Cathedrals and humans
Soon after news broke of the Notre Dame Cathedral fire, a singular statistic became popular food for thought: The world’s donors pledged over $600 million within 24 hours of the fire for the cathedral’s restoration. This invited disdain from quite a lot of people, who decried that so-called generosity has become horribly arbitrary. Donors have given this much this quick to some dusty old building, when that money could have gone to the millions of starving, homeless, oppressed humans around the world.
This is an unfair attack on those who give, and an unnecessary discouragement to those who are about to. I can only hope it does not dispirit others who have only just decided to support a charity, whether it’s as prominent as the Notre Dame, or as close to home as postearthquake rehabilitation.
Setting aside the notion that people are wholly entitled to spend their money however they want (this can be debated), and the conviction that a house of God must always be protected (religious beliefs can be saved for another discussion), there are still several reasons why it is unwarranted to damn the givers who chose to allot their money for the cathedral rebuilding.
First, is it impossible to consider such monetary pledges as a constructive contribution to humanity at large? In the never-ending effort to make the world more livable and humane, there are numerous causes to support—aid for famished nations, cancer research, cultural preservation, the fight against trafficking, you name it. Do we reject a contribution to one cause just because we deem it less important than another?
No, the world needs all the help it can get. Right now, Notre Dame donations are being scrutinized largely because some people don’t see value in the building, and thus, they don’t see how reconstructing it is a help to the world. But perhaps what they fail to see is that the cathedral’s multifaceted value transcends tangible numbers and economics.
The structure is an important symbol in many ways—in art, in history, in faith, in architecture, in literature. In the words of Yale professor and author Stephen L. Carter, “Symbols matter; and they can be loved. And they can offer some refuge for those who seek a sense of peace and understanding in a bewildering world.”
Dusty old “things” like the Notre Dame—like the Barasoain Church, like the “Spoliarium”—are part of the livable, humane world we are trying to build. Preserving them is essential in preserving humanity.
This is not to say that cathedrals and artworks are as valuable as human lives. I am one of those who hold that the utmost measure of humanity is our effort to ease the suffering of others. After the last building has crumbled to dust, humans would still be humans if they choose to shelter those who are out in the cold.
However, I don’t believe that this is a dichotomy, that we have to choose between preserving buildings and aiding humans. They are not mutually exclusive. You can ache for an ancient structure and still be a giver to humans, too.
A quick look at humanitarian entities can show us this. Many of the people and organizations who have recently expressed solidarity with the Notre Dame are also the same ones who have swiftly provided relief to us after typhoons, landslides and earthquakes.
A major difference in the Notre Dame response is that the cathedral is a time-honored global landmark. Naturally, there is no shortage of media coverage and publicity around it. This, combined with the growing antirich sentiment in France and around the globe, makes for a dramatic—if not distorted—lens through which some may see charitable giving.
Meanwhile, a long list of humanitarian efforts and charities operate in other parts of the world without so much as a mention in prime-time news. Yet, there they are, fueled by donors and volunteers, at least some of whom are no doubt also supporters of physical symbols like the cathedral.
The bottom line is this: We are allowed to care for the Notre Dame. We are allowed to support the constructive causes that we choose. And as long as we have the heart and resourcefulness and sincerity, we don’t have to be dispirited by arguments as to who should give what where. Cathedrals, humans—we can care for both and more.
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