Editors’ Note: In light of recent controversies over private contributions to rebuild the cathedral, recently damaged by fire, Matthew Ross discusses the long history of questions about charitable giving to Notre Dame.
The billion dollars pledged to repair Notre Dame de Paris stoked a public crisis of conscience. Before the smoke had cleared over the gothic cathedral, the French press was ablaze with criticism of capitalist money-makers giving to a prestige project instead of urgent human needs. Looking on, the US and UK media voiced similar concerns.
The debate feels very modern, coloured by the sharp contrast in France today between the haves and the have-nots. Corporate leaders that hold the lion’s share of societal wealth show largesse through mega-gifts to Notre Dame, while activists such as the Gilets jaunes rage against economic injustice in the streets. In truth, anxiety about charitable giving to Notre Dame is as old as the cathedral itself and we are still asking three questions that deeply concerned 12thcentury moralists. When is money-making bad? Should bad money do good? And is it right to give vast amounts to a cathedral?
Notre Dame, like some 700 other cathedrals built in Europe between the 11th and 14th centuries, was largely built on private gifts. Cathedral building advanced and slowed with the pace of charitable income, which in boom years outstripped all other revenue streams. These gifts came in part from princes, rulers and civic institutions, but predominantly from members of the public who made gifts of alms as a Christian duty, typically at the end of a pilgrimage to a cathedral, in response to fundraising drives in their own parishes and by purchasing indulgences. Bishops and confessors were also authorised to designate res male acquisite for cathedral building, these being goods that, illegally or immorally acquired, could be donated in return for absolution from sin.
When Notre Dame was founded in 1163, Paris was one of the Europe’s leading centres of scholarship, thanks to its illustrious university, monasteries and the cathedral school of Notre Dame. One of Paris’ most influential scholars was Peter the Chanter, canon and professor of theology of the cathedral school and chanter of Notre Dame from 1180 until 1196 (chanter being a senior position in a cathedral’s chapter). Peter used Christian ethics to offer practical solutions to common predicaments in politics, commerce and church life. He was particularly concerned with the implications for charitable giving of four prevalent practices: prostitution, usury, extractive commerce and misdirection of funds. His questions are remarkably prescient. Should we allow ill-gotten money to do good and those who give it to launder their social conscience and reputation? And why are we giving so much to church buildings in the first place?
To understand Peter the Chanter’s thinking, we need to understand two principles of almsgiving – gifts made to the poor for Christ’s sake which were, in practice, commonly made to the Church. Firstly, almsgiving is a Christian duty of owning property. Having money is necessary. Having more than you need is not. We are therefore all obliged to use our superfluous resources to help others and not to do so is a sin. Secondly, and undoubtedly more motivating for donors, almsgiving offers the giver redemption for sins and reduces the time required to make satisfaction for them in Purgatory. The benefit to the donor – redemption – is negated if the gift is not made legitimately. Furthermore, the Church cannot accept property acquired by sin.
In the early days of Notre Dame’s construction under its founding bishop Maurice de Sully (some time between 1163 and 1196), the prostitutes of Paris offered a gift to fund a splendid stained glass window in the new cathedral. Bishop Maurice faced two questions. The prostitutes had extracted the money from clients by sin, so was it theirs to give at all? And if it was, could the Church accept money earned in the sex trade?
Peter concluded that there was no question that receiving money for sex was immoral. However, there was a practical issue with restitution. The holder of res male acquisite was obliged to make restitution to their victim before they could do penance for the sin in the act of acquisition. Besides his ambivalence about the notion of willing client as victim, it was clear to Peter that returning money to satiated clients was impractical. Therefore, prostitutes were not obliged to return earnings, their wages were theirs to keep and, by extension, could rightfully be given as alms.
Peter’s intellectual peers reached the same conclusion. The moralists Thomas of Chobham and Stephen Langton – prominent scholars associated with the Paris school – both agreed that bishop Maurice was morally free to accept the prostitutes’ gifts. However, the moral arguments were nuanced and liable to be misconstrued. The gifts, they advised, would be better received privately to avoid public misunderstanding and scandal.
