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Special Report
May 13, 2011
Pope Benedict proposed an ambitious initiative to open dialogue with non-believers. But at an introductory session, only a certain type of non-believer was included, and the speeches, while provocative, sparked no interchange. Is a real dialogue possible, or will the two sides merely talk past each other?

Italian Archbishop Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture, delivers a speech during a conference at the Sorbonne University in Paris March 25. (CNS photo/Jacky Naegelen, Reuters)

While secularists in various positions of influence all over the world have been stepping up their attempts to prevent the spread of the Gospel by depicting religious faith as something inherently divisive and therefore dangerous to discuss in public, Pope Benedict XVI has quietly been laying the groundwork for a global cultural counter-offensive.

To turn the tables on those who would silence all public mention of the Christian faith, as well as remove Christian symbols from all public places, in December of 2009 the Holy Father called for an itinerant “Courtyard of the Gentiles,” a place where all “might somehow latch onto God, without knowing him and before gaining access to his mystery, at whose service the inner life of the Church stands.”

In saying that this forum should be open to all, Benedict clearly did not mean only “all” religious people. He said: “Today, in addition to interreligious dialogue, there should be a dialogue with those to whom religion is something foreign, to whom God is unknown and who nevertheless do not want to be left merely godless, but rather to draw near to him, albeit as the Unknown. I think that today the Church should once more open a sort of Courtyard of the Gentiles.”

Historically, the Courtyard of the Gentiles was at the Temple in Jerusalem, whose imposing outer walls opened onto an atrium, or courtyard—a vast area separated by a railing from the sacred place reserved to the Chosen People, dedicated to worship and sacrifice. This area was filled with vendors and money-changers, those whom Jesus drove out (Mark 11:17) when, according to the Holy Father, he “cleansed the Court of the Gentiles of extraneous business, so that it could be the place available to the Gentiles who wanted to pray to the one God, even if they could not take part in the mystery, for service of which the inner part of the temple [the “Holy of Holies”] was reserved.”

Over the centuries the term “Gentiles” has taken on different meanings. When St. Jerome translated the Bible into Latin, he identified the Gentiles with the “peoples” referred to in the Torah. They were the people of grace who, through Paul, had accessed the new Gospel that did not demand circumcision, as opposed to the Jews, who remained the people of the Law. Later, when Thomas Aquinas penned his Summa contra Gentiles, a treatise on the truths that are accessible to reason, it is thought that he may have used the term as an instrument of discussion with the Muslims, the “Gentiles” of the 13th century.

In Jesus’ time the word referred to the uncircumcised: goym in Aramaic, ethni in Greek, gentiles in Latin (the plural of gens). These Gentiles spoke the languages born of Babel and, according to rabbinical texts, included seventy distinct nations, which were represented by the seven candles of the Menorah.

But when Jesus, quoting Isaiah 56:7, said “my temple will be called a house of prayer for all peoples,” Pope Benedict explains that he meant “the people who know God, so to speak, only from afar; who are dissatisfied with their gods, rites, myths; who long for the Pure and the Great, even if God remains for them the ‘unknown God’ (cf. Acts 17:23). They needed to be able to pray to the unknown God, and so be in relation with the true God, although in the midst of shadows of various kinds.”

On this basis, for the purposes of today’s new “Courtyard of the Gentiles,” the Holy Father has identified the Gentiles as the atheists who, “when we talk about a new evangelization, may become afraid. They do not want to see themselves as an object of mission, nor do they want to surrender their freedom of thought or of will. But the issue of God nonetheless remains present for them as well, even though they cannot believe in the tangible nature of his attention to us.”

It is to these determined but not inimical non-believers that the Church, under the guidance of Pope Benedict, is opening its outer Courtyard, in an effort to help them in their search for God and avoid setting the matter aside, judging it inessential to their existence. This task, as has often been the case when the Church has sought new ways to reach out to non-believers, involves an inherent risk of lending credence rather than gaining it, and of propagating relativism and drifting towards syncretism, even while avoiding them as documental conclusions.

Religion deserves full citizenship in universities

Whether the Courtyard of the Gentiles manages to stay on task will depend in large part on the man who has taken up the challenge of spearheading the project—Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, the president of the Pontifical Council for Culture.

Well-known to the Italian public as a regular columnist for both the Italian bishops’ daily Avvenire and for the Sunday supplement in the financial paper Il Sole 24 Ore, as well as for the Sunday program he has conducted for more than 20 years on Italy’s Channel Five (the Berlusconi family’s main broadcasting station), Cardinal Ravasi is on the media’s roster of the papabili (those thought to be possible candidates for the papacy).

