Gilson, Maritain, Tresmontant, Journet, and von Hildebrand on Teilhard de Chardin
You wouldn’t necessarily know it from Vatican News, but Chardin was roundly criticized by fellow Catholic intellectuals
Nowadays one of the ploys used by enemies of traditional Catholicism is to paint all of their opponents as “backwardist” sticks-in-the-mud and knuckleheaded simpletons, and to paint themselves as the sophisticated avant-garde, the hip and with-it spokesmen of the emerging aspirations of Modern Man who enjoy an immediate connection with “the Spirit” that relieves them of the annoyances of hard reasoning, building upon evidence, showing links with the great tradition, and so forth. In any case, that is the by-now familiar quasi-Manichaean picture presented with tiresome regularity by Pope Francis and his court.
It is therefore of considerable importance to know that those who raise objections today to the gradual rehabilitation of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin under recent popes—John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and especially Francis—stand in the company of formidable earlier critics such as Etienne Gilson, Jacques Maritain, Claude Tresmontant, Charles Cardinal Journet, and Dietrich von Hildebrand. The purpose of today’s post is to gather in one convenient place some of what they had to say about this Jesuit’s strange evolutionary religion, into which we delved last week.
The great historian of medieval philosophy and theology Etienne Gilson (1884–1978), a contributor in countless ways to the revival of St. Thomas, writes about our subject (all phrases in quotation marks are the words of Teilhard on which Gilson is commenting):
Whoever has followed the history of Christian thought finds himself in familiar country. The Teilhardian theology is one more Christian gnosis, and like gnoses from Marcion to the present, it is a theology-fiction. We recognize all the traditional earmarks of the breed: a cosmic perspecive on all problems, or perhaps we should say a perspective of cosmogenesis. We have a cosmic material, a cosmic Christ, and, since the latter is the physical center of creation, we have a Christ who is basically an “evolutor” and “humanizator,” in short, a “universal Christ” as an explanation of the universal mystery, which is but one with the Incarnation. Cosmogenesis thereby becomes Christogenesis, giving rise to the Christic and the Christosphere, an order which crowns the noosphere and perfects it through the transforming presence of Christ. This nice vocabulary is not cited as blameworthy in itself, but merely as symptomatic of the taste which all gnoses show for pathetic neologisms, hinting at unfathomable perspectives and heavy with affectivity. …
[Teilhard] can in one stroke speak of that “elevation of the historical Jesus to a universal physical function” and that “ultimate identification of cosmogenesis with a Christogenesis.” Note the word elevation! We thus obtain the “neo-logos of modern philosophy,” who is no longer primarily the redeemer of Adam, but the “evolutory principle of a universe in motion.” Look how careful he has been to preserve Christ, they will tell us! Yes, but what Christ? … I am not sure whether an omega point of science exists, but I feel perfectly sure that in the Gospel, Jesus of Nazareth is quite another thing than the “concrete germ” of the Christ Omega. It’s not that the new function of Christ lacks grandeur or nobility, but that it is something utterly different from the old. We feel a little as though we were before an empty tomb: they have taken away Our Lord and we do not know where they have laid him.1
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Jacques Maritain (1882–1973) hardly needs an introduction: certainly the best-known and most influential Thomist of the twentieth century, with a massive bibliography of writings that engage just about every aspect of intellectual history and modern culture. Here is his take on Teilhard:
Just why, after years of study under teachers no doubt wisely chosen for their mission, he remained in perfect ignorance or forgetfulness of the Doctor Communis is another mystery.... While St. Thomas was perfectly certain of the reality of the world, he didn’t put so much fervor into it; he had only to open his eyes. Whereas “faith in the world” and “faith in God” were, so to speak, the two poles of Teilhard’s thought. Everybody knows how he spoke of these two types of faith....
The turning upside down of Christianity which Teilhard’s “meta-Christianity” amounted to is an operation of much vaster scope. What is to be done is to make the very Christ of history into the cosmic Christ. It seems to me I can catch a glimpse of the manner in which Teilhard was able to conceive such an enterprise, when I consider what is implied in a purely evolutive conception where being is replaced by becoming and every essence or nature stably constituted in itself vanishes.
