The Man

By Siôn Cowell

‘The man was much greater than the sum of his qualities’ 1Willa Cather, Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927), 228.


‘In the beginning was power,
In the beginning was the Word,
supremely capable of mastering
and moulding
whatever might come into being
in the world of matter.
In the beginning there were not coldness and darkness:
there was fire!’
2The Mass on the World’ (1923), XIII, 121-122 E; 143 F.

Fire, symbol of the numinous, is a recurring symbol in the thought of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955). It figures prominently in the Teilhard family motto: ‘Igneus est illis vigor et cælestis origo’ (‘Their strength is of fire and their source of heaven’). 3Virgil (Publius Vergilius Maro), Æneid, VI, 730.


Member of the Society of Jesus, Teilhard (pronounced ‘tay-yar’) is probably one of the most written-about Jesuits of all time. And he is certainly one of the most controversial Jesuits of the twentieth century. After his death, his religious writings, once banned by his religious superiors, have sold in their millions and have been translated into every major language. 4Teilhard has often been accused of a lack of theological clarity. ‘But how,’ asks Lodovico Galleni, ‘could Teilhard achieve that if his writings were denied the basic source of clarity – progressive development of the idea which can only come from free debate and free confrontation?’ His influence on the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) is undoubted. 5(1) Robert Faricy SJ, All Things in Christ, 12, 52-53, 54, 58, 60, 74, 92; Christian Faith, 11, 40; Building God’s World, 22, 170; (2) Jules Carles SJ et André Dupleix, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, 148-149; (3) Henri de Lubac SJ, ed., Lettres intimes, 23, 55, 464; Teilhard Posthume, 145-155; The Eternal Feminine, 29-30; L’éternel féminin, 48-49; ‘Teilhard and the Problems of Today,’ in The Eternal Feminine, 136, 186; Teilhard et notre temps, 14, 103; (4) Gérard-Henry Baudry, ed., Lettres inédites, 183; (5) émile Rideau SJ, Teilhard de Chardin, 21; La Pensée du Père Teilhard de Chardin, 17. In one survey he was named as the person who, more than anyone else, had exercised a determining influence on those who look, not backwards to the past, but forwards to the future. 6Marilyn Ferguson surveyed 185 men and women who considered themselves futurists and personalists for her book The Aquarian Conspiracy. Teilhard and Carl Gustav Jung occupied first and second place respectively. The title of Ferguson’s book was largely inspired by Teilhard’s idea of a ‘conspiration of love’ (The Aquarian Conspiracy (1982), 19, 462-463). Others mentioned by respondents were Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers, Aldous Huxley and Jiddu Krishnamurti. Much further down the list were Paul Tillich, Hermann Hesse, Alfred North Whitehead, Martin Buber, Ruth Benedict, Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson. And even further down were Sri Aurobindo, Thomas Merton, Erich Fromm, Albert Einstein and others.

Much of his life was spent abroad in places far from home where his religious superiors in the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) thought he could cause the least theological disturbance. Frequently misunderstood by friend and foe alike, much of his time was spent in the company of non-believers. And yet the Christian faith he had learnt as a child was to be confirmed and strengthened by a lifetime of work and travel in four continents. His priesthood and his religious commitment dominated his lifework. And for his confrère and last superior: ‘Teilhard is, above all, a religious, a son of St Ignatius, a priest and a missionary.’ 7André Ravier SJ, provincial of Lyon (1951-1957), Cahiers Pierre Teilhard de Chardin Nº 8 (1974), 212.

Teilhard himself was an internationally well-known palaeontologist – expert on human fossil origins. His reputation is grounded in the part he played in the discovery in 1929 of ‘Peking Man’ (Homo erectus pekinensis) – then thought to have been the first hominid to have used fire. His scientific work in China and elsewhere earned him international recognition. In 1950 his career was crowned by election to the French Academy of Sciences. In 1965 and again in 1981 he was honoured at symposia at the Paris-based UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation).

The Man

Teilhard was not ‘holy’ in any popular sense. And yet those who knew him speak of ‘a “climate” of deep spirituality and pure science which enveloped him wherever he went.’ 8Marcel Brion, in Pierre Sipriot, ed., Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1987), 29-30. They remember ‘his warm welcome and graceful manner; his aristocratic bearing, slightly ironic smile and twinkling clear eyes.’ 9Laure Darget, in Sipriot, 269.

Others mention his face, ‘long and thin, exuding charm like others exude boredom. His nose, slightly hooked, seemed to hover between cheeks etched with lines which appeared to radiate from magnificent pearl grey eyes.’ 10émile Martin, in Sipriot, 140. All who knew him recall ‘a certain grace and irony, a sharp yet benevolent finesse, an Oxford air which reminded one of an English scholar who was both a Darwin and a Newman.’ 11Brion, in Sipriot, 29-30.

