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Misplaced Charity?

April 25, 2019

In the wake of the fire at Paris's Notre Dame Cathedral, which shocked most of those who saw the blaze unfolding and dismayed even those who aren't Catholic or who had never visited Paris, there was an outpouring of financial support to restore the church. At this time, over a billion dollars has been pledged, much of it in small donations by a vast number of people, but much of it in massive contributions from wealthy individuals and companies in France.

Of course, this immediate response has been met with criticism. There are two variants. One is the mean-spirited accusation that the companies are just trying to save money on their taxes by claiming a charitable donation, or worse, exploiting a disaster to hype sales. The other criticism questions how much benefit a billion dollars could bring to impoverished and homeless people, particularly in the third world.

Both are misplaced. The tax argument is that in France, companies can benefit from a 60 percent tax deduction. Two companies donated 200 million euros (US$223m) each, thereby presumably reducing their tax bills by 120 million euros. Nice deal? Well, if you don't like it, blame the French government. The companies are doing exactly what the Republic wants them to do. Furthermore, to anyone who supports charitable giving, criticizing a company for donating to a cause does not strike me as a good fund-raising strategy.

The second criticism, that the money could be better spent in aiding the less fortunate, has some resonance. According to World Vision, $150 will provide a deep well to a third world village and provide clean drinking water for up to 300 people. A billion dollars could drill over six million wells for 1.8 billion people. Isn't that better than restoring a building, no matter how significant that building may be? I can't disagree, but the decision of who receives a donation belongs to the donor, not to me. And not to critics, most of whom probably have not donated for even one well, but who waste no time whinging about how they'd rather have had the money donated to their pet cause.

A further factor is whether Notre Dame was insured. Doing so was the responsibility of the Archdiocese of Paris. If there was no insurance, someone in the church hierarchy has some explaining to do. If there was, then submit a claim and let the insurers come up with the money.

Notre Dame Cathedral is a cultural icon, both religious and secular. It will be restored. And I would hope that any excess donations are used for the charitable causes the church and the donors hold dear. As for the donors, thank you.

Correction: It has been pointed out to me that Notre Dame is owned not by the Catholic Church, but by the French government. The Church may use the cathedral for services and is responsible for paying employess and for security, heating, and cleaning. The French government is responsible for ongoing maintenance and I would guess, for insurance.