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James T. KeaneSeptember 05, 2023
(Photo by James T. Keane)

“To celebrate Mass in this land brought to my mind the prayer that the Jesuit Father Pierre Teilhard de Chardin offered to God exactly a hundred years ago, in the desert of Ordos, not far from here,” said Pope Francis at the conclusion of Mass in Ulaanbaatar on Sunday, Sept. 3, during his historic visit to Mongolia. Calling him “often misunderstood,” the pope concluded with a quote from Teilhard’s The Mass on the World (La Messe sur le Monde), a version of which was written in 1923 near the northern border with Mongolia, where Teilhard was participating in a scientific expedition:

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 mention of Teilhard caused a bit of a stir among reporters and Vatican watchers, not least because many fans of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, S.J.—whose writings were placed under a Vatican monitum in 1962 (renewed in 1981, just in case) for “dangerous ambiguities and grave errors”—have hoped for years that Pope Francis would remove any Vatican warnings from Teilhard’s writings and rehabilitate the theologian/scientist. In 2017, after all, scholars from the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Culture itself noted Teilhard’s “prophetic vision,” and four different popes—Paul VI, John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis—have referenced his writings (including, most recently, in “Laudato Si’”).

Thomas M. King, S.J.: "Teilhard was striving for sanctity by working in science, and this effort would require a new understanding of what it means to be holy."

The renowned (or notorious, depending on whom you’re talking to) Jesuit priest was born in 1881 in France and entered the Society of Jesus in 1899. The forced exile of the Jesuits from France in 1902 meant that he completed most of his studies in England and taught for three years at a Jesuit high school in Egypt. Ordained in 1911, he spent several years studying paleontology (including work on the dig that supposedly discovered “Piltdown Man,” later exposed as a fraud) before being drafted into the army in World War I, where he served as a stretcher-bearer, an experience reflected in some of the images of The Mass on the World.

In 1923, he traveled to China on a scientific expedition and completed the text for The Mass on the World that Pope Francis referred to last week in Mongolia; he would return to China repeatedly over the next 25 years. His scientific work did not always endear him to his superiors. His work on evolutionary theory drew the attention of both his Jesuit superiors and the Holy Office, the precursor to today’s mostly defanged Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, and Teilhard was ordered to sign six statements on points where his thought appeared to conflict with traditional church teaching.

As the well-known Teilhard scholar Thomas M. King, S.J., once noted in America, “Teilhard was striving for sanctity by working in science, and this effort would require a new understanding of what it means to be holy.” Once it became clear to him that he would not be allowed to publish or teach during his lifetime, he accepted a position with a scientific foundation in New York in 1951.

In recent years, scholars have identified racist and eugenicist passages in Teilhard’s work on the biological and spiritual evolution of humanity; earlier this summer, America published an exchange between two scholars on the issue.

Teilhard died in New York City on Easter Sunday, April 10, 1955, and is buried on the grounds of the former novitiate of the New York Province of the Society of Jesus in Hyde Park, N.Y. Though the Culinary Institute of America (a different C.I.A., not the one the Jesuits control) has owned the property for more than 50 years, visitors can still request a key to the cemetery gate to visit Teilhard’s grave.

Among those who championed Teilhard's work was the famed theologian of the Second Vatican Council, Henri de Lubac, S.J.

Much of Teilhard’s fame came posthumously, particularly with the publication of his major works The Divine Milieu and The Phenomenon of Man. Teilhard is remembered most for his concepts of the social evolution of humanity, which could be partially directed by humanity itself (transcending physical evolution); the convergence of all creation toward a moment of omniscience and unity of consciousness, which he called the “Omega Point” and identified with the Logos of Christ; and the integral relationship between humanity and the rest of matter in a constantly evolving universe.

That summary is painfully inadequate to the person or the subject: Readers seeking a more in-depth survey of Teilhard’s life and work might appreciate an online biography by the American Teilhard Association.

Among those who championed his work was the famed theologian of the Second Vatican Council, Henri de Lubac, S.J., who in 1965 published Teilhard de Chardin: The Man and His Meaning, followed by four more books on Teilhard in the coming years; others included Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI, who wrote of Teilhard’s Christology in his Introduction to Christianity that “[i]t must be regarded as an important service of Teilhard de Chardin’s that he rethought these ideas from the angle of the modern view of the world.”

Flannery O’Connor used a quote from Teilhard for a 1961 short story that later became the title of a collection, “Everything That Rises Must Converge.” And probably Teilhard’s most famous quote comes from his 1936 essay, “The Evolution of Chastity”:

Someday, after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love, and then, for a second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire.

A personal moment, reflected in the picture above: In October 2014, while departing the subway at 231st and Broadway in New York City, I came across a street vendor selling secondhand books and magazines. Square in the middle of the table, among all those harlequin romances and old issues of Time, there it was: The Phenomenon of Man.

Perhaps a far more exacting authority than the Vatican had rehabilitated Teilhard de Chardin: The Bronx.

Flannery O’Connor used a quote from Teilhard for a 1961 short story that later became the title of a collection, “Everything That Rises Must Converge.”

•••

Our poetry selection for this week is “Sin of Omission,” by Lee Nash. Readers can view all of America’s published poems here.

Also, this summer the Catholic Book Club is reading and discussing Mary Doria Russell’s novel, The Sparrow. Click here for more information or to sign up for our Facebook discussion group.

In this space every week, America features reviews of and literary commentary on one particular writer or group of writers (both new and old; our archives span more than a century), as well as poetry and other offerings from America Media. We hope this will give us a chance to provide you with more in-depth coverage of our literary offerings. It also allows us to alert digital subscribers to some of our online content that doesn’t make it into our newsletters.

Other Catholic Book Club columns:

Vatican II’s secret priest-journalist: The story of Xavier Rynne

The spiritual depths of Toni Morrison

The mystery of Thomas Merton’s death—and the witness of America magazine’s poetry editor

Leonard Feeney, America’s only excommunicated literary editor (to date)

Moira Walsh and the art of a brutal movie review

Happy reading!

James T. Keane

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