Except for those who deliberately and religiously stay disconnected from current events and those who live under a rock, everyone in this country knows that the United States Supreme Court overturned the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision with its June 2022 Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision, thus overruling fifty years of precedent and abolishing the right to an abortion as federally guaranteed, turning things back to the states to do what they will. Five of the six justices voting in the affirmative to uphold the Mississippi law in question and overturn Roe did so with confidence and more than a little condescension, while the three dissenting justices were equally confident that their affirming colleagues had gone off the rails and had wandered far from their judicial duties in the interest of partisan politics.
The rough draft of Justice Alito’s majority opinion overturning Roe v. Wade was leaked to the public during finals week on my campus in May 2022. Roughly two-thirds of our students are Catholic; not surprisingly, the Chaplain’s office sent an email out inviting people to gather in the chapel to pray both in thanks for the likely overturning of Roe v Wade and in hopes that the overturning would actually happen. Many (including myself) read the email as quite tone deaf, both triumphalist and dismissive of those who might think that overturning Roe is a bad idea. A small group of students protested outside the chapel while the prayers were going on inside. Some wrote slogans and statements of protest with chalk on the large patio space outside the chapel doors, including “Keep your rosaries off my ovaries” and “So much for celebrating women at Providence College” (2021-22 was the 50th academic year anniversary of women being admitted to Providence College).
Not surprisingly, the President of the college sent a lengthy email to the campus community a couple of days later which, although more temperate than the previous email from the Chaplain’s office, still struck many on campus as problematic. On behalf of numerous faculty who expressed dismay in various ways, I wrote a similarly lengthy email to the President expressing my concerns. Given my previous experience with the President, it did not surprise me that I immediately received a return “thank you” email from him, expressing interest in organizing a campus-wide conversation on abortion and related issues in the upcoming fall semester.
Because no good deed ever goes unpunished, I was invited a couple of weeks later to be part of a four-person planning committee that would meet over the summer to plan this presidentially sponsored event. The four faculty members on the committee represented the spectrum of positions on the abortion issue from pro-life to pro-choice; our conversations with each other and the president over the summer began by focusing on what we want this planned event to achieve. Clearly we did not need or want an event where people from each side of the issue shouted each other down, confident in their ethical superiority over the moral troglodytes on the other side. In other words, we did not want this event to be what we have all come to accept as the norm in our polarized culture when controversial issues are being “discussed.” But what did we want this event to achieve?
A good friend of mine gave the homily at church one Sunday early that summer. She began her sermon by listing a few of her mother’s favorite sayings during my friend’s childhood years. A couple were very familiar, such as “If it had been a snake, it would have bit you.” But one of the sayings was one I had never heard before: “Begin how you want it to end.” She used the phrase to distinguish between justice and mercy, important but entirely different aspects of the life of faith, both of which are listed in Micah’s observation that what the Lord requires of us is to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.
As I listened in my pew to my friend’s sermon, I began thinking about the first few meetings of the planning committee for the event in the fall that had already occurred. At our next scheduled meeting, one of my colleagues, who happens to be on the opposite side of the abortion issue than I am, imagined an event in which students would, at the end, have learned that it is possible for people of good faith who disagree strongly about important issues to listen, discuss, and debate intelligently without there having to be winners and losers. My colleague envisioned an event designed not to convince anyone of any particular position, but rather to demonstrate that it is possible to dialogue about difficult topics and remain both civil and members of the same community.
Everyone at the meeting resonated with my colleague’s vision, especially since what was being imagined is almost non-existent in our polarized culture. So if that’s how we want it to end, then that’s how we needed to begin. Choices about participants, moderators, the structure of the event, and questions shaping the discussion should be made with our end in view. Our summer conversations were consistently shaped by this commitment. The challenge before us was simple to express and next to impossible to imagine: To have a civil and constructive conversation in public on arguably the most controversial and polarizing issue in our country.
As the planning committee continued to shape the event during the final weeks of preparation, it became clear what a big deal this was going to be. I originally was slated to be the moderator of the discussion as we on the planning committee hoped that the four panelists, two pro-life and two pro-choice, would all be women. It turned out to be extraordinarily difficult to find two women on the faculty willing to publicly take the pro-choice position on our Catholic college campus, even though I personally knew many women on the faculty who could have eloquently participated in the panel. Fears of backlash when tenure or promotion time came often were cited as reasons not to publicly put one’s pro-choice position on public display on a Catholic campus.
Other colleagues were convinced that the campus was not ready for such a public conversation and that the event was doomed to be a disastrous failure. As the time for the event drew closer, it was clear that we had to adjust our hopes concerning the panelists. I ended up being the second pro-choice panelist, teaming up with a colleague from sociology who is the director of the Women’s’ Studies program. Our colleagues on the pro-life side were two professors from the theology department. A colleague who is a professor in and chair of the political science department was the moderator.
On the last Wednesday of September 2022, one month into the fall semester, the event that was several months in the making happened. Called “With Mutual Respect: Discussions on Contemporary Challenges,” it was advertised as the first in a projected series of dialogue/discussion events on controversial topics initiated by the president of the college. In his opening remarks, our moderator quoted Langston Hughes in asking the audience to commit themselves to “eloquent listening.”
By every measure the event was a huge success, even though in the weeks leading up to the event numerous faculty, including some of my best friends on campus, asked me why I had agreed to get so involved in an event that was sure to be a well-intentioned train wreck. The room in which the event was held seats 400 and was full to capacity, with 100 more in an overflow room. I would estimate that at least 300 of those in attendance were students. A faculty colleague and friend who has taught at the college for only two years less than I have told me immediately after the event that she had never been prouder of the college than she was that night.
I have never been involved in any public event that brought more positive remarks my way–even now, a full year later, students and colleagues occasionally stop me on the sidewalk and thank me both for helping to organize the event and for what I said in the discussion. These comments often come from people who I know have entirely different views on the abortion issue than mine. My fellow participants reported during the weeks since the event that they had the same experience.
I invite you to take them time to watch and listen to the video recording of the event below. It’s 90 minutes long and well worth the time commitment. I am the guy in the bottom right corner of the recording–I first make an appearance at 24:00, but I urge you to start from the beginning.