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Teilhard de Chardin: A Key to Understanding Our Jesuit Pope
Francis has proved an admirable disciple of his modernist forerunner
In his homily in Mongolia last Sunday (September 3), Pope Francis decided to quote Fr Teilhard de Chardin (1881–1955) at some length:
The Mass is itself a way of giving thanks: “Eucharistía.” 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. He prayed: “My God, I prostrate myself before your presence in the universe that has now become living flame: beneath the lineaments of all that I shall encounter this day, all that happens to me, all that I achieve, it is you I desire, you I await.” Father Teilhard de Chardin was engaged in geological research. He fervently desired to celebrate Holy Mass, but lacked bread and wine. So he composed his “Mass on the World,” expressing his oblation in these words: “Receive, O Lord, this all-embracing host, which your whole creation, moved by your magnetism, offers you at the dawn of this new day.” A similar prayer had already taken shape in him when he served as a stretcher-bearer on the front lines during the First World War. This priest, often misunderstood, had intuited that “the Eucharist is always in some way celebrated on the altar of the world” and is “the living centre of the universe, the overflowing core of love and of inexhaustible life” (Laudato Sì’, 236), even in times like our own, marked by conflicts and wars. Let us pray this day, then, in the words of Father Teilhard de Chardin: “Radiant Word, blazing Power, you who mould the manifold so as to breathe life into it, I pray you, lay on us those your hands—powerful, considerate, omnipresent.”
A bit wild and wooly, but one might be able to read it all in an orthodox way.
Yet Teilhard de Chardin, the Piltdown paleontologist and “Omega Point” mystagogue, is not exactly an uncomplicated and uncontroversial figure. Phil Lawler describes him as “a French author whose odd mixture of eugenics and evolutionary theory drew several cautions from the Vatican during the pontificates of Pius XII and John XXIII. More recently his work has drawn interest from exponents of New Age spirituality.”
“An oracle and icon”
I maintain that Jorge Bergoglio, S.J., to a degree not yet as widely recognized as it should be, has long shown himself to be an admirable disciple of his Jesuit forerunner, who exercised an enormous influence on the young Jesuit Turks of the twentieth century.
In his book The Myth of an Anti-Science Church: Galileo, Darwin, Teilhard, Hawking, Dawkins (Angelico Press, 2019), geneticist Gerard M. Verschuuren devotes an entire rather detailed chapter (pp. 77–121) to Teilhard as scientist and theologizer. He observes:
His greatest stature was reached when he became almost an oracle and icon to many of what a twentieth-century Jesuit should be. Teilhard had become their role model. In spite of ecclesiastical admonitions regarding Teilhard-the-Ideologue, his ideas kept spreading in the Society of Jesus. Not only has his way of thinking infiltrated—or infected, according to some—the thinking of Jesuits, but it would also become a major element of thinking in other Catholic groups. Many Jesuits and other theologians have adopted Teilhard’s evolutionary approach. (118)
I will assume, for the purposes of this article, that the reader has a basic sense of who Teilhard was: a scientist who contributed to a number of interesting (if not always above-board) scientific enterprises and a writer of ponderous poetico-theologico-scientific tomes such as The Phenomenon of Man and The Divine Milieu that were roundly mocked by scientists and, on account of their palpable pantheism, landed him in deep trouble with his then conservatively-headed Jesuit order as well as with the Holy Office of the Inquisition (today’s Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith). Here, I am more interested in pointing out the striking parallels that emerge between him and his confrere in the chair of Peter.
Verschuuren assembles an impressive series of quotations from across Teilhard’s whole career to show that he was, indeed, a card-carrying Modernist who perfectly fit the definition given by St. Pius X. First, let us consider how Modernism operates, according to Verschuuren (emphasis added):
What Modernism basically does is to harness religious belief and practice to the cultural modes and whims of civilization in any given era by asserting that there is no permanent datum of faith, no dogma, and no fixed belief in Catholicism. This means that, due to new developments in society and science, the Church can deny in one age what she had affirmed in a previous age as essential dogma. Modernism is the preservation of the formulae of doctrine emptied of their meaning, in order to adapt the Faith of the Church to the alleged requirements of modern society.
