During his lifetime and especially since the posthumous publication of his writings the late Jesuit paleontologist and spiritual writer Pierre Teilhard de Chardin did as much to renew the faith of 20th-century Catholics and inspire non-believers as any single Catholic figure, with the possible exception of Saint John XXIII. Though not an apologist, he did more than any controversialist to reconcile faith with science and to teach scientists about the spiritual character of their work (see, for example, my article “With Teilhard on the Slope,” America, Dec. 13, 2010).
But in his time, as David Gibson wrote on this blog yesterday (“U.S. Nuns Haunted by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin?” In All Things, May 22, 2014), Teilhard was seen as suspect by the Vatican and disciplined by his superiors. Despite the inspiration he gave to the eschatology, the theology of history and Christology of Vatican II’s “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World,” later endorsed by one-time critics like Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, despite Saint John Paul II’s recognition in 1996 that evolution is “more than an hypothesis,” despite Pope Benedict’s appeal to Teilhard’s Eucharistic theology, some in the Vatican, I am told, still hold him suspect.
But outside some narrow circles, his reputation is more than redeemed. It is endangered, however, by those who would invoke his name to bolster other theories of evolution, like Barbara Marx Hubbard’s “conscious evolution,” the philosophy, which Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, the prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, charges is reason enough to question the faith of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (L.C.W.R.). Of course, one can never control what is done with one’s intellectual legacy. Darwin’s ideas generated the perversities of Herbert Spencer’s Social Darwinism as well as a variety of now debunked eugenics campaigns.
Teilhard, for his part, was distinctively Catholic. For one, if there is anything that distinguishes Catholicism from other forms of Christianity, it is centrality of the Eucharist to Catholic life. The Mass as an act of transformation of matter into the Body and the Blood of Jesus suffused Teilhard’s imagination. Likewise, Eucharistic adoration was an occasion for his prayer and for some of his mystical experiences. The Eucharistic liturgy, likewise, became in his essay “Mass on the World,” a paradigm of the transformation of matter into spirit and of our experience of God’s action in the world.
Secondly, Teilhard’s faith was Christocentric. Unlike New Age thinkers, his evolutionary theory was made possible by the attractive power of Christ Omega. Evolution was so pregnant with meaning because it meant more and more matter was touched by the Incarnation. Teilhard, moreover, receives too little credit for helping Catholics appreciate the meaning of the Risen Christ celebrated by Saint Paul. The confession “My Lord and My God” might be depreciated by New Agers, but for Teilhard, who claimed he would never be drawn to worship the historical figure of Jesus, Christ in glory evoked reverent awe.
Finally, and this may be the most difficult point for our contemporaries to comprehend, Teilhard treasured being a part of the visible church. The church, he believed was “a phylum of love” within history, and, despite the most passionate truth-seeking and intense mysticism, he surrendered himself to the church’s often wrong-headed and sometimes sinful discipline (think of John Paul II’s “sins committed in the service of Truth”).
Today we have a profounder sense of human rights and of rightful self-assertion than Catholics did in Teilhard’s day. The church still has far to go to make its structures, law and judicial process match its confession of the dignity of women and men made in the image of God. Nonetheless, we can still learn from Teilhard’s love of the church and his docility in the face of misguided discipline. L.C.W.R. in its dialogue with the U.S. bishops, their real critics, and the C.D.F. exemplify the same patient love Teilhard did in enduring his silencing and exile.