Notre-Dame and Modern Secular France

by Jean Duchesne, appearing in Volume 36

The marble Pietà in the sanctuary of Notre-Dame was erected by King Louis XIV in honor of his father, Louis XIII. Statues of both kings kneeling in devotion are on either side. Photo: Thérèse Hébert

The marble Pietà in the sanctuary of Notre-Dame was erected by King Louis XIV in honor of his father, Louis XIII. Statues of both kings kneeling in devotion are on either side. Photo: Thérèse Hébert


Early in 2019 the spire of the Paris cathedral had disappeared under scaffolding as it was undergoing restoration. A fire started there for still unknown reasons at the end of the afternoon of Monday, April 15th. It quickly spread to the roof. The original thirteenth-century oak beams burned down to charred stumps and ashes, and the lead sheets they supported melted. The flames and black smoke rose higher than the spire and after nightfall the intense red glow of the furnace could be seen from miles away. Crowds rushed to the scene to stare in dismay.

The spire eventually collapsed, piercing the stone vault of the transept crossing. The firemen’s water hoses protected the stained-glass windows and the façade’s twin towers. Most of the masonry seemed to have been spared when the fire was finally put out the following day at dawn. The Crown of Thorns was saved by the firefighters’ chaplain and sent to the Louvre. All the statues on the spire had fortunately been removed for renovation shortly before the fire.

President Macron had come to the site after canceling a televised speech and solemnly vowed to rebuild Notre-Dame of Paris within five years. Fundraising began at once and was amazingly successful.

This proved that Notre-Dame meant more than was thought, not only for Catholics, but for all Parisians and French people, whatever their religion or lack of faith, and even for millions around the world. The cathedral was perceived as the lasting symbol of the historic national and European identity, based not on flags or institutions, but on the vitality of a common soul that inspires everyone, including the fiercest materialists.

Recent Prestige

As a matter of fact, the cathedral’s prestige is rather recent. The French kings were anointed in Reims, not Paris. When the pious Louis IX got hold of Christ’s Crown of Thorns, he erected the Holy Chapel to harbor it, not far from the cathedral which was then being built.

The precious relic was entrusted to Notre-Dame only after the Revolution by Bonaparte. He chose to crown himself there as Napoleon 1st, though the place had been abandoned and vandalized. Only hasty luxurious decorations, and nothing of the architecture, can be seen in pictures of the coronation like Jacques-Louis David’s monumental painting at the Louvre.

The Coronation of Napoleon by Jacques-Louis David, 1808. Image:

The Coronation of Napoleon by Jacques-Louis David, 1808. Image:

So far, only some official ceremonies (royal weddings and baptisms, funerals of glorious generals such as Turenne and Condé) had been celebrated at Notre-Dame. Also, King Louis XIII had consecrated himself, his dynasty and his kingdom to the Virgin Mary in 1638, and his vow was commemorated by the white marble Pietà erected at the bottom of the choir by his son Louis XIV, with the statues of both kings on either side. But few cared in the age of Enlightenment which led to the fall of the monarchy.

Attention focused on the cathedral again thanks to Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel, Notre-Dame de Paris, which described it as a Gothic labyrinth sheltering and nurturing wild passions. The cathedral’s reputation as a religious high place was established not by the Crown of Thorns, which did not attract crowds, but by the success of Father Henri Lacordaire’s annual Lenten lectures, launched in 1835.

When listening to him, Marie-Eugénie Milleret de Brou rediscovered faith and founded the female branch of the Assumption Order. She was beatified in 1975 and canonized in 2007. (Another famous convert at Notre-Dame was the poet Paul Claudel, on Christmas Day 1886.)

Nineteenth-Century Gothic

After Hugo and Lacordaire came Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, the architect who directed badly needed repairs under Napoleon III. Centuries of neglect had left the cathedral nearly crumbling.

The medieval spire was now rickety and had to be dismantled. Viollet-le-Duc designed a new, taller one, with his own statue as Saint Thomas admiring the work while the other apostles faced the city.

He certainly saved Notre-Dame (as well as many other churches in France), but he also refashioned it extensively in a style influenced by Hugo’s romantic vision of medieval art but too rigidly symmetrical and at the same time adding numerous arbitrary ornaments. (A good definition of the creative freedom of Gothic builders is given in John Ruskin’s Stones of Venice.)

Only a few of the original stained-glass windows remain. Many had been removed by the eighteenth-century clergy, who found the place too dark. A number of new, more modest ones were introduced under Viollet-le-Duc and more (some modern) were added later.

