Reminder: The French State Owns Notre Dame
In the wake of the Notre Dame fire, both French politicians and private donors, including billionaires, pledged to rebuild the Church. Emmanuel Macron promised — rather unconvincingly — to have the church rebuilt within five years.
In response, some observers questioned why a government should be in the business of rebuilding churches. After all, doesn't Notre Dame have insurance?
Well, it turns out Notre Dame doesn't have insurance, and that leads us to a larger problem with the church.
Notre Dame is a government-owned building. As a spokesman for the French consulate in New York told Marketwatch :
The French State is self-insured for Notre Dame. It has no insurance. It is supposed to cover its own costs.
Notre Dame has no private insurance because Notre Dame is not a privately owned building. Like all church buildings constructed before 1905, Notre Dame is owned by the French state.
As recounted by Samuel Gregg for the Catholic Herald, the Catholic Church lost ownership of church buildings during the French Revolution. While the Church gained usage of its buildings during Napoleon's reign, state control remains:
The Revolution’s subsequent war against the Church included turning Notre-Dame into a temple for “the Cult of Reason” and “the Supreme Being” in 1793. Shortly after Robespierre’s fall in 1794, the cathedral became a storage place for weapons and food. It was seemingly forgotten to history.
A few years later, Notre-Dame’s fortunes changed when Napoleon determined that his regime’s security required reconciliation between the Revolution and the Church. Though the state continued (and continues to this day) to own the buildings, exclusive use of the cathedral was transferred to the Church following the 1801 Concordat between Paris and Rome. ...Though the Concordat provided the Church with some protection from anti-clericals, it also once again subordinated much of the Church’s life to the French state.
State ownership was again affirmed in 1905 with the "loi du 9 décembre 1905 concernant la séparation des Églises et de l'État." The law affirmed that only church buildings constructed after 1905 could be privately owned by the Church itself.
Today, the French state controls more than 32,000 churches, 6,000 chapels, and 87 cathedrals.
Moreover, any attempts to significantly change church buildings would have to be approved by government officials, and according to The Art Newspaper , this state of "dual administration" has "caused serious problems of management and conservation":
Under French law, the parish council owns the building itself and its furnishings and puts these at the disposal of the clergy for acts of worship. The parish council is responsible for the maintenance and restoration of the building but does not pay for lighting, heating or expenses connected with religious observances, which are the responsibility of the clergy. No building works can be undertaken without the agreement of the parish council, and the parish priest may not sell objects or remove them from the church without the permission of the mayor. If the church is listed, or classified as a monument of particular historical interest, the permission of the Commission on Historical Buildings must also be sought.
This led to conflicts, especially in the wake of Vatican II, when Catholic clergy enamored of the new iconoclasm in the church attempted to destroy altars, railings, light fixtures, and other church elements deemed too old-fashioned. Some secular authorities, on the other hand, valued these items as art, and prevented parish priests from selling off or destroying them.
In those days, the French state served as a bulwark against the clergy's bad taste. Mid-twentieth century clergy, after all, were notorious in their vapid and trite artistic sensibilities, which they pursued as a cloying display of their alleged devotion to the common man.
Had Notre Dame burned sometime between 1965 and 1980, French bishops probably would have insisted it be rebuilt with a brutalist spire of poured concrete.
Fortunately, most of those clerics are now dead, and few Catholics under age 50 think 1970s-style church architecture, furnishings, and art are nearly as charming as their elders seemed to think. This means the primary threat to Notre Dame now comes form the French state itself. Already, the terrible restoration ideas are pouring in, with suggestions ranging from a new glass-and-steel roof, to a spire designed to look like an Islamic minaret.
Since the French state owns Notre Dame, it's not a given the building will be actually rebuilt as a church. As I've noted before, many Frenchmen — including Macron and many of the donors — appear to regard the building's primary importance as that of a museum and community center. This could mean anything goes as far as reconstruction is concerned.