Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, President of the Pontifical Council for Culture, says he regrets never having met and chatted with atheist writer Christopher Hitchens, who died Dec. 15 at age 62.
“I would have liked the idea of dialoguing with him beyond the controversies and preconceived attitudes,” said Cardinal Ravasi on his blog Dec. 16.
Since earlier this year, Cardinal Ravasi’s Pontifical Council has hosted a series of events around Europe in which atheist and agnostic intellectuals have engaged in dialogue with their Catholic counterparts.
The initiative, inspired by Pope Benedict, is known as the Courtyard of the Gentiles and is named after area in the Temple of Jerusalem where Jews and Gentiles could meet and discuss.
“I had no way of inviting Hitchens to enter the courtyard,” wrote Cardinal Ravasi, who has invited several high-profile atheists to events in recent months, including Pope Benedict’s World Day of Peace gathering in Assisi in October.
In his analysis of Hitchens’ worldview, Cardinal Ravasi drew an analogy to a conversation once held between the French Catholic philosopher Jean Guitton and the cancer-stricken French President Francois Mitterrand.
Guitton explained that his experience as a philosopher told him humanity had “the choice between two solutions: absurdity and mystery.”
When Mitterrand asked if the two concepts were not, in fact, identical, Guitton replied “no, absurdity is an impenetrable wall against which we splat in suicide,” but “mystery is a ladder you climb from step to step towards light and hope.”
“Christopher Hitchens,” observed Cardinal Ravasi, “had chosen the first solution, denouncing religion as ‘the main source of hatred in this world.’”
Cardinal Ravasi hopes that the Courtyard of the Gentiles will be “a space open to the light in which they meet and clash – absurdity and mystery.”
As a “man of faith,” he always hopes “to see the young rebel turn towards the light and go up step by step to the ocean of love in which all the hatred in the world is immersed.”
His final hope for Christopher Hitchens was that “death was for him ‘a door that opens and breaks into the future,’” Cardinal Ravasi said, recalling the aphorism of the English writer Graham Greene, who said that death for him “would be like entering a new infancy.”
English-born Christopher Hitchens made his name over many decades as a writer and critic for various American publications such as Vanity Fair and The Atlantic. His most extensive treatise against religion came in his 2007 book “God is Not Great.”
Interestingly, one of his most significant opponents in the ensuing debate was his younger brother and fellow writer, Peter Hitchens, who penned the 2010 book “The Rage Against God.”
Both men had, in fact, started on the political far-left but later in life took very different intellectual paths.
“While I was making my gradual, hesitant way back to the altar-rail, my brother Christopher’s passion against God grew more virulent and confident,” wrote Peter earlier this year.
“As he has become more certain about the non-existence of God, I have become more convinced we cannot know such a thing in the way we know anything else, and so must choose whether to believe or not. I think it better by far to believe.”
The two brothers only publicly debated the existence of God and goodness of religion once, before a large audience in the city of Grand Rapids, Michigan, in April 2008.
Christopher Hitchens died Dec. 15 from pneumonia, a complication of his cancer, in the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas. He was married twice and leaves behind three children.