Catholic-atheist meetings end with Pope Benedict appeal to youth

March 26, 2011
(Catholic-atheist meeting in the Grand Amphitheatre of the Sorbonne, Paris 25 March 2011/Tom Heneghan)

(Catholic-atheist meeting in the Grand Amphitheatre of the Sorbonne, Paris 25 March 2011/Tom Heneghan)

Pope Benedict urged French youths on Friday to help put God back into public debate, either as Christians sharing their faith or as non-believers seeking more justice and solidarity in a cold utilitarian world. In a video address from the Vatican to an evening rally outside Notre Dame Cathedral in central Paris, the pope also urged them to “tear down the barriers of fear of the other, the foreigner, of those who are not like you” that mutual ignorance can create.

Benedict’s address, projected on a large screen in the square, came at the end of two days of a Vatican-sponsored dialogue between Roman Catholics and atheists, part of a drive to revive the faith in Europe that is a hallmark of his papacy.

“The question of God doesn’t endanger society, it doesn’t threaten human life!” he told the crowd during a break in its evening of modern and ancient Christian music. “The question of God must not be absent from the great questions of our time.”

He said religions had nothing to fear from secular society as long as it had “an open secularism that lets all live as they believe, in accordance with their conscience.”

The success of secularists, especially in France, in pushing faith to the fringes of the public sphere prompted Benedict to launch the discussions with atheists due to continue in at least 16 European and North American cities over the next two years.

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(Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi addresses a Catholic-atheist meeting at the Sorbonne University in Paris March 25, 2011/Jacky Naegelen)

The series started in impressive surroundings — the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), the Sorbonne university and the Institut de France, home of the prestigious Academie Francaise. Click for the programme details in French for the sessions at UNESCO, the Sorbonne and the Institut de France.

Most speakers were eminent French thinkers, making the sessions feel more like a post-graduate philosophy seminar than a public debate likely to influence a wider public. They were also directed at select small audiences. Access to the UNESCO and the Institut de France events was by invitation only and the open session in the Sorbonne’s Grand Amphitheatre attracted at most around 200 people.

Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, the Vatican culture minister in charge of the dialogues, stressed the meetings were meant not to confront believers and atheists but to seek common ground on the major questions facing modern societies. To ensure the talks did not slide into confrontation, no militant atheists — of whom there are many in France — were invited to participate.

Geneticist Axel Kahn said he could defend his secularist views because religion was not the main topic: “When I didn’t question (Ravasi’s) faith and he didn’t question my lack of it, there was no systematic opposition.” Julia Kristeva, a psychoanalyst, defended her humanist views but said she was open to discussion with religious people because the desire to believe is universal.

In other talks covering business, law and art, it was not always clear if the speaker was Catholic, atheist or neither. The dialogues are called “Courtyard of the Gentiles” after the part of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem where Jews and non-Jews used to meet and discuss.

Further sessions will take place in Italy, Albania, Sweden, Czech Republic, Germany, Switzerland, Canada, Spain, Russia and the United States.

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