For his friend and confrère Pierre Leroy, ‘He was ever ready to display his natural sense of humour.’ 12Pierre Leroy SJ, member of the Academy of Sciences (1947), in Sipriot, 90. ‘What struck me,’ he adds, ‘was his look: his eyes pierced you without harming you. His face radiated a natural kindness.’ 13Leroy, in Sipriot, 85.

Early years

Born the fourth of eleven children on 1 May 1881 at the modest family château in Sarcenat in the heart of the French Auvergne, Teilhard died in exile in New York on Easter Sunday 10 April 1955. Only a short time before, at a dinner at the French Consulate in New York on 15 March, he had expressed the hope that he might die ‘on the Day on the Resurrection.’ 14Louis Barjon SJ, Le Combat de Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1971), 294, Bruno de Solages, Teilhard de Chardin (1967), 362; cf. Jules Carles SJ et André Dupleix, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1991), 77. 15 Alexandre Victor Emmanuel Teilhard de Chardin (1844-1932).

The Teilhard family traces its origins back to the early fourteenth century. Pierre Teilhard, notary in Dienne, Cantal, is mentioned in a deed of 1325. One ancestor, Astorg Teillard, was raised to the nobility in 1538. Another, Pierre Teilhard de Rochecharles-Beaurepaire, nearly lost his head in the Revolution. In 1841 the Teilhard and the de Chardin families were joined on the marriage of Pierre’s grandparents, Pierre-Cirice Teilhard and Victoire Barron de Chardin.

Pierre-Marie-Joseph Teilhard de Chardin spent his early childhood at Sarcenat (1881-1892). His parents with whom he had an excellent rapport taught him two ‘loves.’ From his father Emmanuel, 15Alexandre Victor Emmanuel Teilhard de Chardin (1844-1932). a well-known amateur archivist, he learned ‘love of the earth.’ From his mother Berthe-Adèle de Dompierre d’Hornoy, 16Berthe-Adèle de Dompierre d’Hornoy (1853-1936). a great grand-niece of Voltaire, 17Voltaire (François-Marie Arouet). he learned ‘love of God.’ These two ‘loves’ – and the resolution of the apparent conflict between them – were to remain with him throughout his life. They were to cause considerable problems to him and his religious superiors.


Teilhard like many children of the minor aristocracy was educated at home before going to the Jesuit College of Nôtre Dame de Mongré at Villefranche-sur-Saône, Rhône (1892-1899). On 20 March 1899 he entered he entered the Jesuit novitiate (Province of Lyon) in Aix-en-Provence. And he was to remain committed to the Society for the rest of his life. He saw the Society of Jesus as ‘an order of pioneers’ placed as it were at the head of the vanguard. 18Gérard-Henry Baudry, Ce que croyait Teilhard (1971), 114-115.

First vows followed in 1901 during his juniorate at Laval 19Paul Troussard SJ was rector at Laval. Among his tutors were Georges Longhaye SJ, Alexandre Brou SJ, Adhémar d’Alès SJ, Joseph Huby SJ and Louis Laurand SJ. Laurand was the well-known author of the Manuel des études grecques et latines. Teilhard was one of his best pupils. (Barjon, 48; de Lubac, Lettres intimes, 68, 75) just as a major anti-clerical storm was about to break in France. A series of anti-clerical laws forced many religious congregations to leave France. The Society of Jesus thought it prudent to withdraw its students from France and Teilhard and his confrères found themselves spending the next few years in Jersey (1902-1905). 20Second-year juniorate at Bon Secours (1901-1902) was followed by three years philosophy at St Louis (1902-1905).

After receiving his Licence-ès-lettres from Caen University (to which students of all disciplines from the Channel Islands went until the Second World War) Teilhard was sent to Egypt where he taught physics and chemistry at the Jesuit College of the Holy Family in Cairo (1905-1908) before returning to England in 1908.


While in Egypt the modernist crisis in the Catholic Church reached its head with its condemnation by Pius X in his decree Lamentabili and his encyclical Pascendi Dominici gregis (1907). Modernism began as a well-intentioned attempt to bring the Catholic Church into line with the latest thinking in science and philosophy. It ended up by diminishing the person of Christ. 21Vigilance committees were set up in every diocese to weed out modernism. As Secretary of State (1903-1914) and as Secretary of the Holy Office (1914-1930), Cardinal Rafael Merry del Val vigorously pursued modernists wherever they could be found.

