The Firing of Ken Howell

Professor Ken Howell was an adjunct professor teaching a class on Catholicism for the University of Illinois. In an email explaining certain concepts, Howell used the Church’s stance on homosexuality as contrary to utilitarianism and natural moral law. An as-yet unidentified student took exception to this email and complained. As a result of an anonymous complaint, Howell was fired.

The Citizen is outraged – but far from surprised. For the past several years, the Catholic church and it’s teachings have been aggressively attacked by a secular Left that is growing in political and cultural power in the United States. For decades, Statists have sought to inculcate their beliefs in schools and colleges. They control Hollywood and many of the newspapers, newsmagazines, and television news networks. Talk radio and the internet, the only sources of information not wholly controlled by the Statists, is under attack by the Obama administration. Howell is simply the first of many people of faith who will find themselves targeted – if we don’t stop this campaign of tyranny by the minority.

Socialism is a doctrine that is inimical to Catholicism. It will not – it cannot – tolerate Catholics openly practicing in their midst. De Tocqueville once stated:

Now, the first characteristic of all socialist ideologies is, I believe, an incessant, vigorous and extreme appeal to the material passions of man.

Why? Well, because the State can easily control the appetites of the flesh. It can regulate, legalize, and tax alcohol, tobacco, gambling, prostitution, sexual activities (access to abortions and birth control), conspicuous consumption…even fast food. The state  – through the institution of Johnson’s ‘Great” Society – provides shelter, food, and a modicum of care for those unable or unwilling to provide for themselves. You see, decades of quiet socialist machinations has created the very state de Tocqueville described. Now that they have realized power – anyone who argues that Obama, Reid, and Pelosi are not ardent believers in the power of a strong socialized government is being disingenuous – they have emerged from the shadows and have begun to flex the iron fist. Need an example? How about Donald Berwick, who openly admitted to be an ardent supporter of socialist institutions – and rationing care, but that’s an argument for another day.

To illustrate my charge, the Citizen offers another passage from De Tocqueville’s Criticism of Socialism:

Now, a third and final trait, one which, in my eyes, best describes socialists of all schools and shades, is a profound opposition to personal liberty and scorn for individual reason, a complete contempt for the individual. They unceasingly attempt to mutilate, to curtail, to obstruct personal freedom in any and all ways. They hold that the State must not only act as the director of society, but must further be master of each man, and not only master, but keeper and trainer. For fear of allowing him to err, the State must place itself forever by his side, above him, around him, better to guide him, to maintain him, in a word, to confine him. They call, in fact, for the forfeiture, to a greater or less degree, of human liberty, to the point where, were I to attempt to sum up what socialism is, I would say that it was simply a new system of serfdom.

TARP is an example of government interference. The Citizen is quite aware that Bush instituted TARP, but no one can argue that the Obama administration took it to new and unplanned levels of intervention.  The stimulus plan – which many economists claim had little, no, or adverse effect – is another example of government tampering. The Patient Care and Affordable Health Care Act is yet another. These are all examples of the State causing elements of society to dance to the tune of the government. Think about it – the auto industry, investment banking, the health care industry, and millions of poor….all subservient under this ‘new system of serfdom.’

How can I link the firing of a professor with this socialist revolution? Catholic theology and practice calls us to be focused on the life of the spirit. It is critical of “the material passions” of man. The Church believes in the direct responsibility of all Catholics to tend to the needy. Socialism abrogates and dehumanizes the process of helping the needy. Personal service is replaced by paid bureaucrats, administrators, and service providers, paid through the collection of taxes. Catholics – and all citizens – can ignore their obligations with a shrug and a belief that ‘the government will take care of those people.’ Why support Catholic Charities? The government has programs. Why support the soup kitchens, shelters, crisis pregnancy centers, and Catholic hospitals? Let the government do it – that’s why we pay taxes, right?

No. The Constitution provided a framework for limited government. A framework abused by decades of ‘progressive reforms’. Socialist institutions have been championed as necessary and issues of social justice. The current leadership is blatant in it’s socialist ideals when they insist that their job is to make sure that the rich are forced to ‘share the wealth’. This isn’t in the Constitution. And coercing money from those who earned it to distribute to those people government sees fit to receive their largesse is not what America is supposed to stand for.

The reason Professor Howell was fired was on the basis of one student’s anonymous complaint to the University. The charge? The commission of a ‘hate crime.’ The concept of the Hate Crime as a violation of federal law has changed over the years. Originally it was designed to provide a means of ensuring that violent crimes committed on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion, or national origin would carry a federal penalty. In short, it was a counterbalance to permissive Jim Crow states.  The new act allows for punishment for ‘verbal abuse’ against a variety of classes of people – gay, lesbian, and transgender people among them.

