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Is Teilhard de Chardin being rehabilitated? And who is that, anyway?

The French Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin has been called many things since his death in New York in 1955.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, S.J., pictured in 1955. Archives des jésuites de France via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0). 

To some, he is a creative thinker “in the same league as Einstein.” To others, he is “the most influential heretic of the 20th century.”

The theologian, philosopher, scientist, and teacher — dubbed the “Catholic Darwin” — was just as controversial in his lifetime. He prompted decidedly mixed assessments within both the Catholic Church and the scientific establishment.

But what does he mean to the world’s first Jesuit pope? Francis offered some clues Sunday when he marked the 100th anniversary of one of Teilhard’s most celebrated works: The essay “The Mass on the World.”

The mystical text was borne out of an experience in 1923, when Teilhard was crossing the Ordus Desert in northwestern China and was unable to celebrate Mass due to a lack of bread, wine, and an altar.

The text, published posthumously in the 1961 book “Hymn of the Universe,” has had a significant cultural impact, inspiring everything from a jazz album to personal prayers during the coronavirus pandemic.

Speaking after he celebrated Mass for Mongolia’s tiny Catholic community Sept. 3, Pope Francis said: “The Mass is itself a way of giving thanks: ‘Eucharistía.’ To celebrate Mass in this land brought to my mind the prayer that the Jesuit Fr. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin offered to God exactly a hundred years ago, in the desert of Ordos, not far from here.” 

“He prayed: ‘My God, I prostrate myself before your presence in the universe that has now become living flame: beneath the lineaments of all that I shall encounter this day, all that happens to me, all that I achieve, it is you I desire, you I await.’” 

“Fr. Teilhard de Chardin was engaged in geological research. He fervently desired to celebrate Holy Mass, but lacked bread and wine. So he composed his ‘Mass on the World,’ expressing his oblation in these words: ‘Receive, O Lord, this all-embracing host, which your whole creation, moved by your magnetism, offers you at the dawn of this new day.’”

The pope went on: “A similar prayer had already taken shape in him when he served as a stretcher-bearer on the front lines during the First World War. This priest, often misunderstood, had intuited that ‘the Eucharist is always in some way celebrated on the altar of the world’ and is ‘the living center of the universe, the overflowing core of love and of inexhaustible life” (Laudato sì, 236), even in times like our own, marked by conflicts and wars.” 

“Let us pray this day, then, in the words of Fr. Teilhard de Chardin: ‘Radiant Word, blazing Power, you who mold the manifold so as to breathe life into it, I pray you, lay on us those your hands — powerful, considerate, omnipresent.’”

The pope’s extensive citation of his fellow Jesuit’s work raises several questions. 

Who was Teilhard de Chardin? Why is he so polarizing? And he is undergoing a rehabilitation within the Church? The Pillar takes a look.

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Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, S.J., in 1947. Archives des jésuites de France via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0). 

So who was this guy?

Teilhard’s life was marked by the tensions and upheavals of the 20th century. 

He was born in a chateau in central France in 1881, the fourth of 11 children. His father was a librarian and his mother the great-grandniece of the writer Voltaire, a withering critic of the Catholic Church. The “de Chardin” part of the family’s name was the remnant of an aristocratic title, so their son was known formally as Pierre Teilhard (pronounced this way).

His early Jesuit formation was disrupted by the anti-clerical policies of French Prime Minister Émile Combes, an ex-seminarian turned freemason. He moved to England to continue his studies, becoming a passionate reader of John Henry Newman.

After his priestly ordination in 1911, he focused on paleontology, the study of ancient life on Earth. But following the outbreak of the First World War, he was mobilized and served as a stretcher-bearer. In Paissy, northern France, he celebrated Masses for soldiers in a cave that today has a sign in his honor.

After the war, he completed his studies and began making research trips to China. He was part of a team that discovered Peking Man, an example of the extinct species Homo erectus

But his writings began to encounter opposition. In 1927, the Jesuit curia forbade the publication of his work “The Divine Milieu,” which was not released until after his death. 

Asked to sum up his personal credo in 1934, he wrote: “I believe the universe is an evolution; I believe evolution proceeds towards spirit; I believe spirit, in the human, completes itself in the personal; I believe the supreme personal is the Cosmic Christ.”

This pithy summary of his convictions highlighted the distinctiveness of his theological ideas. It underlined that evolution was a foundational element of his theology and that he believed it was progressing toward a definite goal — an idea captured in his famous saying “everything that rises must converge” (which the U.S. writer Flannery O’Connor chose as the title of a short story collection).   

Teilhard contended that the Earth had undergone three phases of development: the geosphere (inanimate matter), the biosphere (biological life), and the noosphere (thought/reason). He believed that the noosphere would culminate in what he called the Omega Point, which he identified with Christ, who describes himself as “the Alpha and the Omega” in the New Testament’s Book of Revelation.

Following a trip to the U.S. in 1937, his reputation grew across the Atlantic.

But in 1944, he learned that Rome had refused him permission to publish his work “The Phenomenon of Man,” which was also only published posthumously.

After spending several years in America, he died on Easter Sunday 1955 and was buried at the Jesuit cemetery of St. Andrew-on-Hudson, near Poughkeepsie, New York state, a site that now belongs to the Culinary Institute of America.

When his posthumously published books began to capture Catholics’ imaginations, the Vatican’s Holy Office issued a monitum, or official warning, in 1962. It stated that the works “abound in such ambiguities and indeed even serious errors, as to offend Catholic doctrine.”

