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.
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.