HR 1913, a bill that the leadership knew was going to die, was passed by appending it to the 2010 Department of Defense Appropriations Bill, includes the terms “Gender, Sexual Orientation, and Gender Identity” – ambiguous terms that the authors of the bill have refused to define.  It places those descriptions on par with race, color, religion and nationality. Professor Howell criticized what could be a ‘protected’ class under this law. In doing so, he has opened himself up to state and federal penalties that could include fines and possibly a prison sentence. While this is unlikely, the wording of this law is so vague as to allow these possibilities. Certainly, the University considered this a violation of their sensibilities and barred Professor Howell from teaching classes for the University’s Religion Department.

Howell’s ‘hate crime’? This email, explaining the concepts of natural moral law and utilitarianism, was enough to ensure his dismissal. While he is critical of homosexuality, he is doing so in the context of Catholic teaching and in a manner consistent with the theories he illustrated. One would think that he would be protected under the time-honored concept of Academic Freedom. This concept protects instructors by providing them the freedom to teach controversial subjects as they pertain to their subject matter. I challenge anyone to justify dismissing Howell if the shield of academic freedom is fairly employed.

Good luck. The concept of Academic Freedom is detailed in the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure.

Professor Howell responded to the dismissal in this letter. It’s interesting that he notes that this semester, he had students demonstrate  the most “…vociferous reaction that I have ever had. It
seemed out of proportion to all that I had known thus far.” The Citizen has been in classes where students signed up to ‘bait’ the professor for a variety of reasons. One history professor I knew confided that his perspectives on several historical issues has resulted in frequent complaints. As a person who shared some of his views, I was frequently vilified and abused by militant students who confused the concept of dialog and dissent with carte blanche to impose the will of the minority on the majority. As a professional teacher, I often find that my conservative values and religious beliefs make me the butt of jokes and ridicule from others.

It’s perfectly acceptable under the law to abuse Catholics and people who promote their values – we’re not protected under the Shepard Act. By that, the Citizen means that legitimate criticism of behaviors contrary to our beliefs is not exempt from the ‘hate speech’ provisions of this law. This act is yet another tool in the socialist’s bag of tricks. They cannot afford to let us flourish among them. They must use the laws they have twisted to seek us out and remove us from positions of authority and responsibility.

Perhaps the most disconcerting element of this sordid tale is that the accuser remained anonymous. A professor with some ten years standing at the University – ten years without blemish – is dismissed on the weight of one complaint. One anonymous complaint. One coward in the dark who has taken a man’s job and sought to besmirch his reputation. The concept of anonymity is designed to protect people from future repercussions. Is this a legitimate use of this doctrine – or like the Shepard Act – twisting of a good law into something quite different?

In the end, I believe that Professor Howell will find a position teaching Catholicism in some other institution. In fact, this event may even advance his career. I am sure that there are Catholic colleges and universities that want a man with the level of scholarship, devotion to the Magisterium, and courage that Kenneth Howell has demonstrated.

  3 comments for “The Firing of Ken Howell

  1. SCM
    July 12, 2010 at 8:51 am

    While I agree wholeheartedly that the University of Illinois infringed on Howell's academic freedom, not to mention the First Amendment's protections for free expression (which apply to state institutions like the U of I), the rest of this article is bunk. Socialism is not inimical to Catholicism, and nearly every Pope since the dawn of the 20th century has stressed the need to combat the excesses of capitalism, including excessive income inequality. True, the Constitution has no concept of social justice, but to argue that the "strict construction" of the Constitution is in line with Catholic social teaching is 100% wrong. Ironically, the original Constitution the author lauds would not have protected the free expression rights of Professor Howell (it took the 14th Amendment AND 20th century Supreme Court decisions to do that). In short, the author of this piece represents a populist conservative perspective, but neither a Catholic one nor an informed one, and readers should keep this in mind.

    • The Citizen
      July 12, 2010 at 12:42 pm


      I am glad that we can agree that Howell should not have been dismissed. Actually, there is a considerable amount of legal opinion that expressly separates the First Amendment of Freedom of Speech as being distinct from the concept of academic freedom, at least in private institutions. The Court has held several times that public colleges and universities are bound by the First Amendment, though some of the decisions lean towards the position that professors enjoy no freedom of speech above and beyond any other member of the academic community. . My argument is that Howell was unfairly dismissed by the practices of both the University and the AAUP. The concept of academic freedom really only develops in 1936 and it would be 1940 when the AAUP created their Statement on Academic Freedom. Columbia actually promised academic freedom to their professors as early as 1856 – and a number of other prestigious colleges and universities followed suit, hoping to attract the best and brightest. The 1940 Statement carries no weight of law but there are formal and informal approaches they can take to deal with recalcitrant institutions.

