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(RNS) Are American nuns paying for the sins of a Jesuit priest who died in the 1950s?

Photo of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin from the book "Historia de la Literatura Argentina Vol I, II y III" edited by Centro Editor de América Latina. Published in November, 1968 in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Photo of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin from the book “Historia de la Literatura Argentina Vol I, II y III,” edited by Centro Editor de América Latina. Published in November 1968 in Buenos Aires, Argentina Photo coutesy of Claudio Elias [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

This image is available for Web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

It might seem that way, given the ongoing showdown between doctrinal hard-liners in the Vatican and leaders representing more than 40,000 U.S. sisters, with one of Rome’s chief complaints being the nuns’ continuing embrace of the notion of “conscious evolution.”

To many ears, “conscious evolution” probably sounds like a squishy catchphrase picked up after too much time in a New Age sweat lodge, and that’s pretty much how Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, views it.

The German theologian bluntly told heads of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious last month that the principles of “conscious evolution” — that mankind is transforming through the integration of science, spirituality and technology — are “opposed to Christian Revelation” and lead to “fundamental errors.”

That’s tough talk, and Mueller warned them that if the nuns persist in pursuing such dangerous ideas, Rome could cut them loose.

Yet those principles, and indeed the very term “conscious evolution,” also lead directly back to Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955), a French Jesuit who was by turns a philosopher and theologian, geologist and paleontologist.

It was Teilhard’s thinking about humanity’s future evolution that got him in trouble with church authorities, however.

Teilhard argued, for example, that creation is still evolving and that mankind is changing with it; we are, he said, advancing in an interactive “noosphere” of human thought through an evolutionary process that leads inexorably toward an Omega Point — Jesus Christ — that is pulling all the cosmos to itself.

“Everything that rises must converge,” as Teilhard put it, a phrase so evocative that Flannery O’Connor appropriated it for her story collection. This process of “complexification” — another of his signature terms — is intensifying and Catholic theology could aid in that process if it, too, adapts.

Now, that’s a perilously brief sketch of what is an intricate and often impenetrable series of concepts, but that language is enough to show why, as early as the 1920s, Teilhard’s Jesuit superiors barred him first from publishing and then from teaching, and then effectively exiled him to China to dig for fossils (which he did with great success).

In fact, most of Teilhard’s works were not published until after his death, and in 1962 a nervous Vatican issued a formal warning about “the dangers presented by the works of Fr. Teilhard de Chardin and his followers.”

Yet if few remember who Teilhard was, his views on faith and science continued to resonate, and today, remarkably, he’s actually enjoying something of a renaissance.

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, for example, who as a young theologian named Joseph Ratzinger criticized Teilhard’s views, a few years ago praised Teilhard’s “great vision” of the cosmos as a “living host.” That raised a few eyebrows and prompted Benedict’s spokesman to clarify that “by now, no one would dream of saying that (Teilhard) is a heterodox author who shouldn’t be studied.”

Benedict’s successor, Pope Francis, has also invoked Teilhard-sounding concepts about the ongoing development of human consciousness, and Vatican observers say it would not be surprising if Teilhard made an appearance in an encyclical on the environment that Francis is currently writing.

Teilhard “is definitely being quoted or invoked in ways we haven’t seen in decades, and really never before by the Roman magisterium,” said the Rev. Paul Crowley, a Jesuit at Santa Clara University who has studied Teilhard.

Crowley said one reason for the reconsideration is that reality caught up with Teilhard’s ideas: The growing global ecological crisis is prompting demands for the kind of holistic scientific and moral response Teilhard would have endorsed, and the Internet is itself a digital “noosphere” of universal interconnectivity.

At the same time, scholars such as David Grummett and Sister Elizabeth Johnson have been honing and deploying Teilhard’s often arcane ideas, and the American Teilhard Association has an agenda busy with conferences and publications. It is “the emergence of Teilhard de Chardin,” as John Haught titled a 2009 essay in Commonweal magazine.

There’s even a major documentary on Teilhard in the works, with a blurb from NPR’s Cokie Roberts: “Bringing Teilhard de Chardin alive to another generation could not come at a more opportune time.”

So how is it that the American nuns are getting tripped up by Teilhard just as Teilhard is becoming cool again?

The problem is, as Crowley put it, that for every serious Teilhard scholar “there are nine New Age types who invoke Teilhard’s name” — and often botch the pronunciation.

Granted, Teilhard remains his own worst enemy. He was as much mystic as scientist, and his concepts could be so idiosyncratic and esoteric that they fed right into the ecology-and-spirituality movement that blossomed in the 1970s and beyond. Teilhard tends to be quoted by the left the way G.K. Chesterton is cited by the right — frequently and to great effect, but often torn from any meaningful context.