If the truth of this conception be granted, does not being man lie in being or having been the cosmos itself throughout the whole immense process by which it was hominized? Could the Word take flesh in Mary without having “taken matter,” if I may say, in the entire cosmos and throughout the whole extent of its history? Could he become Incarnate one day, at a certain moment in history, without having first been (why should I be the only one afraid of neologisms?) Immaterized and Encosmicized during the whole course of the evolution which led up to that point? If he made himself man, it is because he also made himself world. There you have the “generalization of Christ the Redeemer into a veritable Christ the evolutor,” or at least the only way I can find to give such a formula an intelligible meaning. (Did I say intelligible? My tongue has tripped me up: let us say rather, almost thinkable.)
This Christianity turned upside-down would be for religious thought, if religious thought were to become purely imaginary, a grandiose vision, enchanting it with the spectacle of the divine ascent of creation toward God. But what does it tell us of the secret path which matters more than any spectacle? What can it tell us of the essential, of the mystery of the cross and the redemptive blood? or of that grace whose presence in a single soul is worth more than all of nature or of that love which makes us co-redeemers with Christ, and those blessed tears through which his peace reaches us? The new gnosis is, like all gnoses—a poor gnosis....
The religious experience of Père Teilhard was not transmissible, that’s perfectly true, but Teilhardism is transmissible, and it transmits itself extremely well, with words, confused ideas, a mystico-philosophical imagery, and a whole emotional commotion of huge illusory hopes, which a good many men of good faith are ready to accept as a genuinely exalting intellectual synthesis and a new theology.
Whatever Teilhard may have done or hoped to do, such ideas, in reality, could only find expression as fragments of a vast poem which he would have written. One doesn’t expect a poem to bring us any kind of rational knowledge whatever, be it scientific, philosophical, or theological. One expects it only to give us a glimpse of what, in an obscure contact, the poet has seized in himself and in things at the same time....
Well, this poem which Teilhard would have written, and which he actually gave us in a kind of travesty, is what his work really was. If Teilhard’s work had been taken for what it truly was (but which he did not want it to be), both his overly zealous friends and those enemies who were over-anxious to condemn him, would doubtless have been disappointed, and he himself the first to protest. But this work would have retained its most authentic nobility and dignity, and Teilhard and the Christian world would have been spared not a little turmoil and unfortunate misunderstanding. But then there would have been no Teilhardism, or mad hope for the advent of a better Christianity celebrating the glories of the cosmos.2
Maritain in the second appendix of his Peasant of the Garonne summarizes a study by Claude Tresmontant (1925–1997), an award-winning Sorbonne philosopher and theologian, criticizing Teilhard’s conception of creation, multiplicity, and evil. The phrases in quotation marks are Teilhard’s.
It has always been hard for Teilhard to adjust to the Christian idea of creation. For him, “to create is to unite,” which is true only in the order of things effectuated or “created” by nature and by man. To create, he says further, is to “unify,” to unify the “pure multiple”—“the scattered shadow of his Unity” that “from all eternity, God saw beneath his feet,” and a “kind of positive Nothingness,” “a plea for being which it looks as if God had not been able to resist.” So that “God consummates himself only by uniting himself” [with the Else], which is a view of Hegelian theogony rather than of Christian theology. In 1953, Teilhard wrote: “What infuses Christianity with life is not a sense of the contingence of the created, but rather a sense of the mutual Completion of the World and of God—“pleromization,” he says further, improperly invoking St. Paul: another Hegelian theme that can perhaps vitalize Teilhardian meta-Christianity, but is adverse to Christianity.
Apropos of another text of Teilhard: “We become aware that in order to create (since, once again, to create is to unite), God is inevitably induced to immerse himself in the Multitude, in order to ‘incorporate it’ into himself,” Claude Tresmontant notes that here Teilhard is alluding to the Incarnation, and that Christian thought will never accept “to link creation and the Incarnation by a bond of necessity, nor to call the Incarnation an ‘immersion’ in the Multiple”....
Another point on which the metaphysical and theological views of Teilhard clearly depart from Christian thought is the problem of Evil, a problem that, according to him, “in our modern perspective of a Universe in a process of cosmogenesis…no longer exists”: because the Multiple, “since it is multiple, that is to say essentially subject to the play of probabilities of change in its arrangements,” “is absolutely unable to progress toward unity without engendering Evil here or there—by statistical necessity.”