The “alliance between the throne and the altar” was wiped away first by the revolutionaries and then by growing anticlericalism in the nineteenth century, culminating in the separation of Church and State in 1905. The First World War, in which Catholics proved to be unconditional patriots, made reconciliation possible, but under the form of negotiated compromises and empirical solutions.

A National Shrine

Notre-Dame really became a national shrine only in the twentieth century, with a Te Deum celebrating the 1918 victory. The government, then dominated by atheists and freethinkers, abstained. Radical-socialist prime minister Georges Clemenceau forbade moderate but then constitutionally powerless President Raymond Poincaré to attend and only allowed the latter’s wife to represent him. But in 1940 all ministers, even the staunchest secularists, attended a mass to implore God’s help when it became obvious that there was nothing else to do as Hitler’s troops were steamrolling into France.

A few days after Paris was liberated in August 1944, Charles de Gaulle did not just walk down the Champs Élysées from the Napoleonic Arch of Triumph in the middle of a jubilant crowd. He strode past the presidential palace at the bottom of the avenue and went on for another two miles along the Seine past the Louvre and up to Notre-Dame. Once there he led the singing in Latin of the Magnificat, Our Lady’s hymn of thanksgiving (Luke 1:46-55).

Soldiers outside Notre-Dame following the liberation of Paris in August 1944. Photo: E G (Capt), No 5 Army Film & Photographic Unit

Soldiers outside Notre-Dame following the liberation of Paris in August 1944. Photo: E G (Capt), No 5 Army Film & Photographic Unit


Because no more significant or appropriate venue could be thought of, national funerals have since been held in the cathedral: for him in 1970, and for his successors Georges Pompidou in 1974 and François Mitterrand in 1996. The only precedent had been President Marie François Sadi-Carnot, assassinated by an anarchist in 1894. He belonged to the “reasonable” left and had married religiously.

The cathedral is likely not to be available for funeral services for former Presidents Valéry Giscard d’Estaing (born in 1926) and Jacques Chirac (born in 1932). Their successors, Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande (born in the 1950s), have a better chance, not to mention Emmanuel Macron (born in 1977). When the time comes, however, the question might well be whether a mass is actually needed.

Secularized France

This is because secularization has indisputably gained dramatic ground in France since World War II. Church attendance on a regular Sunday is now approximately two percent of the population. Catholics themselves tend to acknowledge that they are but a minority and that faith is no longer part of the ambient cultural heritage, but a matter of individual choice.

This is not only because of the progress of godless worldviews corroding belief from outside. Most historians argue that the “revival” after Vatican II demanded more personal in-depth involvement and that reforms (especially liturgical ones) disoriented average people who could have stuck to minimal, formal, and occasional religious practice.

In the second half of the twentieth century, even before Vatican II, rank-and-file Catholics rediscovered the Bible, previously abandoned to Protestants. This in turn led to greater reliance on Scriptures and less on philosophy, dogma, and formal traditions in the fields of theology and rituals. It also gave way to a more positive approach to Judaism. Simultaneously, improved standards of living encouraged soul-searching, and personal religious experience became decisive under the name of “spirituality”—a word that had hardly been used so far.

All these advances disconcerted the masses who saw Catholicism as unchangeable, and churchgoers became a dwindling elite blaming “popular piety” for being superficial.

One consequence is that the basic doctrines of the faith are no longer fully transmitted to the younger generations. They struggle to understand cathedrals and more broadly the religious art that is predominant in churches, abbeys, and museums everywhere.

To make things worse, sex abuse scandals, like almost everywhere else in the West, have undermined confidence in the clergy. They have spread the notion that Christian ideals are too radical or unrealistic and fatally generate hypocrisy.

Notre-Dame’s Plight

With such a background, it is amazing that virtually no one dared declare being indifferent to Notre- Dame’s plight. But the situation is not so gratifying and remains worrying.

What has faded is the conviction that religions in general and Christianity in particular are doomed to disappear in the long run. The devaluation of Marxism and the worldwide surge of Evangelical Protestant, Muslim, Hinduist, and even Buddhist fundamentalisms has discredited that illusion. Militant atheists are definitely much more marginal than Catholics in France, even though they sometimes manage to be noisy.

The freedom of conscience is not challenged, but it is so simplistic that it tends to consider any public explicit expression of faith as disturbing, if not offensive or threatening.

This has consequences for the future of Notre-Dame: the cathedral is welcome and even cherished as a harmless sacred or spiritual reference planted in the landscape—something historic, unique and impressive but not intrusive, imposing no obligation.

