Natural Moral Law, or Anti-Gay Bigotry?

by Tommi Avicolli-Mecca on July 12, 2010

Kenneth Howell lost his job (his contract was not renewed) as an adjunct professor at the University of Illinois teaching a course on “Catholicism and Modern Catholic Thought,” because he may have gone far beyond merely presenting the Catholic Church’s view on homosexuality. Judging by an email he sent to his students, he pushed hard for them to buy the Catholic line that queers are inherently immoral. Instructing students on how to deal with questions about homosexuality in their final exam, Howell’s email described a sexual relationship between two men in which “one of them tends to act as the “woman” while the other acts as the “man.” In this scenario, homosexual men have been known to engage in certain types of acts for which their bodies are not fitted.”

Expounding on this, Howell, an admitted Catholic, wrote that “a physician has told me that these acts are deleterious to the health of one or possibly both of the men.” A physician? A single physician?

Continuing, Howell inscribed, “Yet, if the morality of the act is judged only by mutual consent, then there are clearly homosexual acts which are injurious to their health but which are consented to. Why are they injurious? Because they violate the meaning, structure, and (sometimes) health of the human body.”

A student in the class complained to a friend who then wrote the university’s religion department that “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.”

Howell’s response? What’s most important, he said, is that his church’s teachings are based in “natural moral law” (whatever that is). “I have always made it very, very clear to my students,” Howell explained, “they are never required to believe what I’m teaching and they’ll never be judged on that.”

Then why the instructions on homosexuality?

If a question on the exam clearly asked for the church’s view on homosexuality, the answer would be obvious. Why did students need prepping on how to frame their responses unless they forgot what course they were taking? And what was the real point of the diatribe against anal sex (which straights also practice)?

I don’t believe anyone should be fired for their beliefs, but I also don’t believe Howell is being honest about what he was doing.

Consider this from his instructions: “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.”

Stating the Church’s view on homosexuality and gay sex acts is clearly within the scope of the class. Regurgitating that unenlightened view is appropriate for an exam. One doesn’t need to consider “extensive research into homosexuality” or “the history of moral thought” to pass a test on what the church teaches.

Howell’s email sounds like an attempt to convince students that homosexuality is wrong, which should not be part of the course, as far as I am concerned.

Perhaps it would be better to have an atheist teach the course.

Tommi Avicolli Mecca is co-editor of Avanti Popolo: Italians Sailing Beyond Columbus, and editor of Smash the Church, Smash the State: The Early Years of Gay Liberation, which has been nominated for both an American Library Association and a Lambda Literary award. His website is

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