Teilhard was no modernist. He saw himself ‘at the antipodes of modernism … Christ must always be far greater than our greatest conception of the world.’ 22Robert Speaight, Teilhard de Chardin (1967), 162. Source not known. ‘The modernist “volatilises” Christ and dissolves him in the world. While I am trying to concentrate the world in Christ.’ 23Journal, 9 June 1918, in de Solages, Teilhard de Chardin (1967), 342.

In 1910 Teilhard and his fellow-students took the anti-modernist oath required of all clergy until comparatively recently under the Motu proprio Sacrorum antistitum of 1909.


After his return from Egypt he spent the next four years studying theology at the Jesuit house at Ore Place, Hastings. 24Ore Place was demolished some years ago to make way for new housing development. On 24 August 1911 Teilhard was ordained priest at Ore Place. In 1912 he returned to Paris to begin research work at the Natural History Museum with the internationally well-known palaeontologist Marcellin Boule. 25Pierre Marcellin Boule. (Gérard-Henry Baudry, Dictionnaire des correspondants (1974), 31-33)

First World War

In December 1914 Teilhard was mobilised as a non-combatant stretcher-bearer (2nd class) in the 8th Tirailleurs (4th Mixed Zouaves-Tirailleurs) on the western front. Here he remained throughout the war. Preferring to share the fate of his fellow soldiers, he resisted all attempts to get him to accept a commission as chaplain. He emerged unscathed from the combat despite frequent forays into no-man’s land to recover the dead and injured. He was twice mentioned in dispatches and was awarded both the Croix de Guerre (1915) and the Military Medal (1917).

The First World War marked the beginning of the flowering of his genius. In 1916 he wrote his first essay ‘Cosmic Life’ and the three stories ‘in the style of Benson’ 26Robert Hugh Benson, author, clergyman and convert (1903), chamberlain to Pius X (1911). he called ‘Christ in Matter.’ In between essay and letter writing and trench-duties he found time to read Newman’s Apologia and Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine as well as Dante’s Divine Comedy.

‘I have been reading Thureau-Dangin’s Newman catholique 27Paul Thureau-Dangin, permanent secretary of the French Academy, author of Newman catholique. … I feel more than ever in sympathy with the great Cardinal, so undaunted, so firm of faith, so full, as he says of himself, “of life and thought” – and, at the same time, so thwarted.’ 28Teilhard, letter to Marguerite Teillard-Chambon, 22 July 1916, The Making of a Mind, 114; Genèse d’une pensée, 145.

Teilhard had been drawn to John Henry Newman while a student at Ore Place. Newman’s Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (1845) not only influenced Teilhard’s thinking on the development of dogma but also, by transposition, his views on cosmic evolution. Newman had declared himself ready ‘to go the whole hog’ with Darwin: 29Charles Darwin read, on 1 July 1558, with Alfred Russel Wallace papers on evolutionary theory. The Origin of Species was published in 1859. ‘I cannot imagine why Darwinism should be considered inconsistent with catholic doctrine.’ Newman believed evolution had important philosophical implications: ‘I saw that the principle of development not only accounted for certain facts, but was in itself a remarkable philosophical phenomenon.’ 30John Henry Newman CO, Apologia pro Vita Sua, in Norbertus Maximiliaan Wildiers OFMCap (1904-1996), Teilhard de Chardin (1968), 180-181.

As a young Jesuit Teilhard had momentarily been tempted to give up the world to devote himself wholly to God. Happily his novice master at Laval, Paul Troussard SJ, had persuaded him otherwise. Love of God and love of the world could be reconciled, not renouncing one in favour of the other, but by loving one through loving the other. 31Speaight, 31.

In his first essay ‘Cosmic Life’ (1916) he writes: ‘There is a communion with God and a communion with the earth and a communion with God through the earth … In this first basic vision we begin to see how the Kingdom of God and cosmic love may be reconciled: the bosom of Mother Earth is, in some way, the bosom of God.’ 32‘Cosmic Life’ (1916), XII, 14, 62 E; 19, 71 F; cf. Jean Grenier: ‘We must choose between the world and God. We can only reach the world through the world and God through God.’ (Les Îles, 135, in Claude Cuénot, ed., Science and Faith in Teilhard de Chardin (1967), 15n) And he concludes: ‘To live the cosmic life is to live with the dominating consciousness that each one of us is an atom of the mystical and cosmic body of Christ.’ 33‘Cosmic Life’ (1916), XII, 70 E; 81 F.

On 26 May 1918 he took his final vows at Sainte-Foy-lès-Lyon. Early in 1919 he was demobilised and returned to Paris. In 1920 he was appointed lecturer in palaeontology and geology at the prestigious Catholic Institute of Paris. He was made Chevalier of the Legion of Honour in 1921. And in March 1922 he successfully defended his doctoral thesis on the mammals of the French lower eocene at the Sorbonne. President of the Geological Society of France (1922-1923), he made his first visit to China (1923-1925) just as a major storm was about to break over his head: this was to be his ‘moment of truth.’


