How Teilhard de Chardin’s hidden response to Vatican censure finally came to light

Pope Pius XI and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, S.J. (Images: Wikimedia Commons/Composite: America)Pope Pius XI and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, S.J. (Images: Wikimedia Commons/Composite: America)

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.”

Advertisement

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.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Joseph Ciliberto
1 year 11 months ago

For all, please read The Divine Milieu. You'l find a deeply religious scientist and faithful Jesuit, who, like the son who said I won't, got up and did anyway and is deeply in love with God. For those who believe they can judge a man, I believe you have a log to remove from your eye. Adapting a funny story his excellency Fulton Sheen used to tell his audiences Mr Cosgrove; When I get to heaven, I should expect to find Galileo and Fr. Teilhard chatting it up after vespers. And If I don't find them there, you can discuss your self righteous indignation with them from wherever the hell Mr Cosgrove, you end up.

JR Cosgrove
1 year 11 months ago

Thank you for your kind words. All I have been doing is defending Church doctrine using science and reason. As It was taught to me by Jesuits. No one has said my reasoning in defending it was wrong. I expect Galileo and Teilhsrd to be in heaven. Both admitted their errors. Galileo was right on the science but had no proof. All the Pope asked of him was to admit he had no proof by saying it was just a hypothesis. Teilhard was wrong on the science. His theology is not the theology of the Church.

Tim O'Leary
1 year 11 months ago

Keep up the good fight J. I notice how dismissive and hateful your opponents are. Haters will hate!

Lisa Weber
1 year 11 months ago

Mr. Cosgrove - Science is based on observable evidence about the natural world. The Bible is based on faith and it illuminates spiritual truths. Science and the Bible cannot be reconciled if the Bible is interpreted as a science book. Trying to defend the idea that the Bible is a science book leads to endless, obvious errors. Good luck trying to convince anyone with good sense that the Bible makes a good science book.

JR Cosgrove
1 year 11 months ago

Trying to defend the idea that the Bible is a science book leads to endless, obvious errors.

I never said the bible was a science book. Whatever gave you that idea? All I said was that science did not contradict the story of Adam. That is quite different.

One of the previous commenters brought up the bottleneck problem (known diversity of DNA could not have originated from just two parents) and that is a science issue but begs the question that God was involved in the creation of Adam and Eve and could easily solve this issue.

Lisa Weber
1 year 11 months ago

God could be involved in the creation of Adam and Eve, using evolution as his creation tool. There is no need to take the Biblical account of creation literally. The literal interpretation is what brings it into conflict with observable reality. When religion rejects observable reality, it invites people to reject religion because of its demonstrably false beliefs.

The Catholic Church has been wrong before, some aspects of it are still wrong, and it will make more mistakes in the future. Correcting errors and moving on is part of becoming a better church.

JR Cosgrove
1 year 11 months ago

The literal interpretation is what brings it into conflict with observable reality

But there is no conflict with anything observable or known science or history. Currently there is no theory of evolution that can explain the origin of humans with their consciousness and mental abilities. Maybe some day not not yet.

JR Cosgrove
1 year 11 months ago

There are huge differences between humans and other hominids not in their proteins but epigenetically in the expression mechanisms responsible for proteins used in neural matter. Natural changes to a supposed intermediary species would have led to a lot of close cousins but there are none.

How Adam/humans appeared naturally is a mystery. Certainly within the capabilities of God. But without scripture there would be no clue.

Lisa Weber
1 year 11 months ago

Your replies don't make enough sense to merit a conversation. Good day to you.

JR Cosgrove
1 year 11 months ago

It is impossible to discuss how DNA leads to proteins in these comments. There are whole books on it and even that is only part of the issue. Leave it at just there is nothing in science to explain the rise of humans and consciousness. Given that, there is nothing to contradict the story of the creation of Adam described in Genesis. There is no scientific basis for the story nor is there any scientific basis against it.

