How Teilhard de Chardin’s hidden response to Vatican censure finally came to light
The June 2018 issue of Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science, included an article by David Grumett and Paul Bentley, “Teilhard de Chardin, Original Sin and the Six Propositions.” It is a deep analysis of events of 1922 to 1925 in which the Jesuit paleontologist and theologian tried to reconcile traditional church teaching on the origins of the human race and the concept of original sin. This article prompted an article on May 10, 2018, from Catholic News Service by Carol Glatz. We hope here to give a little more background.
Working from his serious scientific background, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, S.J., could not accept the Bible’s account of creation and the fall as literally true. In 1922, he wrote a seven-page paper, as the article in Zygon states, “discussing how the Roman Catholic Church’s traditional dogma of original sin might be understood in the light of modern evolutionary theory.”
Teilhard could not accept the Bible’s account of creation and the fall as literally true.
Teilhard’s work and his seven pages, his “Note,” caught the attention of the Jesuit curia and of the Holy Office (predecessor of today’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) in Rome. The Holy Office, in the end, required Teilhard to sign six statements on points where they saw his thought in conflict with traditional church teaching. Five of the statements cited doctrinal backup, from the Council of Trent to Vatican I, for what they were asking, but number four did not. It stated that “the whole human race takes its origin from one protoparent, Adam.” And with this Teilhard had difficulty, as he was being asked to accept something that had no scientific or official dogmatic grounding. In the end, he did sign it “in faith only,” not with scientific assent.
These Six Propositions were locked away from that time until 2007 when they were discovered in the Jesuit archives in Rome.
In late February this year, the University of Edinburgh hosted an event to celebrate the discovery of Teilhard de Chardin’s Six Propositions. The day included some lecture and some discussion, led by Mr. Grumett. Its main focus was a reading of a play about Teilhard titled “Inquisition,” by Mr. Bentley, an actor who with Mr. Grumett wrote the article in Zygon. They know each other through the British Teilhard Association, which sponsored the event.
Teilhard’s Six Propositions were locked away until 2007 when they were discovered in the Jesuit archives in Rome.
Mr. Grumett is a professor at the University of Edinburgh. His interest in Teilhard goes back to his doctoral studies at Cambridge University, where he specialized in Teilhard’s theology.
Mr. Bentley is an actor, most recently known for his role as the High Septon in “Game of Thrones.” He traces his interest in Teilhard back to student days at the Jesuit school in Wimbledon. Along the way, he learned of the document that had not been seen since 1925. In 2007, his interest led him to Rome, where Pope Benedict XVI had only recently granted access to some previously closed archives. He searched there but did not find the Teilhard document. He then visited the Jesuit archives.
Mr. Bentley was on a tight schedule, as he was taking only a couple of days off from his role in “Mary Poppins” in London’s West End. And by Friday afternoon, as time was growing short, he was getting desperate. Then, Mr. Bentley wrote in an email to America, his guardian angel whispered “censure” in his ear. He went to the receptionist and asked if there was a file titled “censure” among the Teilhard files. There was, and there he found the Six Propositions. He also found a letter from Teilhard to the Jesuit superior general, Wlodimir Ledochowski, explaining and defending his Original Sin essay, “Note sur quelques Représentations historiques possibles du Péché originel” (“Note on some possible historic concepts of original sin”), the essay that got him into trouble. “I had never heard of or seen this letter,” Mr. Bentley said, “and I don’t think any biographer or scholar had either.”
“When I got back to ‘Mary Poppins,’” he said, “one of the boy dancers asked me where I’d been for three days, so I told him I’d been to Rome and how I had found the Six Propositions, and when I finished he said, ‘Paul—that’s the coolest thing I ever ’eard.’”
He kept his discovery quiet while he worked on the play. Eventually, he and Mr. Grumett put together the Six Propositions celebration at the School of Divinity, New College, University of Edinburgh. Mr. Bentley also hopes that some production company will stage “Inquisition.” The discovery and publication of Teilhard’s work have filled in a gap in the scholar’s story with valuable documentation.