02 May 2019
Carping and Sneering
Meanness of thought.
By John Watson
Carping is a human instinct but not a particularly attractive one. That is perhaps not surprising when you bear in mind that the temptation to find fault with conduct which is generous or altruistic has its origins in envy, itself not the nicest of human emotions.
“They actually did something when I sat on my backside and sneered. Suppose they think that they are better than me, do they? I’ll find something nasty to say, suggest a mean-minded motive perhaps. That will learn them to be superior.”
Recognise the theme? Yes, we have felt like that from time to time but most of us, once we get to the age of about 10, learn to see our own less noble instincts for what they are. Not, however, if we are members of the press where some distinguished commentators rather let themselves down in their enthusiasm to dis the Extinction Rebellion protests. Dominic Lawson, for example, who instead of merely saying where he disagrees with Emma Thompson, had to sneer at the 5400 miles of jet travel she had put in to address the protest. Yes it would have been nobler if she had sailed the Atlantic in an open boat and then crawled to London on her knees with a piece of the True Cross clamped between her teeth, but that would really have been a lot to ask. Instead she made an effort and did much more than most of us to push forward an important cause. Good for her, whether you agree with what she said or not.
Then there is the middle class background of the protesters. “Just back from their skiing holidays” sneered one journo, as if going skiing in some way made you unworthy to fight for the planet. Why should that be so? They have given of their time and effort. Of course they could have given even more and sacrificed their relaxation too, but most of us gave rather less. We should be grateful for their contribution.
Much the same attitude can be found in the press comment on the contributions to restore Notre Dame. Wouldn’t it be better to spend the money on the poor in Marseilles? Why did those who gave to Notre Dame not give to the restoration of Palmyra? Generally these questions are asked by those who have made no contribution whatever, but they should be faced head on rather than being allowed to drift past. Let us analyse it a bit.
Why do people, many of them not religious at all, give money to the restoration of Notre Dame? Is it out of pure charity, because they think that is the most beneficial way to apply their surplus cash for the public good? Almost certainly not. There is an element of altruism and generosity of course but that sort of contribution is usually about something much more personal. For many of us the existence of the building means something in our lives, as a symbol or a source of pleasure perhaps, and the damage in some way diminishes us; it is only necessary to look at the heavy news coverage to realise just how the fire touched people in the UK. The feeling must be so much stronger in France. No wonder that donors are prepared to contribute large sums to the repair fund. A gap has been created in their firmament which they want to help fill. That is surely a noble ambition. Also of course there is a wish to contribute to something truly exceptional in religious, economic or artistic terms, something which lifts the human spirit, presumably the reason why Louis VII began the construction of the cathedral in the first place and also the reason which lay behind the expenditure on the London Olympic Games. It would be a grey old world if no one ever spent on what they think would be glorious.
What then about the money left over? The price of restoration now seems to be about €600 million and the funds raised will go beyond that. Should the balance go to the poor of France or even to the poor of India for that matter? This is by no means a new question. It arises wherever charitable funds have been put aside for an object which can no longer be fulfilled.
Maybe the bridge that was to be maintained is no longer needed. Maybe the scholarship is for a subject no one wants to study. What happens to the endowment fund? Does it go back to the donors? No, charitable funds once alienated cannot return to the giver. Does it go wherever the Crown, as represented by the government of the day, chooses? Certainly not. It was not given to cover gaps in government expenditure. No, the courts or the Charity Commission apply it cy-près, that is by applying it for a charitable object which is as near as possible to that for which the money was originally given. I do not know whether French law takes the same approach but the renovation and fireproofing of similar buildings would seem to be the best way to respect the donors’ generosity.
What a horrible lawyerly approach, some readers will say. How can you spend money on stones whilst there are people starving? Surely, in the case of a cathedral, a more Christian view should predominate. Actually light was thrown on the question of whether money which could go the poor can be spent on worship and glory when the woman poured the valuable oil over Christ at Bethany. To put it in His words:
“For ye have the poor with you always, and whensoever ye will ye may do them good: but me ye have not always.”
Church buildings are not of course on the same scale of importance as Our Lord but they are tributes to the Glory of God nonetheless and hopefully the sum raised will ensure that we have them for some time to come.