People were getting carried away about the fire at Notre Dame Cathedral, one Catholic bishop felt. “Some commentators are reading, imposing, waaaaay too much spiritual significance into the Notre Dame fire,” Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence, R.I., wrote on Twitter in the middle of Holy Week. “It was a frightful event, a terrible fire, that severely damaged a spectacular, historic, sacred house of worship. Nothing more.”
Discerning and interpreting divine signs are not the typical fare of this page. Still, it’s hard not to read something more into the inferno that destroyed the 200-year-old roof on the 800-year-old cathedral — especially if you take a slightly larger perspective.
While the Notre Dame fire appears to be the result of an electrical short circuit, hundreds of French churches have been deliberately vandalized and desecrated over the past few months, according to multiple media reports. Vandals smeared human excrement on the cross in a church in Nîmes. Crosses and saint statues were smashed at a church in Lavaur. A statue of the Virgin Mary was destroyed in Houilles. Paris’ Church of St. Sulpice was set on fire on a Sunday.
This plague of deliberate attacks on churches across France, often with the clear intent to desecrate Christian holy symbols and objects, was largely ignored by the media.
Meanwhile in Louisiana, there was a terroristic campaign of church burnings. Three black Baptist churches in St. Landry’s Parish were deliberately burned in a 10-day stretch, evoking ugly memories of the Jim Crow era. The suspect, since caught, is a white racist.
So, when on Monday Notre Dame’s roof caught fire, and at the same time a blaze broke out in Jerusalem’s venerated Al-Aqsa Mosque, you’d have be quite the skeptic not to divine some sort of a message. It seemed as though God was telling us all, “Look! My house is crumbling.”
Alongside the destruction of church buildings is the crumbling of the church as a collection of worshippers.
Only half of all American adults belong to a religious congregation (Muslim, Christian, or Jewish), according to a Gallup survey published on Holy Thursday. That is a precipitous decline: As recently as 1998, the portion was 70 percent.
Behind this drop-off is more than a doubling of the irreligious (from 8 percent to 19 percent), an increase of the religiously unaffiliated, and a decrease of attendance among even those who belong to a specific faith.
America is becoming unchurched.
Church leaders have worried about this crisis for years, as it has slowly unfolded. But secular leaders and commentators should worry about this, too.
Secularization strikes many liberal commentators as progress, but the social science suggests that, especially for the working class and middle class, those without church are in bad shape.
Churchgoing, synagogue-going, and mosque-going adults are less likely to divorce and less likely to abuse their spouses. Churchgoing families are more likely to eat dinner together and have family activities. Churchgoing kids do less drugs and more sports. People who go to church weekly are far more likely to report being “very happy.” Going to church even correlates with living longer, it seems.
If people are falling away from religious congregations, that’s a bad thing.
The causes of this trend are many. Of course, modern technology, secular crusades against public displays of religion, and popular culture are culprits. So is a broader alienation and deinstitutionalization of life in America. But the churches cannot escape blame for their decreased draw: The Catholic Church is still refusing to reckon with its abuse scandals, and many churches have become nearly secular, emphasizing the political or the popular instead of the sacred.
Maybe the fires at Notre Dame Cathedral and Al-Aqsa Mosque weren’t messages from the almighty. Nevertheless, this Easter, it wouldn’t hurt for us to take stock of the worldwide crumbling of the church.