In the same way, most people expect a priest to be available when they feel that some kind of blessing would help. But they will not keep going to church afterwards. This means that, while all agree that the cathedral should be rebuilt, whether it remains a place of Catholic worship and pilgrimage is a minor matter.

The Archbishop of Paris has already had to remind people that Notre-Dame is much more than a tourist attraction or a landmark like the Eiffel Tower. The state owns the cathedral as a listed patrimonial monument.

He insisted that the state must not turn it into a museum, open mainly to hordes of visitors, incidentally at the government’s disposal for exceptional national ceremonies, with the clergy just allowed to celebrate outside of business hours.

The archbishop’s point was that liturgical services are not performed behind closed doors. They are the best guarantee that the cathedral remains accessible to all (provided they don’t behave as if they were on a beach or in a pub) all day long and every day of the year, as a place that is not just a gigantic remnant of times gone by, but animated by the life given from on-high that inspired its construction and can still be shared.

In other words, Notre-Dame reveals a gratuitousness that exceeds economic, social, or cultural requirements. That is precisely what makes it so dear to all, whatever they believe or don’t believe.

How Will it Be Rebuilt?

Concretely, the question is whether the cathedral will be rebuilt as much as possible as it was before the fire, or whether some visible sign of its twenty-first-century restoration will be added. For example, whether it will be given a new “contemporary” spire instead of Viollet-le-Duc’s (which had always been criticized). Or whether “abstract” art, or trees and plants (like Mario Botta’s Évry cathedral, the only one built in France in the twentieth century), or even a swimming pool will be put on the roof.

The government has already raised suspicions when announcing a competition for the design of a new spire, and that, in order to save time, decisions might be made without consulting competent experts as required by law. Msgr. Patrick Chauvet, the cathedral’s rector, Archbishop Michel Aupetit and the Archdiocese of Paris will obviously fight against any creation or addition that would be foreign to legible Christian symbolism.

Anyway, specialists don’t think Notre-Dame can be fully restored as quickly as President Macron promised, even if administrative hurdles are kicked aside. In the meantime, the funds are coming in very slowly, since big donors wait to see how their money will be used.

It is already significant that the huge but simple shining gold cross that Cardinal Lustiger had erected in 1994 above the Pietà commemorating Louis XIII’s vow should have been spared, as was a marvelous fourteenth-century statue of the Virgin carrying the child Jesus on the south-eastern pillar of the transept crossing. The two pictures were widely circulated, suggesting that Notre-Dame is seriously wounded but not dead, and still an emblem of living faith.

The Practical Questions

Several months after the disaster, many more practical questions remain unanswered. The origin of the fire remains a mystery. More importantly, will the roof be rebuilt with oak beams and lead sheets, or will more up-to-date lighter materials be used?

Will the bold modern altar installed by Cardinal Lustiger in 1989 be repaired and reinstated? It was not placed exactly in the middle of the transept crossing as is generally the case nowadays, but closer to the choir’s entry, leaving ample space for liturgical action on the elevated central stage. It was partly crushed by falling stones. It had both admirers and detractors.

A more fundamental problem remains to assess the harm done to the stone structure, not only by the flames and the fall of the spire and roof beams, but also by the tons of water poured all over by firemen to control the blaze. The water seeped between and even inside the stones. Not only was some of the old mortar washed away but also parts of the tender chalk of the stones are likely to have invisibly turned into lime.

It will take time to ascertain whether the architectural frame is still strong enough to stand up straight enough and sustain the weight of the new roof. Another difficulty is that the burning lead of the roof has produced toxic emanations everywhere inside and also all around on the ground, including the square in front of the cathedral where visitors used to queue up in long winding lines before they could enter.

Finally, removing the scaffoldings that surrounded the spire proves arduous: the metallic bars were twisted and welded together by the intense heat.

Is Notre-Dame Different?

All this trouble is not unprecedented. This is not the first time a cathedral has burnt: it happened every now and then in the Middle Ages, and the list of latter-day fires is longish: in France only, Rouen in 1822, Chartres in 1836, Metz (then German) in 1877, Reims in 1914 (because of the war), Nantes in 1972. The vault of the Cologne Dom fell when the city was bombed at the end of World War II. York Minster in England burnt no fewer than five times over the last millennium, most recently in 1984.


They have all been rebuilt. There is no reason why Notre-Dame de Paris should not. The difference is not technical, but what this cathedral means and all the buried questions that its wounds unearth. The answers that will have to be given will bring useful clarifications.