To be sure, Teilhard’s disciples, including author and lecturer Barbara Marx Hubbard, whose invitation to address the American nuns in 2012 continues to irk some in Rome, helped keep his legacy alive.

But at this point the Catholic Church may need to take Teilhard more seriously if it is to take him back from his fan base outside traditional religion.

Teilhard “needs substantive theological attention,” Crowley said. “What we need to do is to separate the gold from the dross and appropriate it in new ways.”



  1. samuel Johnston

    Modernism continues to sweep tradition aside, despite:
    ” THE OATH AGAINST MODERNISM, Given by His Holiness Pope St. Pius X September 1, 1910.
    To be sworn to by all clergy, pastors, confessors, preachers, religious superiors, and professors in philosophical-theological seminaries.”
    Whether Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Alfred Loisy, or the “Search for the Historical Jesus”, the ideas developed during the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century, refuse to die. Perhaps it is because they have merit?

    • No “perhaps” about it. Research study of church and religious history, only show what awful evil has always been practiced in the name of religion. And Gerhard Mueller presently stands at the front of a long line of such “grand inquisitors,” just ahead of the recent John Paul II, Ratzinger (Benedict), and William Levada.

      They have all violated individual consciences. They consider that declaration the most hateful of all Vatican II declarations. How dare Mueller and his Seattle, Washington, pawn dare to presume the mature, intelligent, learned nuns need to ask their permission before inviting such a great theologian as Elizabeth Johnson–or anyone else–to speak to them!

      • Be advised that gilhcan is a homosexual and infiltrates and corrupts all these sites with his hatred of Sacred Tradition The late Fr. Malachi Martin in his book, “Hostage to the Devil,” regarding five exorcism cases, points out that Teilhard was possessed…So no wonder, doctrinal “expert,” gilhcan defends him! Yes, I know, my comment is awaiting moderation by the liberal inquisitor–oops, I mean “moderator.”

        • Malachi Martin who’d be interviewed on ‘Coast to Coast AM’ – a conspiracy theorist paradise.

          Teilhard was possessed ? lol

          I don’t think he had a spotless copy book either – our Malachi.

          Pots n’ Kettles.

          John D. Are you one of those ‘self loathing closet cases’ ?

          You sound like one but try as you might you can’t hide your ‘inner b…tch’. :P

          • No Maureen, I’m just a traditional Catholic who is sick and tired of readin comments by stupid, uncatechised people, Catholic or not, who swoon over heretics like De Chardin. They love him because his crap justifies their sins and their own hatred of immemorial catholic doctrine!! You sound like a closet lesbian yourself, Maureen? or is it really Morris? BTW, Malachi Matrin lost more I.Q. whenever he trimmed his thumbnail that you will ever possess. As for conspiracies, the church is drowning in a sea of conspiracies. If yo know anything about great Catholic popes, read St. Pius X’s encyclical on Modernism…The conspracies in the church were ripe even then (about 1904.) But then, you don’t even know what I’m talking about.

    • Samuel,
      you forgot that the Oath against modernism was cancelled by paul VI, a modernist himself. Then it was obvious that Modernism which was called by St Pius x the “synthesis of all heresies” would blossom again as it never had until now;
      No, the modernist ideas have no merit, only the tricks of Satan are at work.
      An heresie stays heretic forever.

      • samuel Johnston

        Forever is a long time Jack. I am merely commenting on the obvious decline in recent Centuries of the power of Christianity in general, and Catholicism in particular, both over the culture at large and its own members, especially its
        intellectuals. Those of you who are trapped in Medieval terminology and thoughts appear doomed to be bypassed. As for brother Martin, “The Final Conclave” was brilliant, but reactionary (meaning lacking any vision of a probable future).

        • Perhaps, but the answer is not to replace those ideas with half baked, non-scientific, goofy ideas such as De Chardin’s.

          The man is perhaps properly considered as a poert. Anything else gives him too much credence. When he thought of the universe as “a giant. .iiving host”, it makes sense only if thought of poetically.

    • From the 19th to the 20th century, modernism took on a pejorative tone for a variety of reasons including Darwin, Gilded age oppression and other variables that tended to strain families (i.e. the industrial revolution and the suppression of cottage industry). I think God intends for us to evolve… it is up to us to cooperate with the Holy Spirit to make that something beautiful. There are plenty of issues with Chardin, but the recognition of a telos towards a higher state of being, an epoch that mankind participates in is not one of them.

      • The problem is that many of his followers seem to relish the idea that we are evolving and will eventually become gods ourselves. This narcissitic idea seems to turn them on.
        Furthermore, they seem to want to direct evolution so that only people with their ideas are advanced – others are considered retrograde persons and must either be purposefully eliminated or allowed to die along the wayside. Either way, the whole thing smells of eugenics, which the “scientific” people of the 20’s advocated.

