So, last week in Paris, I visited the Pantheon, the national temple dedicated to the values of Republican France. I had never been, and was eager to see it. Must admit it really disturbed me. Ignorant as I am of the particulars of French history, I had not realized that the Pantheon was not constructed as a secular building, but originally built as a church — one dedicated to St. Genevieve, the patron saint of Paris, on the site where Clovis built an abbey for her and her nuns in the fifth century. Louis XV, the penultimate king of France, ordered the current structure built over the ruins of St. Genevieve’s abbey church, but it wasn’t completed until just after the French Revolution, which seized the building and turned it to secular purposes. It has since then been the place where the French Republic inters its Great Men (and, in the case of Marie Curie, its great women, er, woman). The crypt is full of secular heroes of the nation, including writers (Voltaire, Zola, Hugo), and plenty of Napoleonic functionaries.

Under the great dome you find a replica of Foucault’s pendulum, the most famous of which the physicist hung from the dome of the Pantheon in 1851. It serves there today as an ersatz version of the Blessed Sacrament, to remind us that Science and Reason are truly worthy of man’s reverence and worship. Something I read there — a plaque? a handbill? — said that the pendulum revealed to us that what we thought was fixed was relative. You see the ideological point.

If the Pantheon had not been built as a church, and had not been built over the site of one of the most historically and theologically significant churches in Paris, I wouldn’t have been bothered by it. But the fact that it repurposed a church for use in the cult of the French Republic (including republican values, like the exaltation of Science and Reason) — well, to me there was a strong air of defilement about the place. Knowing what the revolutionaries did to the Church — St. Genevieve’s relics, for example, were publicly burned in 1793 — exacerbated the sense of defilement. The Pantheon is indeed the national cathedral of the ersatz nationalist-republican religion that burns the relics of saints and elevates those of “sophisters, economists, and calculators,” in Burke’s phrase. I have no problem at all honoring a nation’s great men, even men who were not saints, within its most hallowed religious buildings — consider Poets Corner at Westminster Abbey, for example. The difference is that the church itself is dedicated to the greater glory of God, not the men there interred or memorialized. They know, or are shown, their place in the divine order. But then again, this was an age that saw the infamous, got-up Emperor seize his crown from the hands of the Pope, and crown himself. 

When I left, I muttered a sacrilegious, to Republican France, prayer, “Vive la Vendee.” So there.

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