Thursday, April 18, 2019

The Fire in Notre Dame Cathedral during Holy Week: Divine Retribution?

Just in terms of how the business and political elites reacted to the fire at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, the want of a distinctly religious explanation reflected the hegemony of the secular culture in the E.U. at the time. How the incident, which occurred on April 15, 2019, might fit into an established religious narrative was largely ignored, at least by the media reporting on the fire and its aftermath. Instead, the focus was on the impact on French politics and the donations being made to repair the damage. In particular, the matter of billionaires donating a hundred or two hundred euros fueled a debate on the morality of giving so much when giving to the poor could ease economic inequality, rather than on the religious legitimacy of being rich even with the good use in rebuilding a cathedral. The media at least was silent on the question of whether God had exacted divine retribution against the Roman Catholic Church for having pedophile priests and high-ranked clerics covering them up to safeguard the reputation of the universal Church. That the fire occurred during Holy Week makes the lack of any application of the faith narratives particularly striking, for what if a fire in a gem of the Roman Catholic Church during Holy Week was aimed at getting the attention of the clergy and laity?

(source: The New York Times)
Just three days after the fire, even as the state of France was paying tribute to the firefighters who had saved the building’s structure, “a growing debate about how the gothic landmark should be rebuilt” was brewing.[1] On the previous day, the state, which owned the cathedral at the time, laid out a five-year reconstruction goal” after donations of €845 million had already poured in.”[2] François Pinault gave €100 million and Bernard Arnault then gave €200 million.[3] The billionaires’ huge donations gave rise in turn to a debate on the extent of economic inequality in the state, one of the E.U.’s wealthiest. 
In terms of Christian ethics, the virtue of munificence, which had been especially esteemed during the Renaissance, involves large gifts, such as to build a church, and thus necessitated being rich. The virtue of liberality involves smaller donations and thus did not require riches. The rich man could get into heaven after all, as long as good uses are made of munificence. Serving God rather than greed could be inferred from the desire to spend at least a significant portion of a fortune on good uses, such as in funding a church or founding an organization to help the poor. The link between being rich and being greedy had been loosened if not broken by the Christian Renaissance theologians.[4] A person could be rich and yet not be presumed to be motivated by serving money rather than God. This assumption contradicts the assumption that seldom can a person become wealthy without having acted unethically in business. Forget morality; that a rich person could be motivated to serve God rather than money may seem astoundingly naïve to people in a secularized world.
Just in how quickly thoughts turned to the reconstruction in France, and, in President Macron’s words, the “resurrection,” of Notre Dame suggests that, outside of the investigation of whether the cause had been an electrical short-circuit, the question of the religious significance of the destruction was largely missed. Even as some onlookers prayed during the fire presumably for it to miraculously stop, the mere possibility that the fire was divine retribution directed to the Catholic Church because of its child-raping priests and the enabling bishops and cardinals who covered up the rapists within. Such a thought was simply too far from even twenty-first religious thought, not to mention secular thought, to be entertained.
In the Old Testament, Samuel tells King Saul that God is no longer with him; the prophet then anoints David, whom the prophet Nathan will castigate for adultery (and killing the husband). In a prophet role, Jesus points out the hypocrisy of the Temple priests even as he stays away from speaking truth to the Roman rulers. It could be expected, therefore, that followers of Jesus would speak up to ostensibly Christian clerics and even their religious organization. God is no longer with youYour church (or you) can expect divine retribution for what it (you) has/have done, for no man or organization is above divine judgment. It would have been strange to hear Catholics in St. Peter's Square shouting Repent! to their Church. 
What if God damaged a gem of the Roman Catholic Church, even though the cathedral was owned at the time by the state of France? What if France itself was besides the point? The issue would not have been whether an electrical short-circuit caused the blaze; this type of causation reflects empirical science rather than religious causation, which can be something external or in terms of meaning in the human mind. Nor would the immediate focus have been on reconstruction and the need for “French Unity” as if the destruction were a political matter. The absence of religious debate attests to how far removed secular Europe was from its Christian past. Perhaps that past had never taken root. 
Had the debate been religious, questions would have included whether divine decrees could still happen, and could a religion continue to be viable whose deity does not punish a Church for having prioritized saving its own reputation over justice and the protection of innocents from acts as heinous as child-rape. 
Joe Ratzinger, who would become Pope Benedict XVI, had written a letter as the archbishop of Munich urging that a pedophile priest not be defrocked because of the damage the scandal would do to the reputation of the universal church. The priest in question was transferred to another parish, where his roles included youth ministry. In September, 2011, two American advocacy groups filed a complaint with the International Criminal Court in the Hague. The complaint points to the pope and three other top clerics in the Vatican as having engaged in crimes against humanity for having abetted and covered up the rapes of children by priests. After the pope resigned and agreed to stay within the Vatican in 2013, the complaint was dropped. This is why the conservative pope resigned. Yet he got away with his crimes. "The high-level officials of the Catholic church who failed to prevent and punish these criminal actions," the complaint says, "have, to date, enjoyed absolute impunity."[5] Powerful enough to make a deal with the court's prosecutors, the Roman Catholic Church was able to protect itself (i.e., it's elite), but it may have lost God in the process. Given the lack of self-imposed justice in the Vatican itself, God may have sought to get the Church's attention, including its laity, by means of a fire at Notre Dame during Holy Week in 2019, or the thought of which may have religious significance, or meaning. 
