And why the money should not have gone towards saving the polar bears.
It is believed that originally, a temple for Zeus stood where today Notre-Dame stands bare and blackened. With the Christianisation of the Gaulle, a Romanesque cathedral was erected on the Ile de la Cite, which was replaced in 1160 by the Gothic structure that survived Monday 15th April’s fire.
The monument has seen and suffered many of France’s most crucial hours: it was heavily pillaged during the French Revolution, it was the stage of Napoleon’s self-coronation, and the setting for Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. While the cathedral was still functioning in the early 19th century, it was the enormous success of Hugo’s 1831 classic that led King Louis Phillipe to order its restoration. A bit over a century later, at the liberation of Paris from the Nazis, a special mass was held in the Cathedral, which Charles de Gaulle attended.
As a religious institution, the Cathedral is the centre of the Catholic faith in the Paris region; as a national symbol, it is the most visited monument in France and the second most visited in the world. The sadness and shock which has now played on every screen across the planet shows the significance of Notre-Dame: it demonstrates how deeply history, culture and symbolism run in the fabric of the French.
I would stop the conversation about the Notre-Dame fire here and praise any reconstruction effort, notably financial donations from the private sector, which are set to cover the majority of the billion-euro reconstruction project. Many observers have, however, felt the need to take us by the hand and enlighten us into the deeper meaning of how the Notre-Dame reconstruction should unfold. As a French Catholic, I am all ears.
These observers, mostly individual online users, voiced their criticisms of philanthropy towards Notre-Dame, with many surprised at how easily such sums could be freed up and donated to a cause. Philanthropy is the use of private wealth for public good, which often comes with a comfortable tax break, and it’s in this way that French billionaire families have pledged hundreds of millions for the reconstruction of the cathedral. This is where we learn from critics that this money should have been donated to virtually any other cause than that of rebuilding Notre-Dame: isn’t our planet dying? Isn’t homelessness a widespread problem in France? What about ongoing humanitarian crises? In other words: there are more pressing issues than Notre-Dame’s reconstruction which require rich people’s money.
Simply put, this rhetoric greatly underplays culture as an area worthy of investment. Yes, there are very serious social and environmental issues which require more funding, and yes, there are immensely rich French families out there. But if billionaires decide to donate to a cultural initiative, from all point of views but Marxist, that is their generous choice. Many Catholics have watched a piece of their own house burn and many French people have seen how easily a part of their culture can be destroyed.
Criticising the social license of philanthropy towards Notre-Dame, therefore, amounts to nothing more than undermining the worth of cultural heritage.