In the spring of 1922 he had prepared, at the request of a brother Jesuit, Louis Riedenger, 34Louis Riedenger SJ, professor of dogmatic theology, Enghien, Belgium. a private discussion paper which (in his own words) looked at ‘three possible ways of representing original sin.’ His views, as he stressed to Riedenger, were no more than ‘an initial approximation.’ 35Henri de Lubac SJ, Lettres intimes (1974), 81-83. This essentially exploratory paper rejected the idea of a primaeval ‘earthly paradise.’ Its thrust was frankly evolutionary – something guaranteed to earn black marks in a Rome still reeling from the aftershocks of modernism at the turn of the century. 36‘Note on Some Possible Representations of Original Sin’ (1922), X, 45 E; 61 F; Claude Cuénot, Science and Faith in Teilhard de Chardin, 56-58.

In 1924, while Teilhard was absent on a trip to China, a copy of this paper had somehow been ‘removed’ from his desk and sent to the Jesuit Curia in Rome. His line of thinking alarmed his superiors who found themselves under constant pressure from the Holy Office to take a closer look at the orthodoxy of their members. And the Jesuit Curia, fearing draconian action by the Holy Office, reacted with vigour.

Teilhard confessed he could not have imagined that ‘views … already well-known’ to his friends could have caused so much trouble. His superiors took a different view. In May 1925 they told him he was to leave the Catholic Institute and return to China. A month later he was asked to sign six propositions: he did so, after much agonizing. And despite all, his faith in the Church remained unshaken.

Chinese exile

In April 1926 he left for China although officially he is shown as being on ‘leave’ until 1928. China was to remain his home on and off for the next twenty years. And during the thirties his palaeontological work was to take him to Asia, America and Europe.

The Jesuit Curia has often been criticised for ‘silencing’ Teilhard. But, as Thomas Corbishley SJ says, ‘If his superiors were to show a regrettable timidity in refusing to allow him to publish certain writings which seemed, at the time, dangerously novel, it was these same superiors who encouraged his scientific bent and gave him every opportunity to pursue his interests in the realms of geology, palaeontology, the study of human origins, which were to provide the basis for his larger speculations.’ 37Thomas Corbishley SJ, The Spirituality of Teilhard de Chardin (1974), 31.

The Jesuit Curia, in fact, was to provide Teilhard with invaluable protection against harsher measures by the Holy Office. ‘It was in the Far East,’ says Alain Guillermou, ‘on the road already trodden by Francis Xavier, de Nobili and Ricci, that Teilhard de Chardin, man of science and man of prayer, was to realise the ignatian idea of contemplation in action.’ 38Alain Guillermou, Saint Ignace de Loyola (1958), 177. In March 1927 he completed his spiritual masterpiece Le Milieu divin but the Jesuit curia successfully prevented its publication until after his death.

Peking Man

Early in 1929 he became scientific advisor to the National Geological Survey of China which was excavating at Choukoutien (Zhoukoudian) near Peiping (Peking). On 2 December 1929 Peï Wen-chung (Pei Wenzhong) discovered the first skull. At the time Sinanthropus pekinensis, now known as Homo erectus pekinensis, was thought to be one of the first hominids to have used fire – an important step in the process of hominisation. 39‘Peking Man’ was later found to be ‘Peking Woman’ and appropriately nicknamed ‘Nelly.’ As stratigrapher – expert on geological strata and their succession – Teilhard played a major role in dating the discovery.

Second World War

During the Second World War Teilhard was unable to leave Japanese-occupied China. In 1944 he learned his superiors in Rome had refused him permission to publish Le Phénomène humain which he had written in Peiping in 1938-1940.

Paris interlude

On his return to Paris in 1946 he was appointed Research Director at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) and promoted Officer of the Legion of Honour (1947). In Paris he met, amongst others, Julian Huxley, 40Julian Sorell Huxley. grandson of Darwin’s ‘Bulldog,’ Thomas Huxley. 41Thomas Henry Huxley.

Huxley was to become one of his closest friends and one of his most ardent defenders. It is a strange twist of fate that the grandson of the man who had earlier defended Darwin should later be the man who was to defend Teilhard against attacks from reductionists like Peter Medawar.

In 1947 he suffered his first heart attack. In 1948 he was refused permission once again to publish Le Phénomène or to offer himself as a candidate to succeed Henri Breuil 42Henri Breuil, priest and prehistorian. at the College of France. But in 1950 he was elected a member of the prestigious Academy of Sciences in Paris – evidence of his eminent standing in the scientific community.

