Frequently Asked Questions

By Siôn Cowell

What is Teilhard’s correct name?

Teilhard (pronounced ‘tay-yar) usually called and signed himself ‘Teilhard’, more rarely ‘Teilhard de Chardin’, never ‘de Chardin’. In France and in the scientific and religious circles in which he moved he was known and addressed as ‘Teilhard’ or ‘Teilhard de Chardin’. So did his French publishers, biographers and others who knew him. He was never spoke of ‘de Chardin’. The problem only arose with his early Anglo-Saxon commentators, editors and publishers abroad. Their mistake has frequently been repeated ever since. There are many branches of the Teilhard family, e.g. Teilhard de Chabrier, Teilhard de Chardin, Teilhard de Chazelles, Teilhard d’Eyry, Teilhard de Féligonde, Teilhard du Ranquet, Teilhard de Térisse, Teilhard de Tissonnière, Teilhard de Ranquet, Teilhard de Rochecharles-Beaurepaire, Teillard-Chambon, Teillard de Beauvezeix, Teillard de Montclar, Durand Teilhard… Teilhard’s own branch of the family was united with the de Chardin family on the marriage of his grandparents, Pierre-Cirice Teilhard and Victoire Barron de Chardin, in 1841.

What was Teilhard?

Teilhard was a Frenchman, a priest, a member of the Society of Jesus and a palaeontologist. He was born in the French Auvergne in 1881 and died in New York in 1955.

When did he join the Jesuits?

Teilhard began his novitiate in 1899 and took his first vows in 1901. Ordained in 1911, he took his final vows in 1918. He remained a member of the Society of Jesus until his death in 1955.

What professional qualifications did he have?

In 1920 the Catholic Institute of Paris appointed him lecturer in palaeontology and geology and in 1922 assistant professeur of Geology. He remained on the staff of the Institute until 1928. In 1922-1923 he was President of the Geological Society of France. In 1929 he was appointed scientific advisor to the National Geological Survey of China. Honorary Fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute in 1937, he was director of the Applied Human Geological Laboratory (Higher Studies) from 1938. In 1947 he became research director of the National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS). Member of the Institute (Academy of Sciences) in 1950, he was Research Associate at the Wenner Gren Foundation in New York from 1951 to his death in 1955. He was made chevalier of the Legion of Honour in 1921 and promoted officer in 1950. He was awarded his doctorate in 1922 for his work on the ‘Mammals of the French Lower Eocene’ and received numerous academic distinctions over the years, e.g. the Gustave-Roux and Visquenel prizes in 1922, Gregor Mendel prize in 1937 and the Gaudry prize in 1952.

What was his part in the discovery of ‘Peking Man’?

Teilhard was appointed scientific advisor to the National Geological Survey of China in March 1929. As expedition geologist (or stratigrapher) Teilhard played a key role in dating the skullcap found by Peï Wan-chung at Choukoutien on 2 December 1929. ‘Peking Man’ was originally called Sinanthropus pekinensis but has since been correctly renamed Homo erectus pekinensis. Then thought to have been the first hominid to have used fire, an important step in hominisation, in the human species becoming recognisably human, ‘Peking Man’ was later found to be ‘Peking Woman’ and appropriately nicknamed ‘Nelly’.

Was Teilhard condemned by the Church?

No. In his lifetime he was silenced and exiled by his Order but was never condemned by the Church authorities. In death he has largely been ‘vindicated’. And today he is being rediscovered as one of the most influential mystics of modern times. After his death, his religious, spiritual and philosophical writings, once forbidden publication by his superiors in the Society of Jesus, were translated into every major language and were sold in their millions. He had always been free to publish his strictly scientific work.

Why was Teilhard silence and exiled?

Teilhard was one of a small band of priests and scientists who were at the leading edge of thinking in a Catholic Church that was not yet ready.

What are his most important writings?

His most important works are The Divine Milieu which he wrote in Tientsin in 1926-1927 and The Human Phenomenon which he wrote in Peiping in 1938-1940. Neither book could be published in his lifetime.

Why is Teilhard still important?

Teilhard undoubtedly means different things to different people but what distinguishes him from his contemporaries is, we believe, his vision of a universe in movement towards its ultimate consummation in a transcendent centre of cosmic spiritualisation he identifies with the Cosmic Christ of St Paul and St John.