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An Inside Joke about Teilhard de Chardin

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Nov 30, 2011

Teilhard de Chardin was something of an inside joke himself. A French Jesuit who dabbled in both paleontology and theology in the first half of the twentieth century, Teilhard wrote a variety of small books spinning out a bizarre theory of evolutionary spirituality which, despite a warning from the Holy See in 1950, has unduly fascinated his followers ever since. But it is not Teilhard who has made the joke to which I am referring today.

No, that distinction belongs to my late friend Fr. William G. Most, whom I have mentioned before, whose work is the focus of our little-known Most Collection, and who wrote the world’s greatest book on grace (Grace, Predestination, and the Salvific Will of God). It is a book which I wish I had read in its entirety while Fr. Most was still alive, just so that I could have expressed my amazement at his grasp of theology and his consistently proper use of sound theological method. But I finally read the appendices to the book last night, and that’s where I found the joke about Teilhard de Chardin.

In his second appendix, “The Universal Salvific Will and Subjective Redemption”, Fr. Most considers the various situations and problems which, afflicting human persons as they do, also reduce their culpability for sin. For instance, he discusses somatic resonance, or bodily conditions which can impede our ability to choose the good; culpable ignorance, which despite our culpability can reduce our guilt for more serious sins by progressively decreasing our ability to see and respond to the truth; and the debilitating influence of unwittingly erroneous preconceived ideas or mental frameworks.

In this third category, he gives four brief instances, all of which are extremely interesting. He explains, for example, that the Apostles had a firm idea that Jesus was going to restore the kingship to Israel and that all gentiles would become Jews. As a result of this preconception, they had great difficulty in understanding that they needed to go out and teach all nations.

Two more examples come from science. The second-century Greek anatomist Galen was taken as the prime authority on human anatomy for centuries. But Galen apparently described all the parts of the human body without having fully dissected one. Nonetheless, when Fabricius (the professor who taught William Harvey, who in turn discovered the circulation of the blood) found things in dissection which contradicted Galen, Fabricius refused to believe his own eyes, and instead remained true to Galen.

Similarly, we have the strange case of Ignaz Semmelweis, MD, who was one of the discoverers of germs. After instructing other doctors to use antiseptic precautions, the other doctors thought him insane and committed him to a mental institution for the rest of his life.

And now we come to the inside joke. If you’ve never followed the idiosyncratic mental exploits of Teilhard de Chardin; and you’ve never found yourself in a group of Catholics oohing and aahing about how we were all going to evolve spiritually to the Omega Point, becoming ultimately identical with Christ, the perfect cosmic Man; and you’ve never noticed Teilhard being cited again and again by Modernists in favor of an ever-changing idea of what Christianity is—well, then you probably won’t appreciate the joke. But if you have, you’ll find it deliciously funny that Fr. Most dares to use the highly-influential Teilhard as an example of someone whose guilt is mitigated owing to preconceived ideas or mental frameworks.

Here is the passage:

Teilhard de Chardin, SJ, called variously a theologian or a paleontologist [already a bit of sarcasm here, I suspect], not only believed in evolution of the human body, but also of intelligence and morality, so that just before the return of Christ at the end, he said most of our race would be joined in a unity like that of a totalitarian state, by love. Compare Luke 18:8: “When the Son of Man comes, do you think He will find faith on the earth?” Or Matthew 24:12: “Because sin will reach its peak, and the love of most people will grow cold.” Or 2 Timothy 3 which at the start of the chapter gives a dreadful list of what people will be like then. And there is more in Scripture, which did not penetrate at all into De Chardin.

This paragraph expresses the truth, of course. The great Teilhard, considered to possess superior enlightenment by Catholics eager to escape the constraints of dogma, becomes an example of someone so dominated by a false mental framework as to have his very culpability reduced!

Again, this may be something of an inside joke, but it is a joke worthy of Swift. In a work of very serious theology, it is as directly on target as all the rest. And it is very, very funny.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: wojo425627 - Dec. 01, 2011 1:11 PM ET USA

    I discovered the William Most library a couple of years ago and have found it immensely useful. He has deepened my understanding of Catholicism greatly. I have been reading through his theological courses that you have archived here. Thank you for providing this excellent resource.

  • Posted by: Justin8110 - Nov. 30, 2011 10:23 PM ET USA

    In Hostage to the Devil the late Father Malachi Martin has one of the priests actually become posessed after dabbling in Teilhard's bizarre theories. Speaking of grace, have you ever read the late Father Hardon's book "The History and Theology of Grace"? I've never read Father Most's but I have read Father Hardon's and if Father Most's is better than his than I better get a copy.

  • Posted by: - Nov. 30, 2011 12:16 PM ET USA

    Just finished Fr. Most's great work last weekend and read the Teilhard jab - though I'm not sure it's a joke - seems very serious to me, but also very charitable, in that Fr. Most sought to exonerate Teilhard for his straying. As for Teilhard himself - I've always regarded him as a theological fraud.