Today I found myself thinking that someone should perhaps inform French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe that the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris is a church. How dare he — and so many dead-to-beauty architects — talk about this glorious place of worship as though it were a mere artifact of culture?
And yet … this Catholic cathedral is not owned by the Catholic Church. It is owned by the French Ministry of Culture. “A mere artifact of culture” is what it legally is. As far as I can tell, Notre Dame de Paris is a place of worship by sufferance only. If the government of France wants to leave it in ruins as a testimony to the evils of colonialism, homophobia, and clerical sexual abuse — which seems possible — or to rebuild it as a shiny new monument to the evils of colonialism, homophobia, and clerical sexual abuse — which seems slightly more possible — it can do so. If the government of France wants to turn it into a disco, then into a disco it shall be turned, with a giant glimmering disco ball hanging from the rebuilt roof.
I have no idea what the Ministry of Culture will decide to do, but I seriously doubt that Catholic Christians will have any real say in the matter. Oh, to be sure, bishops and priests and a few devout laypeople will be assigned to committees. But they’ll have no ability to dictate or even to veto. Bureaucrats may decide that the principles of PR recommend a respectful stance towards believers, and no doubt they’ll make friendly noises. But I don’t see how the final product can fail to embody the interests of the European technocratic elite, as opposed to those of faithful Christians.
And that’s one of the more significant elements of this story: What it reminds us about the long and complex intertwining of the western church with the modern nation-state. You can’t understand the current rebuilding project without understanding the crowning of Charlemagne by Pope Leo III, in St. Peter’s Basilica on Christmas Day of the year 800; and Pope Gregory VII’s role the Investiture Controversy, with its culmination in the humiliation of Henry IV in the snow at Canossa; and the emergence of the Cuius regio, eius religio principle in the Reformation era; and the violent dechristianizing of France during the Revolution; and the vain struggle of Pio Nono against the unification of Italy, ending in the elimination of the Papal States and the loss of all secular power for the Papacy; and the emergence of the Deutsche Christen in the Nazi era, when German pastors competed with one another to defend the celebrate the subservience of (especially but not only) the Lutherans to Hitler.
That long slow transfer of power is over now. The tiger the Church hoped to tame has eaten it. The building on the Île de la Cité dedicated 800 years ago to the Blessed Virgin Mary belongs wholly to the bureaucrats now. The rest of us will just have to stand by to see what they do with it.