Rebuilding Notre Dame versus Caring For The Poor?

Rebuilding Notre Dame versus Caring For The Poor? April 28, 2019

In the wake of the Notre Dame fire, it seems the internet has moved from the shock stage of grief to anger. Within 24 hours, some high-profile millionaires have already collectively pledged over $1 billion towards the restoration of the burned cathedral. But this move has not come without controversy. Catholics and non-Catholics alike, have been taking to social media about how people ought not to contribute to such causes like building restoration or beautification. Much of the virtue-signalling has especially been exasperated by a viral tweet by New York Times bestselling author Kristan Higgins.

“Speaking as a Catholic here…please don’t donate to help Notre Dame. The Church is worth $30 billion. Donate to help Puerto Rico recover. Donate to get the people of Flint clean water. Donate to get kids out of cages. Jesus didn’t care about stained glass. He cared about humans.”

—@Kristan_Higgins via Twitter

I don’t know anything about this woman, nor can I say much about her relationship with the Church. But for someone to call herself a Catholic while discouraging others not to donate to the Church is a display of both flippant dishonesty and disloyalty. A careful glance at her tweet will show it is nothing short of an obnoxious attempt to gain relevance through the use of a giant red herring.

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UPDATE: Kristan Higgins has since deleted her tweet due to public backlash. Her follow-up tweet can be found here.

The Church Is Rich In Equity, but Cash-Poor

To start, I can sympathize with the frustration of trying to raise awareness of a charitable cause in the midst of an event that seems to drown out everything else. I also understand there are millions of causes throughout the world that could have used the immediate financial relief. It really makes me wonder what wealthier people do with their money when there’s so much poverty in the world. But that being said, nobody is saying you can’t donate to other charities at all. In fact, if people are in a position to donate to more than one cause, power to them!

The Catholic Church may be worth billions in equity, but that doesn’t mean they can throw cash on a whim. Their movable money is distributed globally to hospitals, schools, orphanages, homeless shelters, disaster relief, medical aid and (yes) even building maintenance and beautification. Although most of their equity is accumulated land and relics of humanity, Notre Dame itself isn’t actually owned by the Vatican. Because many properties had been seized during the French Revolution, many historical buildings before 1905 are owned by the state. This is the same tired, old ‘Sell the Vatican, feed the world rhetoric made famous by actor/comedian Sarah Silverman. What sounds like a facetiously brilliant idea would only be a temporary band-aid solution in reality.

I can’t help but wonder if those same people opposed to Notre Dame’s restoration would freely sell everything in their homes and give their money to the poor – including family heirlooms, electronics and home decor. I’m willing to bet the vast majority of first-world citizens wouldn’t dream of doing something so radical. In fact, it was one of the things Jesus had commanded to the dismay of a the rich young ruler,

And a ruler asked him, “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery, Do not kill, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother.’” And he said, “All these I have observed from my youth.”  And when Jesus heard it, he said to him, “One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” But when he heard this he became sad, for he was very rich.

— Luke 18:18-23 RSV

The Age of Kickstarter and GoFundMe

We’re also in an era where people set up fundraisers through Kickstarter and GoFundMe for almost any cause, including personal gain. Many of us, including myself, have friends or family who have endured losing loved ones, medical emergencies or costly expenses. Let’s pretend someone is setting up a fund to pay for lost wages or temporary accommodations due to a house fire and they happen to receive far more than they ever expected. Then some distant relative who is completely detached from this person’s situation learns about their monetary blessing, who then proceeds to announce to the world,

“Speaking as a relative, don’t donate to these people! They’re expecting a massive inheritance when their parents pass away. Donate to this neighborhood charity instead! Jesus didn’t care about houses, he cared about people!”

When put it this perspective, it sounds rather disingenuous, insensitive and downright spiteful.

Sorry to rain on your parade, Ms. Higgins, but that’s what you sound like.

While I understand Notre Dame is a building and not a person, many who watched the cathedral burn immediately felt a sense of mourning. It was like watching your childhood home go up in flames. As someone of French ancestry, my heart bled as I watched the live video of the flames consuming the roof and the spire. Even after a week, I’m saddened knowing an amazing building will never be the same even if it does get rebuilt. And seeing the hundreds of non-Catholics posting memories of visiting Notre Dame on social media while quoting Psalm 127:1 felt more like an act of mockery than consolation.

In my Evangelical days before returning to Catholicism, one of the churches I attended was planning a building expansion. The elders established a building fund to help raise money for an addition to accommodate the rising number of congregates. I remember discussing this with some friends who had been attending there. Many of them were quite opposed to the project. In fact, some had wondered why the building funds weren’t being used towards charitable causes within the community. As a result, the small Protestant church was able to accommodate better outreach programs to struggling families throughout the community. Although the building was a simple, modern, commercial design, I see a strong parallel between this and restoring Notre Dame.

Churches Help The Poor

In the days of medieval Europe and early North American colonization, churches were often the epicentre of the settlements. They were sometimes built through the help of volunteers and donated materials, and sometimes took years to complete. In other cases, it was a way of creating jobs for citizens to alleviate poverty in the days before the Industrial Revolution. Building a beautiful church was also one of the ways people would give back to God by creating a place where everyone could gather and worship Him in unison. And even nowadays, the local church was always an outlet to help the poor. In an era of capitalism where wealth is abundant, there seems little reason why we as Christians should have more beautiful homes than worship spaces. The problem with human nature is we’re more inclined to pay ourselves first rather than offer the first fruits of our labor to the Lord who provides.

One of the persons in the Bible who was famous for that was none other than Judas Iscariot himself.

Mary took a pound of costly ointment of pure nard and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair; and the house was filled with the fragrance of the ointment. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (he who was to betray him), said, “Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” This he said, not that he cared for the poor but because he was a thief, and as he had the money box he used to take what was put into it.  Jesus said, “Let her alone, let her keep it for the day of my burial. The poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me.”

— John 12:3-8 RSV

In my point of view, we should be caring for our fellow humans before focusing on architectural beautification. But no matter how much we defend church beautification or building restoration, some people will just never get it. Rather than empathizing with the loss of cultural significance, some people would rather watch the world burn.

“It’s not that one has to choose between rebuilding Notre Dame and feeding the poor. It’s that there’s enough wealth in the world to do both.”
Scott Eric Alt




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