CHAMPAIGN – The University of Illinois scholar who lost his job over his exposition of Catholic teachings has walked a winding path that includes a decades-long conversion, leaving other positions, including one as a Presbyterian minister, and facing down an armed man who shot at him five times.
Until May, Kenneth Howell taught a course on Catholicism in the Religious Studies Department as an adjunct professor whose salary was paid by the Newman Foundation.
The university responded to a complaint that Howell used hate speech in an email to students when he described the Catholic natural law and utilitarian theories of homosexual behavior, using bestiality as one of the examples.
In 1995, Howell was in the process of converting from Presbyterianism to the Catholic Church when he nearly died of a wound to his neck in Bloomington, Ind.
He says that event was the first true suffering in his life, and brought him closer to Christ.
"At first it seems strange. But the idea began to grow on me, the emphasis Catholics place on redemptive suffering. Suffering is never wasted," Howell said in an interview with The News-Gazette. "By participating in the sufferings of Christ, we grow closer with him."
The gunman was never caught, said Lt. Craig Munroe of the Indiana University Police. He never spoke, either, according to the police report, so no motive has ever been assigned to the act.
Howell, then a 43-year-old visiting professor at Indiana, was walking near Goodbody Hall around 3 p.m. on June 3, 1995. He was working on his second doctorate at the time, and teaching as well.
The campus streets were nearly deserted, with a large graduation-related ceremony going on, Munroe said.
A man walked past Howell; then the professor heard a shot. Not even aware he'd been shot, the professor began to run.
Howell described the man as in his mid-20s, with dark brown hair sunglasses, a Walkman and wearing a black jacket. He never said anything, the police report says, but he continued to fire, missing his target.
Called by passers-by, the police found Howell sitting on a stone wall, bleeding heavily from his neck. Howell said the bullet missed his carotid artery by 2 millimeters. It damaged his voicebox as well.
"That was his instrument in the symphony" of university teaching, says a longtime friend and spiritual adviser, Marie Justras.
Howell said he's grateful that he has largely recovered his voice, and was moved by the friendship showed him by Catholic, Lutheran and Presbyterian Church members and clergy during his recovery.
His wife Sharon is a Lutheran, making his conversion a challenge for their marriage – they attend both churches. They have three children.
Howell said he is a believer in the ideal of "hate the sin, love the sinner."
"Our actions don't make up the dignity of our person," he said, adding that "all human beings have inherent dignity."
Justras, a Canadian teacher who has assisted Howell on his spiritual journey, said she cannot believe that he could be prejudiced against gay people.
"It's impossible to think that Prof. Howell would be capable of hate speech," she said. "He's a gentle soul, a kind man and he has never expressed to me anything remotely like prejudice. He was just explaining the teachings of the church, and that was his job."
Kenneth Howell came to Catholicism in a roundabout way.
"From the time I was in my early teens (in Florida), I had a strong desire to have a relationship with God. I was raised in the Presbyterian Church. When I was about 17 decided I wanted to become Presbyterian minister," he said.
He was ordained in 1978, but always felt an attraction to Catholicism, especially for its liturgy.
"I always had a sense I wanted to have a more academic life as well," said Howell, who reads Latin, Greek and Hebrew.
Besides his seminary experience, he earned two masters and two doctorates. He has been a professor at University of South Florida, Indiana University, Reformed Theological Seminary, Belhaven College, the UI and Parkland in his peripatetic career.
During his time teaching in the Presbyterian seminary, he began to question some of the ideas of the Protestant Reformation.
"I was always asking the question, where is the ancient church that Jesus founded – what modern church corresponds to that most directly," he said.
There was a flirtation with the Episcopalian Church, considered to be closer to Catholicism than most Protestant denominations, as well as the Lutheran Church.
"Eventually I came to the conclusion that modern Catholicism" was the closest he said, in large part because of the Eucharist liturgy, also known as communion.
The liturgy has roots back to the Last Supper, and Howell believes the Catholic view that the wine and bread, "when properly consecrated," are literally the blood and body of Jesus.
"The more I studied, I realized that in order to live consistently" with his beliefs, he needed to change churches.
He said the decision was "extremely difficult" on several levels.
It meant challenging his family and leaving his job.
"I was leaving everything that was comfortable for me. Friends couldn't understand why I was leaving," he recalls.
In 1994, he knew he couldn't sign a document required for Presbyterian clergy, left his seminary, and formally approached the Catholic Church.
Howell went beyond the demands of teaching at the UI to earn a mandatum, a church certification usually meant for professors at Catholic universities or seminaries.
Newman's Monsignor Stuart Swetland, who now teaches in Maryland, said he and Howell sought the mandatum in part because they trained local deacons.
"It's a sign that we're in communion with the teaching of the church," Swetland said.
The conversion caused ripples of personal problems.
"My wife and I were not on the same page. It was very difficult for us; we were always religiously united. By the grace of God, our marriage has been very strong," Howell said.
"Also difficult was the loss of income; my children were in their teen years. Through all of that, we looked to God for help. We prayed and he provided for us."
Even so, Howell said he has had times when he was troubled.
"The real fallout (of the shooting) was to experience fear in my life in a very real sense. I remember walking around the street with my son. People didn't realize" they could be hurt, he said.
Howell said he has been pleasantly surprised by people who want to help him through the controversy and job loss now.
"Faith has helped. If you read Psalms, you see how David cries out to God. I never really felt the Psalms before. Though I'm a great sinner, I believe in this particular instance I'm innocent."