[Dr. Rita George-Tvrtković is associate professor of theology at Benedictine University, where she specializes in medieval and contemporary Christian-Muslim relations. Recent books include A Christian Pilgrim in Medieval Iraq: Riccoldo da Montecroce’s Encounter with Islam, and the forthcoming Christians, Muslims, and Mary: A History (Paulist Press, 2018). She is former associate director of the Archdiocese of Chicago’s Office for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, and currently lives in Chicago with her husband Zoran and their children, Luka and Anya Lucia. She spoke to Charles Camosy after participating in an interfaith discussion held Oct. 22 and 23 at Catholic University of America, which brought together five Christian and five Muslim scholars from around the United States.]

Camosy: How and why did you get involved in Catholic-Muslim dialogue more generally? 

George-Tvrtković: I’ve been involved at the grassroots level in Chicago since 1997. From 1999-2002, including during the drama of 9/11, I was Associate Director of Archdiocese of Chicago’s Ecumenical & Interreligious office. Then I studied theology and medieval Catholic-Muslim relations at Notre Dame.

Now I’m associate professor of theology at Benedictine University in the suburbs of Chicago, where over 25 percent of our student body is Muslim. I’ve always combined scholarship and grassroots dialogue.

As a Catholic, I am exhorted by Nostra Aetate [the Vatican II document on the relation of the Church with non-Christian religions – Ed.] and other teachings to engage in dialogue with people of different religions. Furthermore, my institution, Benedictine University has a special calling to interreligious hospitality, which is rooted in Ch. 53 of the Rule of St. Benedict (On the Reception of Guests), which itself is rooted in Christ’s call to welcome the stranger.

There are several Catholic-Muslim dialogues happening already, both locally and nationally. What makes this one different?

All the scholars in the group are involved in a variety of dialogues: Local (with students, parishes), regional, and national (U.S. bishops’ conference). But as experts in the field and lovers of texts, we were longing to have a deeper dialogue.

The dialogue which took place at the Catholic University of America last week is the first of a series of semi-annual dialogues; we will alternate between CUA (fall) and John Carroll University in Cleveland (spring). We want membership to be consistent and build trust over time, but also be small so we can delve deep. Therefore, we began with five Muslims and five Catholics, and plan to expand perhaps to seven and seven, but no more than that.

The Scholars Dialogue was the brainchild of Pim Valkenberg and Sidney Griffith of CUA, and Zeki Saritoprak of John Carroll University. As Griffith reminded us, scholarly dialogues are not an invention of the 20th century; rather, Christians and Muslims have been talking theology with each other since the 7th century. Our dialogue is part of that long tradition.

But what do scholarly dialogues accomplish? Why should the average Catholic care? 

There is inherent value in scholarly dialogues that might not “produce” anything concrete, such as a joint statement or other publication. Rather, we hope to accomplish the following: Build trust, model good relationships, and show the world that friendship is possible. Ours is an important counter-narrative to divisive images seen on the news or in social media.

What are some of the topics you discussed at the inaugural dialogue? 

The meetings will focus on the work we are doing as scholars. Christian Krokus of Scranton University discussed his new book about Louis Massignon’s influence on Vatican II’s theology of Islam. This sparked follow-up questions. “Are any current Muslim theologians developing an Islamic theology of Christianity?” And “Should we view the Vatican II teaching on Islam as a radical change, or a development of doctrine?”

The Scholars Dialogue between Christians and Muslims took place Oct. 22-23 at Catholic University of America. (Credit: Catholic University of America.)

The other project we discussed is my forthcoming book Christians, Muslims, and Mary: A History. While Mary has been used as a “barrier” between Christians and Muslims in the past (“Our Lady of Victory/Rosary” is rooted in the Catholic defeat of the Ottomans at Lepanto in 1571), today many are suggesting that she is a shared holy figure. Sura 19 of the Qur’an, for instance, is named after her, and Muslims visit Marian shrines throughout the world. Mary is a bridge between the two faiths; a subject of and model for Catholic-Muslim dialogue.

In my experience with dialogues across difference, they are most authentic when the differences are addressed just as forthrightly and carefully as the bridge material. Is this your experience with Catholic-Muslim dialogue as well?

Yes, dialogue is not really dialogue if differences are ignored or glossed over. However, differences are handled best when dialogue partners know and trust one another.

I liken dialogue to dating … on the first date, you dress up and are on your best behavior. Likewise, the first few interfaith dialogues will focus on commonalities. That’s to be expected. But over time, as trust develops, the dating couple can begin to speak more authentically to one another.

Similarly, if dialogue partners have developed trust and friendship over time, they might be ready at some point to deal with their differences. I tell my students to “get comfortable with difference,” because in my experience, discussing the most challenging differences with my Muslim colleagues and friends is where the best learning happens.

More often than not, discussing difference leads not only to greater understanding of the other, but also a deepening of my own faith.

Do the dialogue participants have any recommendations for how Catholics can learn more about this topic?

Georgetown’s Bridge Initiative has identified high levels of Islamophobia among Catholics, so there is much to learn. Since the Georgetown report determined that many Catholics are unfamiliar with Church teaching about Islam and Christian-Muslim relations, we encourage Catholics to read key Vatican II texts like Nostra Aetate 3 and Lumen Gentium 16.

Beyond this, Catholics should be diligent in seeking out accurate information. This continues to be a challenge because there is a great deal of misinformation out there —not only online, but often even in published books, some of which are funded by anti-Islamic organizations.

One good resource in the works is a new book series at Catholic University of America Press, titled “Catholic Theology and Islam” (several members of our Scholars dialogue are on the editorial board). The series’ first book, out in 2018, will be Amen: Jews, Christians, and Muslims Keep Faith with God, by Patrick Ryan, SJ, for Fordham University. 

Finally, some of the scholars are writing books on topics of interest to lay Catholics, including: Jihad (Afsaruddin); people of the book (Valkenberg), Islam in America (Hussain), and the Qur’anic Jesus (Griffith).

These resources aside, probably the best way for Catholics to learn about Islam is to ask Muslims themselves. Do you have Muslim classmates, work colleagues, neighbors? Actively seek them out, engage with them. And who knows, a friendship might develop! Friendship is one way any Catholic can engage in interfaith dialogue. The Vatican calls this “the dialogue of life” and it’s a very good place to start.