After my post yesterday which mentioned, among other things, my regret that while in Madrid on 24-25 March I couldn't follow the Courtyard of the Gentiles event at Notre Dame in Paris, a friend who lives in the French capital and went to one of the sessions has written me a damning description of the event. The Vatican needs to hear it.
He and I were both looking forward to it and thought it an original idea. As my post last month here pointed out, the idea of a serious dialogue with the unchurched, post-Christian culture of contemporary Europe is a fascinating and challenging one -- indeed promises to be seen as Pope Benedict's great legacy. The organization was by the Vatican's Council for Culture in collaboration with the Insitut Catholique de Paris, and one of the main speakers was Cardinal Ravasi, who heads the Council.
And the video message from Pope Benedict was full of uplifting invitations to young people to build bridges between belief and non-belief -- e.g.:
Those of you who are non-believers challenge believers in a particular way to live in a way consistent with the faith they profess and by your rejection of any distortion of religion which would make it unworthy of man. Those of you who are believers long to tell your friends that the treasure dwelling within you is meant to be shared, it raises questions, it calls for reflection. The question of God is not a menace to society, it does not threaten a truly human life! The question of God must not be absent from the other great questions of our time.
Yet the result was poor. Here is the sorry list of my friend's criticisms:
1. Shockingly inadequate publicity. As the authoritative Sandro Magister says, the event "exposed a gaping deficit on the level of communication": no press office; no texts given to the media; no means of hearing what was said without being present or tuning into two local Catholic media, Radio Notre-Dame and KTO TV; nothing on the Council for Culture website; and almost nothing - where, for example, are the texts, the photos, the video after the event? -- on the website created for the occasion. "For a Courtyard created to promote the dialogue on God among all men of good will, beyond all the borders, this communicative stinginess is a clear contradiction", says Magister. My friend agrees, and adds: "There was no advertising in Paris parishes, where there are normally plenty of the 'young retired' who are eager to attend conferences like this. The Jesuit study center (Centre Sevres at Sevres-Babylone) can easily get several hundred any night of the week when someone interesting comes, without anything more than an announcement on its website. Most of the Courtyard events were invitation only, with tickets for the great and the good (including plenty of officials and ambassadors). The main session open to the public, in the Grand Amphitheatre of the Sorbonne, was advertised on a website but you were supposed to register and it wasn't clear if everybody would get in."
2. Meagre attendance. As a result, that event -- which included well-known humanists, the geneticist Axel Kahn and psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva, and was moderated by the impressive Catholic philosopher Jean-Luc Marion -- was very poorly attended: just 200 people, says my friend: "The ushers kept directing people towards the front so at least those rows would be filled up. It was embarrassing."
3. Poor format. Says my friend: "The participants spoke from lecterns on stages to polite audiences. Most of them were Catholic and the secularists invited belonged to the tribe of non-believers who have no problems rubbing shoulders with Catholics. There was little challenge to the Catholic hosts. Even the interesting speeches, like the one Magister mentioned, were presented politely. And there was no real dialogue, no spontaneous Q&A, just a few comments by the moderator before going to the next speaker. Only the very least publicised of the hardly publicised events -- a round table discussion on Friday evening after the main glam events at UNESCO, Sorbonne and Institut de France -- produced any real discussion. But it wasn't very challenging either." In sum, he says, it was about "as gripping as a stage reenactment of a Festschrift."
4. Cardinal Ravasi. "I've read about how brilliant he is supposed to be, but his opening speech at UNESCO was intellectual bella figura, nothing more. Lots of worthy quotes from secularist thinkers, a few interesting turns of phrase. But he was clearly punching above his weight. En plus, he spoke in Italian rather than French, which shouldn't make a difference but it does. He does speak French and he read out his presentation at the Sorbonne in French. At the round table on Friday evening, he spoke French but said he only wanted to make a few points and not comment on the remarks by the other participants. OK, he knows the language but doesn't feel confident in it. I can sympathise with that, but it's not the way to conduct a dialogue, and certainly not one in Paris."
5. A failed copy of the Ratzinger-Habermas dialogue. My friend writes: "My impression after all this was that Benedict, when he proposed this idea, was thinking of his famous Munich session with Juergen Habermas. But he was able to hold his own with Habermas intellectually and engaged him seriously. Ravasi never came close to doing that -- if anyone, it was Marion who did the heavy lifting for the Catholic side. Also, Habermas was ready to talk about religion and say interesting things. So it was a discussion that actually developed and showed sides of both men that most people did not know. That session was a real dialogue. Not long into the Courtyard, I realized this was not a dialogue at all. It was mostly a series of monologues and not that interesting at that."
Against what my friend says, it's fair to point out that he was only at one of the events, and that "the blistering talk by Fabrice Hadjadj against the eugenicist ideology of the founding fathers of UNESCO" mentioned by Magister sounds, at least, interesting.
But there's the shame of it. There were obviously jewels in the dust, but the poor publicity, a dreary format, and a playing-it-safe approach ensured that they remained well hidden.
There are plans for 16 future Courtyard of the Gentiles events over the next two years in different countries, including Chicago and Stockholm. No one's mentioned London, but "if you have anything to do with one in Britain," pleads my friend, "please make sure it is a real dialogue rather than this Roman armchair chatter."
Actually, here in the UK we have some experience of this -- a dialogue which has begun between the group I help run, Catholic Voices, and the British Humanist Association -- described here by my colleague Jack Valero at the UK Jesuit magazine Thinking Faith. One thing the dialogues have not been is dull -- perhaps because we decided deliberately to discuss the most neuralgic issues (Aids/condoms, abortion, state faith schools).
Maybe the Courtyard organisers could take a tip from our experience: focus on what people deeply care about, what makes them angry, and what divides them -- while finding a format for both sides to listen carefully and engage.
One thing is clear: the current format is just not going to fly. Stick to it, and a historic providential opportunity risks being wasted.