“By now, no one would dream of saying that [Teilhard] is a heterodox author who shouldn’t be studied” – Fr. Federico Lombardi, Vatican spokesman (July 2009).
[Editor’s Note: This posting is in response to a recent article by Dan Burke in National Catholic Register in which he encourages readers to avoid Teilhard de Chardin, contrary to the statements of Pope Benedict, Pope John Paul II and other leading theologians of the last 50 years. My apologies in advance for the length of this article. I tried to parse it down or break it into multiple blogposts but given that it responds to a specific article it is hard to do without losing continuity. If you are one who is not interested in reading about theological minutia or Vatican interpretations of Teilhard de Chardin, please peruse another blog, celebrate All Saints’ Day Mass or go for a long walk rather than read this post. Your time will be better spent on one of those endeavors :-). For those few persons who enjoy theological minutia, legal briefs or discussions of Vatican interpretations of Teilhard de Chardin, please continue reading and provide me with your thoughts on where I am off-base in the comments section below.]
One of the perplexing items about Pierre Teilhard de Chardin is the continued misconceptions that surround his writings and philosophy. During his lifetime Teilhard de Chardin was censored and marginalized within the Catholic Church. However, in recent decades Teilhard de Chardin’s reputation went from being an outcast, to being tolerated, to having his ideas incorporated as part a central component of Catholic theology. I have written a six part series of blogposts which consists of various statements by two of the preeminent theologians of the last 50 years, Pope Benedict XVI and Cardinal Henri de Lubac. You can read additional statements of the contributions Teilhard de Chardin has made to Catholic theology by Pope John Paul II, Cardinal Agostino Casaroli, Cardinal Avery Dulles, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn and other leading theologians here.
Perhaps the culminating moment of the integration of Teilhard de Chardin’s vision into mainstream Catholic theology was the pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI. Pope Benedict had a well-deserved reputation as a first-rate theologian with a keen intellect. Morever, Pope Benedict, like Teilhard, has a deep respect for the richness of the Catholic tradition. Further, as successor to St. Peter, Pope Benedict’s views carry extra clout even when he is not issuing formal papal announcements. This combination of intellect, respect for tradition and teaching authority carry a tremendous amount of weight and deference.
As such, it is important that Pope Benedict has been speaking glowingly of Teilhard de Chardin’s evolutionary theology for over forty years. It is important that Pope Benedict cites Teilhard de Chardin’s concept of the Noosphere as a central feature of the Catholic Mass. It is important when Pope Benedict talks about Teilhard’s vision of The Mass on the World of the cosmos as a living host. It is important when the Vatican hosts a conference on Teilhard de Chardin in 2012 and Pope Benedict cites Teilhard de Chardin as an example of the New Evangelization needed at the beginning of the Year of Faith.
I am not surprised that some schismatic sects would spurn the Church hierarchy and dissent on the merits of the theology and vision of Teilhard de Chardin. However, I am surprised when this dissent extends to mainstream Catholics. The latest example is Daniel Burke and his recent article in National Catholic Reporter titled “Who Can I Trust” that is critical of Teilhard de Chardin and recommends avoiding him.
Dan Burke: An Exemplary Human Being
As background, I have tremendous professional and personal respect for Dan Burke. He is an award-winning author, speaker and entrepreneur. Dan is a founder of the outstanding site Roman Catholic Spiritual Direction and has just finished his latest book, Navigating the Interior Life – Spiritual Direction and the Journey to God. Dan’s journey began in Judaism, developed into a living relationship with Christ as a Protestant, and after fifteen years of continued exploration he converted to Catholicism.
I had the pleasure of meeting Dan Burke at a conference in 2012. He stood out as an extremely humble man who had a deep relationship with God. Moreover, his personal story is compelling from a troubled childhood to his deep spiritual journey. Other than the brief meeting at which I sat next to him at dinner, I do not know Dan. However, I am confident in saying that neither my faith nor my actions can compare to his. I would be a better person if I emulated Dan’s spiritual life. If only one of us could get to heaven, I would not hesitate to wager my entire current and future net worth that it would not be me.
