Catholic Church Plots Dialogue with Mexican Nonbelievers

Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, the Church’s “goodwill ambassador to secular non-believers,” has big plans for dialogues between Catholics and non-Catholics in early May. He’s bringing his “Courtyard of the Gentiles” on the road for its first-ever Latin American experience at universities in Monterrey, Puebla, and Mexico City.

Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi

The “Courtyard of the Gentiles” is the name Pope Benedict XVI gave to Ravasi’s dialogue sessions, planned as a tool of outreach aimed at atheists and agnostics. In this particular case, the topic up for discussion will be the problem of drug trafficking in Mexico, and the somewhat sticky problem of traffickers’ devout professions of faith. Atheists are used to being asked whether one can be good without God, but how can some people be so bad with God? These sessions will take a look at that question.

With luck, it could be a great way to get Catholics and non-Catholics together, to start friendships and open up stimulating two-way conversations.

But that doesn’t seem like what the Vatican had in mind from the beginning.

The original “Courtyard of the Gentiles” from which Benedict derived the gathering’s nickname was an area in the Jerusalem temple where non-Jews were allowed to come and pray “to the One God” even though they were not fully initiated into the Jewish religion. Benedict described this historical phenomenon as:

a place of prayer for all the peoples by this he was thinking of people who know God, so to speak, only from afar; who are dissatisfied with their own gods, rites and myths; who desire the Pure and the Great, even if God remains for them the ‘unknown God’ (cf. Acts 17: 23). They had to pray to the unknown God, yet in this way they were somehow in touch with the true God, albeit amid all kinds of obscurity. I think that today too the Church should open a sort of “Court of the Gentiles” in which people might in some way latch on to God, without knowing him and before gaining access to his mystery, at whose service the inner life of the Church stands. 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.

It seems clear, based on the previous Pope’s many wrong assumptions about non-believers, that the Church could learn a lot by listening to the atheists and agnostics it’s trying to reach. (It’s conceivable that Pope Francis may arrive at his post with a better understanding of non-belief, but I wouldn’t count on it.)

The trouble is, the Church doesn’t see any value in two-way conversation. They’re not interested in listening to the experiences that have led others to a different point of view. That might open the door to dissent or, at the very least, bring up uncomfortable questions.

Instead, they declare that they alone possess absolute truth, and they have no use for the contradictory insights of lesser mortals. In their extreme holiness and goodness, however, they will condescend to share their truth with the non-believers, and even hope that we might learn to accept it.

That’s their version of dialogue, of outreach, even of love. It’s just arrogant enough to leave absolutely no room for the possibility that the Church might be wrong.

About Sara Lin Wilde

Sara Lin Wilde is a recovering Catholic (and cat-holic, for that matter - all typographical errors are the responsibility of her feline friends). She lives in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, where she is working on writing a novel that she really, really hopes can actually get published.

  • Tezcatlipoca

    Didn’t they try this 492 years ago?

  • Mario Strada

    These kind of initiatives are always one way streets. The religious assume they are the recipients of grace and truth and assume we don’t have anything to offer. Even in their best efforts to reconcile with non-believers their language betrays this stance.

    They always talk of “I was in the dark and I found the light and I want to share my light with you” or “if you see someone that’s hungry would you want to feed them?”, or again “I was blind too (or cold, or sad, fill in the blank) and now I can see”.

    It just doesn’t occur to them that one could be content without worshiping their god, that’s why heaven is described as a place where they spend most of their time praising their vane god. I mean, can you imagine a place like that? For most of us would be the very definition of hell. A veritable North Korea of the mind, only forever.

    I wonder if one day someone from the Vatican will come to non-believers with true humility and with the attitude that maybe they don’t have all the answers and they may find some in Humanism, Atheism and non-belief.

    Not a chance.

  • cipher

    What does a “goodwill ambassador” to atheists do – smile as he tells you you’re going to hell?

  • C Peterson

    Hey, it’s always possible this dialog could work. The cardinal could see the light and become an acknowledged atheist.

    Actually, I have little doubt that there are quite a few atheists in the ranks of Catholic leadership. How could there not be? There are many intelligent, well educated people there- just the sort who recognize the truth of atheism.

  • Rain

    It’s conceivable that Pope Francis may arrive at his post with a better understanding of non-belief, but I wouldn’t count on it.

    I wouldn’t count on it either because he never shuts up about the Devil. He thinks a real Satan is out to get everybody.

    Pope John Paul II: Never shuts about about the “Eucharist”.

    Pope Benedict XVI: Never shuts up about “teh gay”.

    Pope Francis: Never shuts up about “the Evil One” .

  • Ken Detweiler

    Well said in the last four paragraphs Sara. I’m sure you’ll get published.

  • Ken Detweiler

    Well said in the last four paragraphs Sara. I’m sure you’ll get published.

  • TiltedHorizon

    “As believers, we must also show concern for persons who call themselves agnostic or atheists, who may have fears when we speak of a “new evangelization”, thinking that they are the primary objective of the Church’s missionary activity. Even they, however, must consider the question of God.”


    This ‘new’ evangelization sounds just like the former version. It is predicated in the fundamental belief that they are the sole arbiters of ‘truth’. It’s already a one way conversion before the first word is even spoken. Yawn.

  • chicago dyke

    i once saw a frank documentary on the RCC and Vatican City in particular. it was eye opening, to say the least. atheist priests, skirt chasing priests, gambling addict priests, priests who couldn’t be bothered to do more than put on the dress in the morning, and who spent all day long shopping and eating fabulous italian food… there were some “good” priests in it, doing their jobs, but the overall impression i got is that most of them think of it as a big joke, a gravy train ‘profession,’ a way of life that is a cover for another way of life, with an easy paycheck.

    not flattering at all.

  • Anna

    Your use of the word “plots” is quite appropriate, LOL.

    What I don’t get is how the Catholics in charge of this event could be so unaware of how patronizing and condescending they seem. This isn’t a dialogue. These people are convinced they have the truth and that they are going to enlighten those with whom they come in contact.

  • Richard Wade

    From your description, I cannot imagine why any atheist would want to attend this just to be annoyingly lectured at, unless there’s free food.

    “Hey, don’ mnd me whle I stff my fce wth yr cake ‘n ckis. Kp on talkin’. (munch, munch) Wr’s th cffee?”

  • Keulan

    Yeah, this sounds more like a monologue than a dialogue to me. When the Vatican first started this “Courtyard of the Gentiles” thing, they made it clear that they don’t want atheists like Dawkins who’ll call them on their bullshit.

  • Stev84

    It’s a trap!

  • baal

    “Church doesn’t see any value in two-way conversation”
    Repeated for truth. The church is entirely about telling you what to think. It’s telling that they will condescend themselves to even talk to atheists, agnostics and unbelievers.

  • slaq

    And yet they still somehow manage to keep raping everyone wothout consequence.

  • CultOfReason

    LOL! This comment hits home for me. While I’m a a non-believer, my wife is not, and attends church most Sundays. The rare times I accompany her, it’s mostly for the free breakfast foods after the service ;-)