The Vatican is planning a new initiative to reach out to atheists and agnostics in an attempt to improve the church's relationship with non-believers. Pope Benedict XVI has ordered officials to create a new foundation where atheists will be encouraged to meet and debate with some of the Catholic Church's top theologians.
The Vatican hopes to stage a series of debates in Paris next year. But militant non-believers hoping for a chance to set senior church figures straight about the existence of God are set to be disappointed: the church has warned that atheists with high public profiles such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens will not be invited.
The "Courtyard of the Gentiles", as the foundation is known, is being set up by the Pontifical Council for Culture, the influential Vatican department that is charged with fostering better relations with non-Catholics. It was founded by Pope John Paul II in 1982 to spearhead his attempts to create a better dialogue with other cultures and faith, including those with no religion at all.
Until recently, Pope Benedict has shown less enthusiasm for the type of open-armed ecumenism favoured by his predecessor. In the past five years, the Vatican's relationship with other faiths has been severely undermined following a series of gaffes by the current pontiff, including a speech on the Prophet Muhammad that upset Muslims and the reintegration of an excommunicated Holocaust-denying bishop that severely undermined Catholic-Jewish relations.
The church is also aware that its reputation has suffered enormously in the eyes of atheists following the explosion of clerical sex-abuse scandals that broke out in Western Europe earlier this year and spread across the globe.
Until the Pope's recent turnaround on the sex-abuse scandal, where he admitted that the church's sins were to blame for the abuse, Vatican hardliners continued to push the line that the allegations were largely "petty gossip" that had been stirred up by secular enemies of the church.
But in an interview with the National Catholic Register, Archbishop Gianfranco Ravasi, the president of the Pontifical Council for Culture, made it clear he would not be willing to give a platform to certain prominent atheists.
The foundation, he said, would only be interested in "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".
Such atheists, he added, only view the truth with "irony and sarcasm" and tend to "read religious texts like fundamentalists".
In a speech to the Roman Curia back in December, the Pope first hinted at his plans to reach out to atheists.
"We, as believers, must have at heart even those people who consider themselves agnostics or atheists," he 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."
There are strong indications emanating out of Rome that the 83-year-old pontiff also intends to create a new ministry aimed at bringing lapsed Catholics in the West back towards the more traditional interpretation Benedict and fellow conservatives favour.
The Catholic News Agency says the Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization will be "aimed at bringing the Gospel back to Western societies that have lost their Christian identity".