Opinion: You don’t have to be Catholic to grieve for the damage to Notre Dame

The damaged Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.
(Christophe Petit Tesson / Associated Press)

Some Catholics are irked by reaction to the fire at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.

The airwaves and the internet have featured emotional testimonials to the importance of the medieval structure, which lost its spire and wooden roof on Monday. But many tributes to the medieval cathedral have emphasized its role as a cultural treasure, a masterpiece of Gothic architecture or a symbol of French nationalism.

In an article for the Catholic Herald headlined “Notre Dame is Not, and Never Should Be, Just a Museum,” the Rev. Benedict Kiely suggested that even Pope Francis might be minimizing the damaged cathedral’s religious significance.

Kiely pointed out that the pope had referred to Notre Dame as “an architectural jewel of collective memory,” a statement that didn’t explain why the cathedral was precious to the church. By contrast, Kiely noted approvingly, Michel Aupetit, the archbishop of Paris, made clear that the cathedral was a “jewel” because it housed the Holy Eucharist, Jesus Christ present under the appearances of bread and wine.


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(To be fair, although the pope did describe the cathedral as an “architectural jewel” and a “national symbol,” he also said it was a “sign of the faith of those who built it.”)

“Notre Dame de Paris is an object of world heritage, a thing of beauty appreciated by those of all faiths and none,” Kiely wrote. “Yet the purpose of the building also speaks, not only to the reality, ignored by the constitution of the European Union, of the massive contribution of Christian culture to the creation of Western civilization, but to the living faith without which the basilica would be just a museum.”

Perhaps some journalists who are not themselves devout or religiously literate may have overemphasized Notre Dame’s cultural and historical significance, while giving short shrift to the fact that it is first and foremost a house of prayer.


But if, as Kiely rightly said, the cathedral reflects the contribution of the Christianity to Western civilization, why can’t the many people who consider themselves part of that civilization — even if they aren’t believers — feel an affinity for Notre Dame and grieve over this week’s destruction?

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