American exile

At the end of 1951 he began what was to be his final ‘exile’ in the United States where he occupied a research post at the Wenner-Gren Foundation in New York for which he made two palaeontological and archaeological expeditions to Southern Africa. He paid his last visit to France in the summer of 1954 before returning to New York where he died on Easter Sunday 10 April 1955: his funeral three days later was attended by less than a dozen people. 43Low mass was celebrated by Emmanuel de Breuvery SJ at St Ignatius’s Church, 980 Park Avenue, New York. The Jesuit community was present together with one or two friends including Ambassador Hoppenot, French ambassador to the United Nations. He is buried in the Jesuit cemetery of St Andrew-on-Hudson near Poughkeepsie (NY) on property that now belongs to the Culinary Institute of America – a nice touch for a Frenchman who revelled in the joy of creation!


Teilhard was a prolific writer. In addition to no less than eleven volumes of strictly scientific material, 44Nicole Schmitz-Moormann and Karl Schmitz-Moormann, edd., Pierre Teilhard de Chardin: L’œuvre scientifique (1971). he wrote three books 45(1) Le Phénomène humain (1938-1940), I, éditions du Seuil (1955); The Human Phenomenon, Sussex Academic Press (1999); (2) Le Milieu divin (1926-1927, 1932), IV, Seuil (1957); The Divine Milieu, Harper & Brothers (1960); (3) Le Groupe zoologique humain (1949), Albin Michel (1956), Seuil, VIII (1965); Man’s Place in Nature, Collins (1966). and more than two hundred essays. None of his books and very few of his non-scientific writings were published in his lifetime. Much of what he wrote was never intended for immediate publication. He was never able to engage in the sort of critical dialogue with a wider audience that would have allowed him to refine his views.

Teilhard never thought of himself as a theologian in any professional sense but he was vitally concerned with the fate of his religious writings after his death. ‘Above all,’ he was to tell his secretary, Jeanne-Marie Mortier, ‘take care of the publication of my religious work. That’s what concerns me most. There’ll always be someone to publish my scientific work.’ 46Attila Szekeres, ‘La Pensée religieuse de Teilhard de Chardin,’ in id., ed., Le Christ cosmique de Teilhard de Chardin (1969), 335.

And this is exactly what Jeanne Mortier was to do between 1955-1976. She had, in fact, been appointed executor in 1951 on the suggestion of Raymond Jouve SJ, 47Raymond Jouve SJ. editor of the Jesuit magazine études. 48René d’Ouince SJ, Un prophète en procès (1970), I, 171-172. (Baudry, Dictionnaire des correspondants (1974), 101-103) And this wholly in conformity with Canon Law which allows for the disposal of personal property after the death of a religious.

Le Phénomène humain appeared in French in 1955 and in English in 1957. Le Milieu divin followed in French in 1957 and in English in 1960. Both rapidly became international bestsellers. The Human Phenomenon was published in a new and improved English translation in 1999.

Decree and Monitum

On 6 December 1957 the Holy Office published a decree laying down, amongst other things, that ‘the books of Father Teilhard de Chardin SJ must be withdrawn from the libraries of seminaries and religious institutes; they may not be sold in catholic bookshops; and they may not be translated into other languages.’ The decree had little or no effect on the continued publication or the translation of Teilhard’s works.

Five years later the official Vatican newspaper, Osservatore Romano of 1 July 1962, carried a monitum that added nothing to the earlier warnings from the Holy Office. It no longer mentioned the ban on Teilhard’s writings but went further in speaking not only of ‘ambiguities’ but also of ‘grave errors which offend catholic doctrine.’ The monitum gave no indication of the ‘ambiguities’ or ‘errors’ it had in mind but the same issue of Osservatore Romano also contained a long but unsigned article which purported to represent a sort of authorised commentary.

Shortly afterwards, the Jesuit General Jean-Baptiste Janssens authorised Teilhard’s friend and confrère, the theologian (and later cardinal) Henri de Lubac, 49Henri de Lubac SJ. (Baudry, Dictionnaire des correspondants (1974), 86-90) to publish a defence of Teilhard (La pensée religieuse du Père Teilhard de Chardin, 1962, published with imprimatur), saying it would be quite wrong to attach any value to an anonymous article. Pope John XXIII later described the incident of the monitum as ‘most regrettable.’ 50Jean de Beer (1911-1995), Le Monde, 15 May 1981. Both decree and monitum have long since been forgotten by all but Teilhard’s bitterest opponents who, in the words of theologian Bruno de Solages, quite simply cannot not see beyond their noses. 51de Solages, 343.

