The Deacon's Bench

The Deacon's Bench

The long path of Ken Howell

Many know him only as the University of Illinois professor who was sacked for explaining Catholic teaching on homosexual behavior.

But the backstory is very compelling — and his life up to that point anything but ordinary:

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.


kennethhowell-thumb-200x228-16289.jpgUntil 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.

There’s much more at the link.

Comments read comments(8)
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Fran Rossi Szpylczyn

posted July 27, 2010 at 7:55 am

My prayers go forth for Kenneth Howell, but I do have to say that after reading this and praying for a bit, I do not see him entirely as a victim here.
I am very clear about what the church teaches us about human sexuality and about homosexuality in particular. Church teachings are often challenging to us, different ones for different reasons, for the very reason that Howell brought forth in his email… our emotions.
As a professor he was right to use that email to clarify and elucidate, but after reading that email, I must say that I do think he went too far with it.
I say this as someone who recently took a moral theology course and who was in a room full of people, mostly Catholic, but not all, with a Catholic professor. We got into some very rip-roaring conversations at times, but our teacher kept us on track.
Somehow when I read the email in question, I could detect when Howell was blurring some boundary of teaching and his own opinions and his own, dare I say – emotions.
I am sorry that he was fired. I do not for a minute think that he was espousing hate speech. I do think he crossed a line. The whole thing is tragic all the way around.
The other thing is that this sort of event makes the folks on one side go all “hater” on Roman Catholics and it makes some Roman Catholics go all “hater” on people who view through a different lens. The thing that concerns me is how many people will read the whole thing and consider it before responding. That is a an internet sin that I have committed too many times and that I am trying very hard to avoid now.

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posted July 27, 2010 at 10:52 am

Fran- I did read the entire article and the email. it appears to me that he is trying to draw the comparison between a human who can give informed consent to an act that is not legal but may be moral from the perspective of utilitarianism- such as a 10 year old- and a dog- who ‘may consent’ but in actuality cannot give ‘informed consent’ because it is not human. Moral vs. legal.
He also used the example of a woman considering an abortion, and a man considering cheating on his wife. I don’t understand how the student was offended that the professor used a dog as an example, but not abortion or adultery.

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posted July 27, 2010 at 11:55 am

I wonder if Ken Howell would compare the relationship between Cardinal Newman and Ambrose to beastiality or child rape? That is what he’s doing in the mind of a catholic-educated, gay student, after all. The Platonic relationship between Cardinal Newman and his companion is what such a student ought to aspire to.

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posted July 27, 2010 at 12:07 pm

Michelle writes:
I don’t understand how the student was offended that the professor used a dog as an example, but not abortion or adultery.
Perhaps, because men and boys aren’t capable of having abortions and gay men aren’t in the habit of causing them? Perhaps, the student found a comparison of his selfless love for another to the rape of an animal somehow personally offensive?
Michelle, I have a question for you. How can you be so accustomed to verbally abusing and defaming gays that you can’t see a problem with it?

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Fran Rossi Szpylczyn

posted July 27, 2010 at 1:57 pm

@Michelle, I was not referring to his use of bestiality, although it is a curious choice as problematic. I was referring to the entire way his argument was framed.
In my estimation, the that Howell presented his point in general, crossed some boundaries between how to discern appropriately and his own point of view. Academic rigor, which he seems very capable of given all the work that he has done, seems to have escaped him here.
Not that I think that this is a good fallback or argument, but I would also posit that any 1st century Jew of any salt, particularly a rabbi or a scholar, could do the same job of deconstructing what Jesus said and did at the time.
To return to Howell,I think he could have made the necessary points and distinction without using as much language as he did. I also believe that there is an overblown part of the offense delivered to any of the students.
And lest we forget – he was not teaching at a Catholic institution. For good or ill, this matters, whether we like it or not.

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posted July 27, 2010 at 5:51 pm

That was indeed a compelling backstory. Much more detailed on his spiritual journey than we are used to seeing in the mainstream press. I wonder what TMatt would make of the depth of this article over at the Get Religion blog?
Thank you for bringing this article attention.

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posted July 28, 2010 at 9:26 am

The Catholic Church teaches that Sin must be exposed for what it is and also hated. It also teaches that Sinners must be shown respect, loved as creatures of God and must not have their persons, or privacy or reputations violated–and they must not be encouraged or enabled to continue in Sinning. Because Sin offends and causes us to turn away from God, the source of “All Good,” Sin is obviously a terrible thing. I do not believe that Dr. Ken engaged in hate speech against gays, but perhaps hate speech against sin. That;as far as I know, is still not a crime in the USA. I do however believe that the University of Illinois is complicit in Anti-Catholic bigotry and discrimination.
I believe that this matter should go to court. If Dr. Ken is not fully re-instated I believe that all Catholics should shun and withdraw all financial support from the University of Illinois and any and all of its’ programs indefinitely.

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Dana MacKenzie

posted July 28, 2010 at 10:54 am

I can’t believe he doesn’t already have his job back.

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