Above: Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
Image in the Public Domain
PIERRE TEILHARD DE CHARDIN (MAY 1, 1881-APRIL 10, 1955)
Roman Catholic Priest, Scientist, and Theologian
Lord, since with every instinct of my being and through all the changing fortunes of my life, it is you whom I have ever sought, you whom I have set at the heart of universal matter, it will be in a resplendence which shines through all things and in which all things are ablaze, that I shall have the felicity of closing my eyes.
–Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, quoted by his friend, Father Pierre Leroy, S.J., in the biographical sketch in The Divine Milieu: An Essay on the Interior Life (first Harper Torchbook edition, 1965), page 42
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955), 73 years old, died of a stroke on Easter Sunday, April 10, 1955, in the City of New York. He was more famous as a scientist than as a theologian, for the Roman Catholic Church, of which he was a priest, had forbidden him to publish any spiritual, theological, or philosophical works since the 1920s. He was, by the standards of the Roman Catholic Church at the time, a heretic. His funeral was a small event, with ten friends present. Teilhard de Chardin’s reputation grew posthumously with the publication of once-forbidden works. His death created the opportunity for his spiritual, theological, and philosophical writings to go to the printing presses.
Cinephiles among the readers of this post might know The Shoes of the Fisherman (1968), a pious movie with a flawed script which leaves too many dangling plot threads. Anthony Quinn does a wonderful job of portraying Pope Kiril (I), a native of the Ukraine. Kiril is a compassionate man with a Pope Francis-like common touch and desire to effect peace where military conflicts rage. Among Kiril’s friends is Father David Telemond, whose theological orthodoxy is suspect. Telemond is the Teilhard de Chardin figure in the story, based on Morris West’s 1963 novel.
Our saint was a Frenchman. The native of Orcines, Auvergne, France, was the fourth of eleven children of Emmanuel and Berthe-Adele Teilhard de Chardin. Emmanuel was a gentleman farmer, and Berthe-Adele was a great-grandniece of Francois-Marie Arouet (1694-1778), a.k.a. Voltaire, snarky author of Candide, or Optimism (1759) and one of the most famous author of the Enlightenment. The 18-year-old Teilhard de Chardin entered the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) at Aix-en-Provence in 1899. The realities of French government policy required him to continue his studies in Jersey, England, from 1902 to 1905. Our saint taught chemistry at the Jesuit high school in Cairo, Egypt, from 1905 to 1908. Then, from 1908 to 1911, he studied in Hastings, England. There, in 1911, he became a priest.
A scientific career followed. In 1912 Teilhard de Chardin commenced doctoral studies in paleontology and geology at the Sorbonne. World War I (1914-1918) interrupted those plans, for he was a stretcher-carrier in the French Army for a few years. After the war our saint returned to the Sorbonne, where he completed his doctorate in 1922. That year he became the Chair of Geology at the Institute Catholique, Paris.
That was when the trouble started for Teilhard de Chardin. Pope Pius X (reigned 1903-1914), with the anti-intellectual mindset he learned from his peasant background, was a theological stalwart. He condemned Modernism, born out of an effort to reconcile faith and theology with developments in science and other secular knowledge. Among these developments was evolution, extant since Greek antiquity yet restated and revived powerfully in the writings of Charles Darwin (1809-1882) and Alfred Wallace (1823-1913). Pius X (beatified in 1951 and canonized three years later) unleashed what J. N. D. Kelly described in The Oxford Dictionary of Popes as
a widespread, often embarrassing harassment of scholars which widened the breach between the church and the intelligentsia.
Although Pope Benedict XV (reigned 1914-1922) calmed that conflict, official Roman Catholic suspicion of evolution and Modernism persisted for decades. For example, in Humani generis (August 12, 1950), Pope Pius XII (reigned 1939-1958) wrote:
A glance at the world outside the Christian Fold will familiarize us, easily enough, with the false directions which the thought of the learned often takes. Some will contend that the theory of evolution, as it is called–a theory which has not been proved beyond contradiction even in the sphere of natural science–applies to the origin of all things whatsoever….These false evolutionary notions, with their denial of all that is absolute or fixed or abiding in human experience, have paved the way for a new philosophy of error….The Teaching of the Church leaves the doctrine of Evolution an open question, as long as it confines its speculations to the development, from other living matter already in existence, of the human body…..Original sin is the result of a sin committed, in actual historical fact, by an individual man named Adam….
–Quoted and excerpted from The Papal Encyclicals in Their Historical Context: The Teachings of the Popes from Peter to John XXIII (edited by Anne Fremantle, 1963), pages 294-298
The opening of the proverbial church windows to the world had to wait until Pius XII’s successor, John XXIII (reigned 1958-1963).
Teilhard de Chardin’s superiors suspected that he stood outside of Roman Catholic tradition. In some ways he did. Roman Catholicism has long contained mutually exclusive traditions, actually. Critics in the mold of Pius X stood in the anti-intellectual tradition, which has existed within Roman Catholicism for more than a millennium. Distrust of scientific knowledge has long run amok there. Teilhard de Chardin stood within the also longstanding Roman Catholic tradition of reconciling faith and reason, informed by science.