Not surprisingly, in the eyes of the Church, Modernism and Catholicism cannot possibly live in the same religious house. Catholicism acknowledges that what was true in Church doctrine yesterday cannot be false today, and what was immoral yesterday cannot be moral today. Modernists, in contrast, seem to have lost faith in their Faith and its orthodoxy; Charles Péguy called them people who no longer believe what they believe. Therefore, Modernism has been condemned by the Church on several occasions for trying to transform Catholicism from the inside.
How strikingly the emphasized sentences describe the party in command of the Catholic Church today!
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The very model of a Modern(ist) Major General
For his part, Teilhard de Chardin manifested both sides of the Modernist. On the one hand, he wanted to “aggiornamentalize” or update Christian doctrine until, ceasing to be what it had been historically, it essentially turned into modern thought. His preferred medium for the transition was evolutionary scientism. He believed not only that the evolution of species had already been adequately demonstrated, but also that evolution is the paradigm for grasping the whole of reality, including its spiritual aspects. He argued that matter evolves into spirit and that spirit will evolve into the cosmic Christ. The general framework is a Hegelian progressivism in which, in spite of momentary setbacks and conflicts, the whole universe, with mankind at its crest, is gradually improving, rising, and achieving spiritualization.
As a result, Teilhard rejected the doctrine of the creation and fall of Adam and Eve and—more pointedly for the Holy Office—the doctrine of original sin, which he called “an absurdity.” For Teilhard, the first men (there were many of them) were prehistoric primates of weak intelligence, and the “fall” simply describes the alienation from God of insufficiently spiritualized beings. Thus, there is no place whatsoever for the doctrine of a sin attaching to human nature by way of natural generation from Adam—in spite of the fact that this was taught as a de fide dogma by the Council of Trent.
Teilhard’s views on polygenism and original sin were among those condemned in Pius XII’s encyclical Humani Generis of 1950. Yet Teilhard’s reaction, while apparently submissive in the public forum, was fiercely contemptuous in private. He characterized Humani Generis in the following words:
A good psychoanalyst would see in it the clear traces of a specific religious perversion—the masochism and sadism of orthodoxy; the pleasure of swallowing, and making others swallow, the truth under its crudest and stupidest forms.
On the other hand—and this is a crucial point for understanding the general ecclesial crisis in which we find ourselves today—Teilhard, like many Modernists before and after him, refused to leave the Catholic Church, no matter how “badly” he felt he was treated by it. For him, the goal was to ride out the waves as long as possible, to influence and infiltrate, to make disciples, plant seeds, and publish (or, in his case, arrange for posthumous publications, since for the final period of his life, he was under strictures). He really believed he had the mission of changing the Church from within. Although he no longer professed the Catholic Faith—he once said to Dietrich von Hildebrand that St. Augustine “had spoiled everything by introducing the supernatural” (!)—the idea of being an ex-Catholic, sitting on the outside of the institution, held no appeal for him. It was as if he thought that only the Catholic Church provided the infrastructure necessary for the transmission of a synthetic, worldwide philosophy.
Thus, in a letter dated January 26, 1936, he wrote:
What increasingly dominates my interest is the effort to establish within myself, and to diffuse around me, a new religion (let’s call it an improved Christianity if you like) whose personal God is no longer the great Neolithic landowner of times gone by, but the Soul of the world…as demanded by the cultural and religious stage we have now reached.
In another letter about five years later, on March 21, 1941, he declared: “According to my own principles, I cannot fight against Christianity; I can only work inside it by trying to transform and convert it.” In response to a defrocked priest whom he refers to as “Fr. G.,” Teilhard wrote on October 4, 1950:
Basically I consider—as you do—that the Church (like any living reality after a certain time) reaches a period of “mutation” or “necessary reformation” after two thousand years; it is unavoidable. Mankind is undergoing a mutation, how could Catholicism not do the same?