“Evil,” Claude Tresmontant rightly observes, “is not simply a temporary defect in a progressive arrangement. The death of six million Jews in concentration camps, the resurgence of torture in colonial wars, are not the result of a wrong arrangement of the Multiple— but of the perverse freedom of man, of what is properly wickedness, contempt for man, the taste for destruction, falsehood, the will to power, the passions, the pride of the flesh and of the spirit.” “Evil is the work of man, and not of matter. Man is fully responsible for the evil that he does to man, for the crimes against man committed in the whole of mankind and in all places.” That is what Teilhard has always been reluctant to see. (He did not cry out in protest against the extermination of the Jews by the Nazis; while, in spite of the nobility of his heart, his passion for cosmogenesis led him to write intolerable lines on the “profound intuitions” of totalitarian systems, on the Abyssinian War, on the myths of fascism and communism. Claude Tresmontant is right to conclude: “No, sin, demoniacal deeds, cannot be explained by a ‘statistical disorder.’ This would come down to transposing to another order, the spiritual one, processes of thought that are valid in the study of Brownian movements.”
As for original sin, it is explained “for Teilhard, like evil, of which it is only a particular instance, by the Multiple. In summary, it is materiality that is responsible for evil, for sin, and more particularly for original sin: a Platonic, not a Christian explanation.” “For Teilhard, original sin is coextensive with all of creation, physical as well, and biological.” On this subject we must read the letter of June 19, 1953, too long for me to quote it in its entirety, in which Teilhard declared that “fundamentally, our Universe has always been (and any conceivable Universe could not be otherwise) in its totality and from its origins, mingled with good and bad turns of luck; that is to say, it is impregnated with evil; that is to say, in a state of original sin; that is to say, baptizable.” Here, too, Tresmontant is right to conclude: “Sin is not such a thing, it is an act of freedom, and original sin is the deprivation of divine life. Neither matter nor the multiple has anything to do with it.”3
I find it more than coincidental that the same progressives who defend Teilhard today share in his quiet admiration (or, at any rate, toleration) for fascism and liquidation, as can be seen in their treatment of Catholic traditionalists.
Charles Cardinal Journet
Charles Journet (1891–1975), one of the finest dogmatic theologians of the twentieth century, dedicated more than one study to Teilhard’s thought, and found it wanting. Here are highlights from Journet’s “La synthèse du Père Teilhard de Chardin est-elle dissociable?” (Nova et Vetera, April-June, 1966):
Coming paradoxically to the defense of Teilhard, we hold that his doctrine is logical, that his vision of the world is coherent, that one must either accept it as a whole, or reject it as a whole. But the dilemma is a serious one.
If we reject it, we are being faithful to all of traditional Christianity, we are accepting Christian revelation as it has been preserved and developed in the course of centuries by the divinely assisted magisterium. And of course, in this perspective, it will be the duty of Christian thought to be constantly open and attentive to the prodigious progress of the sciences in our times, and, in particular, to assume, in its proper perspective, all the true and even probably true elements that are to be found in the idea of the evolution of the whole universe of matter, and especially of living organisms…
If, on the contrary, we accept Teilhard’s vision of the world, we know from the start—we have been duly warned—which notions of traditional Christianity will have to be transposed, and to which we must bid farewell: “Creation, Spirit, Evil, God (and, more particularly, original Sin, Cross, Resurrection, Parousia, Charity…” The list is that of Père Teilhard himself in a text of January 1, 1951, in which he declares that “from the mere transposition” of the traditional vision into “dimensions of Cosmogenesis,” “all these notions, transported into dimensions of ‘genesis,’ become clarified and cohere in an astounding way.”
On this, Maritain observers:
Cardinal Journet is right in observing that in that case we will have to bid them farewell. Because thus transported “into dimensions of Cosmogenesis,” there remains in them nothing Christian but the name; they make sense only in a Gnostic cosmo-theology of a Hegelian variety.