Why Dan Burke’s Article is Inconsistent with Church Teaching
With that said, I believe his National Catholic Register article is wrong with respect to his conclusions on Teilhard de Chardin. My comments are in [red brackets below].
The article starts off well enough with Dan describing his personal spiritual journey:
About a decade before I converted to Catholicism, I was struggling with aridity. Former protestants can attest to the fact that there is little help in protestantism for this or any other significant spiritual malady. So, I began searching, and I stumbled across a priest who had written on the topic. This priest provided me with the wisdom I needed — wisdom the Holy Spirit used to not only help me get past that particular challenge, but also to deepen my understanding of how the Lord works in and through aridity to further our union with him. [God helped make the ideas of this long-dead priest available to Burke]
After becoming Catholic, I discovered that this author was condemned by the inquisition, and appropriately so, for the heresy of Quietism. [I do not know who Burke is referring to but as we see later it is important to note that the priest was criticized for a specific belief, not a general, unsubstantiated allegation.]
That said, I still have some affection for this priest and a great appreciation for what God did through my encounter with him — and with the portion of his writings that were in keeping with the teachings of the Church. [Note that there was a demarcation between those writings which were consistent with the teachings of the Church and those that were not.]
I eventually came to learn that there was an abundance of wisdom available on the topic of aridity from trustworthy spiritual doctors of the Church like Sts. Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross. [Very true. In my opinion, these two great Spanish mystics are not sufficiently well-known or studied today. However, St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross are hard and not easily assessable, as in graduate-level prayer hard. Most beginners, such as me or Burke at his earlier stages of spiritual development, needed help from others to get to a more advanced spiritual level.]
So, I traded in the writings of this condemned priest for those who have been proclaimed great saints by the Church. [While Teilhard de Chardin has not been proclaimed a Saint, Pope Benedict and others have repeatedly been effusive in his statements on Teilhard and has acited Teilhard’s concept of the Noosphere as a central component of the Catholic liturgy.] To do any less would reflect a disordered clinging to a priest who served up spiritual poison alongside the truth and lived a life that, in the most important ways, bore no resemblance to those of the saints. [The attempted analogy to Teilhard de Chardin is way off base. First, I highly doubt that Burke is saying that Pope Benedict is advocating “spiritual poison”. Second, while Teilhard may not be a saint, his life of obedience to the Church and to his Jesuit order is exemplary.]
This brings me to the purpose of this post. When I personally seek out and drink from the wisdom of the Church, I do so from the purest wells possible (the doctors of the Church). But, taking it a step further, as a public figure (whatever that means), I also will not quote from questionable resources, even if I only agree with them in part. The reason is that in our culture, even a partial reference is often seen as a full endorsement of all that the quoted author has written. [I do not necessarily agree with the last statement. However, if it is true, it undermines Burke’s entire thesis. It means that means that Pope Benedict, who is certainly a public figure and who has been quoting Teilhard de Chardin for over 40 years, has fully endorsed the views of Teilhard de Chardin, not to mention Pope John Paul II and other Cardinals who have done the same.]
In the past world of academia, this was not a problem because the academic conversation was not open to the general public. Thereby, lesser formed hearts and minds would not be damaged by a partial exploration into the thoughts of those who provided some valuable insights, but were less tethered to the truth overall. Because of the ubiquitous flow of information in our time, this kind of exploration, once it even touches the edge of the all-knowing communication vortex, becomes completely accessible to the masses — and the result is often damaging to unsuspecting souls. [There are a couple of problems with this statement. First, it is a very condescending view that “the masses” are unable to understand basic theology taught by Pope Benedict and other Church leaders. Second, there is an implication that Teilhard is “less tethered to the truth overall” without making the case why this is correct. Is Burke implying that Pope Benedict, who as successor to St. Peter has been entrusted with teaching the doctrine of the Church, is saying things that are damaging to unsuspecting souls by his promotion of Teilhard de Chardin? That certainly is the implication.]