  2. Teilhard had no sins! It was Pius XII and other Vaticanistas who were the sinners for obstructing him and dumping on him, trying to impede the truth of his open, objective work. And his reputation.

    When is Catholic leadership–so-called leadership–going to wise up and realize it is impossible to dictate anyone’s beliefs. Any believer who submits to such treatment is no true believer, only a brain-washed marionette. That was old church. That was the common way pre-Vatican II. Like it or not, all those who tried to stand in the way of the fresh air that John XXIII allowed in by opening the windows of that stale church are still dying out and they continue to have less and less influence.

    Talk with individual Catholics. They laugh at many of the assertions by the Vatican hierarchy that were inserted into John Paul’s catechism and efforts by local bishops to enforce them. Catholics are becoming as different from one another in their beliefs as all other Christians.

    The good nuns of the United States shouldn’t give Mueller or anyone else in the Vatican any chance to “cut them loose.” They should stand firm, continue to think and act according to their own consciences, and tell Mueller and his cadre to go to hell. Become a “lay” group. Those arrogant, domineering men don’t understand any other language.

    Mueller violates Vatican II when he attempts to assert his conscience over that of the very mature and very competent U.S. nuns. The Vatican is so used to obtaining submission that guys like Mueller do not understand the first thing about freedom of conscience.

    What is becoming so evident now is that popes do not have the control over church matters, especially Vatican matters, that were presumed until Vatican II from old-fashioned practices of “nihil obstat” and “imprimatur” that Mueller and his gang still try to enforce. It won’t work, Gerhard. Wake up. You only weaken and reduce the church with your nazi tactics.

    • I don’t think you understand. The Vatican does not force any ideas on anyone. However, they are entitled to say what the doctrines of their faith are. If the nuns want to go outside that, then they should leave. it is their only honorable course. But instead, they pretend that they don’t understand what the problem is, or pretend they are only “exploring new ideas”. They are members of the Catholic church, and should not try to be New Age gurus.

    • Helen Dickson

      Why exactly do you stay in such a fossilized church. Leave it be. If it dies you were right. If it doesn’t you were wrong. Either way you’ll be a far happier man in your own little church where everything is done your way and where you only encounter like minded ideas.

      Why are you so obsessed with what other people believe. Get out and let those who actually believe what the church teaches have peace and you can have peace in whatever church, group, sect, cult you please. What’s it to you? What is your aim?

  3. It is a good article by David Gibson. I agree with his conclusion that the Catholic Church needs to more fully embrace the ideas of Teilhard de Chardin and neo-Teilhard Catholic scholars. Pope Benedict XVI effectively completed the rehabilitation of Teilhard (as an aside the article incorrectly indicates that the young Joseph Ratzinger was critical of Teilhard. To the contrary, Fr. Ratzinger spoke fondly of Teilhard de Chardin back to the 1960s in his book “Introduction to Christianity” to his days as Cardinal at the CDF in his book “The Spirit of the Liturgy” to his statements as Pope mentioned in the article).

    I have written additional thoughts here.

    • If I understand correctly, Benedict was appreciative of some of de Chardin’s methods – but not where he ended up. It is true that he included a bit in the Spirit of the Liturgy, but did not endorse those ideas, only described them as something that some theologians were considering.
      However, in a speech to priests in a town in Italy, I forgot the name, it begins with A and may be Aosta or something like that ) he spoke more appreciatively of De Chardin. But that was to priests, and the idea he was talking about was about “becoming the host” or a similar idea, which may be a useful image for priests.
      However, the Vaticans caution against using the ideas of De Chardin still remains in place. In 1981, a person from the Vatican gave an interview in which he discussed De Chardin, and it was misinterpreted as the Vatican reversing itself as to De Chardin. A few days later, the Vatican issued a statement indicating that it had not reversed its position on De Chardin and its caution still remained in place.
      I think in sum, if you consider De Chardin as a poet, he gives some great images that aid understanding. If you take him literally, he ends of leading people astray.

  4. I am all for religious speculation and novel contemplations of what any religious tradition has taught and, in teaching, gives hints of much more to be discerned.

    But I did hear some priests often quoting TC’s adage about the relation of the body and the soul (which I can’t recall). Their remarks seemed to forget that the Jewish and Catholic interpretation of human resurrection centered on the resurrection of the body and the person, not the Greek concept of the soul. But I must admit I never could understand the concept of the soul, while body and person made sense.

