Public, palpable, and universal grief erupted in mid-April. A tragic fire in Paris shook hearts around the world. The people of Paris took to the streets near Notre Dame that evening to recite prayers, sing hymns, and watch in horror.
Despite France’s centuries long religious heritage, French law requires a separation of church and state. A 2004 law embodies French hyper secularism that forbids conspicuous expression of religion in public schools. Strict separation of religion and the French state, though, has the unintended consequence of restricting rights instead of expanding them. The French need not deny or strip away their heritage in public to maintain separation of church and state.
The fallacy of secularism in France rises like incense from the ash heap inside Notre Dame. Relying on a fundamental division between public and private spheres, strict secularism affords a citizen the right to practice one’s religion without interference from the state. That right to religious expression, however, remains confined within the private sphere. The French state, thus, conducts a secular crusade against religious expression in public.
By law, no crucifix dangles from a chain around one’s neck in public school. Likewise, the law prevents a student from wearing a hijab according to Islam. The exceptionalism that Notre Dame enjoys stands in contrast to the law of the land.
The morning after the fire, I learned the French state owns Notre Dame. Unlike most Catholic parishes owned by the church itself, Notre Dame is France’s property. Et pourquoi pas? (Why not?) The faith is undoubtedly woven into the tapestry of France.
Paris’s first bishop is the patron saint of the city and of France. Saint Denis built his congregation in the third century on the Île de la Cité, where Notre Dame stands. When the Romans beheaded him, the martyr miraculously picked up his head and walked several miles preaching a sermon, until arriving at the spot where he finally expired. In this place, the Saint Denis Basilica became the burial ground for the French kings.
Inside Notre Dame in 1804, Napoleon coronated himself emperor. Like Napoleon taking the crown from the pope’s hands, the French take Notre Dame for themselves.
Paris Point Zero lies at the footsteps of Notre Dame, existing literally and symbolically at the center of French consciousness. According to the Harvard Divinity School’s Religious Literacy Project, only 4.5 percent of French Catholics practice their faith devoutly. Yet the French revere the cathedral as an iconic testament to their culture and history. At once, Notre Dame is a very public and very religious institution. Owned by the state, a place of worship.
Notre Dame testifies, more than ever, to the ineffective character of France’s strict secularism laws. Simply look to the collective reaction of the so-called secular public as flames engulfed the cathedral. They flocked to the banks of the Seine, recited prayers openly, clutched their rosaries, and broke into hymns. Public prayers to their Lord to save their Lady. Private deep-seated religiosity became unequivocally public, broadcast to the entire world.
President Macron vowed to rebuild Notre Dame saying, “that is what the French expect.” There is no way to unravel Notre Dame from the identity of the French tapestry. However, that seems the hypocritical goal of secularist law. The French national identity calls to mind any number of cultural icons. Cheese and wine are among my favorites! Another is France’s Catholic past embodied in Notre Dame. My chosen confirmation name being that of Saint Denis, I identify strongly with it.
France possesses an uneasy history with religious tensions. The Wars of Religion and the Dreyfus Affair are as much a part of the national consciousness as Notre Dame. The French do not need to abstain from recognizing their Catholic past to remain secular. In fact, extending the right of public expression to include religion strengthens the character of the state creating an ultimately freer society.
To strike a balance between the state not infringing on religious expression, and religion not interfering with the state, will not come easy. . The state should seek maximization of rights. It should also understand how and when their good-faith intentions (no pun intended) take away rights.
I celebrated mass at Notre Dame de Paris once in 2003. A universality struck me with how easily I took part in the sacred mass in English while other parishioners recited the liturgy in their native French. As a descendent of the French, by way of Cajun country, the cathedral in the heart of Paris occupies a special place in my heart. My surprise that the monument to Catholicism and Gothic architecture actually belongs to the state rang like Quasimodo’s bells in my ears that the French need now see the value of religious openness in public life.
Though I no longer practice Catholicism, I embrace openness with religious expression. The world’s religious communities sustain charity and peace for so many. Any state that restricts expression of religion restricts the rights of its citizens. By extension, the state also restricts the positive role of a community based on the values of hope and good will toward all.