As an example, Teilhard de Chardin has been quoted by Pope Benedict, Cardinal Avery Dulles and many other perfectly reliable scholars. [Yes, and quite extensively at that. Is Burke saying that these “perfectly reliable scholars” are incorrect in their assessment of Teilhard de Chardin? If yes, say so, and say why.]
Even so, according to the official stance of the Holy See, Chardin [Nit pick, it is either Teilhard or Teilhard de Chardin] has deeply flawed theological and philosophical issues in his writings — so much so that they have condemned his writings no less than twice. The second monitum was issued to reaffirm the first and can be found here. Scholars and teachers of our time must be more aware of the consequences of references to those who can and will lead unknowing seekers deeper into error.
[Ah yes, the infamous 1962 Teilhard monitum; the last resort of those who want to criticize Teilhard de Chardin but who can not find specific fault with his writings. The interesting thing is that the monitum did not find specific fault either. The language used in the monitum was that Teilhard’s writings had “ambiguities and indeed even serious errors.” However, the monitum never cited any specific writings or ideas that were in error. Neither did the reaffirmation that Burke refers to. This is quite unlike other warnings issued by the Vatican.
Two examples are relevant for how deficient the Teilhard monitum is. First, when the monitum was issued, there existed an Index of Forbidden Books which specified that certain books were contrary to the Faith. It is important that none of Teilhard’s books were ever listed on the Index. Second, in contrast to the Teilhard monitum, censures are usually fairly detailed in the theological deficiencies of the person subject to censure. (The Church does not get everything right but it is usually intellectually transparent, except for the Teilhard monitum). For example, in 1998 the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith (and very importantly its Prefect Joseph Ratzinger), issued a warning on the writings of Anthony de Mello, S.J. Whether one agrees with the censure or not, the censure was very specific on both the benefits and shortcomings of Fr. de Mello’s writings. Joseph Ratzinger could have done something similar for Teilhard de Chardin. He deliberately chose not to.]
Chardin may have innocently participated in the Piltdown Man hoax, [This is another common mistake. There is no credible evidence that Teilhard de Chardin participated directly or indirectly in the Piltdown Max hoax. This was a rumor started by an attention-seeking forger.] and he may have unknowingly meandered on the edges of theological and philosophical sanity. [??? That is a harsh and unsubstantiated allegation.].
However his ideas and the related fruits were and are sufficiently problematic to incur official sanctions from the Holy See which characterized them as having “grave doctrinal errors.” Is the phrase “grave doctrinal error” in any way unclear?
[Yes, it is unclear. What is the “grave doctrinal error” of Teilhard? As shown above, contrary to common practice the original monitum never specified any. As such, we are left to speculate on what shortcomings Teilhard may have had in his writings. The best place to start is with the 1981 reaffirmation which stated that the letter sent by Pope John Paul II praising Teilhard de Chardin also “expresses reservation in various passages . . . reservations which refer precisely to the judgement given in the monitum of June 1962, even though this document is not explicitly mentioned.” The reaffirmation appears to indicate that the letter sent by Pope John II clarified the generalities of the 1962 monitum.
The problem with this argument is that the letter, which I encourage you to read, is glowing about Teilhard. The only language that is remotely cautionary is reproduced below:
“At the same time, the complexity of the problems he analyzed and the variety of approaches he adopted raised difficulties that understandably called for a calm, critical study – in the scientific, philosophical and theological realms – of his extraordinary work.
“There can be no doubt that the celebrations of his 100th birthday – at the Catholic Institute of Paris, the Museum of Natural History, UNESCO, and Notre Dame of Paris – are an occasion for an encouraging evaluation [of his work] using a just methodological distinction of procedures in order to achieve a rigorous epistemological study.
“What our contemporaries will undoubtedly remember, beyond the difficulties of conception and deficiencies of expression in this audacious attempt to reach a synthesis, is the testimomy of the coherent life of a man possessed by Christ in the depths of his soul. He was concerned with honoring both faith and reason, and anticipated the response to John Paul II’s appeal: ‘Be not afraid, open, open wide to Christ the doors of the immense domains of culture, civilization, and progress.'”
