The Notre Dame cathedral in Paris isn't the first historically significant church to go up in smoke. The Basilica of Saint Paul's Outside-the-Walls — after standing for more than 1,400 years — was almost totally destroyed by fire in 1823. It housed the tomb of the Apostle Paul, and was a major basilica, second only to St Peter's as a pilgrimage site. Thanks to a construction worker, the church was accidently set on fire.
Its destruction was a great disaster at the time, and an international appeal went out for assistance in its reconstruction. The world responded and the church was rebuilt to the original design. Today, it is a beautiful church, and it remains the site of the Apostle's tomb. It also still contains many works of art preserved from the Middle Ages and other elements from the original church.
Today, few pilgrims to Saint Paul's are much perturbed by the fact it is not entirely the original fourth-century structure. Most ancient churches are really a mixture of (relatively) new and much older elements. Old Saint Peter's Basilica, built by Emperor Constantine, stood for 1,200 years before being shamefully neglected and knocked down by the popes. It was replaced by the new basilica now known as (new) St Peter's. Although I personally wish the old basilica had been rebuilt — and the new basilica never constructed — few people nowadays complain about the new St Peter's value as a work of art. It has itself now become "ancient." When it comes to important churches, renovations and changes take place. It's not the end of the world.
But maybe the destruction of Notre Dame is different. Those who built the new Saint Peter's figured they were perfectly capable of building something even better than what came before. They had Michelangelo.
But what about today? Perhaps many observers of Notre Dame's destruction suspect modern artists and architects aren't up to the task of recreating or surpassing the artisans of the thirteenth century. That would be a grim realization, indeed.
What strikes me as especially significant about Notre Dame is that its reconstruction will have to take place in a world colored by a worldview that is far, far removed from the one that produced the original. Notre Dame was built in the High Middle Ages — an era when Europe invented the University. It was the time of Aquinas, and of Francis of Assisi. It was a time of immense interest in new technologies and new types of learning. Much of which made Notre Dame possible. It was also, of course, a time of widespread Christianity.
Europe today, however, has largely rejected Christianity and mocks it regularly in Europe's artwork, politics, and scholarship. Thus, the worldview that created Notre Dame is anathema to the modern European mind. Europeans may value the physical building that is known as Notre Dame, but Europeans have been happily burning down Notre Dame in spirit for centuries.
Given the widespread disdain for the medievals who built it, why do we hear so much about what a wonderful thing Notre Dame is today?
The answer lies in the fact that modern Europeans have redefined the building as a safe, watered-down version of what it was meant to be.
We're told Notre Dame is just a symbol of France, and of Europe. We're told it's a work of art, and that it's a great place for people watching. It gives us "a sense of community." And perhaps most importantly, it's a world famous tourist attraction.
Some who have pledged to rebuild the structure have been explicit in this. One wealthy donor announced today: "Notre Dame is an extraordinary landmark and an immeasurable symbol of Paris. It represents love and unity, bringing people together from all over the world no matter who they are and where they come from."
Nevertheless, for all the attempts to redefine Notre Dame today as something of non-religious importance, the fact remains the building was constructed as a church. It was made as a place to say Mass, to pray to what Christians regard as the eternal God, and to confect the Eucharist. That is, the building was created primarily to provide a holy place for the priests to participate in the process of making Christ physically present in flesh and blood on the altar. The artwork, structure, and design were all made to focus the senses and attention of visitors on this reality.
Yes, Notre Dame was also built to showcase and advertise the wealth and power of those who built it. But this wealth and power could have been equally well advertised through the construction of palaces, and military outposts, and other civil buildings.
The fact that so many resources and so much artistic fervor were put into the construction of a church, however, reminds us that European civilization — many within it, at any rate — took their religion seriously, even if their devotion was hampered by vices such as the usual human desires for prestige and bragging rights.
But those who will rebuild the church are likely to regard New Notre Dame as something far different from a monument to an ancient deity. In reading the words above about the rituals Notre Dame was designed for, most modern day Europeans and Americans will scoff at the very idea that anyone believed in all that superstitious "god stuff." Words like "Eucharist" and "Mass" are quaint relics from absurd notions passed down by semi-barbarian medievals. (Ironically, moderns will mock medieval Europeans for their alleged ugly backwardness, even while praising their beautiful churches in the next breath.)
The contempt for the idea of Notre Dame as a place good for anything loftier than civic pride and tourism has been recently illustrated in the fact the mass media and the global pundits assign virtually no value at all to other French churches. For example, most media outlets have largely ignored the fact that French churches are increasingly targeted by vandals. According to the International Business Times:
A total of 875 of France's 42,258 churches were vandalized in 2018, with a small fire set to the Saint-Sulpice church in Paris in March, according to French police.
In the same week that the fire broke out at the Saint-Sulpice church, another 11 churches were vandalized. According to the Ministry of the Interior, a total of 1,063 anti-Christian acts were recorded in 2018 alone.
We only hear about Notre Dame because its famous. It's status as a church is of little importance.
And this, ultimately, is what sets the reconstruction of Notre Dame apart from the reconstruction of St. Paul's or St. Peters. It will be rebuilt and placed in a culture that regards it primarily as a museum or a community center. Notre Dame has been domesticated. It's been made ideologically safe.
The way Notre Dame is treated today is not unlike what many political theorists do when they regard religion as superstitious nonsense, but nonetheless tolerate it for its supposed societal benefits. Religion, they cynically claim, can have its advantages. It keeps the rubes in line by imposing on them a moral code. It distracts the mob from their troubles. It's all fine so long as it doesn't challenge the status quo.
And who can be surprised that a French church is popularly regarded in such a way? Only 51 percent of the French population claim to be Catholic at all. Among those, only five percent attend Mass regularly. In other words, virtually no one in France is much interested in Notre Dame beyond it's mundane perks.
None of this is to say I oppose the reconstruction of the church. It's a good thing if the Church is rebuilt. It is good to have a beautiful church in the center of Paris. It's good that many people value the church on some level, even if they mock what it was intended to be.
But as I'm lectured by pundits and columnists about the need to value Notre Dame as a symbol, I can't help but think of the Catholic novelist Flannery O'Connor who took exception to the idea that the Eucharist was a mere symbol, and not the flesh and blood of the Christian God:
Well, toward morning the conversation turned on the Eucharist, which I, being the Catholic, was obviously supposed to defend. Mrs. Broadwater said when she was a child and received the Host, she thought of it as the Holy Ghost, He being the ‘most portable’ person of the Trinity; now she thought of it as a symbol and implied that it was a pretty good one. I then said, in a very shaky voice, ‘Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.’ That was all the defense I was capable of but I realize now that this is all I will ever be able to say about it, outside of a story, except that it is the center of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable.”
This sort of radical devotion on the part of O'Connor will strike most modern Westerners as unpleasantly radical. Perhaps even extreme. Or worse yet: intransigent. We're not supposed to have convictions like this anymore, or take religious propositions seriously. That's all for a past "dogmatic" age we're now supposed to condemn. And it is condemned, by exactly the sorts of people now singing the praises of Notre Dame. They tell us the most important thing about Notre Dame is that it's a symbol. Flannery O'Connor might have disagreed.