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In the wake of the fire damaging the Cathedral of Notre Dame, philanthropic elites pledged hundreds of millions of dollars in support of restoration. Is this a good use of philanthropic funds?

Before the smoke had ceased rising—before even the fire was completely out—the hot takes about what to do with whatever would be left of the Cathedral of Notre Dame began to arrive. There were Catholic commentators and traditionalists who, noting the profound symbolism of the flames in Paris reflecting the dramatic decline of Christianity in Europe, expressed a desire to let the smoldering ruins remain as such: a fitting graveyard for a culture that was no more. Others suggested radical changes to the structure, to better reflect the modern age, or even scrapping the church and using the prime real estate for something else altogether.

When prominent French families soon pledged hundreds of millions to rebuild Notre Dame, the backlash was strong: was this the best use of billionaire funds? Couldn’t the money be better used to directly benefit the poor, instead of rebuilding an old tourist trap?

On the ethics of accepting gifts from those with questionable business practices, I recommend this helpful recap at HistPhil of the complex ways medieval thinkers dealt with such questions (including the amusing case of a group of 12th century Parisian prostitutes who offered to fund a stained glass window in the early years of Notre Dame).

But on the wider question—why should we give to or even care about art, architecture, or sacred spaces today—I would suggest a parallel to consider for those who would toss out the cathedral and direct the proceeds to the poor.

To my “strategic philanthropy” and my “effective altruism” friends attempting to reduce all nonprofit work to an algorithm in a spreadsheet of dollars spent per disability-adjusted life years, I’d ask you to think back to the ancient history of, well, 2015 or so.

It’s hard to keep track in the era of the 24 hour news cycle, but recall the massive number of controversies and activism related to Confederate flags, statues, and paraphernalia in the past few years.

Following a shooting by white supremacist Dylan Roof in 2015, South Carolina removed the Confederate Flag from the state capital. Walmart and Amazon both banned any items depicting the flag. Over the next three years several statues honoring Confederate soldiers were damaged or destroyed by protestors. The Jefferson Davis Monument in New Orleans came down, removed by workers who so feared violence that they wore bullet proof vests and covered their faces to hide their identities while completing the task.

The events drove a nationwide conversation about racism and history that went far beyond questioning Confederate displays in the South. On several campuses throughout the country, students began protesting university buildings named after professors or noted alumni who had been active eugenicists. In Chicago, local activists raised the question of whether to remove a 2,000-year-old Italian column that had been donated to the city by Benito Mussolini in 1933 for the World’s Fair. 

My point in rehashing that recent history is that if your reaction to the Notre Dame fire and rebuilding effort is to scoff at the importance of that storied Church—art, monument, and sacred space—ask yourself if you had the same reaction to Confederate flags and monuments. Is your opinion that it makes no difference whether they stayed up? That those who believed they symbolized racism and those who thought they symbolized a key part of Southern heritage were equally foolhardy for believing that public art meant anything meaningful to begin with? That the government, activists, and parks were wasting their time, energy, and resources on the controversy, when they could have been feeding the poor?

The strictest application of effective altruism and increasingly materialistic mainstream philanthropic thought requires such a response, clearly absurd though it is. But man shall not live on bread alone, and by our very nature public art and architecture form us and shape us. They express our highest beliefs and aspirations, for better or worse, and that is why they matter. Make no mistake: man will have sacred spaces, be they cathedrals, synagogues, mosques, Independence Hall, the Stonewall Inn, Arlington Cemetery, or for certain confused Wisconsinites, Lambeau Field.

One interesting footnote is that in the public conversation surrounding both Notre Dame and Confederates flags and statues, the concept of the museum features prominently. Many secular commenters (and some religious ones) seemed to conceptualize Notre Dame as already essentially a museum, the vitality or importance of the sacraments, prayers, and rituals held inside it long having ceased to have anything but vague historical or purely aesthetic interest.

In the case of Confederate items, many suggested as a sort of compromise position placing the flags or monuments inside museums. In some cases this happened: the flag from the South Carolina capital is now displayed at the South Carolina Confederate Relic Room & Military Museum, where it supposedly can be “properly contextualized.” Its active symbolism destroyed or at least safely contained, the Confederate flag in a museum no more indicates support for slavery or racism than a museum displaying a Nazi flag captured in WWII would signify the organization’s support of fascism.

Never has there been a clearer demonstration of the dictum that museums are where art goes to die. If a museum can deaden historical objects or artworks, then outside the museum we might say that they can live. They can breathe a certain life, an organizing ethos into a community (again, for good or ill).

If public spaces are oriented toward the common good of the community, then their art, architecture, and monuments are supremely worthy of philanthropic interest and nonprofit support. And far from a retrograde impulse, such care of common spaces can be quite revolutionary when our cathedrals (literal and proverbial) are designed to bring down the rulers of our society from their thrones, and to lift up the lowly.

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