OK, so the “grave doctrinal error” cited by the reaffirmation is Teilhard’s “difficulties of conception and deficiencies of expression in [his] audacious attempt to reach a synthesis.” That sounds pretty dangerous to me [Sarcasm meter on high alert]. I’ll admit that Teilhard can be challenging reading at times because he meanders in his writing (or perhaps it is the translation). However, Teilhard never claimed to be systematic theologian. He left that task to brilliant younger men such as Cardinal Henri de Lubac and Joseph Ratzinger.
Speaking of which, let’s see what Pope Benedict had to say that was critical of Teilhard. I have read a lot by Pope Benedict as he is one of my favorite contemporary theologians. Thanks to the power of e-books and word searching, I was able to scan my entire Benedict library (which is large but far from comprehensive so I likely missed some things) for this pronouncements on Teilhard for any criticism. The only criticism I found was that Teilhard had “a not entirely unobjectionable tendency toward the biological approach”.
OK then. We have the facts that none of Teilhard’s writings were ever put on the Index of Forbidden Books. No specific criticisms of Teilhard’s writings were ever issued after they were published. The “ambiguities” and “serious errors” of the Teilhard monitum appear to come down to (i) a not entirely unobjectionable tendency towards the biological approach and (ii) general difficulties in conception and difficulties in expression. This sure does not seem enough to warrant the poison label that Dan gives it 🙂
The bottom line? If we want to know who we can trust to help us understand how to pursue God with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength, we must look to those who lived holy lives that were beyond reproach, and those whose teachings have been thoroughly tested and found true. If we stick with the spiritual doctors of the Church [That is a very narrow list. I would not want to give up reading Pope Benedict or St. Ignatius of Loyola who fall short of this standard] and those who know them well, we will avoid the potentially severe spiritual injury caused by drinking from a poison well. Our hearts may settle for less, but they will never rest until they receive the Pure Water that truly fulfills all holy desire.” [I absolutely agree with this statement. However, Burke never said why Teilhard de Chardin falls within the category of those endorsed by the Church and its leaders].
End of Dan Burke article.
I will make two additional brief comments. First, Burke could have cited theologians such as Jacques Maritain or Dietrich von Hildebrand who were very critical of Teilhard de Chardin. Burke chose not to even though he was familiar with the writings of these men. That was a wise move by Dan as Cardinal Henri de Lubac addresses these criticisms in great detail in his two books “Teilhard de Chardin: The Man and His Meaning” and “The Religion of Teilhard de Chardin“. After reading those books the arguments of Maritain and von Hildebrand are shattered beneath the great intellect of de Lubac. Of lesser intellects who have criticized Teilhard, de Lubac has even stronger words “We need not concern ourselves with a number of detractors of Teilhard, in whom emotion has blunted intelligence”.
Second, I believe the Teilhard monitum was so deficient in its specificity because it was tilting at strawmen ideas from Teilhard’s youth that Teilhard had discarded later in his life. Specifically, some of Teilhard’s earliest writings, which by his own admission were speculative and not intended for a broad audence, advocated a radical change in the Catholic concept of Original Sin. It is likely that these writings got Teilhard prohibited from publishing during his lifetime. Interestingly, Teilhard’s understanding of Original Sin evolved over time and he specifically affirmed the doctrine in four different places in The Phenomenon of Man. Teilhard’s beliefs at the end of his life as set forth in his later writings are not that different from what Pope Benedict wrote in “In the Beginning . . . A Catholic Understanding of the Creation and the Fall.” My hypothesis is that the Church authorities had a preconception of Teilhard based upon his earlier speculative writings not intended for publications. They could not find any problems with his more comprehensive writings such as “The Divine Milieu” or “The Phenomenon of Man” and resorted to publishing a generic monitum which lacked intellectual rigor. All this is speculation on my part but if true, it is grossly unfair to attack Teilhard for the speculative writings of his youth.
So, where does that leave us? Here is a woefully inadequate attempt at an all-too-brief summary of the official teachings of the Church and its leading theologians on Teilhard de Chardin:
Concerns on Teilhard de Chardin
- Teilhard has a tendency to focus too much of his theology on the biological plane of existence.