Such meaning transcends satisfaction from moral justice. As Kierkegaard points out in Fear and Trembling, a divine decree may contradict our sense of morality, as it does when God decrees that Abraham sacrifice Isaac, which in a moral sense is murder. As immoral as raping a child is, divine judgment and retribution concerns breaking faith with God (i.e., sin). Too often, sin is reduced to "immoral," even though more is involved that transcends our notions of moral and immoral conduct. 
Religion can be very problematic precisely because religious people believe decrees that contradict morality are nonetheless valid. I write elsewhere that the element of transcendence transcends morality and makes religion distinctively religious.  A belief (not knowledge!) in divine decrees satisfies the transcendent core of religion, yet how many Christians in Paris at the time of the fire entertained the mere possibility that God may have been reacting to the unaccountable acts committed by clergy in the Roman Catholic Church? The ICC couldn't touch the former living pope and three others, but God could touch a gem of the Church, perhaps meant as a wake-up call as the fire during in Holy Week would surely get attention, even just in symbolic terms. Even just in enabling the men in the Church's clerical hierarchy by continuing to attend Mass and tithe, the laity may have been stepping away from God without realizing it. Perhaps God acted to get their attention because they had been so ensconced by the status quo or, frankly, too selfish to give up their local churches. 
To be sure, Isiah claims that God’s ways are not our ways and Jesus preaches that the Kingdom of God is not of this world, so would it be impious even questioning whether a fire at Notre Dame Cathedral is enough punishment for a hypocritical Christian Church that had strayed so, as if with impunity, from Jesus’ preaching on how to enter the Kingdom of God? Because God goes beyond the limits of human cognition and perception, according to St. Denis, we mere mortals can not know whether an event has the divine will behind it. Even the assumption that an event deemed supernatural is religious, or that the validity of religion depends on supernatural events, is problematic. So by asking whether the fire at Notre Dame Cathedral can be characterized as divine retribution, I am not necessarily suggesting the possibility of a supernatural act. I contend that the resonance of the religious meaning could have been felt or at least realized. 
Even if the belief in ongoing divine decrees had largely been vanquished by the time of the fire, whether due to encroachments by secular culture that privileges knowledge over belief, or by the related empirical science, the meaning of outside retribution against otherwise unaccountable crimes of power can still have resonance, even beyond moral agreement. The meaning could be informed by religious stories in the Bible known from childhood, and perhaps even fueled by a human instinctual urge for justice to be applied to power especially in cases in which it resists so. God has left you, Samuel said to Saul. 
It makes sense that the spirit of Christ has left the Vatican and priests if enough of the individuals acted in contradistinction to Jesus' preaching. Whether the intent of those clerics in the church hierarchy who covered up the sexual abuse was to protect the reputation of “the universal Church” or more personally to stay in office, power, like greed, can be at odds with the desire to serve God rather than oneself.
Christian leadership can be in the style of shepherd.[6] What good shepherd would rape a small sheep, or look away in protecting the rapists? Such a shepherd would hardly be a servant of the sheep. Such a shepherd would hardly evince Christian leadership, as such leadership must be consistent with Jesus's teachings on how to enter the Kingdom of God.  Rather, such a shepherd would fit Nietzsche's depiction of the ascetic priest, whose urge to dominate is incompatible with an underlying condition of weakness.[7] While neither Nietzsche's conception of strength or weakness fits with Jesus's kind of strength, Nietzsche's conception of strength is closer because it is more selflessly generous than is Nietzschean weakness. The sheer meaningfulness of outside accountability beyond human power being applied to weak clerics who refuse to give up their positions (i.e., power) in spite of the glaring hypocrisy is in line with many of the faith narratives in the Bible as well as a human instinct for justice. Hence the secular reactions in Paris during and after the fire can be said to have eclipsed a distinct sort of meaning, religious meaning, which transcends moral sentiment.


[1] Aurelien Breeden, “France Debates How to Rebuild Notre-Dame, Weighing History and Modernity,” The New York Times, April 18, 2019.
[2] Aurelien Breeden, “Millions in Notre-Dame Donations Pour In as France Focuses on Rebuilding,” The New York Times, April 17, 2019.
[3] Liz Alderman and Steven Erlanger, “As Rich Lavish Cash on Notre-Dame, Many Ask: What About the Needy?The New York Times, April 17, 2019.
[4] Skip Worden, God’s Gold: Beneath the Shifting Sands of Christian Thought on Profit-Seeking and Wealth, available at Amazon.
[5] Laurie Goodstein, "Abuse Victims Ask Court to Prosecute the Vatican," The New York Times, September 13, 2011.
[6] Skip Worden, Christianized Ethical Leadership: The Servant, Shepherd, and Stewardavailable at Amazon.
[7] For the figure of the ascetic priest applied to business ethicists and managers, see my book, On the Arrogance of False Entitlement: A Nietzschean Critique of Business Ethics and Modern Management, available at Amazon.