THE VATICAN IS to reach out to atheists with a series of encounters and debates aimed at fostering intellectual dialogue and introducing nonbelievers to God.
‘Courtyard of the Gentiles’ – an initiative of the Pontifical Council for Culture – was announced this morning, and kicks off in Paris next week with panel discussions by academics, diplomats, intellectuals and clergy.
Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, who heads the Vatican’s culture office, said the aim was not to convert non-believers to Christianity – but rather to open a two-way dialogue, remove confusion and tackle existential questions like life and death, truth, love, good and evil.
Ravasi added that the scheme was not intended to engage what he called the more “aggressive, polemical, ironic and sarcastic” atheists who show no interest in getting to know the unknown.
Noticeably absent on the list of panelists are the likes of Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens, with whom Ravasi sees little opening for dialogue.
Instead, the panelists include French intellectuals such as Axel Kahn and Julia Kristeva, as well as Pavel Fischer, a former ambassador of the Czech Republic to France.
The initiative is named after the area in the ancient Temple of Jerusalem reserved for nonbelievers who wanted to learn about Judaism.
Pope Benedict said in 2009 that he thought the Catholic Church should open a new ‘Courtyard of the Gentiles’ so non-believers could get to know God, after visiting the highly atheist Czech Republic.
The pontiff said at the time that a new Courtyard could be a place “where men can in some way latch onto God, without knowing him and before they have gained access to his mystery, which is the inner life of the Church.”
“To the dialogue with other religions we must add dialogue with those for whom religion is something unknown, for whom God is unknown and who nevertheless don’t want to remain without God but want to get closer to him at least as an unknown,” he said then.
While the initiative is not evangelical per se, Benedict has made re-evangelising Europe a priority of his pontificate. He has frequently lamented that in an increasingly secular world, many people feel as if they can live without God.