Vatican II

Teilhard would undoubtedly have welcomed the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) and the opening of doors and windows to the world proclaimed by John XXIII. He would have rejoiced in the language of Gaudium et spes – the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (1965).

He anticipated the Council by more than ten years. ‘In evolutionary terms,’ says Louis Armand, ‘the initiatives of the Jesuit palaeontologist and Pope John XXIII belong to the same wave.’ 52Louis Armand, ‘Dix ans après,’ in Le Dieu de l’évolution, Cahiers Pierre Teilhard de Chardin Nº 6 (1968), 62, 63, 67. émile Rideau SJ believes he contributed to its ‘new approach.’ 53émile Rideau SJ, Teilhard de Chardin (1967), 21. And Henri de Lubac suggests there is a remarkable convergence between his thought and the thinking that predominated at the Council. 54de Lubac, ‘Teilhard and the Problems of Today,’ in The Eternal Feminine (1971), 186. René d’Ouince SJ is convinced the words of John XXIII and the texts of many of the conciliar documents contain clear teilhardian overtones. 55d’Ouince, I, 22, 226.

Robert Faricy SJ argues Gaudium et spes is ‘clearly grounded in the fundamental orientations and basic concepts of Teilhard’s thought’ and depends ‘in many ways on Teilhard’s Christology.’ 56Robert Faricy SJ, All Things in Christ, 12, 74. His theology, says Faricy, is ‘clearly the most important influence, even a dominating one, on the document.’ 57Faricy, op. cit., 52. And the introduction reads as though it ‘had been dictated by Teilhard himself.’ 58Faricy, Building God’s World, 22.

Towards a new Nicæa?

Teilhard, however, looks to what he calls a ‘new Nicæa’ 59NicÆa I (325): the first ecumenical council; NicÆa II (787), the seventh and last ecumenical council recognised by both the Latin and Greek Churches. to combat the threat of what he calls a new arianism, a new diminution of Christ, not in relation to the Trinity, but in relation to the universe. 60Arianism, linked with the name of Arius of Alexandria (c.250-336), denied that the Son was ‘of one being with the Father.’ ‘I am more and more convinced,’ he writes to Bruno de Solages, ‘the Church will only be able to resume its conquering march when (resuming the great theological effort of the first five centuries) it starts to rethink (ultra-think) the relations, no longer between Christ and the Trinity, but between Christ and a universe that has become fantastically immense and organic (at least a thousand billion galaxies each surely containing life and thought). Christianity can only survive (and super-live) by subdistinguishing in the “human nature” of the Word Incarnate between a “terrestrial nature” and a “cosmic nature.”‘ 61Teilhard, letter to Bruno de Solages, 2 January 1955, Lettres intimes, 450. ‘I am more than ever convinced,’ he adds, ‘that we shall need, sooner or later, a new Nicæa that will define the cosmic face of the incarnation.’ 62Teilhard, letter to de Solages, 16 February 1955, Lettres intimes, 459.

He sees, in other words, a new ecumenical council defining the relations, not between Christ and the Trinity, but between Christ and the cosmos: ‘It seems,’ he tells André Ravier, ‘we are now reliving after 1,500 years the great conflicts with arianism – with the big difference that we are now concerned with defining the relations, not between Christ and the Trinity, but between Christ and a universe that has suddenly become fantastically large, formidably organic and more than probably poly-human (n thinking planets – millions perhaps). And if I may express myself brutally (but expressively) I see no valid or constructive way out of the situation except by making through the theologians of a new Nicæa a sub-distinction in the human nature of Christ between a terrestrial nature and a cosmic nature.’ 63Teilhard, letter to André Ravier SJ, 14 January 1955, Lettres intimes, 452.

Vatican II only partially addressed these concerns. It dealt with the relationship, not between Christ and the cosmos, but between the Church and the world. The question of a third or cosmic nature of Christ remains ‘unfinished business.’ A ‘new Nicæa’ that would bring together the catholic and orthodox churches of east and west has yet to be summoned.

Scientific criticism

Many scientists see evolution as nothing more than the product of chance. Some like Peter Medawar and more recently Stephen Jay Gould see nothing scientific about Teilhard’s work. They impugn his scientific bona fides. They even accuse him of fraud and dishonesty. Medawar, for example, speaking on the Radio 4 Programme The Heart of Matter, says The Human Phenomenon is nothing more than ‘a metaphysical romance, a philosophical romance … a philosophical fiction, a good parallel with science fiction.’ 64Peter Medawar, Nobel prize-winner (1960), BBC Radio 4, 29 April 1981. And Stephen Jay Gould says ‘I see no evidence for Teilhard’s noosphere, for Capra’s California style of holism (sic), for Sheldrake’s morphic resonance. Gaia strikes me as a metaphor, not a mechanism.’ 65Stephen Jay Gould, Bully for Brontosaurus (1991), 339.

