The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Notre Dame’s burning was an apt metaphor — and a warning

Notre Dame Cathedral burns on April 15. (Vanessa Pena/AP)

BORDEAUX, France — This Easter weekend, France was still reeling from the burning of the 800-year-old Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Its destruction is an apt metaphor for the devastation of Christianity across Europe — and a warning for us in the United States.

At Notre Dame’s much younger sister church in Bordeaux (construction began in 1684), Easter Mass was well attended. But in his homily the priest noted that the church now has only two Sunday masses; he could remember when there were seven. And for the first time in 15 years, there was not one new priest ordained in the diocese. Bordeaux, he said, was lucky; some French dioceses have not seen any ordinations in 20 years.

France was once one of the most Catholic countries in Europe. Today, while 64 percent of French people still identify as Christian, only 5 percent attend church regularly and just 1 in 10 pray daily. The younger generation is even less attached to the faith of their fathers. According to a study by the Benedict XVI Center for Religion and Society, only 26 percent of French young adults consider themselves Christians, and 65 percent say they never pray. The same sad story is playing out across the rest of Europe. The study found only three countries — Poland, Portugal and Ireland — where more than 1 in 10 young people said they attend a religious service weekly.

The situation in the United States is somewhat better: 39 percent of Catholics and 58 percent of evangelicals attend church services once a week, and even more say they go a few times a month. But the numbers are in decline among the young as well. Only 11 percent of younger millennials are weekly churchgoers, while 16 percent more go either once or twice a month, or a few times a year. The secular tsunami that has swept Europe is making its way across the Atlantic.

Elsewhere, in Asia and Africa, Christianity is growing — and, as we saw in Sri Lanka, is increasingly under attack. But in the West, Christianity is committing suicide. Modern secularism is slowly accomplishing what the totalitarian ideologies of the 20th century tried and failed to do: eradicate God from society. We are seeing the triumph of what Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, in a homily a day before becoming Pope Benedict XVI, called the “dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego and desires.” On both continents, young people are putting off or forgoing marriage, and having fewer children — because a culture of self runs counter to the sacrificial love at the core of marriage and family.

The exclusion of God paves the way for a culture of death. Christianity teaches that every life has dignity and worth, because we are all created in God’s image. But if God does not exist, then inconvenient lives become expendable. The result is abortion, euthanasia, sex trafficking, the dehumanization of refugees, the destabilization of the family, and the destruction of any objective moral order. Attacks on the inherent dignity of the human person are not only tolerated, but also held up as necessary or even good.

Today, France is in a heated debate over whether to rebuild Notre Dame as it was, or modernize it — much as the Louvre was modernized when I.M. Pei’s glass and metal pyramids were added to its classical grounds. But this is the wrong question. Yes, most of the millions who visit Notre Dame each year experience it is a museum. But it is not a museum. It is not even primarily a symbol of France. It is a house of worship. To restore it, we must restore its fundamental purpose: to bring people closer to the Almighty.

The human heart is made to love God. And as Cardinal Robert Sarah put it in an interview with Le Figaro this weekend, the fires which engulfed Notre Dame were “an appeal from God to rediscover his love.” He is right. Skilled craftsmen will soon repair the cathedral stone by stone. But, as the priest who said Easter Mass in Bordeaux told us, to truly rebuild Notre Dame requires what St. Peter called “living stones … God’s own people [who] declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:4-9).

We need more of these living stones — in France and in America, too.

Read more:

Stephen Stromberg: Notre Dame Cathedral will rise again. But it will never be the same.

The Post’s View: The world weeps for Notre Dame

Robert D. Zaretsky: Notre Dame tells a story of quarreling, not unity. That’s why it unites the French.

Patrick Gathara: The Notre Dame fire offers a crucial lesson for Europe — and Africa

E.J. Dionne Jr.: The whole church is burning, not just Notre Dame. Both have a chance for rebirth.