By Susan Kassman Sack CUA Press, 324pp, £38.50/$34.95
Sixty years can be a short time in theology. These days, the French Jesuit writer Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955) is all the rage. Benedict XVI had nice things to say about him, Pope Francis mentioned him approvingly in an encyclical, and some would even like to see him become a Doctor of the Church.
But back in the late 1950s, the scene was very different. Teilhard had won some ardent fans in Europe but, because he had been dragged over the coals by the censors, his admirers spent much of their time reading and discussing mimeographed copies of the great man’s unpublished manuscripts. In the United States, as of the beginning of 1959, not a word of Teilhard had appeared in a translated version.
Then something remarkable happened. Teilhard became a theological superstar in the US, editions of his books began to fly off the shelves, Time magazine took a look at him, and he even became the subject of television documentaries. Susan Kassman Sack asks the obvious question: why?
Perhaps Teilhard simply suited the times. He did not regard modernity as a death knell, and he wrote optimistically about the future. He spoke in terms of unity: of faith and science being inseparable and the natural and the supernatural always riding in tandem. As a religious scholar with an impressive CV as a palaeontologist he had, as Sack puts it, “an ability to leap the interstice between the secular and the sacred”. He even talked about the material world in positive terms, stressing that the everyday was just as much a part of a Christ-centred cosmos as anything else.
The danger, as Sack stresses, is that Teilhard’s words could easily be turned into bumper stickers by anyone who recruited the cool theologian for their cause. Happily, many within the American Church worked rigorously to introduce an authentic Teilhard to American culture. They received a lot of cheers but almost as many hisses. Leading the Teilhard charge was Robert Francoeur, one of whose supporters explained what was at stake: “Unless we can lay hold of contemporary knowledge and thinking in a more positive and creative way than we have done, Christ’s kingdom will suffer horribly once again from our own maladroitness and smugness.”
It all began in 1959 with Francoeur’s Pierre Teilhard de Chardin: His Thought, swiftly followed by an influential article in Commonweal by Dorothy Poulain. In the same year, Teilhard’s greatest, though perhaps most challenging, work was published in English as The Phenomenon of Man. It did extraordinarily well, selling 50,000 copies in the US over three years.
Even his advocates admitted that Teilhard was “unusually difficult to anglicise” and the heady blend of poetry, mysticism and philosophy was hard to capture. On balance, though, things looked very promising and better news was to come. The making-things-new outlook of John XXIII, the election of a Catholic as US president and the way in which some of Teilhard’s musings seemed to chime with the civil rights movement all supplied momentum. Teilhard’s name might not have been hurled around the meetings at Vatican II, but a diffused version of his outlook can surely be seen in documents like Gaudium et Spes and the contributions of Teilhard’s friend Henri de Lubac.
A backlash was inevitable, however. Jesuits were under orders not to publish on Teilhard, but he was causing such a stir that it was decided that a Jesuit who knew him should put pen to paper. Thus de Lubac’s La pensée religieuse du père Pierre Teilhard de Chardin arrived in bookshops. Some infuriated cardinals wanted the book placed on the Index, and Philippe de la Trinité, editor of L’Osservatore Romano, savagely attacked de Lubac’s book, which was effectively banned. Before too long, the Church stumbled into a regrettable overreaction.
In June 1962, a monitum (warning) was issued by the Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office. It spoke of theological errors in Teilhard’s posthumous publications and urged heads of religious orders and Catholic academics to protect their charges from the “dangers presented by the works of Fr Teilhard” and his followers. This was, essentially, a gagging order.
But the Teilhard express could not be derailed. The monographs and Teilhard conferences kept coming and an American Teilhard organisation, based at Fordham, was able to set up its stall. Enthusiasm for Teilhard did become increasingly willy nilly but the smarter Teilhardians always realised that a profoundly, specifically Christian ethos was at the heart of the work. It was rooted in Teilhard’s Christology.
Unity, progress, and transcendence all stemmed from Christ. He was at the centre, present in everything and, when one thought about it, “the answer to the riddle of the universe is Christ Jesus”. This was a message that groovy sociology professors and hippies who’d read a couple of pages of Teilhard tended to overlook.