  5. Thank You, God. It’s about time discussion has arisen re: Teilhard deChardin. It’s time to bring back the response to the suppression of his thought and to incorporate it into the evolution of religious thinking and of the Church. Sisters in the activist role of caring for those in need of physical, emotional, and spiritual rejuvenation or recovery, are carrying out the simple mission of Christ. Their Prayer is incorporated into their actions. As per the words of Francis, they are practicing and influencing through these activities their very vows of commitment. The suppression by Meuller is not anywhere near the ESSENCE of CHRIST’S MESSAGE or the foresight, universal evolution and progression of humanity and it’s role in the universal description by deChardin.

  6. Why are the modernists always trying to change tradition. Tradition ended with the last Apostle St. John when he died. There is nothing new after that and it is Peter the Rock which Holy Church and her Mystical Body sits on that foundation. Peter is to defend Tradition not change it to something new like a new enlightenment of Freemasonry. That somehow the brightest Theologians have this grace of a New Age Holy Spirit called the New Advent and the Mystical Body of Christ the Catholic Church is on a Pilgrimage. Catholics have been warned by the Great Popes who are Saints about the future of the Holy Church which unfortunately those prophecies have come true and we are in a New Age Catholic Church unrecognizable and will be more unrecognizable after the Modernist Cardinals get finished with the Churches latest New Age face lift and we are not talking about Botox here!

    • Finally (from Sixtus) a second comment laden with Catholic Truth and common sense….All the others including the article itself are the erroneous opinions of Neo-Catholics, or those who really aren’t Catholic but think they are and know better than the great unwashed who want to save their souls! The church is in its severest crisis ever! So many mystics as well as Our lady herself (see Fatima, Akita, LaSalatte) have foretold these times. Even Our lAdy of Good Success in the 16th century predicted these times! Now of course, Gibson and m ost of these commentators will sip their martinis at the next liberal sponsored cocktail party with their Ivy Leaguw, black “mass” sponsoring friends and sniff at all thraditional (REAl) Catholics. Articles like this are a disgrace!

      • The ideas of Teilhard de Chardin are partaking in the “diabolical disorientation” of which sister Lucy spoke many years ago.
        An heresie remains heretic forever.

  7. The problem with Teilhard is that nobody can figure out what on earth he is saying. He is so obscure and complicated that his works are open to multiple interpretations. One of the many good attributes of God is that he is simple ! Too bad Chardin’ writings are so complex. Thank God that Pope Francis is brilliant and easy to understand.

    • JOseph wrote on
      May 23, 2014 at 9:10 pm
      The problem with Teilhard is that nobody can figure out what on earth he is saying..

      Amen to that.. what type of drugs was this fellow ON was what I was wondering….

    • LOL – Exactly. Gee, what part of ““Everything that rises must converge” don’t you understand? Of course, it is a nonsensical statement, which is blatantly untrue in any real sense. If I release a balloon in New York and another in LA, they do not converge, so it certainly is not scientifically true.
      So the only real way to understand him is as a poet, not a true theologian. But Everything that rises must converge sounds deep to the New Age types.

      • But there is a strain of wackadoodlery running through his comments which is amusing to read. That is reading it as a psychological case study for delusional thinking.

        The talk of prophesy, exorcisms and black masses give rise to the question of what would happen if you gave a medieval flagellant internet access.

  8. Cut through all the spite and insults and you have two incompatible viewpoints:

    1) the truth was revealed completely, thousands of years ago, and is unchanging

    2) everything changes and evolves, including our ideas (“consciousness”) about what is real and true

    Teilhard hunted fossils and believed in evolution, so his writings, however impenetrable or mystical they might seem to a modern reader, fall into the second camp. The Vatican guardian of dogma is in the first camp.

    • samuel Johnston

      Hi Russ,
      Clever analytical comment, but not very satisfying. Are the acts of the Gods Just because they are the Gods, or do they act Justly because they are Gods? The questions are unending, so grab a few books about early Greek Philosophy, and join in.

      • It’s not clever, it’s the basic distinction between philosophy/religion and science. You can study ancient Greek philosophy because it will not change. Science is built to change. Models of reality are used to generate non-trivial predictions, and the models are revised in the aftermath of those predictions. That is powerful. It means the models evolve, get more detailed, accurate, like our knowledge of the fossil record. Teilhard was aligned to this reality of science and saw the same potential for evolution in spirituality. On that very general level he was making an important point. His particular expression of it…his metaphors…are dated.

        • samuel Johnston

          My prospective changes every time I open my eyes, but my same old eyes are still connected to the same tired old brain, which continues cooperate in he same old limited Kantian way. The same old human condition with the same old moral questions continue to nag us, even with all our new information. Science is a powerful tool, unavailable to our ancestors, but it is still just a tool subject to our human limitations and desires. Ask your computer what you SHOULD do sometime. LOL

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