Believers must enter into dialogue with secular world


RITE AND REASON:Ireland needs a respectful debate on the role of faith in public life

THE ROMAN Catholic Church has embarked on a new initiative that, if successful, could lead to a future based on open and sincere dialogue with the secular world.

The project, known as the Courtyard of the Gentiles, fittingly took its first cautious steps in Paris, the birthplace of the Enlightenment, last March.

It takes its name from the courtyard outside the ancient Hebrew temple in Jerusalem, where non-Israelites could come to discuss and argue the Jewish faith with believers.

The Paris event brought together some of Europe’s leading secular thinkers and Catholic theologians.

Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the Vatican’s Council for Culture, explained the motivation by saying it was about “creating space for believers and non-believers to search for the truth together”.

The church has been on a new journey with secular thought since 1966 when Pope Paul VI quietly abolished the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, which forbade Catholics from reading certain books.

Undoubtedly the aim of the list was to protect the faith and morals of Catholics by preventing the reading of books perceived to be immoral or works containing theological errors.

In effect, however, the list was symptomatic of a dramatic and disastrous rupture in the church’s relationship with the world of reason and science that occurred at the Enlightenment.

Debate, inquiry and dialogue became peripheral at best and at worst subject to suspicion and suppression.

The Second Vatican Council in the 1960s – authentically understood – marked a reawakening and a refreshing re-evaluation of the church’s relationship with the secular world.

That spirit was perhaps best captured in the document on the church in the modern world, where it boldly asserted that “the joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties, of the followers of Christ”.

Vatican II sought to invite all Christian believers to enter into respectful dialogue with the secular world.

The papacy of Benedict XVI, influenced no doubt by his background as a professional theologian, has been marked by that openness to dialogue.

Aside from crude caricatures and some baggage from his former role as doctrinal watchdog, Benedict XVI has shown himself as a man of deep intellect and integrity, willing to respectfully engage with differing world views.

Indeed, a hallmark of his foreign travel has become the keynote lecture on themes of the relationship between faith and reason and church and state, underlining his belief that religion is not a problem to be solved.

In a message to the Paris event the pope insisted that believers have nothing to fear from a just secularism “that is open and allows individuals to live in accordance with what they believe in their own consciences”.

I was in Paris and the sight of theologians and religious believers confidently and vigorously debating and dialoguing with some of Europe’s leading secular and atheist public intellectuals was inspiring for anyone who sees the vital relationship between faith and reason.

But dialogue can only really take place in a true spirit of openness on all sides. Someone convinced of already possessing all the answers, with the duty simply to impose them, is not someone who can sincerely enter dialogue.

Ireland is desperately in need of a respectful debate about the role of faith in public life.

Unhelpful comments from some politicians implying that secretive religious organisations control parts of the Civil Service are as hysterical as they are incorrect.

At the same time the lack of respect by some religious believers for the secular sphere creates hostility and mistrust of the motivation of people of faith.

Religious believers in Ireland are not used to articulating their faith in a highly secular culture. But Ireland is becoming and will become more and more secular.

Believers can sit in the corner and lament this fact and become more marginalised, or can take the lead of the French forum and enter into dialogue with the secular world.

The Irish Catholic