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The Courtyard of the Gentiles

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Mar 25, 2011

A new initiative of the Pontifical Council for Culture called “the Courtyard of the Gentiles” is designed to invite all men of good will to explore ultimate questions and come to know the one God. We’ve been covering this in Catholic World News (see, for example, Vatican plans major effort to engage non-believers). But to understand the depth of the Holy Father’s intention in fostering this new work, we can do no better than to look to the very first chapter of the second volume of his newly released Jesus of Nazareth.

The occasion for Benedict’s reflection is Christ's expulsion of the money-lenders, or what the Pope calls “the cleansing of the Temple.” He calls attention to “the universalist vision of the Prophet Isaiah (56:7) of a future in which all peoples come together in the house of God to worship the Lord as the one God", and then he goes on to say:

In the layout of the Temple, the vast Court of the Gentiles in which this whole episode [the expulsion of the money changers or cleansing of the Temple] takes place is the open space to which the whole world is invited, in order to pray there to the one God.... In answer to the question of what Jesus actually brought to mankind, we argued in Part One of this book that he brought God to the nations (p. 44). According to his own testimony, this fundamental purpose is what lies behind the cleansing of the Temple: to remove whatever obstacles there may be to the common recognition and worship of God—and thereby to open up a space for common worship.

This, then, is what Pope Benedict and the Pontifical Council for Culture—and indeed all of us—should hope for in the new Courtyard of the Gentiles project, which has just opened in Paris.

Now, depending on how this develops, I can see a certain objection arising which we might be wise to anticipate. The primary purpose of this initiative has already been stated as one of exploring ultimate questions together, not of preaching the Gospel primarily. Some may see this as a betrayal, but in this case I would disagree.

Within the Church, it would be very bad if everything were couched in terms of exploring ultimate questions, exchanging ideas about the one God, and attempting to recognize and worship Him. Within the Church, the full truth must be expected at all times, even if it must sometimes be very patiently explained. Indeed, I might even argue that we have had far too much of this “seeking and sharing” within the Church, as if the Church had not already sought and found, or as if the rights of the faithful did not demand the full measure of the Faith.

But outside the Church there needs to be a space, a framework, within which those who are not yet convinced can be invited to “Come and see”, to explore the possibility of getting to know God, to determine whether they are ready to respond to Christ’s call with a deeper inquiry or even a commitment. Many men and women of good will now know very little of the Faith, or may even view it in terms of some caricature. A relaxed atmosphere in which those formed primarily by the larger culture can come together to consider, to explore, to ask and even to begin to pray can be very valuable.

Don’t get me wrong: The invitation to Faith must always be present. There is no question here of hiding the light. But it strikes me that there is a distinct advantage to assigning this exploratory phase to a “space” which is very deliberately identified as being adjacent to but not within the Church. Just as catechumens are not admitted to the full mysteries of the Faith until they have received the sacraments of initiation, so too we ought to provide for pre-catechumens, for those interested and to some degree open, yet not ready to commit—perhaps not even knowledgeable enough to commit—but who want to know God.

I see in all this not only the goal of reaching out to non-Catholics, but the goal of doing so in a way which actually clarifies the boundaries of the Church. Our culture has a desperate need to engage the ultimate questions. For her part, the Church has a need to encourage that engagement without pretending she herself is not already fully and decisively engaged. There is something to be said to working things out with unknown visitors in the yard or on the doorstep, friendly and welcoming, but reserving the home itself for something more.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: - Mar. 28, 2011 10:59 AM ET USA

    Abandon the idea of the Immaculate Conception and Mary as mediatrix of grace!??!?! NO WAY NEVER! These are very important teachings of our faith. You cannot water the faith down to make it more attractive, it only becomes diluted and empty. There are ways to explain these doctrines. And the Church has NEVER said that prayer with someone outside the Church is wrong.

  • Posted by: bkmajer3729 - Mar. 27, 2011 11:09 AM ET USA

    Philosophy ignored? I know what you mean; but, isn't this very discussion an indication that Philosophy is alive and well? What is the Gospel message if not an exploration of the ultimate question(s)? Christ said come to me that you may have life but he didn't say each of us will get it all at once. St. Paul points out that we have to "work out" our salvation in fear and trembling. Not only is the Church sharing the Gospel in this effort but she is strengthening all of our Faith.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Mar. 27, 2011 8:59 AM ET USA

    With regard to doctrine, we Catholics must effectively abandon the idea of the Immaculate Conception and Mary as mediatrix of grace as Protestants refuse these doctrines and prayer to Our Lady. Doctrinal concerns do enter the issue, and certainly these considerations were a part of the ominous prohibitions articulated by previous pontiffs. It is extremely difficult for the Catholic to avoid compromise, at least implicitly, in joining in prayer with non-Catholics. Try the Hail Mary and see...

  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Mar. 26, 2011 4:17 PM ET USA

    I agree with jimgrumb697380 that caution is called for. But praying together with non-Catholics is primarily a matter of prudence. It is not addressed by "perennial teachings". Papal comments on this subject are prudential (except insofar as they enunciate applicable principles on which to base a judgment), though they may certainly also be disciplinary and binding. But such comments and disciplines are applied to varying times, places and situations, especially regarding communicatio in sacris, that is, sharing in formal liturgical rites. In areas not covered by current disciplinary norms, prudence—not doctrine—is the key.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Mar. 26, 2011 9:04 AM ET USA

    Exploring ultimate questions in an age when philosophy is largely ignored makes some sense. But those involved and those leading the discussions ought to have specific training and specific criteria for engaging in such activities. Furthermore, we must be cognizant of the clear warnings of previous pontiffs about the dangers of striving to find common ground with those outside the Faith. However, praying together with non-Catholis is inconsistent with the Church's perennial teachings.