Photo by Joshua Earle on Unsplash
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin SJ is remembered as a philosopher and theologian who was also trained as a paleontologist and geologist.
Teilhard de Chardin was born on May 1, 1881 in France, the fourth of eleven children. His father was an amateur naturalist, who awakened the observation and appreciation of nature in his children. When Teilhard was 12, he went to the Jesuit college of Mongré, where he completed baccalaureates of philosophy and mathematics.
In 1899, he entered the Jesuit novitiate. As a member of the Society of Jesus, Teilhard’s educational achievements continued. He earned a licentiate in literature in 1902. Teilhard studied theology in Hastings (United Kingdom), from 1908 to 1912. (There he synthesized his scientific, philosophical and theological knowledge in the light of evolution.) At the University of Paris, Teilhard pursued three-unit degrees of natural science: geology, botany, and zoology.
Teilhard’s life is threaded with creativity, support, but also suppression. Today his thoughts and writings are appreciated but each step met with resistance and/or praise.
In 1923, Teihard traveled to China to continue his scientific work. There, Teihard wrote several essays including the Mass on the World, Fall, Redemption, and Geocentry and Some Possible Historical Representations of Original Sin. At that time the church encouraged him to continue his geological research in China rather than continue lecturing at the Catholic Institute. He would remain there for about twenty years, with many voyages throughout the world. Teilhard contributed considerably to the constitution of an international network of research in human paleontology related to the whole of eastern and southeastern Asia.
In 1941, Teilhard submitted to Rome his most important work, The Phenomenon of Man. By 1947, Rome forbade him to write or teach on philosophical subjects. The next year, his Superior General of the Jesuits hoped to acquire permission from the Holy See for its publication. However, the prohibition to publish it that was previously issued in 1944 was again renewed. Teilhard de Chardin wrote two comprehensive works, The Phenomenon of Man and The Divine Milieu.
In 1950, Teilhard was nominated to the French Academy of Sciences. He was forbidden by his Superiors to attend the International Congress of Paleontology in 1955. The Supreme Authority of the Holy Office, in a decree dated 15 November 1957, forbade the works of de Chardin to be retained in libraries. His books were not to be sold in Catholic bookshops and were not to be translated into other languages.
Teilhard’s relationship to both paleontology and Catholicism allowed him to develop a highly progressive, cosmic theology which includes his evolutionary studies. He desired to bring the Church into the modern world. For Teilhard, evolution and the natural world is where salvation is situated.
Teilhard’s thought is now recognized by the Church. Cardinal Christoph Schonborn wrote, “His (Teilhard) fascinating vision … has represented a great hope, the hope that faith in Christ and a scientific approach to the world can be brought together.”
Pope Benedict XVI in his book Spirit of the Liturgy incorporates Teilhard’s vision as a touchstone of the Catholic Mass. And Pope Francis refers to Teilhard’s eschatological contribution in his encyclical Laudato si.
On the evening of Easter Sunday, 10 April 1955, Teilhard suffered a heart attack and died.
Tielhard de Chardin is a model for reconciling faith, science, and the growing knowledge of the evolutionary universe. Brian Swimme wrote “Teilhard was one of the first scientists to realize that the human and the universe are inseparable”