It is difficult to begin this monthly editorial without acknowledging the multiple tragedies that occurred worldwide throughout the Easter season. On March 15, shootings at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, left 50 people dead; on Easter Sunday, April 21, a series of bombings at multiple sites across Sri Lanka, including churches, resulted in over 250 casualties; and on April 27, a gunman opened fire at Congregation Chabad in Poway, California, killing one and wounding three others. All of this was in addition to the sudden eruption of a fire at the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, France, on April 15 that caused significant damage to one of Christendom’s most storied buildings.
Just how to understand—or even to assimilate—this devastating sequence of events can seem like an impossible task. What are we to make of the fact that these tragedies occurred within the holiest time of the Christian calendar, from our Lenten preparations through the Feast of the Resurrection and the afterglow of the Octave of Easter? How are we to fathom why all three of the Abrahamic faiths were targeted and torn apart by violence? Most pressingly, what is our proper response?
A prayerful meditation on these and other questions might start with the fire at Notre Dame. Much was written about its metaphorical implications in the days following the disaster—how the Catholic Church has been “burning,” in the words of Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne Jr., with “the failure of its leadership to protect its most valuable members” as well as “debilitating divisions” within the church hierarchy and laity alike. This metaphorical thinking extended across the ideological spectrum, with the website The Imaginative Conservative predictably seeing in the fire the very demise of “Western culture,” that slippery term that can be used to invoke a Mozart or an Aquinas as easily as insinuate racist, imperialist, or Islamophobic attitudes. A more sobering, less abstract, and ultimately more prescient take came courtesy of Lloyd Alter at the sustainability website Treehugger.com. “Notre Dame is a metaphor for the planet,” the headline of Alter’s post ran, as the author went on to quote journalists who drew parallels between the fire and the threat of climate change. Alter ended the post with a solemn admonition: “Everyone says we should do something. But nobody ever wants to pay the price.”
Interestingly, both pieces overlapped at a critical point: each bemoaned a culture of neglect that would leave buildings, societies, even entire planets to degrade rather than do the necessary work of maintenance. Alter cites a tragic story, the September 2018 fire at Brazil’s National Museum that destroyed an irreplaceable collection of 20 million objects, as a prototypical example. According to Smithsonian magazine, the fire was caused by air conditioners that did not meet basic manufacturer recommendations for installation. Further, budget cuts had left the museum with severely outdated fire-prevention equipment. There were not even hoses or sprinklers in place, and the few extinguishers were incapable of stopping the blaze.
This toxic blend of indifference, distraction, and negligence is at the heart of what Pope Francis has termed, in the encyclical Laudato si’ as well as numerous public statements, our “throwaway culture.” This is a single-use culture that has no respect for the cycles of life, that cannot or will not see itself as part of any greater human family. It is the culture of the quick fix, the shortcut, and the easy answer; the culture that takes no pride in the dignity of human labor or the human person; the culture that would prefer to let the treasures of its past be destroyed than to invest in their preservation for the future.
The church is not immune to some of these criticisms. As has been pointed out in Time (“Notre Dame Cathedral Is Crumbling. Who Will Help Save It?,” July 27, 2017) and more recently by Reuters (“Old financing dispute hangs over Notre Dame blaze donations,” April 16, 2019), a “puerile conflict” between the French government and the Paris archdiocese over who should pay for Notre Dame’s upkeep was a major roadblock to making necessary repairs. As the conflict continued, thoughts of the common good faded into the background—until the conflagration of April 15 brought them to the fore. “It’s a shame,” general director for the Paris archdiocese Philippe de Cuverville was quoted as saying in the Reuters report, “We tend to wait for things to become catastrophic before we take care of them.”
We need not look as far as France to see evidence of this tendency. Here in the United States, propositions for a Green New Deal that would create jobs, restore our infrastructure, and transition our power supply to renewable energy have been met with skepticism from some quarters and outright derision from others. This despite repeated warnings from organizations such as the National Academy of Sciences that global temperatures are rising at dangerously high levels, and that we need to reduce our carbon emissions if we want to avert future catastrophe. An opportunity to band together, to take care of the planet that has been entrusted to us, is at risk of being squandered—not because we lack the talent, but because we lack the will. As the novelist and nonprofit administrator Jacob Bacharach has pointed out, we are told that it is impossible to build a 400-mile railway to transport people even as we build a 2,000-mile pipeline to transport fossil fuels.
What all of these examples have in common is a failure of imagination that leads to a fracturing of community. Because we are mired in the “throwaway culture,” we lose the ability to conceive of something better—a more just and equitable world that works for all people, not just the gilded few, and that may require individual sacrifices so that others may flourish. Jennifer Wright puts this eloquently in an April essay for Harper’s:
Civilization is not merely a building, not even one as beautiful as Notre Dame. What we mean when we talk about civilization is not just the fruits of labor, but the capacity to join together as individuals in labor for the whole. Whether we are talking about Notre Dame or your local library, each is the result of communal cooperation. They are built of brick and mortar, but also of a belief that we can work together to create beautiful things that might be enjoyed by everyone, whether they are weak or strong, rich or poor.
We may have reservations about our capability to repair something as monumental as Notre Dame—a building constructed over centuries, using painstaking techniques that are out of step with our poured-concrete age. Our attention spans have become so fragmented, one wonders if we have the focus and the aptitude to look beyond the sphere of our immediate needs that are necessary for such an undertaking. And yet, over 800 years after anonymous laborers laid the first stone, the impulse to connect, to edify each other’s humanity through a collective effort, remains strong, even in this world of violence and discord. May we seize on this impulse now, while there is still time to imagine the world anew and to begin piecing it together in faith, hope, and love.
Editor, Today’s American Catholic