Interreligious Dialogue: Engaging Difference Through our Catholic Identity (Doyle Symposium Honorable Mention)

By: Spencer Crawford

April 20, 2015

“For that reason our consciousness of the ethical imperative of our [Catholic and Jesuit] tradition is all the more important. If we ignore this link to conduct we shirk the burden that the talent and promise of these young people lay on us.”- Father Timothy S. Healy, S.J.

In the past two months, two events should alarm and awaken the hearts of Georgetown students: the incantation of a disturbingly racist chant by members of the Oklahoma University chapter of the fraternity Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE), and the murders of Deah Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, all members of the UNC Chapel Hill community. Both of these events scarily remind us of the extent of bigotry that still exists in our own country on college campuses not unlike that of the Hilltop, which is home to several fraternities, including an SAE chapter, and roughly 500 Muslim students.

Although we as a society may be grappling with a “persistent legacy of segregation, discrimination, inequality: of injustice,” Georgetown University has a history of engagement in the work of rebuilding the commonweal, as ingrained in our Catholic and Jesuit heritage. Our more distant past tells a different story: When told that the Jesuits could no longer own slaves, the seventeenth and twenty-second president of Georgetown, Fr. Thomas Mulledy, S.J., in 1838 sold, rather than freed, 272 slaves for $115,000 to a pair of Louisiana planters. Despite this blemish on our school’s rich history, Georgetown has made honorable and  revolutionary changes in the field of civil rights. For much of Georgetown’s history, the university was predominantly white, male, and Catholic. Over the past 40 years, however, Georgetown has been a leader in expanding racial and religious diversity on its campus, setting itself apart from comparable peer institutions particularly in the 1990s.

Relative to its peers Georgetown maintains a diverse—at least in terms of race—student body with over 40 percent of its student population coming from color, in comparison with 25 percent at Notre Dame and 45 percent at Harvard. In terms of cultural diversity, Georgetown serves as a cultivator of religious life across various religious traditions. For example, the school became the first in the country to hire a Hindu chaplain for its Hindu students.

It is important to note that many of these revolutionary changes in student demographics came in large part because of our Catholic and Jesuit heritage. Especially in relation to civil rights, Senior Associate Dean Anne Sullivan articulates this importance, saying “Georgetown also found reinforcement for the impetus to change from within the Catholic Church as the Church renewed its commitment through the Second Vatican Council to act upon all questions of social justice.” As Father Healy argued in his convocation address, Georgetown’s Catholic faith cannot be pushed to the side nor ignored in conversations about the school. Rather, through the lens of her Catholic faith and Jesuit heritage, various initiatives, particularly in diversity, should be addressed. This proposal will highlight two areas, racial diversity and religious pluralism, seeking to address these important topics given the aforementioned context and in light of our University’s identity.

Fostering Diversity and Acceptance at Georgetown

The mere presence of more racial minorities on campus does not imply actual interracial relationships. Although I am fearful of making generalizations, in my experience, many people have friends from various ethnic backgrounds, but major social groups tend to be heavily racially divided, particularly in the black community at Georgetown. My experience is not unique. In a 2013 article with USA Today, Georgetown College Democrat Jamil Hamilton commented on racial culture on campus, articulating “there are two distinct Georgetowns. Minorities are separate from whites and don’t always feel welcome in campus organizations” (6). Increased numbers are just that: numbers. A true interracial experience at Georgetown requires that that majority and minority students, majority and minority faculty members [are] truly "at home" with one another.

The newly proposed diversity requirement offers a step forward in making Hoyas feel at home with one another; however, there are improvements that can be made. First, as it stands, the requirement creates no new classes, using pre-existing classes that satisfy some barometer for diversity based on its curriculum. An education in diversity is about more than reading a book by Toni Morison; it requires that the professor teaches it in the context of diversity and that the students in the class are willing to participate in this kind of dialogue. Trainings for professors on this type of interracial education and/or the creation of new classes whose purpose is to educate students on diversity seem to be options that mold student thinkers to better address issues of injustice.