      To claim that Popes support socialism in any way, shape, or form, is patently absurd. Pope Leo explained it quite clearly in Rerum Novarum – in 1891. Since then, practically every Pope of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have either reaffirmed this encyclical or expanded on it. Pope John Paul II was particularly outspoken on the dangers of socialism and socialist thought intruding into Catholicism. Liberation theology, a largely heretical blend of socialism and Catholic thought – was a target of both John Paul and our current Pope Benedict. I suggest you consult the Catechism of the Catholic Church, articles 2401-2449. This section deals with these concepts. In short, socialism is contrary to Catholicism because it diminishes the role – and the responsibility – of Catholics to practice our Faith. While many Popes – including John Paul and Benedict – have been vocal about the responsibilities of the 'haves' to the 'have nots' at no time do they advocate that government should be doing the redistribution. To argue this is so is ignorant or an example of the socialist manipulation this essay delved into.

      I do use Howell as an example of how secular humanists are subverting the institutions and practices of government to target people of faith. I do argue that the Constitution never intended the Federal government to seize the powers that they have taken – and that this power grab is part of a larger plan to render the Constitution moot. I used quotes from De Tocqueville to illustrate the threat of socialism to a constitutional republic – I find his ideas to be as valid now as they were then. Sorry if you don't like the concept of strict interpretation.

      I do take umbrage to your charge that my essay is neither Catholic or informed. In the essay and in this comment, I believe I have articulated that I have an understanding of Catholic teachings towards socialism …. certainly more than you demonstrated in your comments. As to the charge of populist conservatism – I have no issue with being called a conservative. Populism? In the sense that I believe that the federal government has vastly overstepped their constitutional role and authority – sure.

      I welcome comments from all perspectives. I will not post any more of your comments if you insist on insulting me, however. To be candid, Sean, you don't know much about me, my education, or my background. Disagree with me all you will, but don't insult me again.

      Especially without merit.

  2. SCM
    July 12, 2010 at 5:36 pm

    I'll gladly retract the "uninformed" comment, as your response posting shows much more substance than I read in the original post.

    Let's first dispense with what we agree on so we don't waste space. We agree on the Howell dismissal (for somewhat different reasons), and agree that the framers of the Constitution envisioned a much more limited government.

    Now for the two central disagreements.

    US Constitution

    First, while the Constitution was a cutting edge document for the latter part of the 18th century, strict interpretation of it makes it very unsuited for the 21st century. It was a great document for an agrarian, slave-owning, society separated by great distances, limited transportation, limited communication, and a lack of a shared national identity. It hardly would work in a multiethnic, industrial/post-industrial society, and its interpretation (and substance through 27 Amendments) has necessarily changed in response to those societal changes. Without these "safety valves" it is not unlikely that the entire Constitution would have been scrapped already.

    Second, the expansion of powers of the federal government is completely allowed by the Constitution. The Commerce Clause ("The Congress shall have the power to…regulate Commerce with foreign nations, and among the several States…") is the basis for most of this expansion, along with the doctrine of Implied Powers established in McCulloch v. Maryland (1819). The expansion does not make the Constituition moot, rather, the Constitution legitimizes it. The boundaries have relaxed and expanded, but they are still there.

    Catholicism and the U.S. Constitution

    I read the sections of the Catechism of the Catholic Church that you recommended – thank-you. However, I find nothing that necessarily precludes "socialist" policies, and actually thought that the sections such as "Just Wages"(2433-2434), "Sinful Inequalities"(1938) and "Law of the Marketplace"(2425) support "socialist" legislation.

    Maybe the problem lies in what we consider "socialism." Policies like minimum wages/maximum hours, abolition of child labor, old age pensions, and progressive income taxes are all "socialist" policies that Western societies have embraced and (to my read) are all consistent with Catholic social teachings. I suspect you oppose universal health care, another socialist policy, but the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops clearly states "For decades, the United States Catholic bishops have actively supported universal health care. The Catholic Church teaches that health care is a basic human right, essential for human life and dignity." They opposed the recently-enacted legislation because of their concerns with the potential for public funding of abortion, not because of its goal or means. Socialist programs like Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Pell Grants, (etc.) all support the dignity of the individual; just look at whatlife was like for millions of Americans before them.

    An let's also be clear – even with all of these programs and "Obamacare" thrown in, the U.S. remains among the 2-3 "least" socialist countries of any developed country in the world. (And frankly, I think we have the balance about right).

    I don't see your point on socialism and God, but then I approach the "-isms" from a purely political-economic angle. In my many readings on 20th century political movements and political economy, I don't recall any discussion of God or religion, with the exception of efforts to address clerical power in France and Italy. Communism and National Socialism specifically address God and religion, and many socialists may be atheists, but atheism is no more a core component of socialism than Christianity is of capitalism.

    As for the Constituiton, as originally written, it would clearly run afoul of Catholic social teaching, principally in its support of slavery. And of course, the Constitution, as originally written and strictly enforced, does nothing to prevent states from denying Catholics the right to vote or hold office (as history shows).

    In short, thank God the Constitution has evolved and enabled a much more just society than at any time in U.S. history!

    I appreciate the time and substance you devoted to your reply. I honestly have only enough time to devote to another round or two of exchanges, so at some point I must beg off. Still, thanks for the intellectual exchange.

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