Save the Cathedrals and Churches

Saint-Chapelle Paris, 1248. Photo: Wikipedia.

Any remuneration of the Great movements in modern history must include Renaissance, Reformation, Enlightenment, Industrial Revolution and the French Revolution. Communism and National-Socialism do not fall into these categories. Their nihilism, barbarism and destructive regimes are beyond civilized standards. Millions of ‘incorrect’ books, artefacts and religious buildings have been destroyed, tens of millions of people have been murdered, deported or used as slaves by these regimes. The last decades of the eighteenth century can be interpreted in parts of Europe and in America as a general democratic revolution. Some call it even an Atlantic Revolution. The ideas inspiring this revolutionary age spread from Great Britain, France, The Dutch Republic and a few other locations in Europe to the French and British territories in America. The influence in Central and East Europe was very slight however. The fundamental change this revolution established in all these countries was not primarily in politics, but in the ways of society, dress, laws, language and the attitude towards the Church.

The Independence of the United States of America did not mean a break with church and religion. On the contrary, many new (mainly Protestant) churches were built and politicians never publicly rejected the church as institute and religion. The situation in revolutionary France differed however. For several years the country became the first atheist country in history. Many cathedrals, churches and religious objects were destroyed. The Taliban are innocent amateurs compared to the French destroyers. Gothic churches with their bows were a relative easy target for the revolutionary forces of demolition. The massive roman churches proved to be the difficult victims. The French fury ended with the rise of Napoleon and the new monarchy. Six hundred years before, in 1194, the situation could not have been more different. The Notre Dame of Chartres was partly destroyed by a fire on June 11th, 1194. The citizens feared for the worst: the dress of the Virgin Maria, a gift from the Byzantine emperor to Charlemagne and since 876 in Chartres, could have been destroyed. Their fears did not materialize and the relic was undamaged, another miracle. Subsequently, the citizens built a magnificent new cathedral. So were the days.

Cities, towns and villages without churches and their towers are difficult to imagine across Europe. Even before the destruction of the First World War the French writer Marcel Proust wrote an article in the newspaper ‘Figaro’ in 1899. He expressed his worries about the way secularism was imposed on French society. He strongly opposed the ideas from socialist parties to use cathedrals and other religious buildings for secular purposes. He also strongly condemned the lack of understanding for the Church as bearer of European civilization. Religion had a  meaning of reflection and contemplating for Proust. He regarded the Gothic cathedrals as art, the summa of scholastics, music and culture. In his own ‘cathedral’, his book ‘À la recherche du temps perdu’ he put his main characters also in the perspective of eternity, parallel to the church in Combray, ‘the fourth dimension of time’. Proust also condemned the socialist strive for equality, he called it even barbarism in 1920, having experienced the first years of Communist rule in Russia.

He argued that no society can survive on materialism, rational principles, without religious or spiritual backing and a system of moral values. He foresaw the horrors of Communism. Proust was one of the few intellectuals who from the very beginning condemned communism as barbarism. Cathedrals and churches are bearers of European humanitas, culture, (modern) architecture and arts, the welfare state and, finally, a social society. The loss of these statutes of European civilization is a loss for European society.