To build anew

I haven’t been closely following the story of the Notre Dame de Paris Cathedral fire for reasons at least partly alluded to in my more casual blog:

There’s so much chaos and tourism associated with Notre Dame that my experience of it last May was pretty underwhelming …

[M]y favorite Paris Church is my surprise discovery: St. Julien le Pauvre, a Hobbit-Sized Church of great antiquity that also warms the cockles of my heart because it’s Byzantine rite. My next trip to Paris (if God grants me another after the other places I want to see) will find me there Sunday morning.

But people I do follow, either in column or blog, seem to think there’s something symbolic, even highly symbolic, about the fire, and its timing on Monday of 2019’s (Western) Holy Week. Of those, the best* so far seems to be that of Ross Douthat, datelined Monday but discovered by me only today.

Douthat had been writing a column about Emeritus (is that correct?) Pope Benedict XVI’s recent letter (encyclical?) when he learned of the fire. (My parenthetical questions reflect some of Douthat’s theme.)


The problem of Catholic narratives that can’t find synthesis, of “liberal” and “conservative” takes that feed angrily off one another, of popes and former popes as symbols grasped by partisans, is not the problem of the sex abuse crisis. It is simply the problem of Roman Catholicism in this age — an age in which the church mirrors the polarization of Western culture, rather than offering an integrated alternative.

… I am … doubtful that anything so simple as a conservative “victory” will return the church to cathedral-raising vigor and make it feel, to outsiders, like something more than a museum whose docents all seem to hate one another …

The cathedral will be rebuilt; the cross and altar and much of the interior survived. But all preservation is provisional. The real challenge for Catholics, in this age of general post-Christian cultural exhaustion, is to look at what our ancestors did and imagine what it would mean to do that again, to build anew, to leave something behind that could stand a thousand years and still have men and women singing “Salve Regina” outside its cruciform walls, as Parisians did tonight while Notre-Dame burned.

What is the synthesis that could make that possible? What lies beyond the stalemates and scandal and anger of our strange two-pope era?

Ross Douthat, From the Ashes of Notre-Dame.

That’s not just a Catholic question. It’s a question for all of Western Christendom, and I suspect for Eastern Christendom as well (the resurgence of which in nations like the Georgian Republic, which I’ll be visiting in a month, may be tenuous).

Might even the Great Schism be healed in a new synthesis? Or must we await our eventual evangelization by the global South, where Christianity, writ large, is thriving?

(* Easily the worst was that of our President. They can retire that trophy.)

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