Dr. Paul Kengor: The Loss of France’s Faith

The image of the Cathedral of Notre Dame engulfed in flames will remain seared in memories. I was made aware of it when a student burst into my office shouting that the magnificent church was on fire. I was about to head into my Major European Governments course, where we read George Weigel’s prescient work, The Cube and the Cathedral. The Cathedral in the book is Notre Dame.

As the ensuing minutes proceeded, the conflagration only worsened, captured by the cataclysmic moment when the towering spire collapsed. It took me back to watching the collapse of the World Trade Center tower on 9/11, though that was worse because you knew you were witnessing not just the death of a structure but a significant number of human beings.

With Notre Dame, we figured there was probably no one trapped inside. The fire proceeded slowly enough for people to get out—in fact, so slowly that I was surely one of countless millions watching on a computer, a TV, a phone, yelling in frustration: What are the French authorities doing? Can’t they stop this? Meanwhile, the flames encroached upon the relics, the artifacts, the windows, the paintings, the irreplaceable—upon what is believed to be the actual crown of thorns of Christ. On Holy Week no less.

It was a feeling of helplessness. And in that sense, it was a frustration similar to what many of us have felt toward the French authorities for a long time, as they’ve eagerly embraced secularism and rejected the very Christian patrimony represented by the Cathedral of Notre Dame. The burning cathedral, and the state’s seeming inability to stop the blaze, seemed a harsh symbol of France’s vanishing religious heritage.

Angela Merkel, one of the few European leaders unafraid of tradition, observed that Notre Dame is “a symbol of France and of our European culture.” It certainly is. Its erection was just that, as was its survival through centuries of struggles, as is its smoldering now.

Hilaire Belloc said that “the faith is Europe and Europe is the faith.” Well, the Christian faith is in worse shape in Europe than at any time since the first stones of Notre Dame were laid eight-and-a-half centuries ago. And in many respects, France has led the way in the aggressive secularization. Numerous glorious Parisian churches today stand mainly as tourist attractions.

Recall a defining moment at the turn of this new century. In the early 2000s, a battle raged within the European Union over whether to include a reference to God in the EU constitution. It was a natural acknowledgment, a critical reminder to Europeans of where their rights come from.

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SOURCE: Christian Post, Dr. Paul Kengor