- Teilhard’s writings are sometimes difficult to comprehend due to his use of terms that are not clearly defined and language that is poetic in nature.
- Although Teilhard fully accepted the idea of the existence of Original Sin, his early writings treated in an incomplete manner which he was never able to integrated into a comprehensive synthesis. As such, one should look to sources other than Teilhard’s earlier writings on Original Sin. Three of the better summaries are found here, here and here.
Ideas of Teilhard de Chardin That are Part of Christian Theology and Should be Studied
- Science and faith are not only compatible, but science is a holy endeavor and noble vocation to glorify God.
- The theories of the Big Bang and biological evolution are the best explanations we currently have to understand how God created the world.
- Christ, as the second person in the trinity, is not only the pre-existent logos (John 1:1) that created the word but the Christ who continues to create within the world. It is in him that we live and move and have our being. (Acts 17:28)
- Christology and belief in goodness of creation and the physical world are related to each other. As Pope Benedict demonstrated during his pontificate, this calls for a much greater care for and communion with nature and our environment than we have shown in the past few centuries.
- Teilhard de Chardin was a traditional Catholic that incorporated current scientific understanding into his theology. This synthesis resulted in an exceptionally high Christology for Teilhard. It is ironic that Teilhard sometimes gets accused of being a modernist, which is simply inaccurate.
- As Christ created the universe with the Big Bang and continues to create within the world, there is a deep connection both on the vertical level among God, humanity and the rest of the physical universe and on the horizontal level among all humans (living, dead and yet to be born).
- This deep interconnectiveness exists both on the physical dimensions (all of us are made from the matter that formed from God’s initial thought in the Big Bang) but more importantly on the spiritual dimensions. Humans were created for deeper connection with God and with one another.
- There is a clear direction in the evolutionary worldview from the disorganized to the highly unified and complex. From the pre-time and pre-matter universe immediately after the Big Bang, evolution is an ascending process of growth or becoming driven by a universal energy; it reaches a first peak in the genesis of living things and then continues to advance to those highly complex creations that give the cosmos a new center.
- This universal energy is the same Christ that is pre-existent logos, who became Incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth and is pulling all of humanity and creation forward towards greater unity, in what Teilhard refers to as the Omega Point, or Christ.
- The trend towards greater unity in the cosmos could not have happened by accident and the only rationale explanation is that Christ is the Divine Mind behind unification.
- Humans are called to assist God (co-create) to bring about greater unity by prayer and loving God and neighbor.
- The trend towards greater unity results in a sort of collective consciousness which Teilhard and Pope Benedict call the Noosphere, which is also referred to as the Body of Christ.
- The concept of the Noosphere or moving towards greater unity with Christ and other humans (both living and dead) is a central feature of Catholic liturgy. As Pope Benedict says, the transubstantiated Host is the anticipation of the transformation and divinization of matter in the christological “fullness” in the Noosphere.
- Despite all of the inherent problems of the institutional Catholic Church (which is inevitable as it is run by flawed humans), the Church remains the best way of describing the ultimate Truth and in achieving the unity of humanity that is called for with the Cosmic Christ. Even if the Church is incorrect on a particular point, schism is contrary to the goal of evolutionary unity and the triune God will eventually steer humanity back on course (Teilhard’s own life of obedience is a great example of this).
- Teilhard had a deeply Christocentric prayer life which encompassed all of his waking moments. He was truly Ignatian in that he found God in all things. Specifically, for Teilhard Christ was at the heart of all matter and Teilhard’s deep prayer life combined traditional Catholic devotions such as the Sacred Heart and the Eucharist and, echoing St. John and St. Paul, expanded them to the divinization of the entire cosmos.
It is impossible to do a comprehensive treatment of Teilhard de Chardin in a few bullet points but I have attempted to summarize his thoughts in digestible form. Please let me know in the comments below where I am deficient. If you are interested in learning more about the philosophy of Teilhard de Chardin, please check out the Resources Tab.