Notre Dame and the French Elite

In April, Notre Dame burned, reduced to its structure after almost eight centuries standing proud, amidst all the catastrophes of history that have befallen Paris. This unexpected spectacle replaced the one France was expecting, yet another useless policy speech by president Emanuel Macron. We expect France to unite, grieve as a nation, and perhaps even settle some of their differences in a way that nobly advances what they hold in common, what makes them French.

We always hope, as we must, to turn bad things to the good, and so do the French. But this is unlikely, for reasons that become obvious if we look at the political crisis Macron was to have addressed: The Yellow Vest protests that started last fall; his infamous unpopularity, which has haunted him for the better part of two years; and, ultimately, the inability of the French Fifth Republic to function as Frenchmen suppose it should—to secure a common good and persuade them they have a future together more important than their quarrels. For now, the quarrels continue and the French electorate has decided to humiliate Macron in the recent elections for the European Parliament, by giving Marine Le Pen the victory, whom Macron had defeated in the second round of the Presidential elections.

If France is supposed to rally in the wake of this tragedy, we assume they must rebuild Notre Dame, as Macron has already declared they will. This can be done, to a point, although Frenchmen have lost some of the arts required for cathedral building. Indeed, the French Senate has just approved the bill of the National Assembly to fund reconstruction, but added a clause that it should be rebuilt without any changes. If the Assembly approves this change, Macron will have to accept this humiliation—he had wanted to add some changes, at least minimum modernizing touches to Notre Dame.

This disagreement raises a question: Will the rebuilt Notre Dame still be a Catholic church? Or a museum, which is mostly what it has been since the state took it over in 1905? True, by law, the Catholic Church, the archdiocese of Paris, has exclusive rights to use the Notre Dame for service, as well as the duty to keep it open to visitors free of charge, as well as incur most costs involved in its operation and maintenance.

Church and State in France

The status of Notre Dame and the purpose of its rebuilding will reopen the theological-political problem people believe to have been settled by the laicization of 1905 and will thus renew a great political quarrel in France. How Catholic is France? Macron spoke in his usual empty words, saying the history of France and the destiny of France are more or less the same, and they require this rebuilding, and it shall be done—the people want it. We must hope he will now become more thoughtful about why Notre Dame matters to the French, beyond tourism or a vague sense of pride.

The theological-political problem I mentioned is itself part of the history of Notre Dame. Before it was laicized by the Third Republic along with all French churches built before 1905, it was desecrated with great energy during the First Republic soon after the French Revolution. Nevertheless the French celebrate both the Revolution and Notre Dame.

The question concerning rebuilding Notre Dame thus points to the massive political conflict in France in our own times. The Fifth Republic itself is in crisis. On the one hand, Macron is the favored son and champion of the France of the prospering cities and the upper classes. But his supporters are far fewer than his great victory in the second round of balloting might suggest—far fewer than polls themselves may suggest, which nevertheless reveal his unpopularity.

On the other hand, the opposition to Macron is united only in disliking him with various degrees of intensity. Much of the population, perhaps a majority, doesn’t really believe he has their best interests at heart. It would be very difficult to persuade them they are wrong.

Secular or Sacred?

Now let us turn from the protracted political strife to the great suffering of the French people who saw Notre Dame burning. If it is grief, that is because they lost something they loved. To rebuild would be to regain what they lost. But what is the nature of this loss? If all the French people have lost is their past, that cannot be regained, only imitated.

This means that France is in danger of reconstructing Notre Dame as a tourist museum. It would give delight to untold millions of visitors, no doubt, but it would be a great blow to France. Part of the unspeakable pain of losing Notre Dame has to do with the complicated past of France and thus with this question: Where does the Catholic Church fit in France—now and in the future?

The opposition to Macron and to the social classes he represents—and the contempt with which they treat so much of France—might unite around the Catholic electorate in France, which is broadly speaking to the right, especially considering the atheist-intellectual character of the French left. Catholics should strive to bring France together now, since the loss of Notre Dame is a national catastrophe. But to bring France together would require a vision of the common good that can overcome the great conflict along class lines that Macron has provoked and which has led to these unending protests.

This is worrisome for two reasons. First, it would make Christianity in France as polarizing or partisan as it is now in America. There is something like American Progressivism in France—a left that has no use for faith in public life, especially Christianity. But it is impossible to rebuild Notre Dame without making faith a public issue, because a church, unlike other buildings, is not simply private property. To rebuild the past would be foolish—but to rebuild Notre Dame with a view to the future, to what may be permanent in France, what Macron magniloquently calls destiny, would inevitably assert the public importance of Christianity, and particularly of the Catholic Church. This would suggest the end of laicization in France, which has been state policy since 1905, so that it now seems impossible to imagine it could be changed—especially to the elites that broadly identify with intellectual atheism.

Secondly, if the Catholic electorate tries to unite France against contemptuous elites that have proved unable to govern well, such that their claim to expertise is no longer accepted as a form of legitimacy, then Christianity will have to become more political and patriotic than it has been since the French Revolution. The Catholic Church in France was for a long time more patriotic than the universal calling of the Catholic Church would suggest, not infrequently preferring France to Rome, or king to pope—but that was also a Catholicism that served the French monarchy and the aristocratic elites of France. It would be a great transformation—a great modernization—for the Catholic Church to now be on the side of the majority against the elites.

Relearning Seriousness

We should think back to Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame De Paris (1831), to see how great Frenchmen have acted at the highest level to save the cathedral, by renewing the love Frenchmen feel for it, at a time when it was still suffering from the great misery inflicted on it by the excesses of the Enlightenment. Hugo did not try to argue or perform ceremonies, but instead persuaded his countrymen of the love and reverence they must feel for the Cathedral—by promising that they will find themselves, come to know themselves, in their great past, with all its drama.

The ruling class of France seems utterly inadequate to teaching the nation how to grieve. Something serious must be said—something that takes into account the crisis of France and the heartbreak of this loss. In this respect, only a great poet can save the French people. I am reminded that when Hugo died, two million Frenchmen attended his funeral in a procession from the Arc de Triomphe to the Pantheon where he is entombed. Indeed, in the 1880s, France gloried in him. Who since has dared to speak to France as he did? Yet, what better occasion for such a man to arise than our present crisis?

One more thing must be said about the current crisis. Tocqueville says in his introduction to Democracy in America that the Catholic Church was part of the origin of democracy in France. The openness of the clergy to all social ranks subtly undermined the hereditary rule of the aristocracy. It was of the people, in a strange way, and for the people, since it taught the Christian doctrine of equality under God and the universal love of Christ, which is no greater for a king than for a servant. Christianity is more natural and more French than rule by elites—if it can find its political vocation and its patriotic purpose.

To make sense of French history and see in it the destiny of France means to retrieve the sources of French grandeur in a time where they are urgently needed. The French, starting with Macron, need something more than policy speeches—they need to face their catastrophe with faith and thus rediscover powers that have long languished. So far, French Catholics, intellectuals and leaders especially, have been supine, when they should be organizing weekly pilgrimages to Notre Dame. One hopes they will wake up from their slumber and step forward into the public space.