Douglas Fang
1 year 11 months ago

There is no good or charitable fight here. It is just a series of polarizing arguments between the so-labeled "garden-variety" Catholic-lite secularist-heavy/atheist Catholics and the so-called Catholic-heavy / Ultra-conservative / Devoutly Identified Catholics (DICs)! The feeling is so mutual!

JR Cosgrove
1 year 11 months ago

I find it interesting that defending the theology of the Church is polarizing on a Catholic site. Should one not defend it?

I have no ill feelings towards anyone here. I just wish they would portray my arguments correctly. They certainly can disagree but I expect reasons for their disagreement not disparaging remarks.

PS - I never heard of DIC's before. Is that a common term?

Robert Lewis
1 year 11 months ago

You have not been defending "the theology of the Catholic Church," which is quite different from its creation myth. (I do not use the word "myth" pejoratively; the story of Adam and Eve is a "truth-bearing allegory," and, as I tell my students, "truth-bearing allegories" are more "truthy" than the periodic tables, in what they reveal about human nature.) The story of Adam and Eve does not figure in the Creed, and therefore does not have to be adhered to as literal by confessing Catholics. As I and others have tried to tell you, the reason for abandoning it as literally true has less to do with "science" and much more to do with the way it enforces the doctrine of "substitutionary atonement," which is more Protestant nowadays than it is Catholic. Catholics may quite legitimately abandon that doctrine for the much more lovable and reasonable one of John Duns Scotus, which has never been proscribed or anathematized, and which sees the Incarnation as being not dependent upon a "fall," "fortunate" or otherwise, but, rather, the result of an eternal design which predated any "fall." That's the main thing, as far as I and others who are more theologically-minded are concerned, and you can have any other version of creation you want--Darwinian or anti-Darwinian--it doesn't matter, so long as the bloodthirsty, son-sacrificing sky-god, demanding a "perfect" and bloody sacrifice, recedes into the distance.

JR Cosgrove
1 year 11 months ago

it doesn't matter, so long as the bloodthirsty, son-sacrificing sky-god, demanding a "perfect" and bloody sacrifice, recedes into the distance.

I have to admit I never saw this characterization of the Christian God before. Is this a common understanding?

Robert Lewis
1 year 11 months ago

That is not the Christian god; it is the god of the other monotheists. The "Christian God" is mediated through the Incarnation of the deity as a man. I'll refer you to the bloodthirsty, vengeful god of the Temple Jews and the Muslim jihadists--the kind of "god" that definitely WOULD demand the death of its only son as a propitiary sacrifice to "atone" for an "original sin." The God of Duns Scotus is the "Christian God" par excellence.

rose-ellen caminer
1 year 11 months ago

The Christian God is also the God of the Jews and the Muslims. Jesus said "I and the father are One"; Jesus prayed to the Father. The God of the Old Testament is vengeful sometimes and required sacrifice, but this [ I believe] was the way humanity falsely understood God. This was a naturalistic belief system ; from pre scientific man; humans being powerless yet needy before nature, being ignorant of the way nature works, invoked gods who like humans could be bargained with for favors [fruitful agriculture]and protection from the forces of nature.; plagues, natural disasters, etc., But the God of the Old Testament also gave us ethical precepts[ the ten commandments] which the naturalistic pre monotheistic religions did not get from their gods. So the Old Testament is [imo] a mixture of the old naturalistic belief [ the power of god[s] over nature] that must be appeased through favors, including sacrificial offerings, and the actual Revelation from God; 1, that God is One ,and, 2, in addition to being powerful, God also "made us in His image" as beings called to be ethical[ 10 commandments]. The blood thirsty and vengeful aspects of the Old testament are holdovers from pre revelation humanity. Before God revealed himself to the Jews all humanity thought this way of gods. Even with the old testament revelation by God, such beliefs in the need to sacrifice and appease a vengeful god persisted. Till Jesus Christ , who put an end to the old [and false] way of thinking about God, and showed us that God is more then a God of justice[ laws] and not a god needing sacrifices, but God is in solidarity with his people; all of humanity. So Jesus ushers in a new way of understanding God; the old way was incomplete and contained naturalistic elements.

