As part of Pope Benedict XVI’s efforts to further the New Evangelization, the Pontifical Council for Culture is setting up a new foundation aimed at reaching out to atheists and agnostics.

Called The Courtyard of the Gentiles, the foundation will be a network and forum for nonbelievers and believers, consisting of a series of major meetings and events.

Archbishop Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture, told the Register March 18 that the format of these meetings will be large open discussions between “a believer, such as a theologian, and an atheist, conducted in the main languages of Europe.”

Vatican officials are hoping the first events will take place in Paris in March 2011, at the Sorbonne (the University of Paris), UNESCO and L’Académie Française, the pre-eminent French academic institution. The initiative will complement another similar project in North America, already begun by the council, called “From Sea to Shining Sea,” which aims to foster dialogue between faith and reason, secular culture and the Church.

Archbishop Ravasi stressed that the new foundation is only interested in a “noble atheism or agnosticism, not the polemical kind — so not those atheists such as [Piergiorgio] Odifreddi in Italy, [Michel] Onfray in France, [Christopher] Hitchens and [Richard] Dawkins.” He sees such atheists as closed to dialogue: They view the truth with “irony and sarcasm” and tend to “read religious texts like fundamentalists.”

Rather, he said the new initiative wants to reach out to an atheism that is open to dialogue — what the archbishop calls a “qualified atheism” — and to do so through encounter and discussion. During these events, the aim will be to “search for truth” and to “show atheists the seriousness of theological thought,” he said.

Faith and science are not in conflict but are “on different levels,” Archbishop Ravasi said, quoting Stephen Jay Gould, the late American paleontologist and historian of science. “We’re not looking for union but harmony, points of commonality on subjects concerning ethics, virtue, peace, nature,” he explained, adding that the subject of transcendence will also be tackled. “For them, there’s a limit to creation, a finitude — the finiteness of science, for example,” the archbishop said. “But that doesn’t explain to them everything about reason.”

The idea for the foundation came from Archbishop Ravasi, but its impetus originated from Pope Benedict XVI and, in particular, his annual message to members of the Roman Curia last December.

In his address, the Holy Father stressed the importance of reaching out to atheists and agnostics, even if they are unaware of God’s presence.

“We, as believers, must have at heart even those people who consider themselves agnostics or atheists,” the Pope said. “When we speak of a New Evangelization, these people are perhaps taken aback. They do not want to see themselves as an object of mission or to give up their freedom of thought and will. Yet the question of God remains present even for them, even if they cannot believe in the concrete nature of his concern for us.”

Although the Pontifical Council for Culture has traditionally reached out to nonbelievers, Vatican officials are currently speculating on whether these initiatives will be incorporated into the Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization, a new department that Benedict XVI is thought to be setting up to help re-evangelize the increasingly secularized West.

The “court of the Gentiles” concept comes from the words of Jesus and the prophet Isaiah in reference to the Temple of Jerusalem, which was to be “a house of prayer for all nations.” Jesus was thinking of the place in the Temple, the Pope said, which was “cleared of extraneous affairs so that it could be a free space for the Gentiles who wished to pray there to the one God, even if they could not take part in the mystery for whose service the inner part of the Temple was reserved.”

He added: “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.”

Max Bonilla, coordinator of the “From Sea to Shining Sea” project in North America, said the timing of both initiatives couldn’t be better.

Tensions between the Church and the secular world appear to be increasing, he said, “but rather than retreating, it’s important to engage a dialogue with people of good will, those who are interested in seeking and understanding the truth even though they may not agree with our vision of truth.”

He said the council initiatives are not interested in “shallow engagement, but in-depth conversation about truth and the place of men in the world, not just the place of the Pope, bishops or priests in the world, but that of men standing before creation, before the world, before society.”

He said the projects aim at discussing “what is the meaning of life, the purpose of human reality, why would men and women form a community which leads to life. Those are essential questions, and they’re being asked more than at any time in recent history.”

Father Laurent Mazas, the Vatican official in charge of setting up the foundation, said April 30 that its overall goal will be to establish a kind of “alliance” between believers, atheists and agnostics. “A culture of suspicion doesn’t serve anyone,” he said, “but dialogue can only be useful for society and today’s world.”

Edward Pentin writes from Rome.