As fire devastates the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, the building is as much a symbol of the recent history of the Catholic Church in Europe as it once was a symbol of the Church’s power and cultural supremacy. The church had been in disrepair for decades. Calls for its restoration went mostly ignored until too late. Now that it is in ashes, people weep for its loss.
In recent decades, Notre Dame was more a tourist destination than a place of pilgrimage or a seat of Catholic potency. More people could tell you the story of its fictitious bell-ringing hunchback than of any one of its bishops. Inside, more selfies took place than prayers, and there were more art connoisseurs among its enthusiasts than worshipers.
This spiritual emptiness didn’t come overnight. The church in Europe has been the target of secularists and anticlericals for centuries — since long before the secularizing revolution that happened on its doorstep. Much of the criticism was richly deserved. The church’s hierarchy sided with the nobility against the forces of modernization in the 18th and 19th centuries. It opposed free press, free speech, and religious liberty.
By opposing political freedoms and unions in the 19th century, the church lost European men. In its opposition to feminism, it lost women at the end of the 20th century.
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Source: Religion News Service