Who is responsible for the restoration of Notre Dame?

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The destruction of Notre Dame cathedral was tragic, but where do we draw the line as to who should pay for its restoration? (Screenshot via YouTube)

Some Australians were outraged at the idea of giving money for repairs to Notre Dame Cathedral, while an argument over its symbolism arose, writes Dr Jennifer Wilson.

WHEN THE CONFLAGRATION of Paris’s Notre Dame Cathedral became news on Tuesday 16 April, former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull took to Twitter with the suggestion that the Australian Government, together with the Opposition, should immediately organise a fund to contribute to its restoration. This would, Mr Turnbull asserted, demonstrate once again our solidarity with the people of France.

Turnbull’s tweet provoked an explosion of furious disagreement on social media. Much of this disagreement centered around the prospect of donating money to the Catholic Church, custodians of Notre Dame who have sole use of the property but are not, in fact, its owners. The cathedral is owned by the French state.

Despite state ownership, Notre Dame is regarded by the faithful as ‘the beating heart of French Catholicism’. Mass is conducted daily and it is the home of Paris’s Archbishop Michel Aupetit. The cathedral also houses some of the church’s most revered relics and is described as ‘a symbol of faith which is at the heart of Europe’.

Given all this, the argument that the staggeringly wealthy Catholic Church should fund the repairs does not seem unreasonable and yet many who made it incurred scorn and abuse such as this from journalists Mike Carlton and Phillip Adams, both of whom perceive the tragedy as being a great loss that the world bears some responsibility to address.


It is, perhaps, not the most appropriate time to solicit funds from the Australian public for the Catholic Church. Still raw from the outcomes of the Royal Commission into Institutional Child Sexual Abuse and with the church’s most senior Australian representative, Cardinal George Pell, in jail after being convicted of the rape of a child, large swathes of the public are understandably hostile towards the church.

It is not unreasonable, given the church’s immense wealth and its unwillingness to make reparations to the victims of its priests, to feel a strong visceral resistance to the notion of giving money to repair their ravaged French cathedral.

It is reasonable to expect that the church will dig into its own coffers and channel some of its phenomenal wealth to the French Government for repairs, before the Australian Government rushes to offer the suggested donation of, as Carlton puts it, ‘a lazy $10million’ of taxpayer funds.

While rejoicing in the destruction of Notre Dame is a vile reaction and not one this writer encountered in any exchanges on social media, preferring the church to pay for repairs before the Australian taxpayer is not a symptom of Taliban-like zealotry or sour, cramped small-mindedness. It is rather an indication that very many Australians are quite legitimately enraged and disgusted by the Catholic Church, and no matter that the French Government has ownership of the Cathedral, it is a Catholic icon and a signifier of everything that is problematic about that institution. 

As the debate raged, a most peculiar argument emerged. Notre Dame is apparently not to be seen as a religious institution but rather as a repository for art and an example of outstanding architectural accomplishment.


This is a baffling act of cognitive dissonance. Despite the cathedral being a working church as described above, despite it being regarded as the ‘beating heart of French Catholicism’, we should apparently ignore its religious aspect and focus only on its function as a store house for art and architecture. If we agree to this convenient compartmentalising, we cushion ourselves against the complexity of reality and we also agree to become liars. We become purveyors of a sanitised narrative that refuses to deal with the difficult challenge of accepting that Notre Dame is, to many, a superb example of architecture that houses priceless art works and at the same time a symbol of horrific abuse and moral degradation on the part of a religious institution.

When defenders insist the cathedral is solely a powerful symbol of the best of western culture and values, they are in fact cherry-picking that symbolism. A symbol is symbolic of the whole and not simply a part, and while Notre Dame is indeed a signifier of some great and admirable aspects of western civilisation, it is equally symbolic of profound darkness and terrifying corruption.

It is, sadly, far too common for the dark side of our popular symbols to be denied and suppressed and for those who point them out to be subject to scorn and contemptuous dismissal.

It is also, sadly, far too common that the victims and survivors of institutional abuse are sacrificed to the cowardice of those who are unable or unwilling to acknowledge that the institution they admire also represents a depth of horror they cannot or will not confront.

It is, of course, ridiculous and cowardly to demand that Notre Dame be excised of its religious meaning and classified only as a museum. It is an insult to millions of survivors of clergy abuse and it is a symptom of the ongoing unwillingness of some sections of the community to accept the ghastly reality of child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. This reality is as much a part of the cathedral as are its physical structure, its artworks and its prized relics.

The outpouring of grief over the Notre Dame blaze has also highlighted the privileging of European tragedy over almost all other tragedies. Much has been made of the cathedral’s 800 years of history and yet most of society is largely silent about the ongoing destruction of some 60,000 years of Indigenous history in this country (and other colonised countries), the destruction of stolen land and the genocidal destruction of the country’s first peoples and their culture.

To point this out is not to posit an either/or binary, rather it is to acknowledge that white privilege is at work in the reporting of events and in the construction of our narratives. Yes, we can mourn both, however, there is no equivalence in the tragedies.

That ‘lazy $10 million’ Carlton wants the Government to hand out to France could far more usefully be added to the $12 million the Morrison Government has allocated to Indigenous mental health. $10 million to France, $12 million to address the heartbreaking matter of Indigenous suicide. A stark privileging of whiteness if ever there was one.

Opposition leader Bill Shorten hastened to agree with Malcolm Turnbull’s proposed fund. Prime Minister Scott Morrison, perhaps sensing the zeitgeist, was quick to distance himself from Turnbull’s idea, stating that France can pay for the restoration, while Treasurer Josh Frydenberg believes Australians will want to “chip in”. It is, of course, the individual’s business whether or not to chip in, however, it is not acceptable that taxpayers are forced to contribute and for once, this writer is in agreement with Mr Morrison.

Perhaps it is time for some of our more public defenders of western civilisation to acknowledge that there are other world views and holding them does not make one a philistine or a zealot with a sour, cramped mind. Perhaps it is time for them to understand that a burning cathedral, while immensely sad, does not necessarily affect all of us in the same way and there is no reason why it should.

Standing on the banks of a ruined, stagnant river, from which people and animals can no longer drink, in which children can no longer swim, a filthy billabong that is no longer capable of supporting life, is an experience that causes some of us to weep louder and longer than any burning cathedral. Western civilisation has caused this dire situation. It’s time to take responsibility.

You can follow Dr Jennifer Wilson on her blog No Place for Sheep or on Twitter @NoPlaceForSheep.

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