Tuesday, December 14, 2021

Notre Dame


Two and a half years ago, after the tragic fire that almost destroyed the historical and cultural treasure that is the medieval Gothic cathedral of Norte Dame de Paris, President Macron (whose secularist State owns the cathedral as a result of the French Revolution's thievery) committed the French State to restore the cathedral in time for the 2024 Paris Olympics. That target date dangerously suggested a prevailing sense of Notre Dame as primarily an historical and cultural tourist site (which, of course, it is) rather than primarily a place of worship (its original and primary purpose). In any case, the commitment was made. And, after some frighteningly modern alternative suggestions, the commitment was also made to restore the exterior to more or less what it had looked like before the fire. 

Recently, however, a new controversy has since erupted about the restoration/renovation of the interior of the church. Last week, the Archdiocese of Paris presented its proposal for the redevelopment of the cathedral's interior to the National Heritage Commission. Prior to that some aspects of the proposal had been leaked creating the new controversy, predictably horrifying many in this age when every initiative is immediately politicized), with some denouncing the Church's proposals as a sort of Dysney-like transformation of the cathedral. The ultra-right presidential candidate Eric Zemmour, who is not a Catholic, not even a lapsed Catholic, but a non-Christian atheist, has unsurprisingly weighed in to denounce the proposed plan, which he has characterized as an "appalling endeavor aiming to completely alter the world’s most visited structure, the center of gravity of French Christendom and the symbol of our nation."

Let me stipulate at the outset that I do not fully know or understand all the details of the archdiocesan proposal and so am in no position personally to endorse or oppose them. According to Bishop Eric Aumonier, who is the archdiocesan spokesman for the cathedral's restoration proposal, the Church's plan is to make the place and its liturgical life "more readily understandable to tourists," in his words, "not to transform the cathedral but to continue to pray with all the faithful while offering visitors who want to visit the building the means to understand what is lived inside."

Aumonier claims a commitment "to maintain the sacred dimension of the cathedral," but to alter the way in which visitors experience their passage through the building "to allow people to discover what the Christian itinerary is in a church, to understand why there is a big cross, why people bow down in front of it, why the crown of thorns is honored."

Again, I am not completely clear what the exact impact of the proposed changes would be. Nor am I clear why, whatever alterations the archdiocese may feel compelled to make to accomplish its laudable goals, why the archdiocese could not be satisfied with such more obvious and presumably less controversial steps as, for example, providing an easily accessible app for all visitors to download during their tour to explain to them what the Archdiocese wants to explain to them about the cathedral. 

That said, it seems evident that there are at least three constituencies involved in this conflict - all of whom probably deserve to be taken seriously.

Opposing the plan are, obviously, historical and cultural traditionalists who may care little or nothing about the religious life of the building but who do care quite a lot about its history and its beauty. These are not negligible considerations for human beings, who are inevitably immersed in history and moved by beauty. (Whether Zemmour actually cares about history and beauty or is just looking for an explosive issue is not the point, Plenty of people clearly do really care about those things.) So that first, secular constituency's concerns certainly do deserve to be taken seriously.

Fifty-two years ago, in his monumental TV series Civilisation, Kenneth Clark stood on the bank of the Seine River and asked, “What is civilisation?” Answering his own question, he then said "I can't define it in abstract terms, but I think I can recognize it when I see it.” As he did so, he turned to what was behind him across the River, the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris, and continued, “I’m looking at it right now.” That is why, the 2019 fire was such a serious blow, both historically and culturally, to our imperiled Western civilization. It is no accident that distances within France are marked from kilometre zéro at Notre Dame! But we live now in an increasingly post-modern, secular society, which aptly expresses its spiritual emptiness and its inhuman ugliness in soul-destroying inhumane, ugly buildings, which reflect the diminished character of contemporary human aspiration. The age of the great cathedrals was limited and imperfect in many ways, but at least it directed human hearts and minds to look upward as opposed to our contemporary preoccupation primarily with our petty selves.

Unlike that first group, a second constituency understands and appreciates Notre Dame not solely or primarily as a living museum of history and culture but for what it was built and meant to be and still is supposed to be - a Catholic cathedral, a place set aside and consecrated for the worship of God. Obviously, that does not contradict a concern for history and beauty. In fact this group generally values the importance of beauty in worship and recognizes the participation of the present in a long history of Christian culture and European civilization and is accordingly suspicious of ecclesiastical efforts at renovation. Too many times - especially in the last 50+ years - have holy places been wantonly trashed in the name of a pernicious presentism. That experience serves for many in this constituency as a sort of warning, which makes many people who genuinely appreciate the primarily religious character of the site nonetheless suspicious of any ecclesiastical modernizing renovations at liturgical sites.

The third constituency is that represented by the Archdiocese of Paris, with Bishop Aumonier as spokesperson. This group cares primarily (not necessarily to the exclusion of historical and cultural considerations) about the spiritual significance of Notre Dame as the center of the local Church and its primary place of liturgical worship. It is in fact true that many of those who visit Notre Dame as tourists have no understanding whatever of what the building is actually for. A Church committed to evangelization should welcome such tourists but also invite them to some minimal understanding of why Catholics built such a beautiful church and what we still do in it. Neither for the diocese nor for the Church Universal can a cathedral ever be only an historical monument or a masterpiece of artistic beauty. It is primarily a sacred place, and that reality must somehow be conveyed, although hopefully not at the cost of undermining history or destroying artistic beauty. 

So all sides in this dispute have valid points, but the Church community for whom the cathedral remains a place of living worship rightly has a primary interest in highlighting the cathedral's religious purpose, which was also its historic purpose and the purpose which inspired its builders to make it so beautiful. Even so, since all elements have legitimate interests, all should somehow be expected to collaborate together to allow the Church to express its proper religious purpose without compromising its links with the past or its inherent beauty. Since the French State owns the building, it falls to the State to properly prioritize the reconciliation of these superficially conflicting but in fact compatible claims.

Photo: Catholicnewsagency.com

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