Additionally, we can learn from our peer institutions and their actions taken on enhancing diversity. For example, Penn State offers facilitated conversations on race and gender, not unlike our town hall after the Voice posted a cartoon featuring a black student. There must be safe spaces for students not to hide from but rather to engage in dialogue about these important issues. Given our religious heritage, it is fitting that the town hall was held in St. William Chapel. Further conversations should be held even in times without controversy, and having empathetic facilitators like the Jesuits could institutionalize these spaces for robust discourse. The important point here is not to water down these conversations, hiding behind the veils of political correctness that plague real dialogue today. Rather, these spaces would foster real debate and discussion among students coming from various backgrounds, enabled by trained facilitators who hear all sides of the issues.

My final point will be a more general comment on diversity: race only tells part of the story. The color of one’s skin no doubt can shape the identity to which one belongs. However, particularly on Georgetown’s campus, other factors often tell an even greater story that often gets overlooked. The fact that Georgetown’s website does not even list socioeconomic diversity as a factor in its class profile may show where its emphasis lies on these issues. Having forums and discussions as well as an integrated, better prepared diversity requirement could be the first steps forward in making Hoyas feel at home with each other on the Hilltop.

Encouraging Religious Dialogue and Respecting Various Religious Traditions

I believe that Georgetown provides a unique campus environment that encourages reflection and religious dialogue. Ex Corde Ecclesiae (On Catholic Universities) issued by then-Pope John Paul II states “in inter-religious dialogue [a Catholic University] will assist in discerning the spiritual values that are present in the different religions” (10). The influence of Ex Corde Ecclesiae can be seen in the vigil that the MSA held last month for the families of those killed at UNC. It can also be seen in the Makom Center, a worship space shared by the Hindu and Jewish communities at Georgetown. This shared space very literally expresses a commitment to a collective religious dialogue on the campus of the world’s oldest Catholic and Jesuit university.

In light of these successes, Georgetown can still improve its involvement with those of other religious traditions. Primarily, faith groups desire appropriate spaces to worship. For example, the Hindu Student Association has had to change their worship space three out of the past five years. Currently, all of their worship supplies sit in a plastic box in the Makom Center. A truly ethical and just commitment to other religions at Georgetown must give appropriate credence to various religious traditions like the Hindu faith. There is a need for a survey spanning the religious traditions that would highlight the various issues that they face, elucidating a more concrete plan of action for the university to follow in the years to come.

At the forefront of these issues is the problem of inadequate space on campus to accommodate for all the various religious traditions. As Fr. O’Brien said in the Georgetown University Student Association Report on Student Space, Georgetown “cannot meet the Jesuit ideal of caring for the whole person – mind, body, and spirit – without the space to do it” (11). Now is a more pressing time than ever to consider establishing unique faith spaces for religious traditions that prefer their own space. The 2018 Campus Plan finalizes this coming summer and the McCourt School likely will move off-campus within the next ten years. In both of these scenarios, opportunities exist for Georgetown to be creative with the limited space it does have, truly embodying the Jesuit ideal of cura personalis in respecting and validating the religious experiences of other traditions. In these plans for the future of student space, unique worship space should be considered.


Georgetown’s mission highlights the need to educate us, its students, in a way that invigorates not just the intellectual parts of our minds but also the spiritual and emotional, as echoed in the words of Fr. Healy. Throughout its history as the nation’s oldest Catholic and Jesuit University, Georgetown has used its Catholic and Jesuit values to cultivate its students intellectually and morally. Now, more than ever, in light of declining willingness to be open about one’s faith, Georgetown must foster its own Catholic heritage. In doing so, we will also buttress the robust atmosphere of religious pluralism and interreligious dialogue that Georgetown has come to embody. Creating a diverse community that is committed to having honest discussions and providing respectful spaces of worship and gathering, Georgetown will remain at the forefront of addressing issues of social justice both at home and abroad, inspiring students to act not just for their time in school but for life.

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Interreligious Dialogue: Engaging Difference Through our Catholic Identity (Doyle Symposium Honorable Mention)