes email to students encouraging them to think critically about the positions they espouse. In it, he dares to call into question the basis for modern sexual morality, esp. the morality of homosexual behavior.
2. Student gets offended because the Professor would dare to question something he practices.
3. Student's friend, via hearsay from the student, writes an email and accuses the professor of hate speech on said hearsay.
4. Professor is sacked.

What is it that we are missing here?

You know, for someone who is "in no way a gay rights activist", he sure seems to know a lot of people who are. Oh wait, it's his big in! Put a Catholic scalp on that belt, brutha!!!

Way to have a backbone, Professor McKim! And way to avoid a lawsuit, or the loss of funding, UI!

Perhaps a more appropriate name for the Newman Center would be The St. Thomas More Center. A lot of parallels here with his story.


kheff wrote on July 09, 2010 at 9:07 pm

The student writes, "Teaching a student about the tenets of a religion is one thing. Declaring that homosexual acts violate the natural laws of man is another." How do you figure? It might offend you that the professor does not approve of homosexual acts, but you can't argue that homosexual acts are in line with natural law. Homosexual acts DO violate natural laws. Arguing to the contrary indicates a lack of understanding of what natural law means, not an error on the part of the party you argue against. You don't have to like the fact, and you may argue that homosexuality is not against social laws, but it is a fact that it's against natural law, like it or not. This student comes across sounding ridiculous.

Professor Howell is neither "insensitive" nor being "inflammatory" by stating the facts of the Catholic Church's beliefs, which is the purpose of the class. Having a course in Catholicism does not mean the University advocates that religion any more than having courses in Islam and other religions means it advocates those religions. Does the writer of the email not understand the purpose of religion courses is to educate, not to give everyone warm fuzzies? Apparently not -- and apparently, the Department of Religious Studies doesn't think so anymore either.

The student clearly isn't interested in promoting independent thought if it's offensive to him. Let's try to find him a class that makes him feel better.

JNC wrote on July 15, 2010 at 3:07 am

FYI: Homosexuality exists throughout the animal kingdom. You know, nature and all that. The more we find out about homosexuality, the more we know that it is genetically caused and immutable. Yes, people are born gay, they do not become gay. Arguing that homosexual acts are unnatural indicates a complete lack of understanding of what natural law is.

Kayla wrote on July 15, 2010 at 10:07 pm

Saying that nature is the same thing as natural law indicates a complete lack of understanding of what natural law is.

Falcor wrote on July 10, 2010 at 10:07 am

If you are not a gay rights activist why did you copy the email to the media, the director of the LGBT Resource Center, and the founder of the queer studies major? Furthermore, did you confront the professor that sent the email that offended your friend? It seems like your actions are meant to cause a commotion, but what are your reasons?

SuzyCCC wrote on July 10, 2010 at 7:07 pm

By the time students reach college, they are considered adults in most states. Reading the emails, it is impossible for all but the most myopically sensitive readers to see anything but a statement of Catholic teaching from Howell, and nothing but overstating from the student. I think an adult making an accusation like this should stand up and make himself known. The accusation is 3rd hand, and the evidence does not support it. If I were an attorney, I'd beg Howell to let me have his case.

And the first thing I would prove in court through testimony would be that these two students who were "raised Catholic" and "didn't go to Notre Dame for a reason" knew exactly what they were signing up for, expected an easy A, didn't get it, and are now shooting the messenger.

skiparoo wrote on July 12, 2010 at 6:07 am

time to start a new search and hire this professor back, asap!

IowaMike wrote on July 13, 2010 at 11:07 am

These two students deserve failing grades. Talk about claptrap, these two students are claptrap kings! Dr. Howell's title is Director, St. John's Institute of Catholic Thought. St. John's University is a Catholic affililated college. If they object to Catholic thought, practice or dogma, what in the hell are they doing in the class?

The Dr.'s email was informative and designed to provoke thought. He even said, "I know this doesn't answer all the questions in many of your minds. All I ask as your teacher is that you approach these questions as a thinking adult. That implies questioning what you have heard around you. Unless you have done extensive research into homosexuality and are cognizant of the history of moral thought, you are not ready to make judgments about moral truth in this matter. All I encourage is to make informed decisions. 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." The objections of these students are contrived and wrongheaded.

One student said, "Once again, this is a public university and should thus have no religious affiliation. Teaching a student about the tenets of a religion is one thing. 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". Really??? Now a Catholic professor at a Catholic affiliated college cannot teach in accordance with Catholic beliefs????? Nobody is forcing these students to go to St. John's as there are tons of secular schools they can attend.

Reading through the lines...I think the students object to the Dr.'s email because they are homosexuals and are homosexual activists. Now they have become censors...if you don't accept thier version of truth you should shut up.

It's the university officials that should be fired not the professor. As for the two students.......the pretentious little gas bags need to grow up.

mandy wrote on July 13, 2010 at 7:07 pm

The U of I is not a Catholic affiliated college. It is a secular university. Dr.Howell is hired by the Newman Institute, not the U of I. Maybe you should get your facts right before you spout off your
venomous comments. It does not reflect well on the Catholics when they write such hateful stuff.
Did you ask why the Newman Center fired him as well?

Cholie wrote on July 13, 2010 at 8:07 pm

The Newman Center already stated that they fired him because it is a requirement to be a U of I professor to have that position at the Newman Center. If he doesn't have his job as a professor, then he can't have the job at the Newman Center. Pretty simple answer there... just saying.

"Patricia Gibson, an attorney and chancellor of the diocese, said Howell was let go because he could no longer teach at the university.

'We are very concerned and very distressed by what we understand is the situation from Dr. Howell,' she said. The diocese hopes to discuss the situation with someone at the university, she said."

schmeckendeugler wrote on July 15, 2010 at 4:07 pm

"I am in no way a gay rights activist."

You are now, buck-o!

sahuoy wrote on July 16, 2010 at 3:07 am

The student that wrote this letter appears to be an activist of sorts with a personal grind. The class is Introduction to Catholicism, ie. Examination of a set of ideas, beliefs which are the foundation for a religion which has played a molding role of our society and the world. The class is not lets discuss contrary views to catholicism, values, beliefs and how to undermine catholicism. Howell is representing an understanding of a position of the religion and its members as the world has evolved. That position is what inspires understanding, free thought and free speech. This student sounds like a second year, pants full of a load and still doesn't know what to do head hunting Catholic basher as he doesn't like what Howell is messaging as he perceives his understanding which seems very clear to me, alter boy, lifelong Catholic. As for separation of church and state concerning teaching a religious class in a public university, how moronic to suggest ousting this professor for his interpretation, messaging and teaching of his understanding of catholicism approved by his peers. The solution appears to be the complaining student drop the class based on a severe case of meatheadedness and enroll in butcher school.

mandy wrote on July 17, 2010 at 1:07 pm