May 30 2024

Catholic-Muslim Studies at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago

by Scott C. Alexander, Catholic Theological Union, Chicago

These reflections are a mixture of the institutional and the personal. They focus largely on some of the initiatives and so-called "best practices" of interreligious programing at the institution where I have been teaching for the past fifteen years—Catholic Theological Union in Chicago (CTU). But they also include my own personal history and experience as a Christian Islamicist engaged in Christian-Muslim dialogue on both a professional and personal level for well over thirty years.

When I arrived at CTU in the fall of 2000, the sign on my office door indicated that I was the founding "director" of the soon-to-be inaugurated Catholic-Muslim Studies Program. My excitement over the possibilities of shaping such a program at the largest independent Catholic graduate school in theology in the United States (with students from over 40 different countries) was only matched by my anxiety. I was anxious about whether I could formulate a coherent vision and whether, even though I was a life-long Roman Catholic, whatever I envisioned would be a good "fit" for a Catholic institution owned by a corporation of men's religious orders—many of which had "missionary" histories.

At that point, what I had learned about CTU through the interview process was that its evident commitment to "interreligious dialogue" (the Catholic term for holistic engagement with religious "others") was actually rooted in its institutional raison d’etre. CTU was founded in 1968 in the immediate aftermath of the Second Vatican Council as a graduate school of theology and ministry dedicated to the principles of the Council. Vatican II, convened for the purposes of clarifying the mission of the Church in the modern world, emphasized that the Church should engage in dialogue with men and women of other faiths for the purposes of witnessing to Christ in modalities that affirmed the dignity of other religious people and "ways," as well as for the sake of greater and lasting peace and justice in the human family (see Nostra Aetate, promulgated on October 28, 1965).

Given the Council's watershed condemnation of anti-Semitism and exhortation to heal the Church's relationship with the Jewish people (Nostra Aetate, sec. 4), CTU welcomed a rabbi as a charter member of its faculty. This marked one important step in the founding of what is now CTU’s internationally renowned Catholic-Jewish Studies Program. Today CTU has a partially endowed chair in Jewish studies which has been held by two different Jewish scholars since its inauguration. In October of 2000—in response to the Second Vatican Council’s mandate for Catholic-Muslim dialogue (Nostra Aetate, sec. 3), and with an almost prescient understanding of the importance of Catholic-Muslim dialogue to sustainable global peace and justice—CTU resolved to create the Catholic-Muslim Studies Program. For the last fifteen years, I've tried to collaborate with many in our learning community to help shape the program by offering a number of courses in Islamic studies and Muslim-Christian relations. These courses are, for the most part, team-taught by Muslim and Christian faculty working closely together and modeling strong and respectful Muslim-Christian relations for students.

Of late, both Catholic-Jewish and Catholic-Muslim Studies at CTU have been the bilateral foundations of a very successful and ongoing trilateral (Jewish-Christian-Muslim) annual dialogue series entitled "In Good Faith," and a new MA concentration in interreligious dialogue which has attracted multiple cohorts of superb students. While we have had many Muslim students and one Jewish student, one of our greatest challenges will be continuing to attract Jewish and Muslim students into the program so that all the students in the concentration and their colleagues have the richest possible experience of interreligious learning.

Interreligious Pedagogy: Institutional, Individual, and Personal Limitations

Many of our efforts at developing best practices in interreligious pedagogy in the Catholic-Muslim Studies Program have been a matter of recognizing and working within the parameters of our institutional and individual limitations, while at the same time committing ourselves to the struggle for transformational learning as we learn from our mistakes and strive to attend to the voices of the students we hope to serve.

The institutional and individual limitations abound.

On the institutional level, we daily live in the tension of working to forge an ethic of interreligious mutuality within a larger power structure designed, among other things, precisely to perpetuate and enhance a specifically Roman Catholic identity which is, for all intents and purposes, still principally white, principally male, and principally heteronormative. Like other independent graduate theological institutions, we are also on a very tight budget. At present, our partnerships with key individuals and organizations in local and national Muslim communities have yielded precious wisdom in the form of Muslim membership on the program's advisory board. It has also yielded critical financial support for scholarships (especially for Muslim students to study at CTU) as well as for two adjunct Muslim faculty members. But funding for a permanent full-time Muslim scholar on the faculty still appears to be a ways off, as does Muslim membership on the school's board of trustees.

The individual limitations reflect those of the institution. In Spivak's terms, these individual limitations facilitate the institutional macro-reinscription of a dominant Roman Catholic subjectivity (writ large) through a process of "engagement" with/objectification of the religious Other which proceeds by providing an opportunity for students and faculty to inscribe their own individual subjectivities (writ small) in a context wherein Muslim faculty and students are inevitable subalterns vis-à-vis their Christian counterparts. These challenges are compounded when racial inequalities are added to the mix. Next fall, for example, an African American Muslim activist and community organizer and I will team-teach a course on interfaith collaboration for social transformation. He and I are already discussing strategies for naming and resisting this structural problem, including holding the class at the offices of the black-run NGO for which he works rather than on the campus of CTU.

