When John Haught, a theologian and Teilhard scholar was interviewed by journalists about the proposed proposed lifting of the Vatican’s 1962 warning against Teilhard de Chardin’s writings, he replied that “most of those who really care about Teilhard had already dismissed the relevance of the 1962 Monitum long ago. It was ignored, for example, during the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). In fact the imprint of Teilhard’s thought is all over one of its main documents, ‘The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World’.”
In support of his opinion, Haught referred to his 2015 book Resting on the Future. “I would add,” he sad, “now that the very qualities of that document that Ratzinger found too ‘French’ are the ones that have endeared me to the document and that I believe are essential to Catholicism’s long term survival. I could not resist adding an excerpt from Resting on the Future which I think is applicable more than ever today.”
What follows is an extended excerpt from Resting on the Future that makes an excellent case for the continuing relevance of Teilhard, and especially for a robust and unapologetic encounter with science in the development of theology.
from Resting on the Future, by John Haught
The Second Vatican Council called for a synthesis of Catholic spirituality with contemporary science and biblical hope. Those of us who were still young during the Council felt at the time a palpable freshness breaking into our spiritual world. A half-century later we still rejoice in recalling that time of great expectation. The Council and its immediate aftermath seemed to recouple the Church with the wave of hope that had swept over the ancient world at the birth of Christianity. Vatican II left many of us with a deeper conviction than ever that the Church must be forward-looking and that our God calls us to move courageously toward an unprecedented future beginning with the renewal of the earth.
The Council specified in several important ways that our spiritual life requires a closer encounter of theology with the natural sciences than had yet taken place. In his “Closing Message of the Council” (December 8, 1965) Pope Paul VI, speaking directly to scientists, acknowledged the indispensability of science for any intellectually robust Catholic vision. “Continue your search without tiring and without ever despairing of the truth,” he said. “Never perhaps, thank God, has there been so clear a possibility as today of a deep understanding between real science and real faith, mutual servants of one another in the one truth. Do not stand in the way of this important meeting. Have confidence in faith, this great friend of intelligence. Enlighten yourselves with its light in order to take hold of truth, the whole truth.”
Even before the Council came to a close in 1965, Gaudium et spes (The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World), had already expressed both the fruit and promise of a new encounter of science with Catholic faith and hope. After noting that the “scientific spirit exerts a new kind of impact” on culture and thought, the document makes two provocative claims. The first is this: “The human race has passed from a rather static concept of reality to a more dynamic, evolutionary one. In consequence there has arisen a new series of problems. . . calling for efforts of analysis and synthesis” (# 5). The second, relying implicitly on the first, adds something else: “A hope related to the end of time does not diminish the importance of intervening duties but rather undergirds the acquittal of them with fresh incentives” (# 21). The document then goes on to emphasize that Christian hope must not lead to withdrawal from the world but instead to the “bettering” (#21) and “building” of it (# 34).
These two statements provide a promising point of departure for implementing the Pope’s and the Council’s expectation of a rich future convergence of science and Catholic spirituality. The Council’s words may seem so familiar to us now that we easily forget their revolutionary spiritual implications. Many Christians, including some Catholics, prefer to ignore the two items just cited. Why, they reflect, should we want to reconcile our spirituality with an evolutionary worldview? Isn’t evolution equivalent to materialist atheism? Evolution is an idea that seems dangerous theologically because it has been alloyed so often with shallow and even murderous “visions” of progress and social engineering. Didn’t Hitler and Nazi eugenics, for example, appeal to Darwinian ideas? And what exactly are the “fresh incentives” that, in the light of evolution, Christian hope for final redemption gives to our “intervening duties”?
I cannot read Gaudium et spes and address these questions without calling to mind, once again, the Jesuit priest and scientist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin whom we met briefly in the preceding chapters. In writings still unpublished before his death in 1955 Teilhard had already anticipated the spirit of the Council and outlined ways to renew Christian spirituality for a post-Darwinian age. I believe, therefore, that his ideas can still guide us as we reflect on the significance of the Second Vatican Council now, early in the twenty-first century. There can be little doubt that Gaudium et spes reflects Teilhard’s revolutionary ideas. As the celebrated Catholic theologian Henri de Lubac, SJ remarked right after the Council, Gaudium et spes expresses “precisely what Pére Teilhard sought to do.” Robert Faricy, SJ, another Teilhard scholar, rightly refers to Teilhard’s influence on the document as “a dominating one.” And it seems to me that a Teilhardian spirit of hope tacitly informed the Council more generally. So, over fifty years later, as I reflect on what happened at the Council, I believe we need to look more closely than ever at Teilhard’s efforts to frame an anticipatory spiritual vision for Christians in the age of science.