In the end, bishop Maurice reportedly refused the prostitutes’ donation on the basis that acceptance would have seemed to approve their way of life. Although there was a legitimate moral argument for acceptance, public perception prevailed: a familiar scenario to many prominent organisations today.
Peter’s analysis of almsgiving by prostitutes attracts attention today because it is mildly salacious, but his more important thinking concerns usury. Usury is the practice of lending for profit, and was a mortal sin in medieval Christianity. (A mortal sin meant de facto damnation if the sinner did not repent before death.) It was also commonplace, even among the intimates of state and Church, and the problem of whether alms could be accepted from usurers was much discussed by Peter and his intellectual circle.
Canon law was categorical: the Church must refuse alms from usurers. Gratian’s Decretals (c. 1150) – the first, most comprehensive and most influential treatise on Western Church law – clearly forbade the use of usurers’ alms for pious causes, with particular reference to church-building. Parisian circles agreed with the principle. Peter’s student Robert of Courson – a prominent campaigner against usury who became a cardinal in 1212 – explained the ramifications of accepting gifts from usurers. A priest who knowingly received alms from a usurer would be excommunicated and suspended from his church offices and livings.
Practical enforcement was a different matter. The theological embargo on alms from usurers conflicted with the expectation that usurers, as sinners, must give alms for the salvation of their souls. Like bishop Maurice’s prostitutes, usurers were obliged to make restitution to their victims before they could truly repent. But how was a usurer to find and recompense all his clients? Robert of Courson offered pragmatic solutions. If a usurer had legitimate earnings, he could donate them if he also promised to make good with his victims for his ill-gotten earnings. If the donor did not in fact make good his promise, the receiving priest was not further liable. Similarly, if the usurious donor swore that his gift did not in fact come from usury, the gift could be accepted provided it would not cause a scandal. In sum, all realistic precautions taken, just let a gift do good. Such practical solutions are not unknown to today’s gift acceptance committees.
The obligation to make restitution also applied to extractive commerce. The Paris moralists conceded that money and mercantilism had a place in society, so the real question in their eyes was not ‘Is money-making bad?’ but ‘How can people who need to make a living pass through the eye of a needle?’ Mercantalism was acceptable as long as merchants sold for a just price, with ‘just’ benchmarked as the prevailing market value. However, knowingly selling above market rate was a mortal sin – the sin of avarice no less – and punishable by excommunication. Selling harmful goods was worse – notably arms, which rendered the vendor guilty of homicide. When it came to commerce, then, medieval scholastic theologians shared a red line with critics of elite philanthropists today. No gift, however munificent, can efface the harm done to society by disproportionate or exploitative wealth acquisition or the sale of harmful goods.
Finally, and equally pertinent to the present, why give so much money for an old building rather than to address social injustices or healthcare? On this question, the medieval Church was torn between asceticism and acquisitiveness. “Thus the Church clothes its stones in gold but lets its children run naked” railed Bernard of Clairvaux, the great monastic reformer and founder of the Cistercian order. The object of his fury was Abbot Suger of Saint Denis, who between 1135 and 1144 began rebuilding the Basilica of Saint Denis in opulent early Gothic style, setting a precedent that Notre Dame would later follow. Bernard held that such ornate building, by inviting admiration and therefore donations from the faithful, defeated true monastic poverty. Peter the Chanter agreed. Expensive buildings distracted the faithful from the true goals of Christianity, and diverted money destined for the poor.
In a telling turn of events, Peter, as Chanter of Notre Dame, was designated to oversee the Cathedral’s construction should bishop Maurice be called away for the Crusade. Luckily for Peter’s moral integrity, this never happened. But as Chanter he was a close associate of bishop Maurice de Sully, was almost certainly an advisor on the building project and, critically, would by Church edict have had a portion of his own income redirected to fund construction. Peter was also well aware that, for all his moral teachings, churches accepted funds from prohibited sources – notably usurers and acquisitive merchants who had not made proper restitution. Deeply implicated in Notre Dame’s construction, even one of Europe’s greatest moralists had to live with real-world ethical ambiguity and contradiction about the charitable funds that built it. 850 years later, we relive his dilemma.
Matthew Ross is Senior Philanthropy Manager at the Royal Academy of Music, London. He holds a PhD in late-medieval cultural history from University College London.