Pope Benedict and Notre Dame de Paris

The near-destruction of the famous cathedral is an image of Pope Benedict’s observations regarding the wounding of the Church.

A picture taken on April 16, 2019, shows an interior view of the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris in the aftermath of the fire.
A picture taken on April 16, 2019, shows an interior view of the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris in the aftermath of the fire. (photo: AFP/Getty Images)

Pope Benedict’s letter regarding the sex abuse scandals came at the right moment.  As media interest seemed to be petering out, while faithful Catholics remain scandalized and wounded, on the cusp of Holy Week the pope emeritus released a thoughtful consideration of what led to the crimes, what has been done about them, and how the Church can move forward.

In contrast, the burning of the Cathedral of Notre Dame on Monday of Holy Week occurred at a moment that seemed profoundly wrong: sacrilegious, if a human being had been responsible. It leaves many Catholics feeling lost and abandoned, in a way that the sufferings of thousands of human beings often does not do.

On one level, this is clearly wrong. To weep for Notre Dame and not for the victims of abuse—or the victims of any war or natural disaster—suggests a deadening of spirit, a failure to properly value human life and dignity. But that is because we do not feel human suffering enough, not because it is wrong to weep for Notre Dame. Indeed, it makes sense that the damage to the 850-year-old cathedral should be felt as a visceral wound. It is in the nature of human beings, after all, to suffer and die—we are not immortals. But, as Plato observed thousands of years ago regarding procreation, part of the reason for (pro)creating is to participate in immortality to the extent humanly possible. This is certainly true of art: Michelangelo and Shakespeare have a certain immortality because of their works. And the touch of immortality extends beyond the artists to those who love their art. Viewing the Sistine Chapel may not render me immortal (if anything, it makes me more aware of my mortality) but it does enable me to touch immortality in a way that (as a non-painter and a negligible draughtsman) I otherwise could not do.

And so Notre Dame, for those of us who will never be able to take part in the construction of something vast and beautiful, is nonetheless a kind of immortal, the mere existence of which enlarges the world.  If it had been lost, it would have been like the death of a Titan.

All this is without reference to the religious meaning of a cathedral. The religious significance of the place—the house of God, particularly dedicated to Notre Dame, Our Lady—only increases the sense of grandeur that it carries.  Notre Dame teaches lessons that no amount of preaching and catechesis could contain; it sends through the channel of artistic beauty some of that sensus fidei, the sense of the faith, that forms the bed in which Catholic doctrine grows and is nourished. No earth—no garden; no sensus fidei—no deep belief. And while there are many and various ways to strengthen the sensus, one of the most significant is through the senses: through what we see and hear, and even smell and taste and touch.

To be sure, the senses can be avenues of temptation as well. We mortify them during Lent, especially taste and touch (through fasting), for those are the senses that are most apt to lead us to the sins to which animal nature is prone. Sight and hearing we mortify too—the statues are clothed in purple, and the organ’s music is silenced for plain chant and polyphony—but they are not so rigorously or so necessarily mortified as the other senses; for while beauty can be a distraction it can also be a path to God.

All of this about the teaching value of the senses has long been known by the Church.  Augustine spoke of the value of psalm singing (albeit with scruples) in his Confessions.  Aquinas says that sight is “the most perfect, and the most universal of all the senses. After this comes the hearing and then the smell … Touch and taste are the most material of all” (Summa 1.78.3, respondeo).  Elsewhere, quoting Aristotle, he makes the observation that temperance is most of all about desires and pleasures of touch, precisely because those are the greatest, most natural, and most animal of pleasures (Summa, respondeo).  And finally, Aquinas makes this reply to an objection regarding the good as the cause of love:

The beautiful is the same as the good, and they differ in aspect only. For since good is what all seek, the notion of good is that which calms the desire; while the notion of the beautiful is that which calms the desire, by being seen or known. Consequently those senses chiefly regard the beautiful, which are the most cognitive, viz. sight and hearing, as ministering to reason; for we speak of beautiful sights and beautiful sounds. But in reference to the other objects of the other senses, we do not use the expression “beautiful,” for we do not speak of beautiful tastes, and beautiful odors. Thus it is evident that beauty adds to goodness a relation to the cognitive faculty: so that “good” means that which simply pleases the appetite; while the “beautiful” is something pleasant to apprehend.  (Summa,, reply to objection 3)

Aquinas’s observations may be confirmed by anyone who has educated small children.  It is obvious, even from spending a little time with babies and toddlers, that human beings learn through the senses, and that, as the mind grows, taste and touch, the putting-in-mouth and the pulling-to-pieces, give way to intent gazes and listening.  In other words, mere pleasure seeking—“This tastes good—or bad—feels rough—or soft”—gives way to wonder—“How beautiful it is!”

We learn best and most through our higher senses and are tempted by our more basic ones.  And yet for the past seventy years a strange thing has been done in the Church—as in the culture at large.  Actions relating to the lower senses, actions formerly censured, have been often ignored.  Meanwhile, appeals to the higher senses—through beautiful music, liturgy, art, and architecture—have been replaced by boxes of cement and banjos.

To put it bluntly, the sexually permissive atmosphere of the 1960s coincided with a drought of the artistic material in which the sensus fidei had formerly grown.  It would be hard to say which alteration was more damaging.  It is also hard to accept the coinciding of the two as mere coincidence.  In any case, the result was stunted Catholicism.

Notre Dame, with its medieval history and beauty—nearly lost and horrifically injured—represents everything that Pope Benedict’s letter reminds us we nearly lost (which also has been horrifically injured): belief in demanding but life-giving mores, which require the mortification of the more dangerous senses; and also and the presence of great music, art and architecture, which ennoble and enlighten through the higher senses.  And of course, the pope and the cathedral also present the third thing towards which both mortification and enlightenment point, which they exist for the sake of pointing towards: the death and resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ during that first Holy Week, made permanently present on the altars of every chapel, church, and cathedral in the world.