In 2019, I wrote a piece for the American Conservative reflecting on the Notre-Dame fire and on the meaning of that cathedral in a secular age. At the time, I considered donating my paycheck from that article to the rebuilding effort.
I’m glad I didn’t.
I certainly wasn’t the only one moved to devote some of my hard-earned money to saving one of the jewels of Christendom. Over €800 million poured in from around the world. €165 million was quickly spent restoring the edifice’s structural integrity. But over €600 million remained, and soon the architects descended.
After an initial flurry of mostly outlandish proposals that aimed to modernize the building’s exterior, the French government caved to popular outrage and ditched the design contest. Notre-Dame, they announced, would be rebuilt exactly as it was. At least on the outside.
But boy, oh boy, do I hate what they’re planning to do to the interior. Here’s how the Telegraph describes it:
Under the proposed changes, confessional boxes, altars and classical sculptures will be replaced with modern art murals, and new sound and light effects to create “emotional spaces”.
There will be themed chapels on a “discovery trail”, with an emphasis on Africa and Asia, while quotes from the Bible will be projected onto chapel walls in various languages, including Mandarin.
The final chapel on the trail will have a strong environmental emphasis.
Everything old is bad. European history is primarily (if not exclusively) a story of oppression and exploitation. Human spirituality should be conceived of primarily in therapeutic terms. Climate change is the greatest threat we face. Sin is an uncomfortable concept best swept under the rug. All experiences can and ought to be technologically mediated. Diversity is our strength.
A greater assembly of contemporary bromides can hardly be imagined.
Still, I want to be fair to the proponents of such a redesign. Father Gilles Drouin, who presented the plans, says he wants to cater to visitors with “multiple motivations.” Christian Rousselot, the director general of the Notre-Dame Foundation, had this to say about the “visitors’ discovery trail” he envisions:
This trail going from North to South from the shadow to the light will depict the major moments of the Bible to explain in the most intelligible to common mortals, whether Chinese or Swedish, what it all means… Foreign visitors see signs and magnificent paintings but don’t understand a thing. Images and sculptures and paintings count but so do words. So there are plans to project on certain words and expressions in Mandarin, French or Spanish and English.
These motives are not ignoble, but they’re the exact opposite of what the Catholic Church needs. Evangelist Bishop Robert Barron has often attributed Catholicism’s decline to the dumbing down of the faith that dominated catechesis and seminary education in the years following Vatican II. Sure, the Church became more accessible, but mass attendance is in free-fall. The Episcopal Church, despite all its holy raves and Beyoncé masses, will have exactly zero weekly worshippers by 2050 if current rates of decline persist. Accessibility doesn’t keep asses in pews.
In an op-ed, also published in the Telegraph, author Tim Stanley wrote that “it is precisely the everyday operation of Catholicism, with its prayer and mystery, that draws newcomers to it. What’s needed is revived worship at Notre-Dame. In a panic, some powerful people have opted for a museum.”
“Museum” is exactly right. Everything in a museum is dead. None of it is a threat to you. “Hmm…interesting,” you say, and then go about your business. In a Tumblr post that went moderately viral a few years ago, a cradle atheist wrote that “Catholicism and Catholic culture are fascinating. from a distance! …it’s like seeing apex predators at the zoo. like it’s interesting but you’re grateful for the plexiglass and you cannot relate on any level to the people trying to jump over the fence.”
This is a far better representation of Christianity than the innocuous “discovery trail” proposed for Notre-Dame. As C.S. Lewis wrote of his Christ stand-in Aslan, “He’s not a tame lion.” He’s good, but he’s not safe. Unfortunately, there’s a strain of modern Christianity that seeks to become tame and safe in every possible way.
We see it when British writer Matthew Parris opines that “Anglicanism was never about God” and that the Church of England should focus on providing pretty music and calming ritual to its dwindling number of congregants. We saw it when Pope Francis appointed population control advocate Jeffrey Sachs to the Pontifical Academy. We see it when the pope embraces climate change and mass migration, the concerns of the global elite, and kowtows to South American syncretism. We see it when he assures the pro-abortion President Biden that he should keep receiving the Eucharist while demonizing the only political movements pushing back against unrestricted abortion and gnostic gender ideology. We see it when the National Catholic Reporter publishes an op-ed calling AOC the “future of the Catholic Church.”
In this vision, Christianity apologizes for everything secular modernity disapproves of and tries to take at least some credit for everything secular modernity likes. The Church becomes a domesticated lapdog. She might occasionally bark out some unwelcome condemnation of IVF or gay marriage, but these defiances are more annoying than threatening. A quick command will bring her back to heel. Wag your finger and say “bad!” and she’ll cower in shame like a good girl. No one would ever suggest that the dog deserves some say in managing the household, but she sometimes puts a smile on the owners’ faces, and they get to feel good about themselves for letting her live there.
The second-century Church Father Tertullian asked, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” Today’s Christians face a different question, one that the plans for Notre-Dame’s interior epitomize but which was posed over a hundred years ago when Dostoevsky’s “Grand Inquisitor” rejected Christ’s radicalism for global power and prestige: what has Rome to do with Davos?