His evolutionist-pantheistic-animistic point of view prompted him to admit: “I find I can’t but realize again (and even more profoundly) the size of the abyss which separates my religious vision of the World and the vision in the Exercises of Ignatius.” A Jesuit who can no longer embrace the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius is not only not a Jesuit in reality; he is not even a Catholic. We are, accordingly, hardly surprised to read these words from 1934: “If by consequence of some internal upheaval, I came to lose successively my faith in Christ, my faith in a personal God, my faith in the Spirit, it seems to me that I should continue to believe in the World.”
Along these lines, consider the ominous admissions contained in a letter Teilhard wrote to Léontine Zanta, which was published in 1965 in Lettres à Léontine Zanta:
It is not a question of superimposing Christ upon the world, but of “panchristizing” the Universe. The delicate point (I have partly touched on it in Christologie et Evolution) is that, in pursuing this line of thought, one is led not merely to an enlargement of views, but to a reversal of perspectives: Evil (no longer punishment for a fault, but “sign and effect” of Progress) and Matter (no longer a guilty and inferior element, but “the stuff of Spirit”) take on a meaning diametrically opposed to the meaning habitually considered as Christian. Christ emerges from the transformation incredibly exalted (at least I think so—and all the worried ones to whom I have spoken of it share my view). But is this still really the Christ of the Gospel? And if it is not he, on what, henceforth, is based what we seek to build?… One thing reassures me: it is that the growing light within me is accompanied by love and by self-renunciation in the Greater than me. This could not possibly mislead.
(On this particular passage, Jacques Maritain dryly remarked: “Would that such proofs, alas, as noble as they are, could never mislead.”)
In another work, Teilhard expresses the Hegelian view that “God consummates himself only by uniting himself” (with the Other).
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. … God is inevitably induced to immerse himself in the Multitude, in order to “incorporate it” into himself.
Teilhard de Chardin was a lifelong believer in Marxism. With typical flair, he announced in a letter of August 14, 1952:
The Christian God on high and the Marxist God of Progress are reconciled in Christ.… As I love to say, the synthesis of the Christian God (of the above) and the Marxist God (of the forward)—Behold! that is the only God whom henceforth we can adore in spirit and in truth.
No wonder, as Verschuuren notes, “Teilhard is the only Roman Catholic author whose works were put on public display with those of Marx and Lenin in Moscow’s Hall of Atheism.”
In a homage to Teilhard that should send chills down our spines for its modern applicability, his disciple Henri Rambaud proclaimed:
[Teilhard] was perfectly sincere in calling himself a Christian and even a Roman Catholic since, in his own eyes, the only disagreement between himself and the Church arose from the fact that he was already thinking then what the Church did not yet know she would be thinking shortly.… Instead of being in agreement with the Church of today, he is in agreement with the Church of tomorrow.
From most of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s writings, the breathtaking candor he exhibited in his private correspondence was notably absent. In its place was a hazy, poetic, shimmering rhetoric of grandiose pseudo-scientific speculations and quasi-mystical theologizing, replete with a jargon all his own: “Christogenesis,” “cosmogenesis,” “anthropogenesis,” “ultrahominization,” “geosphere,” “biosphere,” “noosphere,” “Omega point,” etc. He dazzled and seduced the “daring” wing of his own order and those who, around the time of the Second Vatican Council, were looking for a new theology to accompany a new era of man.
Master of ambiguity
Here is where I particularly sat up in my chair while reading Verschuuren:
Manipulating terminology and vocabulary is often a very clever way of disguising one’s underlying ideology. That happened many times in history. That’s how some have changed the concept of human rights into something like “reproductive rights.” That’s how some have simply redefined the word “conception” as no longer being the time of union of sperm cell and egg cell, but rather the time, one week later, when this new human becomes implanted inside the lining of the mother’s womb. And others have—sometimes openly, sometimes slyly—redefined the “gender” concept to refer to the sex a person identifies with, instead of the sex a person was born with. However, redefining terms does not change reality.
