Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

A great scientist – elected to the French Academy of Science, dated Peking Man – who is feared and reviled by scientific reductionists. A great theologian – Jesuit priest and missionary – who was silenced until after his death by the Vatican.

Feared by the guardians of blinkered orthodoxy, both religious and scientific? Got to be something here surely.. read “The Human Phenomenon” and “Divine Milieu”. Here below is a wonderful short biography by Siôn Cowell…


By Siôn Cowell

‘The man was much greater than the sum of his qualities’ 1


‘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!’

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’). 3


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. 4 His influence on the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) is undoubted. 5 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. 6

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.’ 7

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.’ 8 They remember ‘his warm welcome and graceful manner; his aristocratic bearing, slightly ironic smile and twinkling clear eyes.’ 9

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.’ 10 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.’ 11

For his friend and confrère Pierre Leroy, ‘He was ever ready to display his natural sense of humour.’ 12 ‘What struck me,’ he adds, ‘was his look: his eyes pierced you without harming you. His face radiated a natural kindness.’ 13

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.’ 14

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, 15 a well-known amateur archivist, he learned ‘love of the earth.’ From his mother Berthe-Adèle de Dompierre d’Hornoy, 16 a great grand-niece of Voltaire, 17 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. 18

First vows followed in 1901 during his juniorate at Laval 19 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). 20

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. 21

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.’ 22 ‘The modernist “volatilises” Christ and dissolves him in the world. While I am trying to concentrate the world in Christ.’ 23

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. 24 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. 25

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’ 26 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 27 … 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.’ 28

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: 29 ‘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.’ 30

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. 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 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

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, 34 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.’ 35 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

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.’ 37

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.’ 38 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 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, 40 grandson of Darwin’s ‘Bulldog,’ Thomas Huxley. 41

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 42 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. 43 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, 44 he wrote three books 45 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.’ 46

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, 47 editor of the Jesuit magazine études. 48 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, 49 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.’ 50 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. 51

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.’ 52 émile Rideau SJ believes he contributed to its ‘new approach.’ 53 And Henri de Lubac suggests there is a remarkable convergence between his thought and the thinking that predominated at the Council. 54 René d’Ouince SJ is convinced the words of John XXIII and the texts of many of the conciliar documents contain clear teilhardian overtones. 55

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.’ 56 His theology, says Faricy, is ‘clearly the most important influence, even a dominating one, on the document.’ 57 And the introduction reads as though it ‘had been dictated by Teilhard himself.’ 58

Towards a new Nicæa?

Teilhard, however, looks to what he calls a ‘new Nicæa’ 59 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. 60 ‘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.”‘ 61 ‘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.’ 62

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.’ 63

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.’ 64 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.’ 65

George Barbour, 66 however, says, ‘In his own field of palaeontology his observations are unchallenged.’ 67 Barbour stresses he is not alone: he is supported by Theodosius Dobzhansky, 68 Julian Huxley 69 and Charles Raven 70, Jean Piveteau, Conrad Waddington 71 and Edward Dodson 72 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.’ 73 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.