A brilliant speaker, commentator, and literary expert possessing an extraordinary memory, capable of holding forth on a wide range of subjects, and often sprinkling his talks with references to a broad spectrum of scholars and artists, Ravasi was a student at the Biblical Institute in Rome of the most prominent exponent of Italian ecclesiastical progressivism, Carlo Maria Martini, who would later become archbishop of Milan. Of the many positions Cardinal Ravasi has held, the one he is remembered for most widely is that of prefect of the Ambrosian Library and Art Gallery in Milan. His appointment to head the Pontifical Council for Culture in 2007 came despite the misgivings of a fair number of bishops, both within Rome and outside, who feared he was ambiguous on doctrinal subjects and too far removed from pastoral concerns. When the concept of a modern-day Courtyard of the Gentiles was introduced by the Pope, Cardinal Ravasi, with his vast scholarly knowledge—and whose group of friends and acquaintances, by his own tally, consists of atheists by a margin of up to 50 percent—was undoubtedly in the right place at the right time. 

Within two months of the Pope’s suggestion, Cardinal Ravasi had unveiled his plan to set up a Court of the Gentiles Foundation, to focus on relations with atheists and agnostics. A year later, on February 12, 2011, the first session of the itinerant “Courtyard” was held, at the cardinal’s chosen site of Bologna, a city that considers itself at the crossroads of Catholic and secularist cultures, and a place to which the cardinal himself has often been invited to speak in the past.

On the one hand, home to the oldest of the ancient European universities—all of which were, of course, founded by Catholic clerics—and on the other hand, the most important city of the papal states before these were replaced by the Italian monarchy, Bologna was to become, at the end of World War II and throughout the Cold War era, the Communist showcase of the Western world, run by a Communist mayor and maintaining close ties to the Soviet Union. This evolving double identity added a symbolic meaning to the choice of Bologna and of its university as the appropriate place to hold the “preamble” session of the Courtyard, prior to the initiative’s official unveiling in Paris, which took place in March.

The city’s unique history also lent additional solemnity to the words of the president of the University of Bologna, Ivano Dionigi, a professor of Latin literature. In his opening remarks he insisted that “attention to the area of religion” receive “full citizenship” within the university walls. These words can be interpreted as vindication of the argument that opening wide the doors of the outer courtyard to the “Gentiles” ultimately will bring greater attention to God.

Comparison: The Pope’s invitation to La Sapienza

To gain a sense of just how contentious such an openness to Catholicism can be in Italian academe, one need only look back at the controversy three years ago over the invitation extended by the president of La Sapienza University to Pope Benedict to deliver the academic year’s opening address. Although a papal appearance was not uncommon at Rome’s most ancient university—which was founded by a pope (Boniface VIII in 1303) and belonged to the Church until the mid-18th century—the protest, ignited by a letter from a handful of teachers (67 professors out of 4,500), spread quickly among the students, who carried it to the streets.

The indignant “no” to the Pope stands in stark contrast with the welcome La Sapienza extended two years earlier to a former member of the Red Brigades terrorist group, who had taken part in the abduction and murder of former Italian Premier Aldo Moro and his five bodyguards in 1978. The event was only called off when the university’s new president got wind of it.

Why, then, the “no” to the Pope? Because of Galileo. As a cardinal, in 1990, Joseph Ratzinger had given a lecture at La Sapienza in which he had quoted the agnostic German philosopher Paul Feyerabend as saying: “In Galileo’s time the Church remained much more faithful to reason than Galileo himself. The trial against Galileo was reasonable and just.” Those words, which had not caused a stir at the time of the lecture, were ferreted out 18 years later and quoted out of context to portray the Pope as a narrow-minded bigot who needed to be kept from influencing young minds. (The subject of the 1990 lecture was science and modern-day skepticism and relativism. Cardinal Ratzinger spoke of the case of Galileo, who went from being heralded as a victim of the 17th-century Church’s narrow-mindedness to actually being criticized in the 20th century for not having supplied convincing proof of the Copernican system—precisely the grounds on which the Church had challenged him. Cardinal Ratzinger had mentioned all of this to illustrate the point that science needed to maintain confidence in itself. Ultimately his address was a defense of Galilean rationality.) The willful distortion of Pope Benedict’s position on Galileo shows that what the handful of professors and students feared was not any backwardness on his part but rather his desire to open a dialogue between faith and reason, re-establishing a relationship between the Judeo-Christian and Hellenistic traditions, and tearing down the barriers between science and religious belief.

