By JAMES K. FITZPATRICK
You can see why Catholics in the United States might be confused about where the Church stands on the theories of the French Jesuit Teilhard de Chardin. Recently, as reported by David Gibson in Religion News Service, “Gerhard [Cardinal] Mueller, head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith,” warned the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the group representing more than 40,000 American sisters, that “the principles of ‘conscious evolution’ — that mankind is transforming thorough the integration of science, spirituality, and technology — are opposed to Christian revelation and lead to fundamental errors.” According to Gibson, Mueller warned that “if the nuns persist in pursuing such dangerous ideas, Rome could cut them loose.”
There is general agreement that the term “conscious evolution” is a reference to the theories of Teilhard (1881-1955), who achieved considerable fame as a philosopher, theologian, geologist, and paleontologist. Teilhard believed, writes Gibson, “that creation is still evolving and that mankind is changing with it; we are, he said, advancing in an interactive ‘noosphere’ of human thought that leads inexorably toward an Omega Point — Jesus Christ — that is pulling all the cosmos to itself.”
There was a time when Rome was highly suspicious of what Teilhard meant by this. In 1962, the Vatican issued a formal warning about the “dangers presented by the works of Fr. Teilhard de Chardin and his followers.”
That was then. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, as the young theologian Joseph Ratzinger, praised Teilhard’s “great vision” of the cosmos as a “living host.” One of Benedict’s spokesmen, according to Gibson, responded to questions about whether Benedict still felt that way, with a statement that read as follows: “By now, no one would dream of saying that [Teilhard] is a heterodox author who shouldn’t be studied.” Beyond that, there are reports that Pope Francis is likely to make favorable comments about Teilhard in an encyclical on the environment that he is currently writing.
So which is it? Is Rome warning us about Teilhard’s message — as Cardinal Mueller’s strong words to the Leadership Conference of Women Religious would indicate? Or calling upon Catholics to ponder his work for insights into a correct understanding of Catholicism for our time — as the comments of Pope Benedict and Pope Francis seem to say?
Yes, and yes. The problem is that it is possible to interpret Teilhard’s theories in an orthodox manner, in line with Catholic teaching. But it is also possible to interpret them in a far different manner, as a call for an evolving consciousness that leaves no room for the Church and its teachings. We can’t get around it: There are secular humanists and proponents of an eccentric New Age spiritualism who are proponents of Teilhard’s theories. They see them as a vehicle for helping Catholics grow out of what they believe is an immature literal understanding of Jesus’ role in salvation history.
Consider some key passages from Teilhard’s The Divine Milieu. “Nothing is more certain, dogmatically, than that human action can be sanctified; the actions of life, of which we are speaking, should not be understood solely in the sense of religious and devotional works (prayer, fasting, almsgiving).” Christians should “dignify, ennoble, and transfigure in God the duties inherent to one’s station in life, the search for natural truth, and the development of human action.”
Does Teilhard mean by the above that we have an obligation to “remake all things in Christ,” as St. Paul instructed? To live our faith in our daily lives in the manner that a member of Opus Dei would call for? Or is he subtly hinting that we should leave behind the Church’s sacramental life and its concentration on saving our souls in favor of a new Catholicism that stresses transforming the physical world of our earthly existence? Is he placing less stress on prayer and fasting because they make no sense if there is no Creator who will reward us in an afterlife for these spiritual exercises?
Teilhard writes that we must devote our “individual strivings” toward the “spiritualization” of the “whole of matter, that which will make of it the Heavenly Jerusalem or the New Earth.” Is that a depiction of the world transformed at the Parousia, the Second Coming of Christ? Or what the Marxists and “parlour Bolshies” (George Orwell’s term) mean, when they speak of a perfected human community, when the state withers away and we all become selfless little comrades?
Teilhard instructs us, “We may imagine that the Creation was finished long ago. But that would be quite wrong. It continues still more magnificently, and in the highest zones of the world. . . . We serve to complete it, even by the humblest work of our hands….With each one of our works, we labor — atomically, but no less really — to build the Pleroma; that is to say, we bring to Christ a little fulfillment.”
One can interpret the above words as a vision of evolution proceeding under human direction, of a new world constructed by the application of human energy inspirited by Christ’s teachings, with humans made in the image and likeness of God seeking to teach all men in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, thereby becoming co-creators with God in the transformation of the cosmos.
Or we can see them as a call for a radically new understanding of what it means to be spiritual. In Teilhard’s view, is a doctor doing research to cure cancer, or a carpenter volunteering to build homes for the poor with Habitat for Humanity, involved in a higher form of prayer than those said on one’s knees at Mass to the Father in Heaven? And is this form of prayer a higher form that mankind should be coaxed into adopting as they rise above the vestiges of the biblical depiction of a three-storied universe that clutter their minds?
Teilhard instructs us that “by virtue of the Creation and, still more, of the Incarnation, nothing here below is profane for those who know how to see.” He writes that it is our duty to recognize that the “Kingdom of God is within us. When Christ appears in the clouds, He will simply be manifesting a metamorphosis that has been slowly accomplished under His influence in the heart of the mass of Mankind.”
This last passage is the key: Is Teilhard engaging in code language meant to be read by his followers in one way, and suspicious Vatican authorities in another? Does he mean by Jesus “appearing in the clouds” at the Second Coming, the individual Jesus, the Lord of History, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity? Or is the “metamorphosis” of the human community, a community inspired by Christ’s message of love, the only “Christ” the world will ever see again?
Is Teilhard nudging us toward accepting that it is noble and liberating to accept that the image of a personal Christ coming again at the end of time is only a metaphor for the perfected human community? Is that the “evolutionary consciousness” he was calling for?
No doubt Pope Benedict and Pope Francis would say no. They would quote the passage where Teilhard wrote, “The world can no more have two summits than a circumference can have two centers. The star for which the world is waiting, without yet being able to give it a name, or rightly appreciate its true transcendence, or even recognize the most spiritual of its divine rays is, necessarily, Christ himself, in whom we hope. To desire the Parousia, all we have to do is to let the very heart of the earth, as we Christianize it, beat within us.”
We cannot pretend that there are not those who will see Teilhard’s message differently from Benedict and Francis, those who will use his words to champion one version or another of a New Age spiritualism — as well as a moral relativism that will take form once we have accepted Teilhard’s depiction of a world where “nothing is profane,” a world that will no longer need Catholicism or a teaching Catholic Church, as each individual labors on his or her own “to bring to Christ a little fulfillment.”
Pope Benedict’s Teilhard? I like it. The New Age Teilhard? Count me out.