30 May 2018 | by David Grumett
Should Pope Francis waive the official warning against Teilhard de Chardin?
Teilhard was born in 1881 into a traditionalist Catholic family in the Auvergne, an area of France peppered with extinct volcanoes. He joined the Jesuits at 17, and his passion for geology, combined with the broader social horizons that had been opened by his perilous war service as a stretcher bearer, caused Teilhard to begin to question some received doctrines. France’s anti-clerical laws led him to spend several years in exile in Britain, studying philosophy and theology at French Jesuit institutions on the island of Jersey, and in Hastings and Canterbury.
In 1925, the Jesuit Superior General Wlodimir Ledóchowski ordered Teilhard to give up his teaching position in France. Rather than leave the Society of Jesus, Teilhard agreed not to publish his controversial theological work, and left for China, where he continued his geological research.
His work was only published after his death in 1955. It was issued gradually by his former secretary and an editorial committee, beginning with the speculative fusion of evolutionary science, philosophy and theology outlined in The Phenomenon of Man. He thus had no control over how it was received and interpreted, and in the years that followed, superficial readings of his theology became widespread. Much of his work was not published in English until the 1970s, when people assumed they had already grasped his message.
The discovery of the text of the “six propositions” that Teilhard had been made to assent to in 1925 has solved a mystery that is almost a century old. None of his biographers or editors, not even his fellow Jesuit, the great theologian Henri de Lubac, was able to access this document.
The propositions – which Paul Bentley and I have recently published in the academic journal Zygon – reveal the specific concerns that the Jesuit Curia and the Holy Office (now the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which undoubtedly compiled them) had with Teilhard’s theology.
The first three propositions come from the declarations of the Council of Trent. They state that Adam had been created with original holiness, which he lost after disobeying God’s command; that his sin damaged not only him but also his descendants; and that this sin is transmitted by propagation and is therefore in all of us. The final two propositions were taken from the documents of the First Vatican Council. They placed faith above reason, and excluded any possibility of a conflict between the two; and they ruled out the possibility that Catholic dogma could be reinterpreted in the light of advancing human knowledge.
Teilhard accepted these five propositions. In common with patristic theologians, whose work far preceded the modern notion of history being literally true, he deployed Adamic imagery allegorically to portray the shared sinful human condition. Moreover, he saw himself as drawing a fuller meaning out of Catholic teaching, rather than as contradicting what the Church has taught.
However, one of the propositions created a serious difficulty. It was not taken from previous councils; it had been written especially for him. This affirmed that the whole human race is descended from Adam. When he signed the document assenting to the propositions, Teilhard appended a handwritten note to indicate that he was doing so “in the full sense that the Holy Church gives to them”. Teilhard could not concur with a statement that was not, in fact, Church dogma. In his view, it was not him who was making up new teaching but his superiors.
His central defence was that, by linking the doctrine of original sin to a single event that might or might not have been a fact of human history – Adam’s act of disobedience by eating the forbidden fruit – his neo-scholastic detractors failed to take sin sufficiently seriously. Teilhard regarded sin, in contrast, as a precondition of creation and as all-pervasive. The second law of thermodynamics taught him that decay and disorder were intrinsic to life, and that there could never have been a place or time from which these were absent. He, therefore, saw paradise not as a place of past perfection but as an image for the future spiritual unification of all those who accept the salvation offered to them. The Fall had to be thought of in conjunction with redemption and recovery.
As well as being more internally consistent than the neo-scholastic understanding of original sin, Teilhard’s account was more congruent with the accumulating scientific evidence for human origins. As a palaeontologist, he knew that the fossil record suggested that the human zoological type required several lines of descent. There could not be a “first” human from whom all others came.
Teilhard was discussed during last November’s plenary assembly of a meeting of the Pontifical Council for Culture on “the future of humanity: new challenges to anthropology”. The participants, who included leading scientists as well as cardinals and bishops and theologians, unanimously approved a petition to be sent to Pope Francis, requesting him to waive the “monitum” warning of dangers in Teilhard’s writings that the Holy Office issued in 1962. It has since emerged that the president of the council, Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, has formally put this petition to the Pope.
Even so, during our recent research, it has become apparent that, in some quarters of Rome, there is unease about the publication of the propositions, which show how carefully Teilhard considered his orthodoxy and his dual public responsibilities as both theologian and scientist. Correspondence uncovered with the propositions sheds further light on the treatment of Teilhard by the Jesuit Curia and the Holy Office in the 1920s. Via his provincial superior, Fr Jean-Baptiste Costa de Beauregard, Teilhard underlined his loyalty to the Church, and emphasised that his reflections were hypothetical. In response, he was threatened with a formal denunciation and expulsion from the Jesuit order.
Teilhard then wrote directly to the superior general in Rome. He acknowledged the deficiencies of the scientific world view and pleaded that he had a duty as a theologian to engage with the facts of human experience, and with the fossil evidence for biological evolution. Not to do so would in his eyes be a sin. He also promised to withdraw his unpublished writings from private circulation.
Nevertheless, two formal critical reviews of his work were produced, and Teilhard was removed from his teaching position at the Institut Catholique in Paris and he began his exile in China. He spent just three of the following 20 years in France. The superior general, Fr Ledóchowski, subsequently defended his actions both to colleagues and to Teilhard himself.
The issues addressed in the six propositions – sin, evolution, and the wider relation between experience and dogma – would be publicly vented 25 years later in Humani Generis, Pope Pius XII’s 1950 encyclical “concerning some false opinions threatening to undermine the foundations of Catholic doctrine.” Once the neo-scholastic bullishness of the Roman authorities became fully visible in the public domain, it quickly became unsustainable, and, within a decade the Second Vatican Council was called.
The silencing of Teilhard during his lifetime undoubtedly added to his allure as a theological maverick. The petition on Pope Francis’ desk concludes with the observation that a removal of the cloud over Teilhard’s work would “not only acknowledge the genuine effort of the pious Jesuit to reconcile the scientific vision of the universe with Christian eschatology, but would 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.” The ball is in Francis’ court.
Dr David Grumett is senior lecturer in Theology and Ethics at the University of Edinburgh. He is author of Teilhard de Chardin: Theology, Humanity and Cosmos (Peeters 2005); his most recent book is Material Eucharist (OUP 2016).