Georgetown Faculty, Alumni Reflect on Interreligious Dialogue
October 15, 2012 – A panel of faculty , alumni and administrators explored the impact of interreligious dialogue on Georgetown’s curriculum and programs during a recent two-day conference marking the 50th anniversary of Vatican II.
A wide range of participants at the conference included Georgetown’s Rev. John. O’Malley, S.J., and Rev. Kevin O’Brien, S.J., as well as Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald and Rev. Thomas Stransky, C.S.P.
But two professors who are also alumni and one longtime faculty member on the panel talked about their own perspectives on interreligious dialogue during the past 50 years.
School of Foreign Service (SFS) Dean Carol Lancaster (SFS’64), for example, who arrived at Georgetown two years before Vatican II. She said a lot has changed since her undergraduate years at the university.
“I have to say I don’t recall any interreligious dialogue at all,” she said. “I don’t think there were the kinds of conversations or the kinds of programs or the kinds of institutions that we all think about in terms of interreligious dialogue and those are very, very numerous today in terms of Georgetown.”
In contrast, government professor Anthony Arend (SFS’80) said he entered Georgetown to many conversations about multiple religions and faith.
“There was this hunger to talk about these issues,” recalled Arend, who began his Georgetown studies in 1976. “Christians, Protestants, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, those were the people in the dorms in those days, and the conversation was about religion. It was about issues of faith. … how faith connected to politics, how faith connected to international relations.”
Safe and Welcome
The panelists agreed that the presence of interreligious dialogue can now be found within the university’s Center for Muslim and Christian Understanding, Program in Jewish Civilization, Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and International Affairs and campus ministries, as well as in Georgetown courses on faith – including the popular The Problem of God.
“Georgetown is a place where it is safe and welcomed for people to talk about their faiths,” Lancaster said. “It’s a place [students] can come and talk about their different faiths and come together and share their ideas and above all create understanding and knowledge.”
Rev. Otto Hentz, S.J., began teaching at Georgetown in 1962. He said drawing students into conversation is “at the very heart” of pedagogy and noted that the university had begun to sway toward more open dialogue even before Vatican II was completed in 1965.
Hentz, now an associate professor of theology, recalled how Rev. William McFadden, S.J., chair of theology at the time, had hired two part-time rabbis, the university’s first lay Protestant, the first woman in the theology department and a professor to teach religious studies and world religions.
More than 40 years ago, then-Georgetown President Gerry Campbell hired Rabbi Harold White as the first full-time Jewish chaplain. White said there were very few Jewish students attending Georgetown at the time, but that didn’t seem to matter to Campbell at the time.
“Even if there were no Jewish students at this university, I would want a rabbi to come here and teach Catholic students the reality that Jesus was a Jew, and that would make them better Christians,” White said, recalling Campbell’s explanation for hiring the rabbi.
White said Second Vatican Council opened the door for Jews and Christians to engage in theological dialogue.
“They would have never been able to do that were it not for Vatican II,” he said.
Rev. Kevin O’Brien, S.J. (C’88), vice president for mission and ministry, said interreligious dialogue is now an inherent part of Georgetown.
“We introduced our students to theological reasoning and that really opened the theology department up to [more changes],” said O’Brien, who describes himself as a post-Vatican II Catholic.
“[Interreligious Dialogue at Georgetown] has made me have to articulate my faith in a way that I had sort of taken for granted,” he said. “In explaining salvation or redemption of incarnation to students, I’m a better Jesuit and priest because of my associations and dialogue with people of other faiths.”
Jerusha Lamptey (G’10, G’11), was one of the first students to receive a Georgetown Ph.D. in theological and religious studies with a focus on religious pluralism.
Lamptey, now an assistant professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York, asked what would make Georgetown create a theology program designed “explicitly and intentionally” to focus on the implications of living in a society with diverse religious belief systems.
“I can see the paths and roots of Vatican II in [Georgetown’s] decision,” she explained.