By William Kilpatrick, April 18, 2019
Was the near destruction of Notre Dame Cathedral simply the result of an accidental fire? Or was it also a prophetic sign?
In the Bible, the destruction of a city or a temple is often linked to immorality or unbelief. The fire and brimstone that was rained down on Sodom was punishment for the sins of its people. Likewise, Jesus warned the people of Capernaum and other cities that their fate could be worse than Sodom’s because they did not repent despite the “mighty works” he had performed in their midst (Matt. 11:20-24). When Jesus wept over the city of Jerusalem, he prophesied that its enemies “will not leave one stone upon another in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation” (Luke 19:41-44).
The “sign” of Notre Dame ablaze comes on top of other disturbing signs. Since the beginning of the year, dozens of churches in France have been vandalized, desecrated, and torched. In 2018, 1,063 attacks on Christian churches or symbols were registered in France—a 17 percent increase over 2017 when “only” 878 attacks were registered. Other signs that the times are out of joint are not hard to find. Among the more horrific were the massacre at the office of the Charlie Hebdo publishers, the Bataclan Theatre attack, the truck jihad in Nice, and the Christmas Market massacre in Strasbourg.
Church desecrations and terror attacks are not confined to France, but since France is one of the most aggressively secular states in Europe, it may be more in need of signs than most. And it may require more spectacular signs to call France—once considered the “eldest daughter of the Church”—back to the faith.
When asked why her stories were full of grotesque characters and shocking violence, Flannery O’Connor replied: “When you write for the blind, you have to write in big letters.” Those who live in overly-secularized societies, such as France, often become blinded to what is truly important in life, and may, therefore, require fiery signs to wake them up to reality.
The truth is that unbelief in France is probably as great as, if not greater than, in the biblical cities and towns cited in Christ’s warning to the unrepentant. Only 4 percent of French Catholics attend Sunday Mass on a regular basis, and in the larger cathedrals the number of tourists far exceeds the number of worshippers.
After visiting several churches in France, including Notre Dame, Mark Steyn was struck by their emptiness: “One gets the sense that a living, breathing faith is just becoming, actually, a museum, an art gallery, a storage facility.” The cathedrals of Europe are truly magnificent and awe-inspiring, but the awe is for achievements that we no longer seem capable of because we lack the requisite faith.
The damage to Notre Dame is a wake-up call not only for Christians who have let their faith lapse, but also for dyed-in-the-wool secularists. Though run by the Church, Notre Dame, like other historic churches in France, is owned by the French state. Notre Dame is important to France not only because of its history, art, and architecture, but also because it is one of the main reasons that people visit France. Notre Dame draws more visitors than the Eiffel Tower. Many who visit the Cathedral come not just as tourists, but also as pilgrims. For them, “Our Lady’s” Cathedral means far more than one more historic site to check off the list. Ironically, secular France’s greatest attraction is a spiritual treasure.
French President Emmanuel Macron promises to raise enough funds to rebuild Notre Dame within five years. But to what purpose? For the greater glory of God? To worship and praise him? Not quite. The damage to Notre Dame could be a fatal blow to France’s tourist economy which is already reeling from rising crime rates and the constant threat of terrorism brought on by mass Muslim migration. Macron’s haste to rebuild suggests that the state is far more dependent on the Christian faith than it had thought.
Many moderns assume that the secular can get along fine without the sacred. But much of the glory and greatness of France—and of Europe as a whole—is bound up inextricably with its Christian faith. Take that away and much of the glory and greatness would disappear with it. There would be no parliamentary democracies to boast of, little sense of the dignity of man or of his inalienable rights, and, quite possibly, no planes, trains, or automobiles.
But Europe’s leaders seem disinclined to admit any of this. In a fine essay on the subject, historian Paul Kengor writes: “The burning cathedral, and the state’s inability to stop the blaze, seemed a harsh symbol of France’s failure to protect its religious heritage.”
Or even to acknowledge it.
Kengor reminds us: “In the early 2000s, a battle raged within the European Union over whether to include a reference to God in the EU constitution.” In the end, the European Union decided to keep God and Christianity out of its constitution. Having rejected the cornerstone, the builders are now discovering that the whole edifice of secular Europe is crumbling.
Why does the secular need the sacred? The answer is that the sacred realm makes sense out of life—a service the state cannot perform for itself. If there is no fixed transcendent order, everything becomes relative. Without reference to a higher authority, laws are perceived as arbitrary impositions of the state. One follows them simply to avoid the state’s penal institutions. As Dostoevsky put it, “If there is no God everything is permissible.” Likewise, if there is no God, there is no ultimate standard by which the state itself can be judged. Hence, the state becomes the ultimate arbiter of what rights you can and cannot have.
Pope St. John Paul II was the most prominent proponent of keeping God in the European constitution. According to Kengor:
He made arguments akin to those made by the American Founding Fathers: It is crucial for citizens living under a constitution to understand the ultimate source from which their rights derive: their rights come not from government but God.
The hollow shell of Notre Dame should be a reminder to France that the secular state is itself a hollow shell when it fails to acknowledge the Creator who endows us with inalienable rights. The state has no lasting vision to offer. And its guarantee of liberty, equality, fraternity, and the rights of man are backed by absolutely nothing.
Thus the damage to Notre Dame is not necessarily a tragedy if it serves to remind people of the source and center of their lives. Hopefully, it will provide a much-needed spark of recognition. President Macron and other secularists are now acutely aware that France’s tourist economy depends much more on God than they had realized. Perhaps that is a step in the direction of realizing that France depends on God for everything.
There is, of course, one other consideration. France is allowing itself to be taken over by an alien religion—a religion that has been at war with Christendom for over 1,400 years. Whether or not the French leadership takes the fire at Notre Dame as a sign from heaven, Muslims almost certainly will. They will see it as a sign from Allah—a sign that Islam is destined to triumph over France and all of Europe. Some Muslims will, no doubt, feel that they have a duty to hasten the process along. As a result, we can expect the attacks on Christian churches to continue and even to escalate.
Most French citizens, one assumes, would prefer not to live under sharia law. But that is the direction in which France is headed, and secularized France doesn’t seem to know how to prevent it from happening. In previous centuries, the people who built the great cathedrals were able to turn back massive Islamic invasions. Apparently, the faith that enabled them to build the cathedrals also gave them the strength to resist.
Providentially, enough of Notre Dame has survived intact to make a full restoration possible. And quite possibly there remains enough residue of Christianity in France to provide a foundation for the restoration of the Faith. In that case, it seems quite likely that Our Lord and Our Lady will give the people of France the strength to resist the advance of Islam, and perhaps even to convert their Muslim neighbors in the process.