Teilhard, of course, would lament the Church’s present indifference to science. He would see it not just as an intellectual but also a spiritual loss. Vatican II endorsed, at least in principle, Teilhard’s call for the transformation of Christian spirituality from a pre-Copernican contemplation of the heavens to an evolutionary, anticipatory one. Unfortunately, though, relatively few Catholic thinkers during the last half-century have paid much attention to the momentous shift in the spiritual landscape that, according to Teilhard, the new sciences of evolution and cosmology entail. During his own lifetime hardly any Catholics had even heard of Teilhard, and those who had were often afraid of his ideas. This is still the case, although unfamiliarity and indifference are now more common than suspicion about his orthodoxy, and most of the complaints about his doctrinal integrity are the consequence of a failure to read his works carefully. During his lifetime Vatican censorship had prevented the publication of Teilhard’s innovative reflections on science and Christian faith, and as late as 1962, the very year the Council opened, the Holy Office had distributed to seminary rectors and the heads of Catholic universities an admonition (monitum) to “protect the minds, particularly of the youth, against the dangers presented by the works of Fr. Teilhard de Chardin and his followers.” So radical had Teilhard’s prescription for the renewal of Catholic spirituality seemed to his religious superiors that they directed the brilliant young Jesuit scientist to spend a quarter century of his life doing geological work in China, far removed from the European theological arena where he had already been perceived as too innovative. The long period in China, however, served only to confirm Teilhard’s sense of the need for a new Catholic spirituality that would blend contemplation with anticipation.
Church officials, along with many theologians, were initially alarmed by the world-affirming spirituality that Teilhard was building into his evolutionary vision. Remarkably, however, only three years after the monitum and a mere decade after Teilhard’s death the Council was acknowledging the need to integrate Teilhard’s evolutionary ideas into its emerging understanding of Christian vocation. And by the end of the Council Pope Paul VI is reported to have remarked that Teilhard’s “expression of faith is necessary for us!” In 1967 excitement about Teilhard was reflected in remarks by the influential American TV personality Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen who predicted: “It is very likely that within fifty years when all the trivial, verbal disputes about the meaning of Teilhard’s ‘unfortunate’ vocabulary will have died away or have taken a secondary place, Teilhard will appear like John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila, as the spiritual genius of the twentieth century.” Teilhard died in 1955, but by the beginning of the Council his ideas on science and Christian faith had become at least vaguely familiar to some of the participants. His spirituality of “divinizing” human action in the world and of “building the earth” is reflected in the Council’s exhortation not to let our hopes for final redemption diminish the importance of “intervening duties” during our present pilgrimage. The Council embraced in principle Teilhard’s passionate conviction that what Christians may hope for is no longer reducible to the saving of human souls from a sinful world.
Teilhard, of course, was not the only Catholic thinker to have integrated secular activity into Christian spirituality and ethics, but in force and originality his synthesis of faith and evolution with human effort and hope for the world’s future is still unsurpassed. Intellectually as well as spiritually, as Teilhard realized, Catholicism needs to come to grips with science in general and evolution and cosmology in particular, even if this requires a major theological makeover. Catholic spirituality sometimes seems not only pre-Darwinian but also pre-Copernican in its fixation on a static hierarchical model of the universe. Catholic thought tolerates evolution and Big Bang physics in principle, but it has scarcely begun to integrate these scientific discoveries into a spiritual vision that allows us to lift up our hearts anew in the age of science. Science has now made it possible to celebrate the glory of God not just in the splendor of the heavens above but also in the astonishing process of organic evolution on earth and the grander adventure of a whole universe still dawning. Science allows us to respond to the threat of spiritual suffocation by lifting our eyes not only to the spatial immensity of the cosmos but also, in the spirit of the apostle Paul, toward the future redemption and liberation of an entire universe. More than any other religious thinker of his time Teilhard realized that the discoveries of the natural sciences can contribute to a bracing new spiritual vision. Even while digging deeper into the geological past, he increasingly understood that the world “rests on the future as its sole support.” An evolutionary sense that something big is taking shape up ahead can give appropriate incentive to our “intervening duties,” even as it tightens the tie-in between Catholic spiritual life and the biblical theme of promise. Yet almost half a century after Archbishop Sheen ventured his bold prediction, Teilhard’s synthesis of Christianity and evolution remains largely unknown to most Catholics.
Unfortunately, by ignoring the universe, Catholic Christianity has so far largely failed to undertake the synthesis of science, spirituality and hope encouraged by Gaudium et spes. As I noted in the preceding chapter, when Teilhard began to forge his own integration of evolution and faith, his own Church discouraged such efforts, clinging instead to pictures of a static and vertically hierarchical universe. However, Vatican II encouraged Catholics to take up the kind of reflection that Teilhard had already started and left incomplete. So there is no doctrinal or pedagogical reason to postpone the task of exploring what evolution and cosmology now imply for Catholic spirituality. Evolution is the central, integrating idea in the life sciences. In the intellectual world Darwin’s ideas have never been more important than they are today, and in cosmology there is no realistic alternative to the unfinished universe of Big Bang theory. It is past time, then, for Catholic thought to respond to Vatican II’s call to connect our spiritual life more closely to the sciences. I can think of no better way to start than by reflecting further on Teilhard’s own efforts. Here and in subsequent chapters I will not repeat but mostly apply and build on the brief summaries of Teilhard’s ideas I have already given.