“For this reason, the most eminent and most revered Fathers of the Holy Office exhort all Ordinaries as well as the superiors of religious institutes, rectors of seminaries, and presidents of universities, effectively to protect the minds, particularly of the youth, against the dangers presented by the works of Fr. Teilhard de Chardin and of his followers,” the warning said.

Meanwhile, Teilhard cast a long cultural shadow. He inspired artists from Salvador Dalí, who reputedly drew on his theories for his monumental 1960 painting “The Ecumenical Council,” to the U.S. writer Don DeLillo, who riffed on his ideas in the 2010 novel Point Omega. He is also thought to be an inspiration for Fr. Lankester Merrin, the archaeologist played by Max von Sydow in the 1973 horror film “The Exorcist.”

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A stained-glass window (top left) depicting Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, S.J., at St. Anne Church in Heerlen, the Netherlands. Rijksdienst voor het Cultureel Erfgoed via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0).

Why is he so polarizing?

Why does Teilhard divide opinion so sharply?

There are clues in his biography.

In his lifetime, there were Catholics who believed that he was a genius boldly expanding the scope of theology, while others concluded that he was a heretic whose ideas verged on pantheism. 

The Jesuit theologian Henri de Lubac, who devoted several books to the paleontologist, once wrote: “We need not concern ourselves with a number of detractors of Teilhard, in whom emotion has blunted intelligence.”

In contrast, the Catholic philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand was shocked to hear Teilhard criticize St. Augustine of Hippo when he met the Jesuit in 1949. He wrote that the criticism conveyed “Teilhard’s lack of a genuine sense of intellectual and spiritual grandeur.”

“It was only after reading several of Teilhard’s works, however, that I fully realized the catastrophic implications of his philosophical ideas and the absolute incompatibility of his theology fiction (as Étienne Gilson calls it) with Christian revelation and the doctrine of the Church,” Hildebrand wrote.

These polarized views of Teilhard remain present in the Catholic world today, with the difference that since the publication of a 2017 essay by the ethicist John P. Slattery, critical attention has focused on the Jesuit’s attitude toward eugenics.

The essay argued that “from the 1920s until his death in 1955, Teilhard de Chardin unequivocally supported racist eugenic practices, praised the possibilities of the Nazi experiments, and looked down upon those who he deemed ‘imperfect’ humans.” 

Slattery contended that these ideas were not incidental, but rather formed the groundwork for his celebrated “cosmological theology.” He added that this should prompt a review of Teilhard’s place in 21st-century theology.

The Jesuit’s champions have responded by noting that Teilhard appeared close to his disabled sister, Marguerite-Marie, and arguing that he supported the spiritual improvement of humanity rather than biological eugenics.

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Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s grave near Poughkeepsie, New York state. Ɱ via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0). 

Is his reputation being ‘rehabilitated’?

The Vatican has long faced pressure to lift the 1962 warning concerning Teilhard’s works.

In 1981, on the centenary of his birth, the then Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Agostino Casaroli published an article in L’Osservatore Romano praising “the testimony of the coherent life of a man possessed by Christ in the depths of his soul.”

Amid speculation that this signaled the Jesuit’s rehabilitation, the Vatican’s doctrinal office issued a statement clarifying that the warning still stood.

Pope Benedict XVI, the former head of the Vatican’s doctrinal office, raised eyebrows in 2009 when he cited Teilhard positively during a reflection on St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans. 

“We ourselves, with our whole being, must be adoration and sacrifice, and by transforming our world, give it back to God,” said the German pope in a homily at Aosta Cathedral in northwest Italy.

“The role of the priesthood is to consecrate the world so that it may become a living host, a liturgy: so that the liturgy may not be something alongside the reality of the world, but that the world itself shall become a living host, a liturgy.” 

“This is also the great vision of Teilhard de Chardin: in the end we shall achieve a true cosmic liturgy, where the cosmos becomes a living host.”

Commentators were divided over how much significance should be attributed to the remarks. But the then Vatican spokesman Fr. Federico Lombardi, a Jesuit, said: “By now, no one would dream of saying that [Teilhard] is a heterodox author who shouldn’t be studied.”

Following Pope Francis’ election in 2013 and the publication of his 2015 ecological encyclical Laudato si’ (which cited Teilhard in a footnote), members of the Pontifical Council for Culture voted to recommend that Pope Francis remove the warning.

“We unanimously agreed, albeit some of his writings might be open to constructive criticism, his prophetic vision has been and is inspiring theologians and scientists,” the members said in a 2017 statement.

Around that time, a petition calling for Teilhard to be named a Doctor of the Church began to gather thousands of signatures.

In May this year, Jesuits opened the Teilhard de Chardin Center in a Paris suburb known as the French Silicon Valley to serve as “a place of dialogue between sciences, philosophy and spirituality.”

Pope Francis’ comments in Mongolia did not directly address the monitum or the controversies swirling around Teilhard. But by citing the paleontologist’s essay at significant length, he is undoubtedly encouraging Catholics to read “The Mass on the World,” possibly as a gateway to the “often misunderstood” Jesuit’s other works.

So, for now, we have no formal rehabilitation. What we have perhaps instead is what some have called a “long rehabilitation”: A haphazard process in which the Church’s highest authorities make positive references to aspects of Teilhard’s work, without committing themselves to an exhaustive reappraisal.

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