Returning to Journet:
We hold this inner vision of Teilhard to be powerful and intrinsically coherent. Consequently, a kind of apologetics that, anxious to be timely, founds [itself] upon the evolutionist synthesis of Teilhard, must, under penalty of lapsing into a “Religion of Evolution,” constantly intervene from outside that synthesis in order to right it and turn it in the direction of orthodoxy. Such a kind of apologetics will perhaps have partially happy results in the short run, but not without laying the groundwork for serious disappointments in the future…. Must apologetics be primarily preoccupied with timeliness, and turn toward doctrines which, at the price of serious misunderstandings, … have the strongest grip on our times? … Or should it turn toward the truest doctrines, whether they please our contemporaries or not?4
In an article at Commonweal by Jerry Ryan, we learn that Journet was skeptical of ecumenism and critical of other modern theologians—a point that Ryan considers his “blind spot” as a Thomist. One wonders if it wasn’t rather his far-seeing eye!
Dietrich von Hildebrand
A personalist and phenomenologist philosopher who escaped from Nazi Germany, Dietrich von Hildebrand (1889–1977) is controversial in his own right. Traditionalists revel in his subtle and poetic defense of the traditional liturgy and his critiques of the liturgical reform but find aspects of his anti-Thomistic philosophy problematic, while his vociferous philosophical votaries seek to republish all his works except those in which he shows himself a traditionalist. What a conundrum!
In any case, for our purposes it is enough to note that, in his 1967 classic Trojan Horse in the City of God, he devoted a scathing chapter “A False Prophet” to our subject. Von Hildebrand notes that he met Teilhard in 1949 at a dinner at Fordham where the Jesuit delivered a long speech. He was prepared to be impressed, as de Lubac and Msgr. de Solages “had highly recommended him.” Instead:
Teilhard’s lecture was a great disappointment, for it manifested utter philosophical confusion, especially in his conception of the human person. I was even more upset by his theological primitiveness. He ignored completely the decisive difference between nature and supernature. After a lively discussion in which I ventured a criticism of his ideas, I had an opportunity to speak to Teilhard privately. When our talk touched on St. Augustine, he exclaimed violently: “Don’t mention that unfortunate man; he spoiled everything by introducing the supernatural.” This remark confirmed the impression I had gained of the crass naturalism of his views, but it also struck me in another way. The criticism of St. Augustine, the greatest of the Fathers of the Church, betrayed Teilhard’s lack of a genuine sense of intellectual and spiritual grandeur.
More excerpts from this chapter (quotation marks again indicating statements from Teilhard’s writings):
It was only after reading several of Teilhard’s works, however, that I fully realized the catastrophic implications of his philosophical ideas and the absolute incompatibility of his theology fiction (as Etienne Gilson calls it) with Christian revelation and the doctrine of the Church….
One of the most striking philosophical shortcomings of Teilhard’s system is his conception of man. It is a great irony that the author of The Phenomenon of Man should completely miss the nature of man as a person. He fails to recognize the abyss separating a person from the entire impersonal world around him, the wholly new dimension of being that a person implies…. [T]his marvel of the human mind, which is also revealed in language and in man’s role as homo pictor (imaginative man, man as artist), is altogether lost on Teilhard because he insists on viewing human consciousness as merely an awareness of self that has gradually developed out of animal consciousness. The scholastics, on the other hand, accurately grasped the dimensions of personal consciousness by calling the person a being that possesses itself. Compared with the person, every impersonal being sleeps, as it were; it simply endures its existence. Only in the human person do we find an awakened being, a being truly possessing itself, notwithstanding its contingency.
“The idea is that of the earth not only becoming covered by myriads of grains of thought but becoming enclosed in a single thinking envelope so as to form, functionally, no more than a single vast grain of thought on the sidereal scale.” Here several grave errors are combined. First, the idea of a non-individual consciousness is contradictory. Second, it is wrong to suppose that this impossible fiction could contain something superior to individual personal existence. Third, the idea of a “superconsciousness” is, in fact, a totalitarian ideal: It implies an absolute antithesis to true community, which essentially presupposes individual persons…. Our consideration of Teilhard’s ideal of the “collective man” reveals that he fails to understand not only the nature of man as person but also the nature of true communion and community….
Teilhard’s ideal of “superhumanity”—his totalitarian conception of community—shows the same naive ignorance of the abyss that separates the glorious realm of personal existence from the impersonal world. It also reveals his blindness to the hierarchy of being and to the hierarchy of values…. A dominant interest in the species is quite normal as long as one deals with animals, but it becomes grotesque when human beings are involved….
