Tolerating Terror

The slaying of Father Jacques Hamel at the altar of the church of Saint Etienne-de Rouvray in Normandy should be the envy of every priest: to die at Mass, the holiest hour of the world. The president of France was heartfelt in his mourning, but Monsieur Hollande was also historically remiss when he said: “To attack a church, to kill a priest, is to profane the republic.” He spoke from the comfortable remove of the Fifth Republic, which would not exist were it not for the First Republic whose tone had been set by Denis Diderot (1713-84): “Et ses mains ourdiraient les entrailles du prêtre, Au défaut d’un cordon pour étrangler les rois.” Variously translated, it expressed the desire to strangle kings with the entrails of priests. Thomas Jefferson, a defender of the Reign of Terror, to the chagrin of Washington and Hamilton, called Diderot “among the most virtuous of men.” This was consistent with his note to Baron Alexander von Humboldt in 1813: “History, I believe, furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government.” A year later he wrote to Horatio Spofford: “In every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty…”