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The Rorschach Test of Notre Dame

Although the Notre Dame fire in Paris provoked universal shock and grief, its meaning has been refracted through radically different lenses. Whereas the French have focused on issues of distributive justice, Poles have locked horns in another battle in the culture war that has defined the country's post-Cold War history.

WARSAW – Following the death of Pope John Paul II in 2005, a group of young Polish activists and artists donned T-shirts that read: “I did not cry for the Pope.” At a time of seemingly obligatory national mourning, it was the kind of provocative act that can only happen in a free, pluralistic society. In a country as staunchly Catholic as Poland, the meme immediately caused a scandal. Yet because it was so effective, the “I-did-not-cry-for” formulation has been repurposed for similar situations ever since.

I was reminded of this episode recently when speaking to a French friend after the fire at Notre Dame. “Je m’en fous (“I don’t care”),” he said. No one died, and the cathedral is a symbol of Catholicism – a creed with positive connotations for some, and quite the opposite for others. Moreover, he pointed out that billions of euros will now be spent repairing the damage, even though there are far more urgent needs around the world.

He has a point. But every country also has its particularities. In France, the public debate following the fire has been refracted through the lens of economics – specifically distributive justice – whereas in Poland it has been about culture. Given that France is a far wealthier country than Poland, one might think that it should be the other way around. But this difference reflects what each society holds sacred.

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