What the criticism of aid to the Notre Dame misses
Every day since its construction in the 13th century, the Notre Dame has stood as a reminder of French pride, French heritage, and French civilization. The church is very much the heart of Paris; quite literally, the Notre Dame is kilometer zero and is “how the French measure distances all over France.“
And then, just like that, parts of it were gone.
On April 16, 2019, around 6:20 in the evening, news began to spread throughout Paris and the world that the church was on fire. To what degree of damage, no one knew right away. But as the time elapsed, the damage worsened, and the possible irreplaceability of the damage began to sink in to all bystanders watching in person and on television as smoke continued to bellow out of the structure. The damage to one of the world’s great treasures was felt all over the world and the future of the Notre Dame seemed to be in peril.
Every part of the cathedral is historic in many regards— the impeccable detail that aligned the front pillars, the flying buttresses that gave the church a form, and the pure beauty of the stained glass windows. And what remains now, the ruins and historical artifacts that were salvaged in the flames, will never wholly represent what it was before the fire. The Notre Dame is a special place because, as Steven Erlanger puts it so eloquently, of “its combination of the secular, the sacred and the profane.” The cathedral is universally recognizable, a fixture of Western religion, architecture, and literature as well as being one of the most visited landmarks in the world.
The collapse of the spire hours after the fire began was perhaps the climax of the tragedy. As the spire and roof gave way, so did the hearts of bystanders and witnesses, alike.
With the sunrise of the next day came optimistic news- -the spire would be replaced and only the roof was ruined. Furthermore, the spire that collapsed was from the 19th century, unlike other, more delicate aspects of the cathedral, which date back nearly a thousand years. Moreover, the structure of the two towers remained intact and, despite black smoke, the stained glass windows did not suffer irreplaceable damage. Many of the important relics, like the linen fabric associated with Saint Louis and the cathedral’s treasury, were salvaged. Furthermore, public support has been strong with French president Emmanuel Macron pledging to rebuild the damaged parts of the church within five years.
Thankfully, no one was injured or killed in the fire. In terms of raw destruction, the fire did not have the impact on the city that the Chicago fire of 1871 or New York City’s Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1811, and thankfully so. Yet the emotional effect of the monument collapsing will certainly linger heavy on the hearts of Parisians and lovers of Paris for years to come. And while some tourists may see the Notre Dame as another location to visit on the “to-do” list of Paris, to the French, the Notre Dame’s worth cannot be quantified.
Though the tragedy is undeniably horrible, some have recognized that while coverage of the Notre Dame fire was broadcasted on international television for days, three historically-black churches in Louisiana caught fire in racially motivated attacks, but were not reported as heavily. However, it is worth noting that in the aftermath of the Notre Dame fire, the churches were able to gain more notoriety and raised $2 million to aid in the reconstruction efforts. Moreover, while the Notre Dame encapsulated the world’s attention, few in American-European world knew about the fire that ravaged a mosque in Jerusalem, but fortunately only affected a single mobile guard booth.
Other people were quick to point out that the level of funding achieved — over one billion dollars of support –showed the ability of the wealthy to quickly tackle problems, yet a lack of will to do so. The critique is formulated around the idea that one billion dollars, while appreciated, is far more than the church needs and could instead solve or work towards a solution of many of the social problems in France, or global issues like climate change. Some argue that Macron, who is already dubbed the “president of the rich” by many in France, will now focus on the renovation of the Notre Dame over social inequality in France, the motivation for the “Gilet Jaune” (yellow vest) protests. Others have urged the money directed to domestic causes, such as Americans urged the money be used to help those in still dealing with the aftermath of the Flint water crisis or the restoring of power in Puerto Rico.
This brings us to the question: shouldn’t humans be able to mourn the destruction, partial or full, of a landmark without feeling ashamed for doing so? One can understand that injustice exists in both the United States and France, yet also realize that if, say, the Washington Monument or Statue of Liberty burst into flames, there would be a similar response by the American and global populations. In fact, that was already the case with the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers of New York. Yes, privilege and vast inequalities exist and should be recognized. Yes, the Catholic Church has a history of pedophilia and injustice, especially attributed to priests, that should rightly be called out. However, one should be able to acknowledge these fundamental truths while still paying their respects to a symbol of their country. When looking at the Notre Dame as representative of national pride and identity, the beating pulse of a country, and a monument that makes Paris, for lack of a better explanation, Paris, a period of mourning in response to the fire is warranted and necessary.
The fire should be a reminder to people to cherish history, to not take their culture, landmarks and people, for granted. What may seem like a daily routine today could be drastically changed tomorrow. One flame is all it takes for a historical monument or even a country to be changed forever.