With these antecedents, the explicit legitimization of religion in academe delivered at the Courtyard of the Gentiles by the president of the University of Bologna, sitting side-by-side with a Catholic cardinal, can be considered an auspicious beginning for future Courtyard stopovers.

Dialogue for dialogue’s sake

Nevertheless, there are also reasons for concern about the model that was unveiled at Bologna. 

First, the event was not a roundtable discussion or a debate, but a set of individual lectures, interspersed with readings from St. Augustine, Pascal, and Nietzsche. The event lined up four professors from the University of Bologna, presumably chosen to represent atheists and believers. They spoke about atheism, law, philosophy, religion, and ecology, mostly in tones of unmitigated pessimism. These four academics made up a qualified, but hardly a diverse, panel. Ranging in age from 67 to 75, all four (Vincenzo Balzani, Augusto Barbera, Sergio Givone, and Massimo Cacciari) are of left-liberal inclination. Two, Barbera and Cacciari, have held political office as members of the formerly-Communist (now renamed Democratic) Party, and one, Balzani, is currently a candidate representing a party even further to the left. The University of Bologna’s President Dionigi, for many years a Communist representative in local affairs, added to the monolithic nature of the group. And the two philosophers, Givone and Cacciari, are both linked to the Heideggerian school of thought.

In the end, the lack of diversity among the speakers underlined the other key area of concern about the Courtyard project: the prospect of an outcome favorable to relativism. When speakers talk past each other and address the audience without relating to each other’s arguments, with no defining comments or criticism to collect the loose ends, the resulting impression may be one of neutrality and objectivity. But there is also a risk of giving an inconclusive and unstable impression of relativity, which would turn the purpose for the Courtyard of the Gentiles on its head and belie the intention, voiced by Cardinal Ravasi himself, that the dialogue take place between clearly defined positions.

Either way, one would expect that in the Courtyard of the Gentiles, the teaching of “the Temple,” while not imposed upon the participants, should at least be articulated clearly. It appears, on the contrary, that the omission of any teaching from the “Holy of Holies” was not an oversight, but exactly the way things were planned. Dionigi said as much, when he stated at the outset, “I think that dialogue, and dialogue alone, will save us.”

Was dialogue for dialogue’s sake the intention of the Pope in calling for this updated Court of the Gentiles? Hardly. It was, rather, dialogue for the atheists’ sake. While warning against making conversion of the atheists the objective, the Holy Father made it plain that the purpose should be to help atheists keep their search for God alive: “We must take pains that man not set aside the matter of God, this being an essential matter for his existence. Take pains that he accept this issue and the longing it conceals.”

To say that dialogue is the be-all and end-all of our quest for salvation may sound attractive, but it amounts to transforming a means into an end. Interestingly, in his introduction President Dionigi himself took the trouble of explicitly denouncing such a transformation as unacceptable, saying that participants must “first of all distinguish ends from means: the latter are so invasive and aggressive that they overshadow and suffocate the former.” What could employing a method, with no goal whatsoever in mind except the method itself, lead to if not a form of relativism?

Defining terms

Of course, one might object that it would be asking too much of the president of a public university to take sides—indeed, to do anything more than list the terms of a debate on such highly charged subjects. Yet on a few counts in his brief introduction Dionigi did do more. With the cardinal’s approval, and an unassuming tone, he did some important defining of terms.

First, he said, “I think that to talk about man is equivalent to talking about God, and talking about God is equivalent to talking about man.” Dionigi’s meaning seemed to be that man’s destiny is in God’s hands, and Cardinal Ravasi, sitting right next to him, gave him full approval. But considering how easily such a turn of phrase can be translated into a tenet of New Age gnosticism, it should be pointed out that confusing human nature with divine nature is philosophically absurd and theologically unacceptable. In the Catholic Church the issue was settled at the Council of Chalcedon in 451, and one would be hard-pressed to find any Christian group—whether Protestant, Orthodox, or non-denominational—that would state anything to the contrary. Furthermore, saying that to talk about man is to talk about God can be interpreted as being but a step away from saying, with the Theosophists, that man is God or can become God; or with pantheists, that everything is God; or with Karl Marx, that man is his own God, and that it was man who created God, and not the other way around.

