Dialogue between faith and reason has become one of the key leitmotifs of the papacy of Pope Benedict XVI. 

That dialogue took another important, if tentative, step forward in Paris March 23-25 in the “Courtyard of the Gentiles” dialogue between believers and nonbelievers. In a video message to the event, the pope insisted that believers have nothing to fear from a just secularity “that is open and allows individuals to live in accordance with what they believe in their own consciences” (see sidebar below). 

European outreach 

Once labelled “the eldest daughter of the Church” because of a union with Rome going back to the second century, France also gave birth to some of the extreme anti-religious overtones of the French Revolution and the Enlightenment. 

Now, the Church is hoping that the modest success of the initiative in this “eldest daughter” will appeal to the wider secular world to enter into dialogue with faith in other installations of the courtyard. Led by Italian Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, head of the Pontifical Council for Culture, the idea takes its inspiration from Pope Benedict XVI’s speech to the Roman Curia in December 2009, when he reflected on his trip that year to the Czech Republic — statistically the most secularized society in Europe. 

The pope said, “I think that today too the Church should open a sort of ‘Court of the Gentiles,’” referring to the space in the ancient Temple in Jerusalem where non-Israelites could enter. 

Cardinal Ravasi took up the mantle and began putting flesh on the bones of the pope’s idea. Paris was the obvious choice as the capital of one of only very few countries in the world where public intellectuals take on somewhat of a celebrity status. French daily newspapers and television panel discussions regularly include contributions from philosophers about the issues of the day, but has often been deaf to the voice of faith. 

The country’s complex relationship with the Church also makes it a key front in the dialogue between faith and reason. Mass attendance in France has fallen below 10 percent, and the number of people choosing to have their children baptized has plummeted. But, at the same time, vibrant intellectual communities of faith are emerging in France’s towns and cities. 

“It’s a curious thing about France I think,” said Céline Hoyeau, a journalist with the French Catholic daily newspaper La Croix. “I get the impression that in many European countries faith remains strong in rural areas while it is in decline in urban areas. In France, it is the opposite.” 

And it is a form of Catholicism that is determined to enter into dialogue. “The parishes that are vibrant have good preaching and liturgy,” Hoyeau said. “Discussing important issues and inviting people who don’t share the faith to come and listen is vital.”

Finding answers together 

For Cardinal Ravasi, the forum was about “creating space for believers and nonbelievers to search for the truth together.” 

He told Our Sunday Visitor: “This will not work if we are coming to this and saying, ‘We have all the answers, listen to me!’ No, we must find the answers to complex questions together and respect the good will of even the people we disagree with.” 

He believes that Catholics need to become much more comfortable with confidently presenting the hope of their faith to the secular world. “The intellectual basis of the Christian faith is strong. We need not be frightened that if we open up the treasure box of the faith it will be found wanting,” he said. 

The forum was a veritable “who’s who” of European secular life. But not those who could be described as “aggressive secularists” or people hostile to faith in principle, such as Richard Dawkins or Bill Maher. “This is about dialogue and not polemics,” Cardinal Ravasi said. 

Key to the appeal of the Paris event was the fact that it was more than just the Church organizing a dialogue. UNESCO hosted a session at its Paris headquarters, while the prestigious Sorbonne University and Institut de France were co-sponsors of the initiative. 

Nor was the plan simply to lock up academics in an ivory tower to discuss lofty issues. The highlight of the event was a March 25 concert attracting some 3,000 people on the courtyard of the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris. As well as the concert, the piazza was surrounded by marquees erected for “sessions of dialogue,” where believers and nonbelievers could come together to discuss pressing issues and what — and crucially why — the Church teaches what it does on a particular issue. It’s hard to imagine 3,000 people — many of them young adults — turning out in any other city on a balmy Friday evening to participate in a dialogue between faith and reason. The evening also included a video presentation about the big-bang theory on the early development of the universe in a bid to show sceptics that the Church is not hostile to science.

‘Shared journey’ 

The gathering outside the cathedral was a modest opportunity for believers and nonbelievers to explore together. One young man, Philippe, said he was “encouraged” by the event. “At work, we tend to hide our faith, for fear of ridicule. We should be able to talk more,” he told OSV. 

Linda, a 28-year-old science researcher, was invited by a Catholic friend: “I started in the office to talk with my colleague of the relationship between science and faith. I am pleased to discover that the Church does not reject our approach.” 

Her boyfriend, Alexander, 29, a Catholic businessman, said: “this courtyard allows us to address issues of faith that we had never talked about before. It’s a very good experience, and one I hope will be repeated.” 

And it is certainly an initiative that organizers hope will be repeated. Sessions are being planned for other cities around the world, including Quebec City in 2012 and in Chicago and Washington, D.C., in 2013. 

The Courtyard of the Gentiles has taken its first tentative steps in Paris and promises to be an important interface between faith and culture. “It’s not an end in itself,” Cardinal Ravasi insisted. “It’s only the beginning of a shared journey.”

Michael Kelly, who attended the Courtyard of the Gentiles event in Paris, writes from Ireland.

Building Bridges (sidebar)

Pope Benedict XVI made his mark on the event via a video link from his study in the Apostolic Palace in Rome. “I deeply believe that the encounter of faith and reason enables us to find ourselves” and the truth, happiness and beauty of life, the pope told the gathered crowd. 

Astutely borrowing from the “Liberté, égalité, fraternité’ principles of the French Revolution, the pope said, “If we are to build a world of liberty, equality and fraternity, then believers and nonbelievers must feel free to be just that: equal in their right to live as individuals and in community in accord with their convictions, and fraternal in their relations with one another.” 

The pontiff appealed to everyone, especially young people, to build bridges with one another, including the poor, lonely, unemployed, the ill or marginalized, and to discover ways to engage in sincere dialogue about the challenges and pressing issues of the day.