Catholic Transcript Magazine of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford Connecticut

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Two classical words have recently been incorrectly inserted within general usage. One is “existential”; the other, “crusade.” The first is a precise philosophical descriptive; the second, a highly unique historical overview. Both are replete with multifaceted, complex aspects.

In philosophy, “existentialism” has two basic meanings. One form, dating from the thirteenth century, was inaugurated by St. Thomas Aquinas, who argued for the primacy of the act “to be”; hence, for the role of the intellect. Recent proponents of Aquinas’ approach include Jacques Maritain, Etienne Gilson, and Anton Pegis. The second “type” of existentialism is the kind allegedly related by some to the world scene today; namely, the kind predicated of a nation’s becoming “an existential threat to peace.” But such a descriptive hardly fits the situation, because contemporary existentialism really refers to a system of “themes” without serious concentration on ontology, themes such as estrangement, alienation, Angst, absurdity, depersonalization and even dehumanization.

Moreover, most contemporary observers assess existentialists as atheistic; the name of Jean-Paul Sartre, as well as his play, No Exit, naturally comes to mind. However, contemporary existentialism began with the Danish thinker, Soren Kierkegaard, who was a theist, as were, for some examples, the Jewish Martin Buber and the Catholic Gabriel Marcel.

Contemporary existentialism, in a word, always considers “the individual lived experience in its unrepeatable uniqueness,” and “abhors any attempt at objectification or universalization of that which is preeminently singular and individual.” (F. Lescoe, Existentialism, With or Without God, 1974.)

The bottom line is clear: unless one is willing and ready to wrestle with the profound complexities of the system of thought known as contemporary existentialism, one might be better off not to usurp the descriptive. Words have specific meanings.

“Crusade” is also a very precise term, not fully understandable outside of an historical context. The underlying idea, whose origin still engages the best of scholarship, fired by the destruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in 1010, dates from Pope Gregory VII’s cry, “I would rather risk my life to deliver the Holy Places than govern the universe.” After a series of crises, involving new factions, such as the emergence of Solyuk Turks, leading to the conquest of Jerusalem, a principal motivation was to regain and safeguard the holy sites closely associated with Christ our Lord’s pilgrimage among us. Basically there were four such efforts; each would require several volumes to chronicle fairly. Saints became involved; Popes also; knights, noblemen, lords, kings, and countless commoners. As the final curtain fell upon what eventually could be seen not simply as a heroic adventure but also a tragic effort (a series of efforts), the crusades, as historian Daniel-Rops writes, “more than any other event in medieval history, enabled Christendom to become conscious of its own fundamental unity…” As with most human initiatives, of course, abuses and errors by participants crept into their venture.

At any rate, intelligent observers of the ages must be cautious in using the word “crusade.” It is a word far too complex, far too profound, far too sensitive, to be applied without a sense of history and the ebbs and tides of human activities that history records. Indeed – to cite Daniel-Rops again – “the crusades remain a glorious memory; and it is significant that the very word ‘crusade’ still suggests an heroic enterprise” undertaken for some noble, religious purpose. “As long as Christianity endures on earth, as long as there exists a civilization from which Christian principles have not been wholly banished, there will be men to treasure these pages of sanctity and heroism, inscribed by the crusades with their blood.”