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Catholic Culture Podcasts

Will Teilhard’s Catholicism never stop evolving?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jun 08, 2023

The Jesuits have—wait for it—opened the Teilhard de Chardin Center in a suburb of Paris. It seems the famous (or perhaps infamous) Pierre Teilhard de Chardin cannot be allowed to rest in peace. His dubious evolutionary theology has fascinated Catholic progressives at least since the 1960s. When I was of college age, Teilhard studies and gatherings were enormously popular among young adults who had some Catholic upbringing but were in more-or-less secret rebellion against Catholic sexual ethics.

And why? Because Teilhard took all the specificity out of Catholic faith and morals.

Teilhard described God’s plan for history as an evolutionary process which would eventually result in everything reaching the Omega Point (Christ being the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end), a point of complete unity and harmony in Christ. If you vaguely recall that this does not sound at all like the end times as recounted in Scripture, and particularly in the Book of Revelation, please do not feel you have to go back and reread all the prophetic books. Teilhard’s gibberish does not, in fact, sound like Scripture at all.

Claiming to be both a theologian and a paleontologist, Teilhard was no more aligned with orthodoxy in his vision of God’s plan for us than he was aligned with the scientific method in his failure to recognize the fakery involved in the notorious “discovery” of “Piltdown man”. While only loosely associated with the Piltdown fiasco, he was fooled by what has been described as the greatest scientific fraud of the twentieth century. The remarkable thing is that our advanced civilization does not dismiss his evolutionary theology as a hoax as well.

Of course, just because a Catholic theologian is wrong about many things does not mean that he has no insight that is worth pursuing. Several recent popes have once or twice cited Chardin’s work, and even Pope Benedict saw something positive in Teilhard’s emphasis on the cosmos as an important manifestation of the Divine presence. Nor is it proof of theological incompetence for the Holy Office to have issued a monitum (warning) against Teilhard’s work in 1962, which was reiterated in1981 amid rumors that the monitum was a dead letter.

But there are ample grounds for caution, and the fact remains that Teilhard de Chardin’s several short and extravagantly imaginative works have been praised primarily by Catholics who see in an evolutionary theology a way both to disregard past Catholic teaching on human sexuality and to prepare for a wholesale acceptance of universal salvation as the end-point of history. In the media, the cause for his rehabilitation has been led by the National Catholic Reporter, to the point of promoting the idea that much good could be achieved by naming Teilhard de Chardin a doctor of the Church.

A cultural joke?

I confess I have read only one of Teilhard’s books in full (The Phenomenon of Man), and that back in my salad days of demonstrating the vacuity of those who ignore the teachings of the Church. I could not stomach any more of his books, but there is no question that Teilhard struck a responsive chord with his holistic view of creation, over against the sharp materialistic demarcation between the “real” and the “imaginary” which is so characteristic of the modern mindset. The main problem is Teilhard’s general tendency to equate even Divine Providence with an evolutionary process, which creates no end of confusion when it comes to latching on to eternal truths.

This explains Teilhard’s immense popularity among those who would otherwise reject the Faith point blank. His general line of thought, while not without occasional useful insights, can be used to justify nearly anything those in rebellion against Christ consider to be inevitable. In other words, whatever we perceive as “obvious”, in each newly enlightened decade of growing secularism, must and will be adopted by the Church with just a little more pressure in the right places. The unifying characteristic of Teilhard’s most ardent followers is that the future is theirs; the universal Church must either get on board or be forever ignored.

In preparation for writing today, I looked back at what I had written on this subject before, which led me to something truly delightful. Apparently, way back in 2011, I had written about the late great Fr. William Most’s assessment of Teilhard de Chardin in the appendix to his landmark work Grace, Predestination, and the Salvific Will of God. I had since forgotten that the second appendix to this masterly theological study was entitled “The Universal Salvific Will and Subjective Redemption”. Here Fr. Most examined the various situations and problems which, afflicting us as they do, reduce our culpability for sin, one of which is the “preconceived frameworks” of our thought which make it more difficult, sometimes almost impossible, to recognize truths which do not fit the framework.

Fr. Most offers four examples of this sort of problem, the last of which is the evolutionism of Teilhard, which made it hard for him to see anything as fixed and stable, including morality. There is an extremely clever analysis here which those who appreciate Divine immutability will deeply enjoy. It will not take long for you to read this brief commentary: An Inside Joke about Teilhard de Chardin.

The unchanging grandeur of God

The great Catholic poet Gerard Manley Hopkins—who unlike Teilhard refused to collect and publish his work once he was ordained a priest—was also a Jesuit. Yet he had a much saner understanding of the ways in which God manifests His glory to us, that glory which is the perfect antidote to the twin poisons of absolutizing the material and evolutionizing the spiritual. As a prime example, I reproduce the most famous of his poems, “God’s Grandeur”:

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
 It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
 It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
 And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
 And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
 There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
 Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
 World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

God may well work through natural processes that are evolutionary in character, but if so the evolutionary model as understood in biology stops with nature. God has already revealed Himself as unchanging, in His Being, His decrees, and His love. We see this in the Old Testament prophet Malachi:

I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hireling in his wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the sojourner, and do not fear me, says the LORD of hosts. For I the LORD do not change. [Mal 3:1-7]

And in the New Testament Letter to the Hebrews:

Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. Do not be led away by diverse and strange teachings, for it is good for the heart to be strengthened by grace, not by foods which have not benefited those devoted to them. [Heb 13:8-9]

I think the point is simply this: If reading and following the ideas of any writer are attractive primarily to those who are looking for an excuse to evade or explain away the fundamental teachings of Christ and His Church, then new centers devoted to the vision of that writer ought not to be erected in Paris or anywhere else. If reading and following the ideas of any writer are primarily attractive to those who claim to be constantly outgrowing the moral law as evident through nature and traditionally articulated in Scripture, Tradition and the Magisterium of the Catholic Church, then no effort ought to be made to engage the public in the life and work of that writer.

Why not open a Hopkins center instead, and proclaim the unchanging glory of God? As far as Teilhard goes, it is enough for scholars quietly to appropriate what is good and reject what is bad in fidelity to the authentic sources of Divine Revelation as understood in and through the Church. But it seems that Teilhard’s followers are dead set on popularizing yet a further evolution of his highly imaginative and delightfully self-serving theology. In this matter as in so much else, the Society of Jesus would be wiser to give the rest of the world a break.

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: CorneliusG - Jun. 11, 2023 5:38 AM ET USA

    Teilhard was a fraud, corrupting my father's faith in his final years with his execrably written works (which should be a clue as to his fradulence - obscurity and ambiguity are hallmarks of lies). And I recall Fr. Most's jibe at Teilhard. I'm less sure it was an inside joke so much as a pointed refutation of Teilhard's fatuous optimism about the world. And whenever a politician flip-flops on some moral issue they claim they've "evolved". That's Teilhard's gift which keeps on giving to the lost.

  • Posted by: ILM - Jun. 09, 2023 6:01 PM ET USA

    I live in a world full of Teilhard fans. It often makes life a living purgatory. How I miss Diogenes’ pithy comments to your articles.