George Barbour, 66George Barbour. (Baudry, Dictionnaire des correspondants (1974), 18-21) however, says, ‘In his own field of palaeontology his observations are unchallenged.’ 67George Barbour, In the field with Teilhard de Chardin, 1965, 152. Barbour stresses he is not alone: he is supported by Theodosius Dobzhansky, 68Theodosius Dobzhansky, Professor of Genetics, Rockefeller University, member of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, the American Academy of Arts and Scientists, awarded the National Medal of Science in 1964. Julian Huxley 69Julian Sorell Huxley, first director-general of UNESCO (1946-1948). (Baudry, Dictionnaire des correspondants (1974), 59-62) and Charles Raven 70Charles Earle (C.E.) Raven, Regius Professor of Divinity, Cambridge (1932-1950)., Jean Piveteau, Conrad Waddington 71Conrad Waddington, embryologist and geneticist, Professor of Animal Genetics, Edinburgh University (1947-1970). and Edward Dodson 72Edward Dodson. who recognise that even though Teilhard’s conclusions cannot be verified experimentally, they are not contrary to scientifically established facts.

Barbour suggests ‘the list of outstanding scientists and thinkers who were ready to sponsor’ the publication of his collective works is striking testimony to the regard in which Teilhard is held. And Julian Huxley, who was to become one of Teilhard’s closest friends and most ardent defenders, speaks warmly of his achievement in ‘linking science and religion across the bridge of evolution.’ 73Julian Huxley, Introduction, in George Barbour, In the Field with Teilhard de Chardin (1965), 9. Although Huxley confesses he was ‘quite unable to follow him in his conclusions about Christification, Point Omega and the like,’ he never denies Teilhard’s essential achievement as a builder of bridges.


It was while he was studying at Ore Place that Teilhard became implicated by association with the Piltdown Scandal that was to break many years later (1953-1954). In 1911 Charles Dawson 74Charles Dawson, solicitor, antiquarian and amateur geologist. ‘discovered’ so-called Piltdown Man (Eanthropus dawsoni) near Uckfield, Sussex. Teilhard mentions the ‘findings’ in his diary (3 June 1911) but was he really involved in the deception? His many friends in the scientific world did not think so. And his continued standing in the scientific community was more than adequately reflected in the composition of the international scientific committee of patronage formed after his death to promote the publication of his collected works. 75Mary Lukas and Ellen Lukas, Antiquity, LVII, 1983, 7-11; id., Teilhard, 312-313; Claude Cuénot, Teilhard de Chardin, 36-36 F; Gérard-Henry Baudry, ed., Lettres inédites, 323n; Winifred McCulloch, Teilhard de Chardin and the Piltdown Hoax, Teilhard Studies, No. 33 (Spring 1966). UNESCO would hardly have organised international symposia in his honour in 1965 and 1981 if they had really thought he was nothing more than a scientific fraudster.

He was – and continued to remain after the scandal broke – a Corresponding Member of the French Academy of Sciences, Hon. Fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute, Hon. Member of the New York Academy of Sciences and Officer of the Legion of Honour. None of this would have been possible had there been any doubt about his personal, intellectual and scientific integrity. 76Baudry, Lettres inédites, 323n; Cuénot, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, 36-37 F; Teilhard de Chardin, 20-21 E; Mary and Ellen Lukas, Antiquity, LVII (1983), 7-11; Lukas and Lukas, Teilhard, 312-313; Winifred McCulloch, Teilhard de Chardin and the Piltdown Hoax, Teilhard Studies No. 33 (Spring 1996). And his reputation has survived attempts by Stephen Jay Gould to suggest his complicity in the Piltdown deception.

Theological criticism

Some theologians were equally condemnatory. Guérard des Lauriers OP believed Teilhard’s thesis was nothing more than ‘a false metaphysics and a false theology sheltering under a parody of “science”.’ 77Revue Thomiste, 1956. And Philippe de la Trinité OP, spoke of Teilhard as ‘a pseudo theologian from the point of view of catholic theology.’ 78Philippe de la Trinité OP, in Attila Szekeres, Le Christ Cosmique (1969), 138. Irish Marist G.H. Duggan thought his synthesis was bold but ‘not compatible with the Christian faith.’ 79G.H. Duggan SM, Teilhardism and Faith (1968), 78.