Teilhard de Chardin not only accepted human evolution as fact but gave it a prominent place in his theology. He wrote that the emergence of humans constituted the birth of reflection. Physical evolution, he wrote, had gone about as far as it could. The current phase of evolution, he insisted, was human socialization, that is, cultural convergence toward a single society in which love is the highest radial energy, or inward tendency, toward self-perfection. The culmination of evolution, Teilhard de Chardin wrote, will be the Second Coming of Christ, the physical center of evolution, and the source of the love energy in that process.
Teilhard de Chardin’s optimistic theology had Christ at its center. Our saint understood the human-divine relationship as being properly collaborative. Jesus, he wrote, was the Divine Milieu, always at work in creation. Since “milieu,” in French, indicates both “center” and “environment,” the use of that word was especially expressive and compact.
Certain critics noted that our saint did little theologically regarding issues of sin and evil, and that his treatment of them was either wrong or inadequate. St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430) had, for example, defined sin as disordered love, which was not Teilhard de Chardin’s opinion.
No human being is perfect, hence no human system of theology avoids flaws. No theologian has ever been infallible, so yes, Teilhard de Chardin committed some theological errors, as did his critics and St. Augustine of Hippo also. My primary question regarding our saint’s theology is whether the core of it was sound. Integrating science and religion and placing Christ at the center of the evolutionary process seems sound to me.
Teilhard de Chardin got into trouble with Holy Mother Church initially because of a paper he wrote on the relationship to original sin to human evolution. No draft of it satisfied his ecclesiastical superiors, who forced him to sign official renunciations of the views contained in that paper. In 1925 the Jesuit Superior General removed our saint from the position of Chair of Geology at the Institut Catholique, Paris. The Vatican forbade Teilhard de Chardin to publish anything in the realms of spirituality, theology, or philosophy, and in the late 1920s, exiled him to China. Our saint spent most of the next almost twenty years in Asia, living in China until 1934 and again from 1939 to 1946. He participated in many expeditions, including the one which discovered the 400,000-year-old school of Peking Man in 1929. Teilhard de Chardin visited France periodically, and traveled in India, China, Japan, and the United States from 1934 to 1939.
Troubles with the Church continued to follow Teilhard de Chardin after World War II. He returned to France in 1946, but had to leave after a few years. Our saint served as the director of research at the National Center for Scientific Research. In 1948 the Jesuit Superior General prevented him from standing as a candidate for the Chair of Paleontology at the College de France. Teilhard de Chardin eventually left for the United States, where he accepted a position with the Wenner-Grenn Foundation for Anthropological Research.
Our saint had a joie de vivre, for he enjoyed pleasures such as good food and humor. Nevertheless, official rejection and interference caused him much distress. Teilhard de Chardin’s friend, Father Pierre Leroy, S.J, wrote:
There was no contradiction in his soul, no ambiguity between his humble loyalty as a son of the Church and the boldness of his philosophical views. But in the depths of his being there raged the excruciating torment of reconciling his complete submission to the Church with the integrity of his thought.
–“Teilhard de Chardin: The Man,” in The Divine Milieu: An Essay on the Inner Life (first Harper Torchbook edition, 1965), page 37
Teilhard de Chardin left an astounding legacy. He wrote 10 volumes of hard science and 15 of anthropology, philosophy, spirituality, and theology. He had to endure the Vatican’s official frown during most of his life, but recent Popes have affirmed parts of his theology. Our saint wrote in The Divine Milieu (written, 1926 and 1927; published in French, 1957; published in English, 1960):
Nothing is profane to those who know how to see.
By that standard, Roman Catholicism knows how to see better after the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II, 1962-1965) than it did before.
KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR
JANUARY 15, 2016 COMMON ERA
THE FEAST OF MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR., CIVIL RIGHTS LEADER
Eternal God, the whole cosmos sings of your glory,
from the dividing of a single cell to the vast expanse of interstellar space:
We bless you for your theologian and scientist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin,
who perceived the divine in the evolving creation.
Enable us to become faithful stewards of your divine works
and heirs of your eternal kingdom;
through Jesus Christ, the firstborn of all creation,
who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns,
one Gd, for ever and ever. Amen.
—Holy Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints (2010), page 321
I have not attempted to write a comprehensive account of Teilhard de Chardin’s life and theology, for others have done that already. For more complete yet not tome-length accounts, O reader, I refer you to three sources:
- The American Teilhard Association;
- “Teilhard de Chardin: The Man,” by Father Pierre Leroy, S.J., in the Harper Torchbook edition of The Divine Milieu; and
- The chapter on Teilhard de Chardin in A Handbook of Christian Theologians–Expanded Edition (1984), edited by Martin E. Marty and Dean G. Peerman.
There are also Teilhard de Chardin’s writings, of course.