It would also be interesting to hear why the president of the University of Bologna stated flatly that the West would do well to keep in mind that “Occidental” means “sundown” (i.e., decline). He did not offer to explain that potentially provocative point. There was no time for questions after his introductory address, so his meaning remained unclear.

The “right kind” of atheists

Finally, as Ivano Dionigi left the podium to Cardinal Ravasi, he pronounced the Courtyard off-limits to “devout atheists.” That oxymoronic phrase is used in Italy as a term of contempt, with a precise political connotation: it refers to those atheists and agnostics who are on the conservative end of the spectrum, the bloc also known as the “theo-cons.” Concerned that not enough is being done to preserve Western civilization from being demolished by domestic and foreign enemies, the theo-cons, despite their own indifference to religion, are happy to cooperate with the Church in countering threats coming from left-liberals and multiculturalists on issues that involve natural law, bioethics, the family, and education. So what President Dionigi was doing was effectively slamming the door of dialogue on atheistic or agnostic conservatives, while opening it wide to progressives and liberals—which is, again, a reasonably apt description of all the participants in the Bologna forum.

Taking the floor after Dionigi’s introduction, Cardinal Ravasi, quite at home in Bologna—where, he said, he has always found large audiences of people willing and able to digest hours of discourse on complicated topics—endorsed everything Dionigi had said, thanking him for saving him the trouble of saying it himself. Then he came straight to the point: avoiding the politically charged term “devout atheist,” he explained that his courtyard would keep out “those who aren’t atheistic enough.” He proceeded to make the reference to politics more explicit (and more confusing) by explaining the category:

We are excluding indifference, banal secularism, devotional religiosity, stereotypes, clichés, superficiality: an area that extends itself like a shroud not so much over religion as over politics; all this we are going to exclude. Those who are going to speak here will rule out the banal, the superficial.

From these words it would seem that only those who were atheistic to a high degree could hope to qualify as being profound, caring, lively, and original. Then the cardinal wrapped it all up by pointing out that these exclusions were only “for now” and, while insisting that they were “a bit tormenting” to him, added that they weren’t a matter of principle “but perhaps a bit necessary.”

Interestingly, the morning’s final speech ended with a jab at the “wrong” type of atheists. Philosopher Massimo Cacciari, ex-mayor of Venice and a very popular figure with Bolognese progressive circles, distinguished between acceptable and unacceptable atheists by slamming the idea that the Church can “do business” and reach an agreement on religio civilis with “atheist nihilists who think that nothingness should be left alone.” Gaining momentum with his characteristic vigor and forceful tone of voice, Cacciari worked the crowd into enthusiastic applause with his final words, bemoaning the theo-con alliance with the Church: “This way they both [believers and devout or weak atheists] perceive as their enemies the real atheists, the ones who say, ‘Let’s talk things over.’ This is no longer a risk, but a reality which we have already plummeted into completely!”

After the thunderous applause that followed this remark, President Dionigi wrapped things up and sent everybody home with one sentence: “These are going to be the crossroads themes that the Courtyard of the Gentiles will confront in its itinerary.”

With that, the participants in the Bologna session departed, to await the formal launching of the Courtyard initiative—the first official session, after this prologue—in Paris in March.

Taking cues from Rome or from Milan?

The framework and content of the academic discussion at the Bologna event reminds one of “The Chair of Non-Believers” set up in Milan, Cardinal Ravasi’s hometown, by Cardinal Carlo Martini, Cardinal Ravasi’s former mentor. This was a forum which put believers and non-believers on the same level, and which ultimately allowed the task of diocesan “evangelization” to be unduly influenced by declared atheists like Umberto Eco (one of many atheist friends that Cardinal Ravasi mentioned come to see him now that he is headquartered in Rome at the Pontifical Council for Culture).

But wasn’t the foundational idea of the Courtyard of the Gentiles something different? Didn’t Pope Benedict propose something more than just philosophical and academic panels in august surroundings when he said the new Gentiles would like to pray and adore the Unknown God? Wasn’t he asking that faith and reason, and not just speculation about atheism, be presented to the Gentiles?

The Holy Father thinks Jesus Christ is the answer to man’s profound expectations, and therefore should be discussed in terms of reason starting with a hypothesis of faith. By mentioning the consecrated premises of the “Courtyard of the Gentiles”—just outside the Inner Room and the Temple’s Holy of Holies—what he had in mind was a place where non-believers may approach God “at least as a stranger.” But the itinerant model Courtyard unveiled in Bologna did not have God as its focal point. The forum did not even extend its reach to all of mankind—or, for that matter, to all atheists.