This is clearly not the view of Cardinal Casaroli writing on behalf of Pope John Paul II in 1981 (see below). Nor is it the view of Cardinals Henri de Lubac SJ and Jean Daniélou SJ or of a host of distinguished but objective theologians and thinkers including James Lyons SJ, Christopher Mooney SJ, Bruno de Solages, Norbertus Maximiliaan Wildiers OFMCap, René d’Ouince SJ, Jean Guitton, Madeleine Barthélemy-Madaule, Gérard-Henry Baudry, André Ravier SJ, Francis Elliott SJ, Robert Faricy SJ, Thomas King SJ, George Maloney SJ, émile Rideau SJ, Thomas Corbishley SJ, Louis Barjon SJ, Attila Szekeres, Emily Binns, John Grim, Mary Evelyn Tucker, Ursula King, Claude Tresmontant, Gerald Vann OP, John Russell SJ and many others.

And even if some of Teilhard’s expressions may surprise or even shock, he remains wholly faithful to St Paul in emphasising the cosmic dimensions of Christ. When he writes that ‘evolution is holy’ 80‘Cosmic Life’ (1916), XII, 59 E; 69 F. he continues to profess a fully personal Christ.

‘Rehabilitation’ 81‘Rehabilitation’ in this context means restoring Teilhard’s good name and reputation that had been sullied by his enemies before and after his death.

Teilhard was never condemned by the Church. Suspected – yes. Silenced and exiled by his own order – yes. But condemned – never. His views were frequently misunderstood by friend and foe alike. The Church, however, never questioned his commitment to herself or to his order. 82d’Ouince, I, 213-227. The process of ‘rehabilitation’ that had begun immediately after his death gathered pace on the centenary of his birth in 1981 with an important seminar on Teilhard at the Catholic Institute of Paris.

In a letter to the Rector of the Institute written on behalf of Pope John Paul II Cardinal Casaroli spoke warmly Teilhard’s ‘powerful poetic insight into the deep value of nature … his constant desire for dialogue with science’ and, above all, his concern ‘to honour both faith and reason.’ 83Cardinal Agostino Casaroli, Papal Secretary of State (1979-1991), letter to Paul Poupard, Rector of the Catholic Institute, 12 May 1981, in Teilhard de Chardin – Colloque du Centre Sèvres (1981), 173-174. And Pedro Arrupe SJ, General of the Society of Jesus, wrote to the Provincial of France: ‘Teilhard’s ideas proclaim the openness and concern with cultivating the world which characterised the teachings of the Council and of John XXIII and Paul VI and, today, John Paul II.’

On 5 January 1983 Henri de Lubac was created cardinal. John Paul II honoured de Lubac in his own right but he also honoured, in a very real sense, Teilhard in the person of de Lubac who had been his great defender. 84Carles et Dupleix, op. cit., 144. And this was developed even further in 1995 on the fortieth anniversary of Teilhard’s death in letters from Peter-Hans Kolvenbach SJ 85Peter-Hans Kolvenbach SJ, 29th General of the Society of Jesus. on behalf of the Jesuits and from Timothy Radcliffe OP on behalf of the Dominicans. 86Originals in SC personal files.

Teilhard is now recognised as a true transdisciplinarian. He is one of the pioneer builders of bridges between science and religion. His ideas bring coherence to the new story of the universe. They continue to impact on science and spirituality. Above all, they provide a powerful antidote to the prevailing materialisms of contemporary society.

Pierre Noir SJ calls him ‘a European humanist with a planetary vocation.’ 87Pierre Noir SJ, Charter Ceremony, European Teilhard de Chardin Centre, Council of Europe, Strasbourg, 22 September 1989. étienne Borne speaks of him as ‘a religious genius and one of the greatest Christian thinkers of the century … a poet because all genius is poetic.’ 88étienne Borne, Le Monde, 13 April 1955. Bruno de Solages, rector of the Catholic Institute of Toulouse (1932-1964), sees him as ‘the greatest Christian apologist since Pascal.’ 89de Solages, 390.

‘Teilhard’s poetic vision,’ say Douglas Letson and Michael Higgins, ‘can be found at that point of intersection between matter and spirit that highlights the deficiencies of our conventional modes of discourse and understanding. It should not be surprising, then, that most scientists, both Jesuit and non-Jesuit, should approach Teilhard with a combination of caution, bemusement, and disapproval. It is the mystical flavour, the interdisciplinary thrust, of Teilhard’s thought that vexes them. The science is fine.’ 90Douglas Letson and Michael Higgins, The Jesuit Mystique (1996), 237.

References in the notes to the book, essay, letter or other source from which quotations from Teilhard have been taken are given in brackets at the end of each quotation followed by the year in which they were written. Roman numerals indicate the volume number used in the French edition of Teilhard’s collected works published by éditions du Seuil. English page references are indicated by an ‘E’ and French by an ‘F.’