As part of a concerted effort to reach out to atheists and agnostics, Pope Benedict XVI is setting up a new foundation to dialogue with nonbelievers.
However, the new body — known as “The Courtyard of the Gentiles” — is not aimed at polemical atheists because the Vatican sees them as atheistic fundamentalists, closed to dialogue.
Archbishop Gianfranco Ravasi tells Newsmax that the Pope is interested only in a “noble atheism or agnosticism, not the polemical kind — so not those atheists such as [Piergiorgio] Odifreddi in Italy, [Michel] Onfray in France, [Christopher] Hitchens, and [Richard] Dawkins.”
Ravasi, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture that is in charge of the new foundation, sees such atheists as closed to dialogue, who view truth with “irony and sarcasm” and who tend to “read religious texts like fundamentalists.” Rather, he says the new initiative wants to reach out to an open-minded atheism — what he also calls a “qualified atheism” — and to do so through encounter and discussion. In essence, the Vatican is saying it is possible to have an authentic dialogue with atheists, but only the serious ones.
Dawkins and Hitchens recently called for the Pope to be arrested when he comes to Britain this year on grounds that he covered up clerical sexual abuse cases. The Pope’s supporters dismissed it as a publicity stunt, saying that he is innocent of the charges and has done more than any other church leader to handle these cases correctly and justly.
Benedict XVI has long been interested in dialogue with certain atheist intellectuals: When he was cardinal, he had a debate with the renowned German philosopher Jurgen Habermas, co-wrote a book with the Italian philosopher and politician Marcello Pera on the dangers of secularism in Europe, and had a private meeting with the late Italian writer and atheist, Oriana Fallaci.
The Courtyard of the Gentiles will attempt to replicate such encounters through a series of major meetings and events, the first of which will take place in March at the Sorbonne (the University of Paris).
The aim of these meetings will be to “search for truth” and to “show atheists the seriousness of theological thought,” Ravasi says. The initiative will complement a similar project Ravasi’s council has begun in North America to foster dialogue between faith and reason, secular culture and the church.
The church views faith and science not in conflict but on different levels, Ravasi says. “We’re not looking for union but harmony, points of commonality on subjects concerning ethics, virtue, peace, nature,” he explains.
Benedict XVI first hinted at the idea of starting such a foundation during his annual message to senior Vatican officials in December. Referring to how the gospel led to the creations of Western monasticism, and with it, Western culture, he said: “As the first step of evangelization we must seek to keep this quest alive; we must be concerned that human beings do not set aside the question of God, but rather see it as an essential question for their lives.”
Christians, he said, must therefore “have at heart even those people who consider themselves agnostics or atheists” and that they must be offered a way to “in some way latch on to God, without knowing him.”
Although the Pontifical Council for Culture traditionally has reached out to nonbelievers, this new initiative may become part of an overall restructuring of the Vatican that will make outreach to nonbelievers in Europe and North America more of a priority for the church.
Church officials say the Pope is about to create a new Vatican department that will focus on re-evangelizing the West, once the cradle of Christianity but now increasingly secularized.
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