God: The Naked Being?

Cardinal Ravasi’s keynote address, given just before the four academics addressed their topics, was supposed to describe how this modern-day Courtyard was to work. After explaining that the weak, banal atheists were to be excluded, His Eminence gave an introduction to the ideas of the pugnacious atheist Emile Cioran, the son of an Orthodox priest from Romania who lived in Paris most of his life. This year marks the centennial of his birth.

The titles of Cioran’s books, explained the cardinal, convey such total pessimism that you realize what they are about even before you start reading them. “I have read most of them, and if Cioran had been alive he would have been one of the atheists I would have liked to involve [in the Courtyard of the Gentiles],” Cardinal Ravasi said. His stated reasons for wishing to engage Cioran were as follows:

1) Cioran’s attitude toward God, which he described thus: “I always hovered around God like a secret informer. Incapable of evoking him, I always spied on him.”

2) Cioran’s “ferocious” criticism of believers and above all of Christians, which the cardinal described as “extremely well-grounded even today.” Cioran’s accusations included the charge that “[Christians] have worn Christianity down to the bone,” so that it is no longer a source of scandal; “It has stopped fomenting vices and virtues.” Quoting T.S. Eliot, Cioran said: “If we let go of Christianity we will not be able to understand Voltaire and Nietzsche and, above all, we will have no face.” Cardinal Ravasi commented: “This is why we have no dialogue with Islam, which does have a face of its own.” (It is difficult to discern to whom this comment is more unfair: to Pope Benedict, who managed to set up an inter-religious dialogue after the controversy over his speech at Regensburg, or to the Egyptian Coptic Christians, whose defense by the Pope last January prompted the Muslim authorities at Al-Azhar University to shut down all dialogue with the Vatican.)

3) Cioran’s love for music. “When you listen to Bach you see God being born, you know he must exist!” the writer said.

4) Cioran’s giving to God a new name—a name which to Christians sounds blasphemous—“Rien,” French for “nothing.” Cioran wrote:

Nothing is the name of God. We always have someone above us. Beyond God himself there is rien, Nothing. The visual field of the heart is the world. But not just the world: the world plus God plus Nothingness, i.e. everything. Nothing is the name of God.

But this is Nothing with a capital “N,” observed Cardinal Ravasi. “It is embarrassing to us, but we can set Cioran side by side with the experience of mystics such as Meister Eckhart, Angelus Silesius, and John of the Cross. It is the darkness out of which one looks to the sun.” At this, even a critical observer must admit that Cardinal Ravasi’s method of jolting listeners into paying closer attention does work. As a believer’s alternative to Cioran, the cardinal proposed another “new name” for God: Naked Being. The term is taken from a poem dedicated to atheists by Father David Maria Turoldo, which the cardinal offered as a description of the Courtyard for the Gentiles’ itinerary, inviting participants to progress beyond “the forest of the faiths,” the multiplicity of religions, to reach a point called by this name.

“Naked Being,” explained the cardinal, is the opposite of Cioran’s “Nothing.” It is “the extreme golden knot which is inside of us and which is in the being that surrounds us, which is inside of actuality, which is humanity’s continuous anxiety and search for security and stability.”

Brother atheist, nobly pensive,

seeking a God that I know not how to give you,

let us cross the desert together.

From one desert to the next let us go beyond

the forest of the faiths,

free and naked

towards the Naked Being.

And there, where the word dies,

let our journey end.

The emptiness described by this poem strikes a chord. But is it possible to refer to God, the all-perfect Being, as a “Naked Being”? The poem says that “the word” dies. Perhaps the word with a small “w” dies. But Christ is the Word with a capital “W,” and he is, we are taught, the same yesterday, today, and forever. 

Will an intellectual journey, headed by philosophers and academics who are not subjected to criticism, ultimately bring people closer to Christ? What will be the gauge of success for this itinerant Courtyard? Will the obvious temptation to proclaim success simply because high-profile personages have come together and captured a few headlines be avoided? Will there be an insistence on some sign of progress toward a meeting of minds on the matter of the Unknown God?

Time will tell. Meanwhile, the Bologna model seems already to have been improved on, with the Paris panel including people whose words and works are consistent with Catholic teachings.  Who knows—there may even be an optimist included somewhere in the future plans.

 
About the Author
Alessandra Nucci 

Alessandra Nucci is an Italian author and journalist.
 

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