There was the following sentence in Time magazine’s (December 11, 2013) article titled, “Pope Francis, the people’s Pope.”]]

“On December 5, in a long overdue move, the group of eight named a new commission on sex abuse, the problem of priest preying on children they had vowed to protect. It is the Church’s darkest existential problem in an era of existential problems. The commission aims to study better ways to protect children, screen programs that involve children and suggest new ways to create safe environments and choose the priest to lead them.” http://poy.time.com/2013/12/11/person-of-the-year-pope-francis-the-peoples-pope/

I’m not clear with what the word, “existential” specifically means in the above context.

Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary defines ‘existential;

  1. Connected with human existence.
  2. (Philosophy) connected with the theory of existentialism.

Which definition of the above does better apply to the “existential problem(s)” of the above quote? Are there any other interpretations than the above two?

  • Exactly what difference do you understand between those two definitions? I don't see a distinction worth bothering with. You might as well ask whether there's any significant difference between your cited the Church and the British Anglican Church (or the Baptists, or Methodists, or whatever). Jan 30, 2014 at 0:22
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    @Oldcat - you're right. I've removed my answer. Jan 30, 2014 at 0:41
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    In this context, since the Pope believes in God and His laws, it can only mean existence. I agree with Oldcat; his description of the problems as existential does nothing to improve the meaning of his statement. Jan 30, 2014 at 0:44
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    @Susan: I shall fawn over you forever! Jan 30, 2014 at 0:44
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    I have little problem imagining that the writer in Time either does not know what the word means, or that he tossed it in twice to add false majesty to his article.
    – Oldcat
    Jan 30, 2014 at 0:47

5 Answers 5


I think they mean "existential crisis":

An existential crisis is a moment at which an individual questions the very foundations of their life: whether their life has any meaning, purpose or value.

It makes some sense here; if the Catholic Church can't protect children from its priests, how can it justify its existence?

  • The Church isn't an individual and can't have such a thing. Each member might, but it can't.
    – Oldcat
    Jan 30, 2014 at 0:48
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    @Oldcat: Googling "its existential crisis", we learn that the eurozone, the publishing industry, Airtel, Starbucks, capitalism, and the Republican Party can all have existential crises. If this is an abuse of the phrase, it's a very common one. Jan 30, 2014 at 0:54
  • And in a reference back to the original subject, a widespread abuse is worse than an uncommon one!
    – Oldcat
    Jan 30, 2014 at 0:56
  • I don't see why non-human social entities can't have existential crises... Such entities can come in and out of existence and there can be pivotal moments behind this. See for instance the Federalist Party and Whig Party in America, the Mormons regarding desegregation.
    – virmaior
    Jan 30, 2014 at 2:20
  • Furthermore, if an expression can be established as common, then it can't be deemed incorrect, personal preferences notwithstanding. Otherwise, we will descend into the cesspool of prescriptivism. Jan 31, 2014 at 2:13

It looks to me like this word means nothing in this context. You can drop both "existential"s and the sentence loses nothing by it.

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    I'd go along with that. I see more significance in the fact that apparently Time chose not to capitalise the Church (my edit to the Q was therefore wrong, since I edited the capital in assuming that OP had mistranscribed it). Whatever next? Will be be reading an item about the bible in time magazine soon? Jan 30, 2014 at 0:41
  • But if an institution has a dark problem it does not necessarily mean that its very existence is in danger. The article is reminding us that the Church and whom it is said to represent, God, is a dying one. Atheism is becoming widespread, be it for better or worse, and the failure of the Church to act severly upon peadophile priests is seen to be a contributing factor to its demise.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jan 30, 2014 at 9:02
  • "Threatening your existence" isn't what 'existential' means, though. And the Church has a billion or so members, it is hardly dying even in the USA, no matter how much the press wants you to think.
    – Oldcat
    Jan 30, 2014 at 17:50
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    On the contrary, existential has a definite purpose in this sentence. Drop it and you lose part of the meaning. The sentence isn't referring to just any problem, but one that calls into question the continued existance of the church (or the justification for its continued existance). -1 if I had enough reputation to downvote. Jan 31, 2014 at 2:16
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    definition: of or relating to existence. concerned with existence, esp. human existence as viewed in the theories of existentialism. Therefore the article is saying, and I agree with Scott severance, that the Church is suffering a crisis. Europe in particular is deserting the Church in its droves. People, in Italy, no longer go to mass, that's a fact. The only time you see a full church are at weddings and at funerals. That's not the press telling me, that's my experience. The same and more so in the UK, Ireland and France.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Feb 1, 2014 at 0:52

It is in a sense both.

Existential means, broadly, “characteristic of or concerned with existence”; but since the 1940s phrases like existential question and existential problem and existential crisis have meant questions and problems and crises of the sort discussed by the philosophers called Existentialists.

The catchphrase often recited as the core of Existentialism is “Existence precedes essence”. That is, the Existentialists rejected the notion, which for centuries lay at the core of Western philosophy (and particularly of the Catholic Church), that “Essence precedes existence”—that man is defined by ‘humankindness’, by membership in the class ‘human’, and there is thus a quality of being, an ‘essence’, to which the individual is called upon to shape his life and actions, his existence-in-the-world. No, said the Existentialists: the individual is free, is-in-the-world from the outset, and spends existence in creating a unique personal essence through action.

The author is saying, then, that the pederasty scandal confronts the Church with a problem which goes to the very heart of its fundamental identity—one which cannot be resolved by theological casuistry, by contemplation of the Will of God as defined by the Fathers of the Church, but only in its concrete actions in-the-world.


Public School Teachers 100 Times More Likely To Abuse Kids Than Catholic Priests New data shows that teachers are more likely to abuse kids than Catholic Priests, shining light on a disturbing growing trend in public schools. --Just saw this article this morning!!!

The use of the word 'existential" in this sense harkens to the problem of death in Existentialism so it s mainly connotative and not denotative. Note also that it is incorrectly used to imply a threat to existence, a confusing but common use in political writing.

My cavil with the answers here is that a non-existential problem would not be a problem at all.


I believe the Oxford Advanced Learners is simplifying the definition a little. Other dictionaries have definitions such as:

Some dictionaries specify human existence but the word is certainly used for other entities.

An "existential problem" means a problem that relates to the existence of the thing referred to - here meaning the church. Usually this means a problem that threatens its existence. An alternative (but related) meaning is to the philosophy of Existentialism. The adjective "existential" can apply to many nouns - there can be " existential threat" "existential question", "existential crisis". This article considers these three to be the most common uses - the second and third are related to the philosophy, but the first is not. "Existential crisis" is a common phrase (and not always accurately used), but that doesn't invalidate other uses.

In my opinion the paragraph you quote is not about Existentialism the philosophy, but a variant on the first meaning - this is a problem that threatens the very existence of the church.

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