Catholic Transcript Magazine of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford Connecticut

As we celebrate the 175th Anniversary of the Archdiocese, we look back… on July 22, 1960 when ground was broken for St. Philip Church, East Windsor.
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msgrliptak_halfQ. In the news recently, in a story about Jean Paul Sartre, a reference to "existentialism" interested me because I have never been able to find a working definition of the word. Is there an accepted definition? And does existentialism cross into theology, or is it merely a philosophical term?

A. Existentialism is an elusive term. Moreover, some existentialists postulate God, while others profess to be atheists. And the whole subject of existentialism does touch upon God, and hence, God-talk, which is another word for theology. Furthermore, the founder of contemporary existentialism, Søren Kierkegaard, was a theist; i.e., he believed in God. (He never referred to himself as an existentialist, however, preferring the label "poet.") On the other hand, Jean Paul Sartre’s philosophy began with the explicit denial of God’s very existence.

A comparative list of atheistic existentialists and theistic existentialists was provided by philosopher and Seminary rector Father Francis J. Lescoe in his scholarly compendium Existentialism: with or without God (Staten Island, N.Y.: Alba House, 1974). Among those who affirmed God are: Søren Kierkegaard, Gabriel Marcel, and Martin Buber. In the atheistic camp are Jean Paul Sartre (and his companion, Simone de Beauvoir) and arguably, Martin Heidegger.

Søren Kierkegaard (d. 1855) is usually regarded as the Father of the existential dialectic. However, this refers to modern existentialism. Some chroniclers cite 17th century Blaise Pascal as (in Father Lescoe's words), "the first authentic existentialist." But others go back further in history, even citing St. Augustine as an existentialist.

Defining existentialism is all but impossible since the concept avoids the abstract and the universal. And definitions have to do with the abstract and the universal. Hence, many "definitions" can be offered for existentialism. Gabriel Marcel, a Catholic existentialist, proposed this description: "For my part, I should be inclined to deny the properly philosophic quality of all my works in which there is no trace of what I can only call the sting of the real."

Father Lescoe’s solution to a definition was to identify six "themes" common to existentialism. These are: (1) Existence and the individual; (2) Authentic and inauthentic existence; (3) Community, I-Thou, Co-esse; (4) Estrangement, alienation and absurdity; (5) Dehumanization, objectification, depersonalization; (6) Phenomenology and existentialism.

These "themes" resonate, in various ways, with existentialists. Wherever existentialism appears, for example, strains of "authentic" and "inauthentic" existence can be heard, sometimes in rhetoric transcending the usual. In fact, existentialist Albert Camus wrote so beautifully that he was awarded a Nobel Prize for Literature (1957), and the contemporary world continues to read and study his The Stranger, The Plague, The Fall, and The Myth of Sisyphus. Jean Paul Sartre’s No Exit, The Flies, and Nausea are likewise well-read. Moreover, the Jewish existentialist Martin Buber’s masterpiece Ich und du (I and Thou) is viewed by the contemporary world as an epoch-making work.

From modern-day existentialists, Catholic philosophical tradition has borrowed multiple insights, so much so that Lublin Existentialism, a system developed at the great Polish Catholic University of Lublin (KUL) and used by Karol Wojtyla (Pope John Paul II), was even acknowledged by the Communist overlords prior to the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989 as a major, if not the major, threat to Communistic efforts to enslave the Polish people. So powerfully cogent an argument was made by Lublin Existentialism in behalf of the dignity of each and every human being that Communists were unable to counter it intellectually, admitting that it threatened the Communist regime.

alertAt the Spring Assembly of the U.S. bishops, Cardinal Joseph Tobin suggested that a delegation ofbishops go to the border to see for themselves what was happening to newly arrived immigrants, families and children. On July 1 and 2, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the U.S. bishops conference, and five other bishops conducted a pastoral visit to the diocese of Brownsville, Texas. Stops included Mass at the Shrine of Our Lady of San Juan del Valle with the community, a visit to anHHS/OBR Shelter and Mass for the families there, a visit to the Customs and Border Patrol processing center in McAllen, TX, and a press conference at the end of their visit. Catholic News Service accompanied the bishops on their border trip. 

  1. Backgrounder and analysis of the bishops’ trip to the border: Cardinal DiNardo told CNS, “You cannot look at immigration as an abstraction when you meet” the people behind the issue.
  2. At final press conference, Cardinal Daniel Dinardo said the church was willing to be part of any conversation to find humane solutions because even a policy of detaining families together in facilities caused “concern.”
  3. Bishops serve soup to immigrant families at a center run by Catholic Charities and listen to their stories. Scranton Bishop Joseph Bambera said he found hope in hearing the people in the room talk about what’s ahead. They didn’t speak of making money but of finding safety for their children, he said, driven by “the most basic instinct to protect your family.”
  4. At an opening Mass he Basilica of Our Lady of San Juan del Valle-National Shrine near McAllen, Texas, Bishop Daniel Flores of Brownsville told Massgoers, “The bishops are visiting here so they can stop and look and talk to people and understand, especially the suffering of many who are amongst us,”

A delegation of U.S. bishops goes on a fact-finding mission at the U.S.-Mexican border to learn more about Central American immigration detention.

Following their visit to an immigrant detention center, U.S. bishops said they are even more determined to call on Congress for comprehensive immigration reform.