Anew Vatican foundation for atheists and agnostics will not be aimed at the likes of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens because the Vatican sees them as atheistic fundamentalists, closed to dialogue.
According to Archbishop Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture, the Vatican department in charge of the new foundation, the Vatican is only interested in a “noble atheism or agnosticism, not the polemical kind — so not those atheists such as [Piergiorgio] Odifreddi in Italy, [Michel] Onfray in France, Hitchens and Dawkins.” Archbishop Ravasi said he saw such atheists as closed to dialogue, who view truth with “irony and sarcasm” and who tend to “read religious texts like fundamentalists”. Rather, he said the new initiative, called the Courtyard of the Gentiles, wants to reach out to an open-minded atheism – what he also calls a “qualified atheism” – and to do so through encounter and discussion.
Benedict XVI has long been interested in the possibilities of dialogue with atheists. As cardinal he took part in debates and cowrote books with prominent intellectual atheists such as the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas and the Italian politician Marcello Pera.
The Courtyard of the Gentiles will attempt to replicate such encounters through a series of major meetings and events across Europe, the first taking place in Paris next March at the Sorbonne (the University of Paris). Meetings will also take place in Britain, but under the more easily understood title of the Garden of Unbelievers.
Archbishop Ravasi said the aim of these events will be to “search for truth” and to “show atheists the seriousness of theological thought”. He said the Church views faith and science not in conflict but on different levels and that the new initiative aims to look for “harmony not union” with non-believers. Benedict XVI first hinted at the idea of such a foundation during his annual message to senior Vatican officials last 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 evangelisation 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 has traditionally had the responsibility of reaching out to non-believers, this new initiative may become part of the Pontifical Council for the New Evangelisation, the new dicastery which Benedict XVI is rumoured to be planning to establish dedicated to re-evangelising the increasingly secularised West.
It is also rumoured that Archbishop Ravasi is to replace Cardinal Dionigi Tettamanzi as Archbishop of Milan. Archbishop Ravasi may then be succeeded by Fr Enrico Dal Covolo, a Salesian expert in early Christianity who led the Pope’s Lenten retreat this year.
But, as always, such changes are hearsay and impossible to know for sure.