Teilhard knew how to manipulate language so you don’t quite know what he actually says or intends to say. That probably explains why he can be accepted and praised by Christians and non-Christians alike, by believers and non-believers, by orthodox and heterodox Christians. But that’s also the reason why one cannot just completely defend him or [completely] attack him.… Again, his secret was ambiguity, with which he could mislead the ones “for” him as well as those “against” him.… In much of his writing, Teilhard is vague and ambiguous enough to dodge critics on either side.… Teilhard knew how to dress his ideas up sufficiently for them to have some chance of not being suppressed at first sight.
This is the strategy Pope Francis has adopted again and again. In Amoris Laetitia, he made sure that the permission to give the sacraments to unrepentant adulterers was framed in vague, stretchy, and endlessly debatable language that has pitted liberals against conservatives, conservatives against traditionalists, and everyone against everyone. In the Catechism change on the death penalty, he chose the weasel word “inadmissible” rather than the stronger “contrary to the Gospel” he had used in his speech of October 11, 2017—and yet the modified text still footnotes this very speech. In all three synods—the two on the family and the most recent on youth—he put into place a bureaucracy of sycophants who worked tirelessly to ensure that the final documents would be larded with half-truths, jargony sociologese, a lack of distinctions, and other such devices of indirection and insinuation.
The reason for this strategy is simple. Truth sheds light and seeks further light, but deception and error hide in shadowy, slippery places. Just as pro-abortionists are generally unwilling to come right out and say that everyone should be free to poison or dismember their own children, and just as Planned Parenthood is unwilling to come right out and say that a major foundational and operative goal of its organization is the reduction of what Margaret Sanger held to be genetically unfit inferior races such as the negroes, so too most progressive priests and bishops are still unwilling to dissent openly from the Catholic Faith, so they must find roundabout ways to express their views—and, ultimately, to enforce them on the unreconstructed fundamentalists.
Verschuuren calls Teilhard de Chardin a “master of ambiguity,” noting that “ambiguity can help immunize against any attack” (96). So it has proved with the Jesuit Bergoglio: apart from some obvious cases of plain talk, he prefers to tack to and fro, giving with one hand and taking with the other, now saying something orthodox, now something fishy, but always pushing pragmatically, through his personnel appointments and strategic decisions, toward the modernist goals he has set himself.
In its own way, it is quite masterful, manifesting an art that has been brought to perfection. Although much of what has been said about Jesuits over the centuries can be written off as black legends, there are reasons why “jesuitical” has become a synonym for crafty, clever, consequentialist, equivocating. In addition to Teilhard de Chardin, such modern Jesuits as George Tyrrell, Karl Rahner, Joseph Jungmann, John Courtney Murray, Josef Fuchs, Carlo Maria Martini, Anthony de Mello, and in our own day James Martin and Arturo Sosa Abascal display the same art again and again: the finding of a way to say erroneous things without seeming to say them, of compromising the Catholic Faith while seeming to remain within the bounds of orthodoxy.
St. Thomas Aquinas, lauded dozens of times by the Church’s Magisterium as the exemplar of the harmony between faith and reason, did exactly the opposite. As Verschuuren himself points out, Aquinas is “the master of philosophical distinctions and terminological clarity” (136). The Angelic Doctor carefully avoided ambiguity and equivocation, finding the best and most lucid phrasings for the most difficult doctrines, always with immense humility before the mystery of Divine Revelation and the authoritative documents of the Church.In fact, although Aquinas had a remarkable poetic gift (as indicated in his hymns for the Office of Corpus Christi, which are recognized as towering summits of medieval verse), he deliberately chose a plain and lucid style in his prose so that rhetorical tropes, poetic imagery, and emotional vibrations would not clutter, confuse, or obscure the handing on of sacred doctrine. In short, he avoided the kind of language that dominates Teilhard’s effusions.
Verschuuren’s final estimation of Teilhard once again has chilling relevance to our own situation:
Some have called him “an obedient but stubborn son of the church”—a Church he refused to leave, for he considered her a great vehicle for his thoughts. It is probably equally accurate to describe him as an obstinate rebel under the outward guise of submissiveness. Rome tells him again and again that he is mistaken, but he does not change one single feature of his mental universe. He never renounced pursuing, with all his strength, a goal that Rome had condemned.