I am also painfully aware of my own personal limitations, not only as I enjoy white male heterosexist privilege in the dominant cultures of my society and the institution where I teach, but also as a Christian with a PhD in Islamic studies. Despite my efforts to the contrary, I cannot avoid the many hegemonic and self-serving (including the particularly ugly self-congratulatory) dimensions of "devoting my professional career to understanding perhaps the most misunderstood and demonized of contemporary religious others." Also, try though I may to defer to the authority of my Muslim colleagues and students—as well as to invite their critiques of my more obvious and less obvious prejudices—I am never sufficiently decentered in the classroom; my power and privilege never sufficiently "shared." And then there are those moments when I am reminded that, for a small number of Muslims, the fact that I have studied and taught Islam for years and continue to do so with no apparent intention to convert, makes me just another (perhaps more insidious) agent of the very Islamophobia I claim to have dedicated my life to fighting.

Interreligious Pedagogy: Best (?) Practices for Transformational Learning

As for the seemingly Sisyphean task of attempting to create contexts for genuine transformational learning in the face of such limitations, my Muslim colleagues and I aspire to root our praxis of interreligious pedagogy in a few basic principles and related practices:

Authentic Self-Representation and Empathic Understanding

The faculty of the Catholic-Jewish and Catholic-Muslim Studies Programs at CTU are each respectively comprised of both Christian faculty with expertise in Judaism and Islam, as well as Jewish and Muslim faculty with expertise in Christianity. This is just one structural means of communicating to students the absolute primacy of authentic-self-representation in interreligious studies and dialogue, as well as the critical importance of developing an informed and ideally empathic understanding of religious traditions other than one’s own. Although it has come to be a cliché of interreligious pedagogy, we are convinced that one can never underestimate the transformational potential and thus ultimate superiority of learning from over merely learning about the religious other.

One of the many advantages of the "learning from" dynamic is the way in which it helps us follow Levinas in recognizing all forms of alterity—and especially religious alterity—not as a pedagogical "challenge" to be met in the theological classroom, but rather as a fundamental pedagogical value which must be rigorously embraced and thereby inform every aspect of the theological learning process. In somewhat simpler terms, the "learning from" dynamic helps facilitate a deep appreciation of what Jonathan Sacks refers to as the "dignity of difference." I should note that, in my experience, the fruits of this dynamic emerge less as the results of pedagogical exercises specifically orchestrated to this end, and more as the result of an ethos oriented towards the right balance of authentic and assertive self-representation, on the one hand, and empathic understanding in humility, on the other. I am reminded, for example, of an exchange between two of my doctoral students—one a former Baptist minister who had become Roman Catholic, and the other an al-Azhar-trained shaykh and imam at an important area Islamic center. Each was asserting the "obvious" primacy of the specific revelations of their respective traditions. Their very respectful debate unfolded in a collegial environment of fellow Christians and Muslims—most of whom recognized the importance and dignity of this exchange, but who were skeptical about how productive it was. The interreligious exchange between the principal discussants quickly merged with an intrareligious conversation between each of them and their coreligionaries. I witnessed the marvelous ways in which the immediate ethical demands of embodied alterity generated insights and understanding which neither my Muslim colleague nor I could have imagined, let alone strategically planned to elicit.

Interreligious Team Teaching and Relationship Modeling

Interreligious team teaching is an important pedagogical practice through which the principles of specifically interreligious self-representation and empathic understanding are ideally integrated. Not only does this practice help ensure a certain degree of interreligious mutuality in syllabus construction, class instruction, and course leadership, but it also can be a vehicle for modeling interreligious relationships. Almost all of the courses in the Catholic-Muslim Studies Program at CTU are team-taught by faculty who, in many cases, have longstanding professional and personal relationships. For example, one of my Muslim colleagues is not only a colleague. He is a mentor, a friend, and even a spiritual director. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that he is like a father to me. We have shared as much personally as we have professionally over the past 15 years we have known each other, including travel, hospital visits, and family celebrations of various kinds. This last Christmas morning, I once again got to witness my parents laughing and chatting with him over the telephone as they called to thank him and his wife for their annual gift of baklava that had arrived in the mail, as it always does, on Christmas Eve. Earlier in our relationship—in the days before the Christmas baklava—my colleague and I began receiving signs of the impact our developing friendship was having on our teaching. We were quite surprised, at first, and have been deeply gratified ever since our students began to note in their evaluations that one of the most enriching aspects of the courses they took with us were the ways in which he and I modeled interreligious relationships for them.

