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Briefly Reviewed: July-August 2021

America’s Teilhard: Christ and Hope in the 1960s

By Susan Kassman Sack

Publisher: Catholic University of America Press

Pages: 324

Price: $34.95

Review Author: Charles Molineaux

The grandiose title of this book is somewhat misleading, as there is no particular evidence adduced that America really influenced Teilhard de Chardin or that Teilhard influenced America, where he spent the last three years before his death in 1955. But it does include a long list of articles about Teilhard from American sources, ranging from adulation by fellow Jesuits (e.g., the editor of America magazine once found “a world-wide phenomenon: an interest in Teilhard that mounts with the years”) to the mocking of Teilhard’s role in the Piltdown scandal (e.g., “The Holy Hoaxer,” Time magazine). Flagging interest in Teilhard has been revived, of course, by his mention in Pope Francis’s 2015 environmental encyclical Laudato Si’ (with a specific shoutout to Teilhard in footnote 53, and Teilhardian language in paragraph 83).

The larger question is whether Teilhard had an impact on the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), as author Susan Kassman Sack insists. The best she can manage is a vague assertion that this is what “many claim,” and that Gaudium et Spes, Vatican II’s “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World,” has a “Teilhardian flavor.” The council, of course, produced 16 documents, which have been repeatedly analyzed, and it would not seem too difficult to find some correlation between a Teilhard text, from his voluminous output, and something in a conciliar compilation. After Forty Years: Vatican Council II’s Diverse Legacy, edited by Kenneth D. Whitehead (2006), makes no mention of Teilhard. He’s just not there.

A recurring theme in America’s Teilhard, to which many pages are devoted, is its perspective on the sociopolitical milieu of the United States in the 1950s-1960s. The Kennedy brothers come in for very frequent mention, as do the Cold War, Selma, the Vietnam War, and so on — with but a thread of connection to Teilhard. For example, Robert McNamara is mentioned as having read Teilhard’s essay “Phenomenon of Man.”

The book’s imbalance is obvious in its failure to discuss any of the Teilhard skeptics. A lengthy bibliography omits serious critiques, such as Wolfgang Smith’s Theistic Evolution: The Teilhardian Heresy (2012), Msgr. Leo Schumacher’s The Truth about Teilhard (1968), and David H. Lane’s The Phenomenon of Teilhard: Prophet for a New Age (1996). Thomas Merton agreed that there was a naïve infatuation with Teilhard, and Étienne Gilson referred to Teilhard as writing “theology fiction,” a comment that Dietrich von Hildebrand seconded. A Dominican reviewer of Teilhard’s The Divine Milieu opined that precise ideas were seldom communicated therein.

Barely mentioned in this text is the matter of Teilhard’s involvement in the aforementioned “Piltdown Hoax.” Readers of a certain age may recall the revelation, in 1980, that bodily remains found decades earlier (1912-1913) near Hastings, England, and purporting to be evidence of a missing evolutionary link, had been fraudulently tampered with before their “discovery.” At least two books have gone into considerable detail on this scandal — The Piltdown Forgery (1955) by J.S. Weiner and Unraveling Piltdown: The Science Fraud of the Century and Its Solution by John E. Walsh (1996) — but Teilhard never explained his role. Either he was complicit (hence Time’s “Holy Hoaxer” label) or went blindly along with groupthink at the time. The episode is brushed off by Sack, who joins the Teilhard fans.

A charitable view of the evolutionist Teilhard, who never claimed to be a theologian, is that he was a sort of mystic poet. Unlike the politically activist Jesuits we see today, he spent years in the desert in China as a geologist. But a rock hammer (every geologist wears one) is hardly a substitute for dialogue with fellow priests or access to a serious library. His writings are inconsistent and he needed, in his view, to create a new vocabulary. Thus, he coined peculiar neologisms, of which noösphere is the best known. (Some enthusiasts have argued that with the noösphere concept, a perceived thinking envelope around the earth, Teilhard foresaw the Internet!) It is quite telling that this new vocabulary has not come into use after the publication in the 1960s of many of his writings.

Sack makes much of Teilhard’s public humility in the face of criticism from Rome, criticism from Jesuit superiors (then doctrinally orthodox), and the issuance by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith of a monitum in 1962 against his writings, a warning still in effect. Privately, Teilhard wrote to friend Léontine Zanta in 1936: “What increasingly dominates my interest…is the effort to establish within myself, and to diffuse around me, a new religion (let’s call it an improved Christianity, if you like) whose personal God is no longer the great ‘neolithic’ landowner of times gone by, but the Soul of the world as demanded by the cultural and religious stage we have now reached.”

Some idea of where Teilhard’s legacy stands can be found in an announcement from the Teilhard de Chardin Project about a May 2020 Mass on the World: “Inclusive Catholics warmly welcome all to participate in this Communion centered on the writings of scientist, mystic and prophet Teilhard de Chardin. It will not be a Mass in the traditional sense where there is bread and wine, rather one where the Communion will be that all of us present each to the other and to the world.”

Readers might have expected an appraisal or serious review of Teilhard’s “theology” from a book ostensibly devoted to a part of his life. It is rather a mystery that no such review is there. A lesser mystery is: Why did The Catholic University of America Press publish a book about the controversial Jesuit at this time? As America’s Teilhard fails to seriously probe the rambling thought of Teilhard, geologist and mystic, inquiring minds will have to look elsewhere.


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