It has recently become fashionable to accept contradictions as a sign of philosophical depth. Mutually contradictory elements are regarded as antagonistic as long as the discussion remains on a logical level, but are considered unimportant as soon as it reaches the religious sphere. This fashion does not do away with the essential impossibility of combining contradictories. No number of modish paradoxes, of emotional effusions, of exotically capitalized words can conceal Teilhard’s fundamental lack of understanding of the nature of the person…. The penchant for liquidating antitheses also sheds light on Teilhard’s false conception of the community, of the union of persons. It is all conceived upon the pattern of fusion in the realm of matter, and thus misses the radical difference between unification in the sphere of matter and the spiritual union that comes to pass through real love in the sphere of individual persons….
Another grave philosophical error is closely linked to Teilhard’s conception of man: his failure to grasp the radical difference between spirit and matter. Teilhard deals with energy as though it were a genus and then proceeds to make matter and spirit two differentiae specificae (distinct species) in this genus. But there is no genus energy. Energy is a concept applicable to both of these radically different realms of being only in terms of analogy. Teilhard does not understand this; he even speaks of the “spiritual power of matter.”
Teilhard, then, is the type of thinker who indulges in constructions and hypotheses without caring much about what is “given.”… Instead of listening to experience, to the voice of being, he arbitrarily infuses into the being in question whatever corresponds to his system. It is indeed surprising that a man who attacks traditional philosophy and theology for abstractness and for trying to adjust reality to a closed system should himself offer the most abstract and unrealistic system imaginable into which he attempts to force reality, thereby following the famous example of Procrustes….
Teilhard’s thought is thus hopelessly at odds with Christianity. Christian revelation presupposes certain basic natural facts, such as the existence of objective truth, the spiritual reality of an individual person, the radical difference between spirit and matter, the difference between body and soul, the unalterable objectivity of moral good and evil, freedom of the will, the immortality of the soul, and, of course, the existence of a personal God. Teilhard’s approach to all of these questions reveals an unbridgeable chasm between his theology fiction and Christian revelation.
This conclusion inescapably follows from Teilhard’s oft-repeated arguments for a “new” interpretation of Christianity. Time and again he argues that we can no longer expect modern man, living in an industrialized world and in the scientific age, to accept Christian doctrine as it has been taught for the last two thousand years. Teilhard’s new interpretation of Christianity is fashioned by asking, “What fits into our modern world?” This approach combines historical relativism and pragmatism with a radical blindness to the very essence of religion.
We have considered the myth of modern man throughout this book. It suffices here to insist that man always remains essentially the same with regard to his moral dangers, his moral obligations, his need of redemption, and the true sources of his happiness. We have also examined the catastrophic error of historical relativism, which confuses the socio-historical aliveness of an idea with its validity and truth. Now, if it is sheer nonsense to claim that a basic natural truth can be true in the Middle Ages but is no longer so in our time, the absurdity is even greater when the subject is religion.
With a religion the only question that can matter is whether or not it is true. The question of whether or not it fits into the mentality of an epoch cannot play any role in the acceptance or the rejection of a religion without betraying the very essence of religion. Even the earnest atheist recognizes this. He will not say that today we can no longer believe in God; he will say that God is and always was a mere illusion. From the position that a religion must be adapted to the spirit of an epoch there is but a short step to the absurd drivel (which we associate with Bertrand Russell or the Nazi ideologist Bergmann) about having to invent a new religion….
It would be utter naiveté to be misled by the mere fact that Teilhard labels this alleged cosmogenic force Christ or by his desperate effort to wrap this pantheism in traditional Catholic terms. In his basic conception of the world, which does not provide for original sin in the sense the Church gives to this term, there is no place for the Jesus Christ of the Gospels; for if there is no original sin, then the redemption of man through Christ loses its inner meaning. In Christian revelation, the stress is laid on the sanctification and salvation of every individual person, leading to the beatific vision and, simultaneously, to the communion of saints. In Teilhard’s theology, the stress is laid on the progress of the earth, the evolution leading to Christ-Omega. There is no place for salvation through Christ’s death on the Cross since man’s destiny is part of pancosmic evolution.