Only now the situation is far worse. Teilhard was a maverick Jesuit with his own agenda who kept coming into conflict with a Rome committed to doctrinal orthodoxy. Today a maverick Jesuit with his own revolutionary agenda sits on the very throne of Peter, his own novelties condemned by the teaching of his predecessors, so that the very categories of obedience and stubbornness, rebellion and submissiveness are hopelessly muddled. However problematic and unsatisfactory it may be to contrast “eternal Rome” with “modernist Rome,” there is no denying that our dramatic situation has given this narrative—which already possesses uncomfortable plausibility for the entire postconciliar period—a resounding truthfulness.
We may sincerely hope for the day when a restored Holy Office will issue a monitum about many of the documents that have appeared in Francis’s pontificate, a monitum comparable to the one issued by the same Holy Office on June 30, 1962 in regard to the writings of Teilhard de Chardin:
It is sufficiently clear that the above-mentioned works abound in such ambiguities and indeed even serious errors, as to offend Catholic doctrine.
Ironically, the Anglican C. S. Lewis showed a much more “Catholic” sensibility than current Church leadership when, in 1960, he wrote to a Jesuit friend: “How right your Society was to shut up de Chardin!”
Lest I (or Verschuuren) be accused of unfairness in the foregoing critique, next week I will bring before the reader some very revealing criticisms made of Teilhard de Chardin by major figures of twentieth-century Catholic thought, including Jacques Martain, Etienne Gilson, Charles Journet, and Dietrich von Hildebrand, as well as some passages from more recent writers.
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Lawler points to the following highly informative article: John P. Slattery, “Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s Legacy of Eugenics and Racism Can’t Be Ignored,” Religion Dispatches, May 21, 2018. This homily in Mongolia is not the first time the Jesuit pope has cited the cosmic visionary: see Laudato Si’ 83. The day after the pope’s homily (!), Luke Coppen at the ever-attentive and quickly responsive The Pillar published a fair-minded overview: “Is Teilhard de Chardin being rehabilitated? And who is that, anyway?”
Verschuuren, 98–99. I’ve also treated Modernism at greater length in my lecture “Pius X to Francis: From Modernism Expelled to Modernism Enthroned,” the text of which is published in vol. 2 of my work The Road from Hyperpapalism to Catholicism.
All citations from Teilhard are taken from the pertinent chapter in Verschuuren’s book (pp. 77–121).
Cited in Jacques Maritain, The Peasant of the Garonne: An Old Layman Questions Himself about the Present Time, 123.
Maritain, Peasant, 124.
Maritain, Peasant, 264-65.
Verschuuren, 97; 119.
I hasten to add that the charism of St. Ignatius of Loyola, when faithfully lived out, has always produced great saints in every age, such as (to skip over many others who could be mentioned) Fr. William Doyle and Fr. John Hardon. Moreover, in fairness, we have to admit that the other great religious orders such as the Franciscans, Dominicans, Redemptorists, Cistercians, and Benedictines were also burdened with heretics and perverts in the twentieth century. Without the Benedictines of St. John’s in Collegeville, for example, we would not be suffering under the scourge of the Novus Ordo. Really, it was the worst of centuries all around.
It may be noted in passing that the citations from St. Thomas Aquinas in the notes of Amoris Laetitia are taken out of context and misleading. There are two theories being entertained about this fact: one is that certain drafters were clever enough to try to undermine the errors of Francis by citing Aquinas’s true doctrine; the other is that the drafters were incompetently attempting to shore up the text by window-dressing it with ineptly chosen passages from St. Thomas, passages they themselves did not well understand. For a full account, see Peter Dvořák, “Is Amoris Laetitia Thomistic?,” in Lukáš Novák and Marie Tejklová, eds., Dispelling the Fog: Critical Essays on Amoris Laetitia, 29-50.
Letter to Fr. Frederick Joseph Adelmann, September 21, 1960.