“A cesspool of error”. That was how Pope Pius XII referred to Teilhard de Chardin’s theology. And in his 1950 encyclical Humani Generis – though using rather more polite and roundabout language – Pius effectively condemned the French Jesuit’s theories, which had already been censored by both his bishop and the Vatican.
Teilhard accepted it all, telling his Jesuit Provincial that, although he wanted to keep thinking, “Rome may have its own reasons for judging that, in its present form, my concept of Christianity may be premature or incomplete … I am resolved to remain a child of obedience.”
But last week, the Pontifical Council for Culture voted to ask Pope Francis to remove the Vatican’s monitum (warning) against Teilhard’s writings. “We unanimously agreed,” the council statement read, “albeit some of his writings might be open to constructive criticism, his prophetic vision has been and is inspiring theologians and scientists.”
Teilhard drew on his work as a palaeontologist in a series of bestselling theological works. By the time of his death in 1955, he was famous for his theory of an “Omega Point”, mankind’s ultimate destination. Evolution, for Teilhard, was not just an explanation for biological diversity: it was the pattern of humanity’s upward movement, in which the Incarnation was a decisive moment.
Teilhard’s poetic style, and his evident belief that science was compatible with Catholic theology, were invigorating and many found he helped their faith. But the freewheeling style had its risks, which the Congregation of the Holy Office – later the Congregtion for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) – referred to in its 1962 condemnation. Teilhard’s works “abound in such ambiguities and indeed even serious errors, as to offend Catholic doctrine.” Educators and religious superiors were asked to protect their charges against Teilhard’s errors or imprecisions.
In 1981 Cardinal Agostino Casaroli, the secretary of state, wrote some generous praise for Teilhard’s work and called him “a man possessed by Christ in the depths of his soul”. Teilhard had “a powerful poetic intuition of nature’s profound value”. The CDF were asked whether the Vatican line had changed. No, they said, the monitum still applied.
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