Pope's speech will conclude first session of Catholic-atheist dialogue

By Benjamin Mann

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Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi

Representatives of the Pontifical Council for Culture have confirmed that they will begin the Church's official dialogue with atheists and agnostics in Paris on March 24 and 25. The session will conclude with a broadcast address by Pope Benedict XVI.

The “Courtyard of the Gentiles” will hold its first meeting at the Paris headquarters of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) on March 24. The organization's director general Irina Bokova will preside, along with diplomatic and cultural representatives.

On March 25, talks will take place at the Sorbonne University as well as the Institut de France and the College des Bernardins, before moving to the forecourt of the Cathedral of Notre Dame for an open-air event for the public. Large screens will be set up for a broadcast in which Pope Benedict XVI will speak to attendees about the importance of the “Courtyard of the Gentiles.”

The president of the Pontifical Council for Culture, Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, explained the nature and purpose of the initiative to reporters on March 18.

Also participating in the press conference were France's ambassador to the Holy See, Stanislas de Laboulaye, and Fr. Jean-Marie Laurent Mazas – who will serve as executive director of the “Courtyard of the Gentiles” in its outreach to non-believers.

“At the request of Benedict XVI,” Cardinal Ravasi stated, “the Church has decided to embark on a new stage of dialogue, exchange, and joint activity among believers and non-believers.”

The cardinal also explained the biblical reference that gave the initiative its name. The original “Courtyard of the Gentiles” was “the vast area near the Temple of Jerusalem, reserved for debates between Jews and non-Jews.”

Cardinal Ravasi said the initiative was meant to communicate a central conviction of Pope Benedict – that faith and human reason are not conflicting opposites, but complimentary parts of individual and social life.

“The aim,” Cardinal Ravasi said, “is to help to ensure that the great questions about human existence, especially the spiritual questions, are borne in mind and discussed in our societies, using our common reason.”

While “believers and non-believers stand on different ground,” he said, “they must not close themselves (off) in a sacral or secular isolationism, ignoring one another or, worse still, launching taunts or accusations as do fundamentalists on one side and the other.”

“Of course, differences must not be skimmed over, contradictory ideas must not be dismissed, or discordances ignored,” said the cardinal. “But thoughts and words, deeds and decisions can be confronted, and even come together.”

Cardinal Ravasi has expressed interest in holding events that bring together Catholics and non-believers for discussion in countries around the world, including Sweden and Albania as well as Asian countries and the United States.

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