The Church of Resentment

Some people hate the rich more than they love Paris’s cathedral.


Well, so much for unity amid disaster. Monday’s catastrophic fire at Notre Dame cathedral in Paris was barely out before a chorus of complaint began about the superrich families and large corporations that rushed to donate to the rebuilding effort.


Those extraordinary pledges now total about €850 million. Within 24 hours two of France’s richest men had promised a combined €300 million, and petro giant Total committed €100 million. Hundreds of millions of euros have poured in from L’Oreal , Apple , Disney and an array of companies, foundations and wealthy individuals.


Yet some French politicians are unhappy about this. Ingrid Levavasseur, a leader of the yellow-vest protest movement, complained about “the inertia of large companies in the face of social misery when they prove that in one night they can mobilize a crazy amount of money for Notre Dame.”


Militant union leader Philippe Martinez complained that “You see there are billionaires who have a lot—a lot—of money. . . . In one click, 200 million, 100 million—it also shows the inequalities we regularly denounce.” Far-left politician Manon Aubry likened the donor list to a table of residents in tax havens and demanded they “start paying your taxes” instead.


Novelist Ollivier Pourriol tweeted his scorn in the form of a joke: “Victor Hugo thanks all the generous donors ready to save Notre Dame de Paris and suggests they do the same thing for les Misérables,” a reference to the 19th-century author’s two most famous novels.


What is wrong with these people?


These critics love hating the rich more than they love France’s—and mankind’s—rich spiritual, cultural and artistic heritage. If humans had always felt this way, marvels such as Notre Dame wouldn’t exist. The cathedral’s first laborers in the 12th century inhabited a world of disease, warfare, immense inequality and desperate poverty, yet they fixed their eyes on greater aspirations. They bequeathed today’s Parisians a building of stunning Gothic beauty that some now seem to want to keep as a burned-out husk in service of statist social-welfare materialism.


This isn’t to prioritize a building over the needs of suffering human beings, but rather to say that with modern capitalism we can satisfy both. The market system that has rewarded Notre Dame’s donors has lifted billions of human beings out of poverty around the world and left entrepreneurs with the resources to preserve the world’s cultural heritage.


Rather than admit this, an alarming number of politicians and commentators prefer to nurse petty resentments that they elevate to a moral denunciation. This is an ugly impulse, and it will hurt everyone if it deters donors from contributing to Notre Dame’s restoration.


The high priests of resentment are offering one useful lesson. They are reminding their fellow citizens what an impoverished secular religion they offer—economically, spiritually and aesthetically. The rest of us can ask instead whether we really want to live in the bitter world of envy politics, or whether we prefer to lift our eyes, our economic aspirations and our spirits to greater things.