Notre Dame: A Bad Omen or a Sign of the Strength of Western Civilization?

Flames and smoke rise from the blaze at Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, Monday, April 15, 2019. (AP Photo/Thierry Mallet)

I used to be a professional bridge player, a member of the “Omar Sharif Bridge Circus.” Sure, I believe in omens. Like most all card players I’m superstitious. But my Italian friend Christian Rocca is surely right to point out that we have to start with the hard facts about the Notre Dame fire: the cathedral wasn’t destroyed, most of its treasures were saved, the damage will be repaired, nobody died, and the fire was not an omen of the decline and fall of Western civilization. If anything, the very sad accident—as it seems to have been—suggests a very different theme, a theme of Western strength and endurance, perhaps even Western vitality and faith that many of our wisest and most eloquent thinkers see in perilous decline.


Take two examples from two or our very best, Rod Dreher and Dennis Prager. Here’s Dreher:

This catastrophe in Paris today is a sign to all of us Christians, and a sign to all people in the West, especially those who despise the civilization that built this great temple to its God on an island in the Seine where religious rites have been celebrated since the days of pagan Rome. It is a sign of what we are losing, and what we will not recover, if we don’t change course now.

Here’s Prager:

The symbolism of the burning of Notre Dame Cathedral, the most renowned building in Western civilization, the iconic symbol of Western Christendom, is hard to miss.

It is as if God Himself wanted to warn us in the most unmistakable way that Western Christianity is burning — and with it, Western civilization

I don’t see it that way. Not at all. It was a terrible event, not nearly as catastrophic as first appeared (official spokesmen proclaimed total destruction), but a terrible event nonetheless. Notre Dame is certainly a very important cathedral, even if the Romans or Brits might challenge Prager’s description of it as “the most renowned building in Western civilization,” or Dreher’s claim that the fire is a sign of “what we are losing” and “what we will not recover” if we don’t change our errant ways.”


Americans love big themes, but there are countless little events, and we are notoriously bad at fitting them into the big picture. Predictions abound, but are often wrong. Remember the end of history and the triumph of liberal democracy? It seems to have gone out of fashion, doesn’t it? Those who see Western civilization relentlessly disintegrating in the face of an onslaught of radical Islam or soulless secularism or radical leftism don’t know how it will all work out. Nor do I. However, the events in Paris lend themselves to some optimistic interpretations, and we shouldn’t accept the dark views without contemplating some happy thoughts. Those who want to see the fire at Notre Dams as an omen might well ponder the seemingly miraculous survival of so much of the cathedral, and of so many holy icons, as a sign of Divine intervention.

Yes, we have many enemies, but they are hardly irresistible. The Muslim world is composed of numerous failed states. Western Europe looks very shaky to me but nowhere near as fragile as the likes of Iran and Syria. There are good reasons to see China and Russia, Cuba and Venezuela, North Korea and Bolivia facing far graver crises than we do. So if you’re looking for omens—I’m not, mind you—you might view Notre Dame as a symbol of the ongoing strength of Western civilization.


It’s tempting to be a doomsayer. They’ve had their moments. But historic change usually unfolds more slowly than we expect, and it often takes decades, centuries even, to see today’s events in proper context. Remember your Hegel. Wait until the wise owl begins to sing before you think you understand what has happened. For the moment, we can all cherish the fact that so little damage was done to Notre Dame, rejoice that it will be rebuilt, and give thanks that no one perished.


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