The Archbishop of Paris, Michel Aupetit, is renowned for his calm demeanor and easy-going manner. That made it all the more significant when, during a recent radio interview following President Emmanuel Macron’s address to the nation about the burning of Notre-Dame Cathedral, Aupetit expressed his astonishment at Macron’s failure to mention Catholics as among those affected by the drama surrounding what is, after all, a functioning and active Catholic cathedral. “Le mot catholique n’est pas un gros mot,” he insisted. (“The word ‘Catholic’ is not a swear word.”)
In the aftermath of the fire which destroyed a major part of an edifice which means a great deal to France, many have focused on the significant architectural and historical losses. Fewer, however, have reflected upon the role which Notre-Dame has played in the life of French Catholicism, especially after the Revolution.
Before 1789, few would have identified Notre-Dame as French Catholicism’s epicentre. Like most things in pre-revolutionary France, much of the French Church’s energy focused upon the royal court at Versailles between 1661 and 1789. Even before then, the cathedrals of Chartres and Reims were considered more significant churches: the former on account of its sheer beauty, the latter as the traditional coronation site for France’s kings. As the city where Clovis, le roi de tous les Francs (king of all the Frankish tribes), was baptised on Christmas Day circa 499, it is Reims, not Paris, which even today is seen as representing France’s beginnings as la fille aînée de l’Église (the eldest daughter of the Church).
Like many other things in France, this state of affairs changed dramatically in 1789 and the subsequent movement of French political life back to Paris. Initially this didn’t benefit Notre-Dame at all. Following Pope Pius VI’s condemnation of the French National Assembly’s Constitution civile du clergé in March 1791, the Revolution’s anti-Catholic dimension became far more evident.
The Revolution’s subsequent war against the Church included turning Notre-Dame into a temple for “the Cult of Reason” and “the Supreme Being” in 1793. Shortly after Robespierre’s fall in 1794, the cathedral became a storage place for weapons and food. It was seemingly forgotten to history.
A few years later, Notre-Dame’s fortunes changed when Napoleon determined that his regime’s security required reconciliation between the Revolution and the Church. Though the state continued (and continues to this day) to own the buildings, exclusive use of the cathedral was transferred to the Church following the 1801 Concordat between Paris and Rome. Napoleon made a point of being crowned in Notre-Dame in 1804 and had numerous Te Deums sung there to commemorate his military victories. One side-effect was to foster a symbolic identification between Notre-Dame and post-revolutionary France in many Frenchmen’s minds, something which could never have been realised at Reims or Versailles due to their associations with the Ancien Régime.
Though the Concordat provided the Church with some protection from anti-clericals, it also once again subordinated much of the Church’s life to the French state. This makes it all the more ironic that some of the 19th century’s most powerful catechetical sermons were delivered in Notre-Dame in 1835 by an avowed Concordat critic, Fr Henri-Dominique Lacordaire. Thousands came to listen to the priest whose preaching brought many sceptics to faith and who weren’t adverse to his message of “a Free Church in a
Lacordaire’s addresses sparked Notre-Dame’s re-emergence as a place for evangelisation in a city beginning to experience all the economic and social upheavals associated with the Industrial Revolution. Today the homiletic tradition begun by Lacordaire is known as the Conférences de carême à Notre-Dame de Paris and it continues to be based in Notre-Dame. Speakers in more recent years have included the convert-writer Fabrice Hadjadj as well as Rémi Brague, regarded by many as Europe’s most important Catholic intellectual.
There is, however, another side to Notre-Dame. This relates to its role as a stage for many of the controversies marking French Catholicism which are never far beneath the surface of the French Church’s memory. Perhaps the most significant of these concerns the ambiguous path followed by the Church during the dark years of German occupation between 1940 and 1944.
That the vast majority of French bishops and French Catholics – like most Frenchmen – opted for Marshal Philippe Pétain and Vichy rather than Free France in 1940 is indisputable. But as the war continued and Vichy’s collaboration with Germany deepened (including active participation in the deportation of Jews to death camps in the East), the splits among French Catholics grew more pronounced. Some joined Vichy paramilitary groups like the infamous Milice. Others entered the Resistance. Yet other Catholics sought to straddle both worlds.
Notre-Dame became a place where these divisions were put on full display. In April 1944, the Archbishop of Paris, Cardinal Emmanuel Suhard, who had protested against the round-up of Jews in Paris in July 1942, welcomed Pétain to Notre-Dame before an enthusiastic crowd of thousands. Just two months later, Suhard presided in the cathedral at the funeral of the collaborator, notorious anti-Semite and devout Catholic Philippe Henriot, following his assassination by Resistance members.
On August 26 that same year, another devout Catholic, General Charles de Gaulle, participated in a public ceremony at Notre-Dame, again with thousands in attendance inside and outside, held to celebrate Paris’s liberation from the Germans. De Gaulle’s deep faith, however, didn’t inhibit him from informing Suhard that His Eminence’s presence in his own cathedral that day would be undesirable, given the cardinal’s very public closeness to Vichy.
In recent decades, Notre-Dame has been part of something more hopeful in the life of French Catholicism. When Jean-Marie Lustiger, a convert from Judaism, was appointed Archbishop of Paris in 1981, the Church in France was well down the accommodationist path that’s presently emptying out German Catholicism. Over the next 24 years, le bulldozer, as he was known by friend and foe alike, built a series of institutions located around Notre-Dame, like the Ecole-cathédrale in the rue Massillon, which have over time injected new vigour into Catholic Paris. The “dynamic orthodoxy” that Cardinal Lustiger wanted his archdiocese to embody has been on display in Notre-Dame ever since.
Whether it’s regular public prayers, lectures by distinguished Catholic thinkers, or well-attended Masses characterised by solid preaching, there’s little doubt that Paris’s practising Catholics now regard Notre-Dame as far more than a museum. For them, it is a major locus of their religious life in the City of Lights. Many of them were seen with their archbishop and priests in the streets around Notre-Dame singing prayers and hymns as the cathedral burned throughout the night of April 15.
To look upon Notre-Dame is certainly to enter into France’s history. No one questions that, least of all French Catholics. But as Archbishop Aupetit reminded France’s president, the cathedral’s full meaning is incomprehensible without situating it in the life of Catholic France, especially post-1789. For that reason alone, I don’t doubt that Aupetit and his flock will be relentless – as le bulldozer himself would surely have been – in insisting that France’s government recognises this fact as it contemplates Notre-Dame’s future.
For the French state to do otherwise would not only be an insult to France’s Catholics. It would also result in a grave injustice being done to the history and collective memory of France itself.
Samuel Gregg is research director at the Acton Institute