The media and public watch the face of the Catholic Church emerge after the Court
Two unforgettable days of respectful dialogue between believers and non-believers. With these words one could succinctly summarize the Court of the Gentiles conference which took place in the Swedish capital Stockholm on 13-14 September . The conference was a collaboration of the Pontifical Council for Culture, the Embassy of Sweden to the Holy See, and two local institutions in Stockholm: the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences and the youth organisation Fryshuset.
The conference had the overall theme: "The world with and without God". The two leading initiators of the conference, the President of the Pontifical Council of Culture, Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, and the Ambassador of Sweden to the Holy See, Mrs Ulla Gudmundson, were present throughout the conference and contributed effectively to making the event a rewarding experience for all participants.
The main gathering on Thursday took place at one of the most prestigious intellectual institutions in Sweden, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, among whose duties is to select Nobel prize winners. So, naturally, the intellectual level of the discussions was quite impressive. Seven very prominent representatives of the scientific and cultural life of today's Sweden met with Cardinal Ravasi for a three-hour-long public dialogue on three central issues: What does it mean to believe or not to believe? Is there a non-material reality? What is a human being?
In his introductory lecture, Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi said that sometimes it is difficult for science and religion to be in harmony, but that needn't be the case. There are different ways of coming to know reality, and natural science, though in itself a very valuable path to knowledge, is not the only one. Cultural expressions such as literature, film and art, may open up for us existential perspectives of reality — the Cardinal underscored — mentioning books by Swedish authors like Stig Dagerman, Per Olov Enqvist and Torgny Lindgren as telling examples. He then continued saying that through Court of the Gentiles conferences the Church, so to speak, comes out of the sanctuary to meet with those who do not share the faith of the Church, not in order to make converts, but to promote a respectful dialogue. And, he added, "I
am eager to listen to what you have to say here in Sweden, as your country is one of the most secularized in the world and also a multi-ethnic and pluralistic one".
The second introductory lecture was given by George Klein, professor of biology and an author of many books. Having been brought up in a secularized Jewish family, he has been an atheist since he was 15 years old. Professor Klein explained that Dante, Bach and Rile were his household gods when he was young and still appreciates them, although they witness things in which he himself no longer believes.
The debate that followed continued for more than two hours. Although the opinions presented were sometimes quite divergent, the atmosphere remained respectful throughout. A very interesting moment in the debate was when Ulf Danielson, professor of astrophysics, and Ingemar Ernberg, professor of biology, both atheists, agreed that we do not yet know the cognitive limits of natural science and that many of the most central scientific questions are yet unanswered. Professor Ernberg openly professed: "We do not really know what life is, we cannot formulate any definition of it", whereas Professor Danielsson claimed: "We might be able to explain how the universe began but we have no clue whatsoever why there exists anything at all".
On these far-reaching conclusions the poet Ylva Eggehorn, herself a believing Christian, said that faith is concerned with the imponderabilia of life, that which cannot be measured and weighed but nevertheless remains the source of meaning for our life. To such questions there will never be scientific answers. The committed atheist P.C. Jersild however retorted that a lack of scientific knowledge does not imply that the answers are religious. And making the most critical remark against religion during the whole conference, he
fiercely criticized the Catholic Church for her views on ethical issues, such as the beginning of human life.
The second main gathering, on Friday afternoon, took place at Fryshuset, the main building of a youth organization in Stockholm founded by the Swedish author Anders Carlberg. In fact, Fryshuset is probably the largest center in Europe where young people with problematic social backgrounds can learn how to use their passion and energy in constructive and creative ways. The topics discussed on this day were of a less abstract-intellectual character. The focus now turned to practical issues, such as the role of religion in civic society and how to counteract violence and conflicts between different ethnic and religious groups. The participants in the panel on this day also included three youth representatives: a young Christian, a young Muslim and a young atheist.
The second introductory lecture on Friday was held by Thomas Hammarberg, former High Commissioner
of the European Council for Human Rights. Mr Hammarberg expressed his high esteem for initiatives like the Court of the Gentiles, as they are much needed in order to do away with prejudice and prevent conflicts between different religious groups. He mentioned a number of important efforts of the Catholic Church that have helped to strengthen the respect for human rights around the world. He mentioned also that he had met with Pope John Paul II for two long discussions on how to promote human rights on a global level. He furthermore expressed his esteem for Pope Benedict XVI and his valuable pronouncements with regard to the situation of the Rom immigrants in Italy. Mr Hammarberg was not altogether content with the role of Catholic leaders and those of other religions in this regard. However, he continued by stating his disappointment with regard to the Catholic Church's attitude toward issues such as reproductive health.
The following two hours of discussion covered a broad spectrum of questions concerning the role of religion in civic society. A criticism came from the young Muslim woman Fazeela Zaib who criticized the representatives of the secular humanist and atheist groups for suppressing women. "The organizations of atheists are just as anti-feminist as any religious group", she claimed. "Just look at the atheist organizations. Their leaders are all men!", she said to the somewhat stunned male leader of the Swedish organization for secular humanists and atheists, Christer Sturmark.
A very touching testimony of Christian faith was given in the afternoon by Anders Carlberg, the founder of the youth organization Fryshuset. He explained that he did not believe in God because of any theoretical arguments, but because he experiences the vigour of faith in his own life. "When I try to serve those young marginalized people who come to Fryshuset in order to find help for their lives, I can feel that Christ is present in our midst. You never experience that force as strongly as when you accompany those in need. The One who said that the last ones will be the first ones is present there in such moments".
Another touching testimony came from the author Per Wirtén, who explained that he viewed his lack of religious belief as creating a kind of existential vacuum in his own life: "I belong to a generation that has put God behind us. It means that you live in a sort of an existential no-space room. I don't want to call myself an atheist, although I do not believe in God. It is like swimming in the sea without any final orientation. Yes, I appreciate the freedom of that experience. But there is also a kind of emptiness in it".
Sweden is often said to be one of the most secularized countries in the world, and in many respects that is correct. Few people go to church on Sunday and religious belief plays a very marginal role in civic life and public debate in our country. The Court of the Gentiles conference was thus an extraordinary event in the context of Swedish society. Religious belief being discussed publicly at such a level of intellectual excellency and with such a degree of open-mindedness is indeed very uncommon here in our Scandinavian milieu.
One can only be thankful that the conference developed into such a respectful and rewarding dialogue between believers and non-believers. All participants could freely express their own views and critical remarks of different kinds were voiced, but not in an aggressive manner. I do not believe that anyone left the conference offended but glad and surely with a number of interesting pronouncements and impressive personal testimonies to reflect further. And those who had so far experienced the Church mainly as a teaching institution, could now experience her also as attentively listening to others.
The comments on the conference in Swedish mass media have been positive. It began with a very favourable and appreciated interview with Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, published in the largest Swedish daily newspaper Dagens Nyheter a few days before the conference began. During the conference itself I heard a journalist of the Swedish state radio company, SR, comment: "it is surprising to listen to a discussion on religion and science on such a high intellectual level and with so much respect to religious belie"'. It might also be worth mentioning that the Swedish state television company, SVT, a few days after the conference took place, broadcast the complete panel discussions of the conference: a marathon of almost six hours.
On leaving Fryshuset on Friday afternoon after the conference had finished, I took the opportunity to thank
Ambassador Ulla Gudmundson, the primus motor of the conference, and to congratulate her on the very successful accomplishment of the conference. The otherwise always energetic Ambassador Gudmundson actually did for a moment look a little bit tired. And also very content. She had good reasons for both.
*Jesuit priest and professor of philosophy of religion at the Newman Institute in Uppsala, Sweden