The Corner


Notre Dame Still Stands

Fire fighters douse flames of the burning Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, France April 15, 2019. (Charles Platiau/Reuters)

On my second visit to Notre Dame Cathedral, I climbed the stairs and found the view of Paris obscured by a thick and grimy fog. Yesterday it was my view of the Cathedral that was obscured; not by fog, but smoke.

The world watched in a horrified stupor as flames engulfed the Gothic monument. The spire collapsed. From its fiery interior, the Eucharist, the crown of thorns and artwork was saved. But much else was destroyed.

Is there symbolism in this?

Watching Notre Dame burn, I was reminded of the opening passage of George Weigel’s The Cube and the Cathedral, a meditation on the death of European Christianity, published in 2005. The “cube” Weigel refers to is La Grande Arche de la Défense — a modern architectural monstrosity that began construction in 1985 — and the “Cathedral” is Notre Dame. Weigel wrote:

Which culture, I wondered, would better protect human rights? Which culture would more firmly secure the moral foundations of democracy? The culture that built this stunning, rational, angular, geometrically precise but essentially featureless cube? Or the culture that produced the vaulting and bosses, the gargoyles and flying buttresses, the nooks and crannies, the asymmetries and holy “unsameness” of Notre-Dame and the other great Gothic cathedrals of Europe?

Notre Dame took more than 200 years to complete. Construction began in 1163 during the reign of King Louis VII and was completed in 1345. It survived the hooligans and vandals of the French Revolution. It became the backdrop for Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame. It hosted the crowning ceremony of Napoleon Bonaparte and the beatification of Saint Joan of Arc. It endured the devastation of two world wars.

Then yesterday, its medieval interior was destroyed in a matter of hours.

It didn’t all happen yesterday. In recent decades, Notre-Dame had fallen into disrepair and required major renovation. Much like the Catholic Church more generally which has been besieged by moral decay; or, an “absence of God,” according to Pope Emeritus Benedict.

For so many of the Faithful, then, talk of rebuilding Notre-Dame is a metaphor for European Christianity more generally. How easy it was to destroy truth, goodness, and beauty! And how difficult it seems to restore . . .

Yet, this morning, the view of Notre-Dame’s interior is a powerful symbol of hope. The Cathedral was declared structurally sound. The front altar is surrounded by smoke and rubble, but the cross, unscathed, is still raised high.


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