Though often maligned by Orthodox Catholics over the years, and seeing his books banned, he was spoken of favorably by Pope Benedict XVI, signaling a reassessment—which we blogged about—which is well due, as his works have played a role in many conversions, mine included; and his vision of seeing sanctification coming from work in the world, presaged that of the founder, St. Josemaria Escriva, of one of the most orthodox of Catholic orders, Opus Dei.
An article from America Magazine from March 29, 2005 is a good memorial.
“Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, S.J., died 50 years ago in New York City. At the time, he was widely recognized in U.S. scientific circles for his work on the geology of Asia and his studies of Peking Man. Otherwise, he was virtually unknown. He had written abundantly in philosophy and theology, but church officials had prevented publication, although some of his essays were widely circulated during his lifetime in manuscript form. After his death, friends in Paris did what he had not been permitted to do; they published 13 volumes of his religious writings. By the time the Second Vatican Council began, less than a decade later in 1962, Teilhard had come to be regarded as a saint for the times. But his sanctity was unusual; it showed itself chiefly in a dedication to the world and secular work.
“During World War I, Teilhard was a stretcher-bearer in the French Army and much respected by his fellow soldiers for his indifference to danger. After the war, he returned to the University of Paris to complete his doctoral studies in geology. He approached science as a “religious devotee” and spoke of a “sacred duty of research. We must test every barrier, try every path, plumb every abyss.” To Teilhard, research was a form of adoration, involving its own asceticism. His work took him through blistering heat and icy blizzards, snakes and scorpions, bad food and no food, political instability and exile. Through it all, Teilhard came to be known as “the smiling scientist.” A young Chinese geologist found it “a moving experience to see how much the man could bear.”
“Teilhard was striving for sanctity by working in science, and this effort would require a new understanding of what it means to be holy. The traditional understanding of sanctity regarded secular work as a “spiritual encumbrance” and viewed “the world around us as vanity and ashes.” To come to the things of God required rejection of the things of earth. So says the First Letter of John: “Do not love the world or the things of the world” (2:15). Likewise, St. John of the Cross: “Desire to enter into complete detachment, emptiness, and poverty with respect to everything that is in the world.” Worldly knowledge and secular concerns were thought to lead to pride. “Study to withdraw the love of thy soul from things that be visible, and turn it to things that be invisible,” wrote Thomas à Kempis.
“As the 20th century advanced, seminaries still recommended such texts, but most Christians no longer found in them the expression of a human ideal. Nonetheless, when Teilhard’s Divine Milieu was finally published in 1958, the dedication came as a shock: “For those who love the world.”
“In 1916, in the lulls between battles, Teilhard wrote the first of the essays that would make him famous, “Cosmic Life.” In it he described a communion with earth as a way of attaining communion with God. His theology centered on the Pauline idea of the “body of Christ.” Christians were called on by Paul to see themselves not as separate individuals but as one body. Furthermore, St. Paul’s writing suggested to Teilhard that the “body of Christ” might include the material world, for Christ was progressively uniting all things to become the one in whom “all things hold together” (Col 1:17). Such a unity could be achieved only by building a secular infrastructure. Through work in science, technology, government, education and the unity of peoples, Christians were called to develop the world so that it might be a suitable body for Christ, who would be its soul. Evolution was a building process, and Christians should commit themselves to continue it. “Collaboration in the development of the cosmos,” he wrote, “holds an essential and prime position among the duties of the Christian.” Teilhard suggested that there ought to be a religious community in which people would vow themselves to further the work of the world, a work that would have its own asceticism in its denial of “egotism” and would call for a “supreme renunciation.”