Heavy, man: Late-night Rolling Stone bull session about a monument to a 'France that never was'

Here is a rarity in the realm of GetReligion: a report in which the ghost is secularism — or, as Rolling Stone’s E.J. Dickson might write — “the ghost is quite literally so-called ‘secularism.’ ”

On the day after the inferno that swept through Notre Dame Cathedral, Dickson delivered brisk roundup of perspectives from historians of architecture about what was lost and what perhaps ought to replace it.

The problems begin in her first sentence: “Yesterday, the world watched in open-mouthed horror as Notre Dame Cathedral, an 800-year-old monument in Paris, France, burst into flames.”

Of all the ways one might describe Notre Dame, “an 800-year-old monument” is bland and tone-deaf, and it reflects Dickson’s consistent theme of the cathedral mostly as a symbol rather than holy ground. It’s similar to what our tmatt noted in his national “On Religion” column this week:

… American television networks solemnly told viewers that “art,” “artifacts” and “works of art” had been retrieved from this iconic structure at the heart of Paris. In a major story about the fire, The New York Times noted that Notre Dame Cathedral had “for centuries … enshrined an evolving notion of Frenchness.”

That’s an interesting way to describe the world’s second most famous Catholic cathedral, after St. Peter’s in Rome. Then again, is a container of what Catholics believe is bread consecrated to be the Body of Christ best described as a “cultural artifact”? Is “in shock” the best way to describe Parisians praying the Rosary and singing “Ave Maria”?

As you would expect, this Rolling Stone paragraph in particular drew concern from Catholics, such as Raymond Arroyo of EWTN, who appreciate the cathedral’s primary identity as one of Christianity’s most sacred spaces:

But for some people in France, Notre Dame has also served as a deep-seated symbol of resentment, a monument to a deeply flawed institution and an idealized Christian European France that arguably never existed in the first place. “The building was so overburdened with meaning that its burning feels like an act of liberation,” says Patricio del Real, an architecture historian at Harvard University. If nothing else, the cathedral has been viewed by some as a stodgy reminder of “the old city — the embodiment of the Paris of stone and faith — just as the Eiffel Tower exemplifies the Paris of modernity, joie de vivre and change,” Michael Kimmelmann wrote for the New York Times.

It grows worse:

Any rebuilding should be a reflection not of an old France, or the France that never was — a non-secular, white European France — but a reflection of the France of today, a France that is currently in the making. “The idea that you can recreate the building is naive. It is to repeat past errors, category errors of thought, and one has to imagine that if anything is done to the building it has to be an expression of what we want — the Catholics of France, the French people — want. What is an expression of who we are now? What does it represent, who is it for?” he says.

Leave white out of the equation as the irrelevant postmodernist point that it is: What does it mean to assert that a non-secular France never was?

Look at it this way: What exactly were French secularists seeking to replace when they appropriated Notre Dame into a Temple of Reason?

Then it’s back to the idea of Notre Dame as a monument — and specifically a monument of power, today’s unified theory of everything:

Despite politicians on both sides of the French political spectrum discouraging people from trying to politicize the Notre Dame fire, it would be a mistake to view the building as little more than a Paris tourist attraction, says John Harwood, an architectural historian and associate professor at the University of Toronto. “It’s literally a political monument. All cathedrals are,” he says. For centuries, the cathedral was the seat of the bishop of the Catholic Church at a time when there was virtually no distinction between church and state. “It was the center and seat of political power not just in Paris, but in France,” he says. “And that remained the case even after the French Revolution and through successive revolutions and political power and regimes.”

Yes, the drive for political power: that’s exactly what would inspire a French peasant to put in hours of back-breaking voluntary labor for a slowly rising cathedral. Surely political power also is the primary thing on the minds of the hundreds of priests who have offered prayers of consecration, day after day, within the walls of Notre Dame.

What else might anyone possibly worship in an 800-year-old monument?

Image: Feast of Reason at the Notre-Dame, Wikimedia Commons

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