Jean-Paul Sartre’s confession of belief – and other surprises in a fine new book

Jea-Paul Sartre: 'a being whom only a Creator could put here' (Wikimedia)

What a feast it is to read Fr George William Rutler’s recent collection of essays, He Spoke to Us (Ignatius), first aired in on-line Catholic journals. Fr Rutler, a parish priest in Manhattan, is a writer and preacher well-known beyond the confines of his parish. The trademark of his essays is to assemble a seemingly quixotic mixture of people and events in order to show the divine hand at work behind our human follies and fancies.

Underneath his wit, erudition and ironic style lies a deeply orthodox pastor who reads the often dismal signs of the times but, as in the Gospel story of the travellers to Emmaus which he relates, lives with Christian hope burning within him. Writing in Crisis magazine in 2012, Fr Rutler states: “We are not a Christian nation now… We can dance to Caesar’s intolerable music, but he will call the tune. We can feast with Caesar, but he will soon feast on us. We can laugh with Caesar, but he will soon laugh at us… There is abundant laughter in the mouth of the foolish.”

On every page I was startled, shocked and stimulated. I also learned much that I did not know, such as that on his deathbed Jean-Paul Sartre, the famous atheist French philosopher, confessed that “I do not feel that I am the product of chance, a speck of dust in the universe, but someone who was expected, prepared, prefigured. In short, a being whom only a Creator could put here; and this idea of a creating hand refers to God.”

We learn in these pages that Fr Rutler doesn’t own a mobile phone; that he avoids taking holidays because he loves his parish work; that he relaxes by painting landscapes and practising his violin; that he takes regular boxing lessons, ever since he was once knocked unconscious by a man he caught breaking into his church’s Poor Box. He maintains that when Jesus told us “to turn the other cheek” he didn’t mean us to be cowards.

One essay, “Hanging Concentrates the Mind”, particularly caught my attention. Fr Rutler is not of the view that capital punishment is always wrong. Indeed, he quotes Cardinal Avery Dulles: “If the pope were to deny that the death penalty could be an exercise of retributive justice, he would be overthrowing the tradition of two millennia of Catholic thought, denying the teaching of several previous popes, and contradicting the teaching of Scripture.”

He describes an occasion when Charles Dickens watched an execution in Rome and in which “the execution was delayed until the murderer’s wife was brought to him and he at last received absolution.” He also cites the example of St Vincent Pallotti who “frequently assisted the condemned to the scaffold” and who was “edified by the many holy deaths he saw…”

Fr Rutler is not so much endorsing the death penalty as recognising that having been banished from Eden, we live in an imperfect world. Meanwhile, what matters above all is our eternal salvation.

It isn’t possible to summarise these piquant and insightful essays; I can only give a glimpse of their worth and Fr Rutler’s wisdom. I urge readers to savour them for themselves.