I just came across this word today, and I’d like to know what you guys know about it. If you could also add a Catholic perspective on this ideology, that would be greatly appreciated.

I think the word refers to a number of quite different philosophies. I think originally it was an allusion to a highly specific sense of the word “existence” of objects.

I think mostly it was a reaction to fairly meaningless types of “philosophy” that didn’t answer questions of existence at all. Pope St JP II is said to have believed in a version of Existentialism which was probably fairly different from that of say Camus (who wrote a boring book I had to “study” at school).

I know little but thought I would just show off about it a bit!

Existentialism is a huge subject in philosophy. Um. In very broad strokes, it deals with the human subject and the human condition, life and death, the search for meaning, the role of the emotional and irrational side of our nature. I think the Wikipedia article gives some very good touchstone information to spring off on. Kierkegaard’s angst, Sarte’s radical freedom, Camus’ absurdity, Nietzche’s will to power.

Sarte’s slogan “existence precedes essence” is often used to describe the core of existential thought. Again, the Wikipedia article gives a good surface glance at what Sarte meant. It’s a rejection of a lot of the previous philosopies, and an assertion that human beings are individuals and have the power to make their own meaning, in various ways. (That’s always what I took it as, searches on “existence precedes essence” will probably yield a ton of ink spilled on the subject) The classic image of two people staring up at the stars and asking “why are we here?” is classic existentialism.

The history of thought that came before existentialism, and how the forerunners in the 19th century laid the foundations of it is really very fascinating. It’s a rejection of rationalism, of positivism and scientism, basically the Enlightenment thinking. It was influenced by the horrible destruction of both world wars, accompanied by a sort of pessimistic outlook… I could go on and on. I’m such a nerd. -_-

I am not a theologian but I’m pretty sure Catholic thinking is not friendly to a great deal of existential thinking. (There are probably points that line up, though) If I recall, Kierkegaard was a Christian, but Sarte wasn’t. And Nietzche had nothing good to say about Christianity. I’m sure there’s ways to reconsile existential thought with Catholic teaching. I’m just not familiar with it.

I’m not going to comment on the relevance of existentialism to Catholic theology, as I’m not qualified to do so.

I will quote my old pastor though. We were talking about philosophy and I asked him if there was a branch of philosophy which was closest to Christianity.

He replied, “Oh, I suppose I’d have to nominate ‘existentialism’. Most people ‘exist’ and that’s about it.”

That’s how he put it. And he was right too.

He also commented that Sartre had pretty well covered it with his novels, unpleasant though the characters often are.

If you want to see a existential Catholic point of view, I recommend the Book of Ecclesiastes. This book is much deeper than anything Nietzsche or Sartre wrote, and both wrote rather deeply.

Christi pax,


I too am not qualified to say whether it jibes with Church teaching or not. There is, however, a priest here who teaches courses on the subject.

What I am not sure of is whether existentialism even makes sense.


yes, yes …

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