From Silence to Vindication: Teilhard De Chardin & the Holy Office

By Nugent, Robert | Commonweal, October 25, 2002 | Go to article overview

From Silence to Vindication: Teilhard De Chardin & the Holy Office


Nugent, Robert, Commonweal


In 1924, a relatively unknown Jesuit scientist was summoned by his religious superior to a meeting in Lyon, France. The priest, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, had earned his doctorate at the Sorbonne two years before and was teaching at Paris's Institute Catholique. The Lyon meeting was the start of difficulties with ecclesiastical authorities that would end only with his death in 1955.

The 1924 Lyon meeting was precipitated by a paper written two years earlier at the request of a friend. It treated tentative approaches to a new understanding of original sin. Mysteriously, the essay had found its way to Rome, some say through a student anxious to prove his own orthodoxy to church authorities. The Holy Office initially asked Teilhard to promise in writing that he would "never say anything against the traditional position of the church on original sin." Teilhard thought the demand too vague, believing that he had the right to explore the meaning of church doctrine in light of modern science. So he suggested an alternative: he would not disseminate or argue for the ideas in the disputed paper. Rome would have none of it, and on the advice of friends, Teilhard reluctantly signed the Roman document.

Teilhard's initial reaction to the ban was one of seeming total faith: "At heart I am at perfect peace," he said. Yet the following year he wrote a friend: "What I feel inside is something like a death agony or a storm." He even considered the suggestion, made by professional colleagues, that he leave the Jesuits and the church to work more freely as a scientist, but he rejected this course: "People would think that I am straying from the church ... I must show by my example that if my ideas appear in the light of an innovation, they make me as faithful as anyone else to the attitude in which I was formerly seen. ... But even now, the shadows fall."

The shadows continued to fall for the rest of Teilhard's life, causing him great personal suffering and conflicts of conscience. He was compelled to give up teaching at the Institute Catholique, and, confined to scientific research, he kept his theological speculation private: "Nothing spiritual or divine can come to a Christian or to one who has taken religious vows, except through the church or his order. ... I believe in the church as the mediator between God and the world and I love it. ... But I don't yet see the reforms which are desirable."

At his own request, Teilhard was sent to China in 1926, putting geographical and psychological distance between himself and the scene of the crisis. For the next four years, he experienced the depths of a struggle between faith in the church and a persistent temptation to abandon both church and priesthood: "In a way, I no longer have confidence in the exterior manifestations of the church. I believe that through it the divine influence will continue to reach me, but I no longer have much belief in the immediate and tangible value of official directions and decisions. Some people feel happy in the visible church; but for my own part I think I shall be happy to die in order to be free of it--and to find our Lord outside of it."

During this period, Teilhard wrote what would later become perhaps his most popular book, The Divine Milieu. While waiting for permission to publish it, he circulated the manuscript privately and employed a pseudonym to publish articles in professional journals. Because of church restrictions, his more visionary writings never received the benefit of public scrutiny by his peers, a fact that may explain some of the lifelong misunderstandings he encountered with church authorities.

In early 1929, Teilhard learned that the Jesuit censors at Louvain had finally approved The Divine Milieu, and that it would soon be printed. But by that December there was still no official word. Meanwhile, diocesan censors in Belgium had kept another article from publication and Teilhard's frustration overflowed in a letter to a friend: "This tenacious and persistent obstructionism is infinitely wearing. …

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