JR Cosgrove
1 year 11 months ago

A commenter not here but on a political site has called the current polarization in the country, the "Great Unmasking." By that the sides are forming and each is revealing just what they actually believe. The same is here at America on religious and political issues. There is an unmasking and it is probably healthy as each side reveals just what they believe and what drives them.

Phillip Stone
1 year 11 months ago

An instructive tale and very important topic relevant to my own life in science and faith.

In short, I bought and read and kept all of Chardin's published work and from the very beginning could not swallow it though fascinated and very hungry for a science/revelation agreement.
My 60 years immersed in the unfolding of understanding of the cosmos in the mathematical, physics, chemistry, biological science, philosophical and biblical disciplines awaiting work which would help me come down on one side or the other has been rewarded by the scholarship of Christians who are mathematicians, astrophysicist, geneticists and microbiologist.
Chadin is today on a hiding to nothing. He spoke and wrote too soon.
From scientists believing in continuous creation to the middle of last century to the demonstration of the expanding universe and so the certainty that there was a time when it all started and that time can be measured in billions of years, but not all that many.
The new atheists gave this topic the name of "The Big Bang" in contempt of it, but were unable to resist the enormous observational evidence for it. Win one for the Old Testament as a literal report of the creation of the universe out of nothing.
Extensive analysis of mitochondrial DNA in a very large number of different ethnic groups demonstrates even today that the best analysis of the evidence is that every human alive today originated from just one woman. We call her mitochondrial Eve.
It has been more difficult to do the same for males, as human chromosomes are so very much more enormous, but most of the work is pointing to a DNA Adam. On the way there, the bottleneck of Noah and his sons and their wives was revealed.

The mathematicians, particularly statisticians, have demonstrated that there has not been enough seconds since the origin of the universe for blind chance and necessity to produce a strand of DNA let alone a bacterium.

The molecular biologist are producing example after example of functions or organs in living systems which are "irreducibly complex". Change any bit of them and they cannot do any function at all and so cannot have been produced by gradual improvement of a cruder model.

The IT people and the language experts demonstrate that the sequence of 4 bases in RNA and DNA correspond to letters in an alphabet and strings of these to words and strings of these words to have meaning which could only have come from a source of intelligence setting up a programme for manufacturing living systems and controlling their function.

The fossil hunters have discovered two more spontaneous arrivals of a host of new kinds of life before the Cambrian explosion and they too do not have intermediate forms ("missing links").

The Holy Spirit has preserved truth aimed at instructing humans and guided the leadership to correct discernment of error; a shame they did not order the whole opus destroyed as it has troubled many people unnecessarily.

Robert Lewis
1 year 11 months ago

I can accept every bit of that as being reasonable, but where does any of it demand acceptance of an "original sin" or a "substitutionary atonement"? Also, it seems to me that, based on what you've described, the "original sin" of the Adam family would more likely be described as incest, rather than the eating of a proscribed fruit!

Advertisement

The latest from america

In the Ohio and Upper Mississippi river basins, 10 million metric tons of commercial fertilizer is applied each year, and much of it ends up in our waterways. (iStock/filmfoto)
In “Laudato Si’,” Pope Francis called drinkable water a human right. But as Nathan Beacom writes, our methods of farming and raising livestock are degrading our soil and polluting our waterways.
Nathan BeacomMay 28, 2020
The ethical problem with talking about ‘expected life years’
Bernard G. PrusakMay 28, 2020
Did the old “normal” way of doing things exhaust all possibilities for communal celebration? Is that what we want to return to, even if doing so were possible?
Jack Bentz, S.J.May 28, 2020
A St. Augustine statue at the Charles Bridge crossing the Vltava River in Prague, Czech Republic. (iStock/Tuayai)
Though Augustine might have a reputation for pessimism, Kathleen Bonnette writes, his spirituality and his actions during the siege of Hippo can offer guidance for responding to the Covid-19 crisis.
Kathleen BonnetteMay 28, 2020