Rehabilitation won't do much for Teilhard, but symbolically it matters

Rehabilitation won’t do much for Teilhard, but symbolically it matters

Rehabilitation won’t do much for Teilhard, but symbolically it matters

French Jesuit Teilhard de Chardin in 1955. (Credit: Stock image.)

A plenary assembly of the Pontifical Council for Culture has recommended that Pope Francis revoke an official 1962 Vatican warning about the work of the late French Jesuit scientist, philosopher and theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Should Francis do so, it won't really affect Teilhard's standing, since he was largely "rehabilitated" a long time ago, but it could have important symbolic value.

News Analysis

By now, Pope Francis has attracted plenty of nicknames in the media and popular conversation, ranging from the “People’s Pope” to “Pope of the Poor,” “Pope of the Peripheries,” and “the Pope of Mercy.” To that growing list, we probably ought to add the admittedly less catchy phrase, “Pope of Rehabilitation.”

Around the horn, there are plenty of cases of people previously considered suspect, problematic or out of favor, whose fortunes are enjoying a strong revival in the Francis era. In terms of groups, think liberation theologians and American nuns; for individuals, consider Cardinals Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Honduras and Walter Kasper of Germany.

If the pontiff takes up a recent suggestion from a plenary assembly of the Pontifical Council for Culture, we’ll be able to add the name of the late French Jesuit scientist, philosopher and theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin to the pope’s rehabilitation count.

Last Saturday, a large majority of the assembly of the Council for Culture voted to recommend that Francis revoke a monitum, or official warning, imposed on Teilhard’s work by the Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office, the forerunner to today’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in 1962.

That monitum was reaffirmed by the Vatican in 1981, on the 100th anniversary of Teilhard’s birth.

“We believe that such an act [of revoking the monitum] would not only rehabilitate the genuine force of the pious Jesuit in his effort to reconcile the scientific vision of the universe with Christian eschatology, but would also represent a formidable stimulus to a Christian anthropological model which, following the indications of the encyclical Laudato Si’, naturally situates itself with the marvelous story of the cosmos,” the assembly declared.

Teilhard, who died in 1955 at the age of 73, was a French Jesuit who studied paleontology and participated in the 1920s-era discovery of “Peking Man” in China, a find that seemed to confirm a gradual development in the human species. Teilhard has also been linked to the 1912 discovery of “Piltdown Man” in England, later exposed as a hoax.

On the basis of his scientific work, Teilhard developed an evolutionary theology asserting that all creation is developing towards an “Omega Point,” which he identified with Christ as the Logos, or “Word” of God. In that sense, Teilhard broadened the concept of salvation history to embrace not only individual persons and human culture, but the entire universe. In short order, Teilhard’s thought became the obligatory point of departure for any Catholic treatment of the environment.

To be honest, to the extent that Teilhard’s reputation needed rehabilitation, it already happened a long time ago.

In 1966, just four years after the monitum, Blessed Pope Paul VI delivered a speech in which he said Teilhard was a scientist who “scrutinizing the material, knew how to find the spiritual,” and who had offered “an explanation of the universe capable of revealing the presence of God in it, the traces of an intelligent principle and creator.”

In 1981, Italian Cardinal Agostino Casaroli, then St. Pope John Paul II’s Secretary of State, published an article in L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, marking the 100th anniversary of Teilhard’s birth, in which Casaroli praised the “astonishing resonance of his research, as well as the brilliance of his personality and richness of his thinking.” Casaroli wrote that Teilhard had anticipated John Paul II’s call to “be not afraid,” embracing “culture, civilization and progress.”

Flash forward to 2009, when Pope Benedict XVI publicly praised Teilhard’s notion of the cosmos as a “living host.” At the time, the Vatican spokesman, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, said, “By now, no one would dream of saying that [Teilhard] is a heterodox author who shouldn’t be studied.”

As for Francis, he cited Teilhard approvingly in footnote 53 to Laudato Si’, suggesting basic admiration for his legacy.

In all honesty, Teilhard’s problem with officialdom was never really his own work so much as the uses to which it was put.

In a long-ago commentary on the final session of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), a young Father Joseph Ratzinger, who would later become Pope Benedict, complained that Gaudium et Spes, the “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World,” played down the reality of sin because of an overly “French,” and specifically “Teilhardian,” influence.

Ratzinger and many of his colleagues after Vatican II felt that some French theologians, inspired by Teilhard’s vision, were wearing rose-colored glasses, neglecting the doctrine of original sin and the impact of sin on a fallen world.

Later, some of the most envelope-pushing and controversial Catholic theologians of the late 20th century, such as Father Diarmuid O’Murchu, Father Thomas Berry, ex-Dominican priest Matthew Fox, Rosemary Radford Ruether and Brian Swimme, all claimed inspiration from Teilhard, which tended to leave a bad taste in the mouth among more conservative thinkers and the official watchdogs of orthodoxy.

None of that, however, really ever diminished the esteem in which Teilhard has been held by many in senior positions in the Church.

In 2007, for instance, Italian Archbishop Celestino Migliore, who was then the Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the U.N. and is now the papal envoy to Russia, told me that whenever he had occasion to go to upstate New York, he would visit Teilhard’s grave in Poughkeepsie and pray over his vision of the “Christification” of the cosmos.

(Ironically, the location where Teilhard is buried, which contains a Jesuit cemetery that was part of a Jesuit novitiate, is now owned by the Culinary Institute of America.)

As a result, should Francis take up the recommendation to officially lift the 1962 monitum on Teilhard, it probably won’t mean much in terms of how widely read and studied his writings actually are in Catholic circles.

Nonetheless, it could have important symbolic value.

It could make a statement, perhaps, about how the Church, despite its understandable caution about protecting the deposit of faith, eventually does justice to the thinkers who serve it. It could also make a statement of openness to the world of science, and would doubtless be appreciated by scientists who’ve always thought of Teilhard as one of them.

In the end, “rehabilitating” Teilhard would be a very Francis thing to do … and, of course, it would give the pope another chance to do a solid for a fellow Jesuit, all of which means the betting odds are probably pretty good that Francis may just do it.

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