Teilhard’s conception of man and his implicit denial of free will, his tacit amoralism and his totalitarian collectivism cut him off from Christian revelation—and this notwithstanding his efforts to reconcile his views with the Church’s teaching…. “Sometimes I am a bit afraid, when I think of the transposition to which I must submit my mind concerning the vulgar notions of creation, inspiration, miracle, original sin, resurrection, etc., in order to be able to accept them.” That Teilhard applies the term vulgar, even if not in the pejorative sense, to the basic elements of Christian revelation and to their interpretation by the infallible magisterium of the Church should suffice to disclose the gnostic and esoteric character of his thought….
In Teilhard we find a complete reversal of the Christian hierarchy of values. For him, cosmic processes rank higher than the individual soul. Research and work rank higher than moral values. Action, as such (that is, any association with the evolutionary process) is more important than contemplation, contrition for our sins, and penance. Progress in the conquest and “totalization” of the world through evolution ranks higher than holiness.
The vast distance between Teilhard’s world and the Christian world becomes dramatically clear when we compare Cardinal Newman’s priorities with Teilhard’s. Newman says in Discourses to Mixed Congregations: “Saintly purity, saintly poverty, renouncement of the world, the favor of Heaven, the protection of the angels, the smile of the blessed Mary, the gifts of grace, the interposition of miracles, the intercommunion of merits, these are the high and precious things, the things to be looked up to, the things to be reverently spoken of.” But for Teilhard it is otherwise: “To adore once meant to prefer God to things by referring them to Him and by sacrificing them to Him. Adoring today becomes giving oneself body and soul to the creator—associating ourselves with the creator—in order to give the finishing touch to the world through work and research.”…
In his works, he glides from one notion to another, creating a cult of equivocation deeply linked with his monistic ideal. He systematically blurs all the decisive differences between things: the difference between hope and optimism; the difference between Christian love of neighbor (which is essentially directed to an individual person) and an infatuation with humanity (in which the individual is but a single unit of the species man). And Teilhard ignores the difference between eternity and the earthly future of humanity, both of which he fuses in the totalization of the Christ-Omega. To be sure, there is something touching in Teilhard’s desperate attempt to combine a traditional, emotional attraction to the Church with a theology radically opposed to the Church’s doctrine. But this apparent dedication to Christian terms makes him even more dangerous than Voltaire, Renan, or Nietzsche….
The “new theologians” and the “new moralists” welcome Teilhard’s views because they share his historical relativism—his conviction that faith must be adapted to “modern man.” Indeed, for many “progressive” Catholics, Teilhard’s transposition of Christian revelation does not go far enough…. Many people are impressed by a thinker who constructs a new world out of his own mind in which every thing is interconnected and “explained.” They consider such conceptions the most eminent feat of the human mind. Accordingly, they praise Teilhard as a great synthetic thinker. In truth, however, the measure of a thinker’s greatness is the extent to which he has grasped reality in its plenitude and depth and in its hierarchical structure. If this measure is applied to Teilhard, he obviously cannot be considered a great thinker.5
The whole of von Hildebrand’s masterful critique is worth a read.
Pope Francis on September 3, 2023, rather pathetically described Teilhard de Chardin as “often misunderstood.” (It seems, for Francis, that Ghengis Khan is also “often misunderstood”; at least, very few besides the pope have praised the one who was responsible for the death of millions.) Did all of the foregoing writers—men obviously not lacking in lofty intelligence, broad reading, and wide experience—did they all “misunderstand” Teilhard? Is it not far more likely that they did understand him, and rightly disliked what they saw? Whose view is more believable: Cardinal Journet’s, or Pope Francis’s? To ask such a question is to answer it.
Cited in Jacques Maritain, The Peasant of the Garonne: An Old Layman Questions Himself about the Present Time, trans. Michael Cuddihy and Elizabeth Hughes (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1968; originally published in French in 1966).
Maritain, Peasant of the Garonne, from the section “Teilhard de Chardin and Teilhardism,” pp. 116-26. Full text available here.
Maritain, 264-66. For the purposes of the Substack, I have not included the numerous footnotes that may be found in The Peasant of the Garonne.
Trojan Horse in the City of God (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1967; repr. Manchester, NH: Sophia Institute Press, 1993).