Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the widely influential Jesuit paleontologist and philosopher whose writings were cited with a “warning” by the Vatican in 1962, may finally have that blot removed from his record.
Participants at the recent plenary assembly of the Pontifical Council for Culture that discussed “The future of humanity: new challenges to anthropology” unanimously approved a petition to be sent to Pope Francis requesting him to waive the “monitum” issued by the Holy Office in 1962 regarding the writings of Father de Chardin.
The participants, which included top level scientists as well as cardinals and bishops from Europe, Asia, America and Africa, applauded when the text of the petition was read.
They told Pope Francis that “on several occasions” during their discussions “the seminal thoughts of the Jesuit Fr. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, anthropologist and eminent spiritual thinker, have been evoked.” They said, “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.” They mentioned that four popes—Paul VI, John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and now Francis—had made “explicit references” to his work.
Teilhard de Chardin was a philosopher, theologian, paleontologist and geologist who took part in the discovery of Peking Man.
For all these reasons, they “respectfully” asked Pope Francis “to consider the possibility of waiving the Monitum that since 1962 has been imposed by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (formerly the Holy Office) on the writings of Fr. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin S.J.”
They concluded by expressing their conviction that “this act not only will acknowledge the genuine effort of the pious Jesuit to reconcile the scientific vision of the universe with Christian eschatology, but will represent a formidable stimulus for all philosophers, theologians, theologians and scientists of good will to cooperate towards a Christian anthropological model that, along the lines of the encyclical ‘Laudato Si’,’ fits naturally in the wonderful warp and weft of the cosmos.”
Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955), was a philosopher, theologian, paleontologist and geologist who took part in the discovery of Peking Man. In the 1920s he was subjected to disciplinary measures from the Holy Office and his own order for views he expressed in unpublished writings; but that did not stop his work. He went on to conceive the idea of the Omega point (a maximum level of complexity and consciousness toward which he believed the universe was evolving, and which he identified with Christ as the Logos, or "Word" of God). He also developed the concept of the noosphere (the sphere of thought).
“His prophetic vision has been and is inspiring theologians and scientists.”
Many times during his life, Teilhard expressed the desire to die on the Day of the Resurrection. His wish was granted, because he died of a heart attack after attending Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City on Easter Sunday, April 10, 1955. He is buried in the Jesuit cemetery on the grounds of the former Jesuit novitiate in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. After his death, his works were published in New York, among them the Human Phenomenon (1959, English translation) and The Divine Milieu (1960, English translation), and had a big impact. This upset the Holy Office in Rome, then led by Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, and, on June 30, 1962, it imposed a “monitum” on his writings.
The monitum noted that “several works of Fr. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, some of which were posthumously published, are being edited and are gaining a good deal of success.” It declared that “prescinding from a judgement about those points that concern the positive sciences, it is sufficiently clear that the above-mentioned works abound in such ambiguities and indeed even serious errors, as to offend Catholic doctrine.” For this reason, the Holy Office asked bishops, superiors of religious institutes, presidents of universities and rectors of seminaries “to protect the minds,” especially of the young, “against the dangers presented by the works of Fr. Teilhard de Chardin and of his followers.”
Four popes—Paul VI, John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and now Francis—have made “explicit references” to Teilhard’s work.
Paul VI, who was elected pope almost exactly one year later, clearly had reservations about the monitum. This became evident when, in a speech to employers and workers of an important pharmaceutical company on Feb. 24, 1966, while expressing some reservations, he praised a key insight of the Jesuit’s theory on the evolution of the universe, pointed to it as a model for science and quoted the author’s statement: “The more I study material reality, the more I discover spiritual reality.”
Fifteen years later, on the centenary of Teilhard de Chardin’s birth, Cardinal Agostino Casaroli, secretary of state to John Paul II, wrote a letter to Monsignor (now cardinal) Paul Poupard, head of the Institute Catholique in Paris, in which he praised the French Jesuit in words that were widely interpreted as a sign that his rehabilitation was on the horizon. But the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith denied this on July 24, 1981, drew attention to the fact that the cardinal’s letter contained reservations, and said the monitum was still in force. But on June 1, 1988, John Paul II in a letter to George Coyne S.J., director of the Vatican Observatory, also appeared to refer positively to the French Jesuit.
Benedict XVI did so, too, in a homily during Evening Prayer in the cathedral in Aosta, in northern Italy, on July 24, 2009. He commended an aspect of the French Jesuit’s vision when he said: “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.
Francis became the fourth pope to have something positive to say about Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. He did so in 2015 in his encyclical”Laudato Si’” in a footnote to No. 83,, in which he speaks about the French Jesuit’s “contribution” to the ultimate destiny of the universe. Moreover, the petition, seemed to find receptive ground in his address to the plenary assembly last week.
Kevin Fitzgerald S.J., from the Center of Clinical Bioethics at Georgetown university, was in the assembly when the petition was read out. Asked by America for his reaction, he said: “Isn’t that something? That’s amazing! I’m encouraged by this. I’ve read a lot of Teilhard and I have always enjoyed his thinking and, I think, as much as he was a wonderful theologian and scientist, I think he was an even greater poet. I think he had an amazing grasp of looking at reality and the movements toward God, toward the Creator, and toward us all, moving in a direction of who we might be as a species. So, I think the petition is a wonderful thing.”