Muslim Students at a Catholic Institution

It has been our experience that the presence of courageous and path-breaking Jewish and Muslim students within CTU’s student body as interreligious teachers, guides, and companions is as important as the presence of our Jewish and Muslim faculty. It is these students who—in classes not directly related to dialogue, in the refectory, in study groups, in the dormitories, and in a wide variety of student social activities—add an invaluable perspective which challenges their Christian colleagues and faculty to grow in ways not previously imagined. Once, I was co-instructor for a course in the core curriculum in which one of our Muslim students happened to be enrolled. Toward the end of the semester we asked each study group to share with the larger class what they valued most about their particular group. The group that included the Muslim student said they were unanimous in their assessment that the single thing they admired most was his presence among them. To paraphrase one member of that study group: "No matter what text or issue we were discussing, Şerif always offered his own Muslim perspective. When he did this, it almost always opened up angles of analysis that we Catholics found amazingly stimulating, challenging, and helpful." To which I recall Şerif wryly responding, "What do you mean almost always?" followed by raucous laughter.

The Phone Call from "Gerardo"

A few years ago, I received a telephone call from a former student of mine who had studied in the Catholic-Muslim Studies Program, had graduated with his MDiv, had been ordained as a priest, and then went on to do doctoral studies in Islam and Christian-Muslim relations.

The conversation began with me saying something like, "Hey, man, how you doin'?"

"Great." he responded. "How 'bout you?"

"Not too bad," I said. "How they treating you at [major research university]?"

"Alright, I guess."

Then, after a bit more small talk, he paused and said. "Listen, I called to say thank you for everything…"

"My pleasure," I clumsily interrupted, only then realizing he had more to say, but not yet understanding that the purpose of his call was not just to say hello and express his gratitude. In fact, I hadn't the slightest clue at that point in the conversation that he had called to offer me an insight that would so elegantly encapsulate the heart of my ministry as director of a program in Catholic-Muslim studies at a Catholic graduate school of theology and ministry. "Sorry, Gerardo," I caught myself. "You were about to say…?"

"Yeah," he said in a somewhat quieter voice. "I was about to say that it occurred to me the other day that I can start a sentence in a way most Roman Catholic priests cannot."

I deliberately said nothing, not wanting to interrupt him as I had done a few seconds earlier. Only this time, I missed my cue. This time he wanted me to respond to his curious teaser and ask: "What would that be?"

Now came that brief interval of awkward silence anxious extroverts like me like to avoid. He cleared his throat and said, "Are you there?"

"Yeah, I’m here." Recognizing what just happened, we both chuckled. "I didn’t want to interrupt again." We laughed again. "What sentence is that?" I finally asked.

"The sentence goes like this," he said: "When I was in seminary, my Muslim colleagues and professors used to say…"

Ever since, I have recounted this phone call from “Gerardo” to convey to people what can happen, by the power of the Spirit, when an institution and the people who comprise it commit to some version of the principles and practices of interreligious pedagogy I’ve inadequately described above. Muslims played a defining role in Gerardo’s intellectual and spiritual formation for the Roman Catholic priesthood—a role he has come to recognize and value a great deal. Many other students who are graduates of the MA (theology) concentration in interreligious dialogue at CTU have expressed similar assessments of their experience with interreligious pedagogy and have suggested that far more of their colleagues at CTU need to be exposed to interreligious pedagogy as a key element of their intellectual and spiritual formation as religious leaders. Many, if not all, of our Muslim students have voiced similar opinions. In fact, many of my students and colleagues, both Christian and Muslim, have often used the expression "future of theological education" to prescribe the importance of interreligious pedagogy in colleges, universities, and graduate schools of theology alike. I cannot help but agree.


Alexander, Scott C. 2009. "Knowing and Loving People of Other Faiths." In On Our Way: Christian Practices for Living a Whole Life, edited by Dorothy Bass and Susan Briehl, 149–157. Nashville: Upper Room Books. Also see the companion video series published by The Work of the People at

Cornille, Catherine. 2008. The Im-Possibility of Interreligious Dialogue. New York: Crossroad.

Esack, Farid. 1996. The Qur'an Liberation, and Pluralism: An Islamic Perspective of Interreligious Solidarity against Oppression. London: Oneworld.

Knitter, Paul. 2009. Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian. London: Oneworld.

Sacks, Jonathan. 2003. The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations, 3rd ed. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Scott C. Alexander, PhD is currently associate professor of Islamic studies at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, where he is also director of the school’s Catholic-Muslim Studies Program. He is a regular consultant on Catholic-Muslim relations for the US Conference of Catholic Bishops and sits on the editorial board of the Journal of Islamic Law and Culture. He is a member of the advisory boards of the Martin Marty Center for the Advanced Study of Religion (University of Chicago), and the Lake Institute for Faith and Giving at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy (Indiana University), and serves on the Theological Education Committee of the American Academy of Religion as well as the Steering Committee of the Bridge Initiative (Georgetown University). He is the author of a number of articles in Islamic history, Qur’anic studies, Christian-Muslim relations and interreligious dialogue published in scholarly journals, encyclopedias, and edited volumes.

Photo credit: orangefan_2011 via / CC BY-ND