Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s Legacy of Eugenics and Racism Can’t Be Ignored

After Bishop Michael Bruce Curry delivered his sermon at today’s wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, many observers around the world wondered, as one headline put it, “Who was the Jesuit priest mentioned during the Royal Wedding sermon?” On Twitter, many of those familiar with the work of that Jesuit priest, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, expressed surprise and joy at the inclusion of a figure whose work had had a warning, or “monitum,” placed on it by the Catholic Church in 1962. Others swooned over one of the quotes mentioned by Bishop Curry: “If humanity ever captures the energy of love, it will be the second time in history that we have discovered fire.”

In fact, a movement has been underway to resurrect, as it were, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin as a renewed foundation for theological reflection. According to a November report in America magazine, Pope Francis is already considering removing the “warning” attached to Teilhard’s historical writings, and more recently the National Catholic Reporter reported on an online movement to name him a “doctor of the Church.” Recent scholarly research, however, should cast doubt upon any such movements, as Teilhard’s positive influence may not be able to overcome his commitment to and employment of a philosophy of eugenics and social Darwinism.

From censure to pontifical acceptance

Born in 1881, Teilhard wrote dozens of books and hundreds of essays on the intersection of science, theology, and mysticism. Soon after he began writing on evolution, however, his work was censured by his Jesuit superiors and Pontifical Councils for his desire to see the evolution of humanity as a central part of Christian theology. Nevertheless, Teilhard continued to write, and in doing so produced an expansive corpus of theological, philosophical, and mystical volumes on the possibilities of interacting Christianity with evolutionary biology.

While the books were passed among friends unofficially before his death in 1953, the same friends felt no qualms publishing the works to widespread audiences after he’d died. Because of this, Teilhard only truly became famous in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and is known today as one of the most influential Catholic theologians with regards to evolution in the second half of the 20thcentury.

To chart this influence, one need only note Teilhard’s citations by the three most recent Popes. In 2003, Pope Saint John Paul II echoed Teilhard’s vision of a cosmic Eucharist in the encyclical Ecclesia Eucharista:

Because even when it is celebrated on the humble altar of a country church, the Eucharist is always in some way celebrated on the altar of the world. It unites heaven and earth. It embraces and permeates all creation.

John Paul’s understanding of Teilhard was shared by then Cardinal Ratzinger, as found in The Spirit of the Liturgy, when he uses a favorite concept of Teilhard—divinization—to argue that the goals of worship and the whole of the cosmos are “one and the same—divinization, a world of freedom and love.”

After he became Pope, Benedict XVI emphasized this cosmic vision in both speeches and homilies, including this one from 2009, where he quotes Teilhard directly:

The role of the priesthood is to consecrate the world so that it may become a living host, a liturgy: so that the liturgy may not be something alongside the reality of the world, but that the world itself shall become a living host, a liturgy. This is also the great vision of Teilhard de Chardin: in the end we shall achieve a true cosmic liturgy, where the cosmos becomes a living host.

This Eucharistic revitalization of Teilhard de Chardin has continued with Pope Francis. In Laudato Sí he incorporated Teilhard’s vision into his own integral ecological theology by quoting John Paul II’s words above and adding his own thoughts:

In the Eucharist, fullness is already achieved; it is the living center of the universe, the overflowing core of love and of inexhaustible life. Joined to the incarnate Son, present in the Eucharist, the whole cosmos gives thanks to God. Indeed the Eucharist is itself an act of cosmic love [as John Paul II wrote]: “Yes, cosmic! Because even when it is celebrated on the humble altar of a country church, the Eucharist is always in some way celebrated on the altar of the world.”

Pope Francis’ affinity for eco-friendly Teilhardian language follows the dominant interpretation of Teilhard in academic scholarship today—but even this has an interesting history. Thomas Berry, in perhaps the first ecological use of Teilhard’s work in 1982, wrote that we should be careful employing Teilhard for ecological theology, since Teilhard himself held a clearly anti-ecological viewpoint. Picking from many examples, Berry notes that Teilhard viewed “the subordination of the earth to human ends” as the sole way that “earth finds its true meaning.”

Nevertheless, Berry argued, one can still press forward with general themes in the Jesuit’s work, such as Teilhard’s dedication to the evolutionary origin of life and consciousness, his focus on the sublimated consciousness of the universe itself, his clear picture of the sacred dimension of the universe, and Teilhard’s unabashed passion for science. Since the 1980s, the majority of Teilhard scholars—like Drs. John Haught, Ilia Delio, and Mary Evelyn Tucker—have followed closely to Berry’s hope of appropriating Teilhard for the future of the ecology movement, particularly embracing Teilhard’s love of and connection to the wider universe—Teilhard’s “cosmic theology.”

Cosmic theology and the “Omega Point”

While Christian theology has always incorporated visions of the universe, Teilhard transformed the universe from a place in which we exist to a place that, through evolution, exists with us. Evolution, for Teilhard, is the hermeneutic key for understanding the place of Christ within the vast cosmos. Christ is simultaneously “the organic center of the entire universe,” “the evolver,” and the eschatological fulfillment—the Omega Point—of all creation: “Someone, and no longer something, is in gestation in the universe. To believe and to serve was not enough: we now find that it is becoming not only possible but imperative literally to love evolution.”

If one believes in God, for Teilhard, one should also believe in evolution in the Christocentric universe, and in a transformed understanding of human progress that can purposefully partake in the movement toward the Omega Point.

Teilhard saw this movement towards perfection—the Omega Point—as a movement toward God that was simultaneously physical and spiritual. He called the transformation divinization, and saw humanity as currently passing through an evolutionary-spiritual dimension he termed the Noosphere, so that we can enter the final stages of the Pneumatosphere and become one with God. The Spirit of the Earth, Teilhard writes, can only be found once we humans employ evolution to our spiritual advantage and find God in and outside of the world.

Teilhard connected evolution and Christianity together in remarkably original ways, weaving together ideas from philosophy, theology, paleontology, biology, and physics in order to create entire systems of history, the universe, and humanity’s relationship with God.

No one is perfect, however, and Teilhard was no exception. Several of Teilhard’s main ideas have been adequately critiqued throughout the years, such as his inclination towards uncritical acceptance of technological progress and his focus on the future as giving purpose to the present. Nevertheless, Teilhard’s cosmic vision for humanity and liturgy has remained largely intact. After all, are not we part of a vast and growing cosmos? Should not our theology recognize that?

The inequality of races

Two things are certain: first, scientifically, the Earth is but one planet of trillions upon trillions across the universe; second, since this fact is relatively new in the knowledge of evolutionarily-formed humanity, it has only begun to permeate modern theology. Teilhard, to his credit, was one of the first to seriously consider this scientific idea. His considerations, however, were founded upon layers of bias against persons of various ethnic backgrounds, a patent disregard for the limits of science, and a disregard for the weakest and poorest among humanity.

But first, let’s be clear: before World War II, much of the Western World was, what most of us would now regard as openly racist. Anti-Semitism, anti-blackness, anti-immigration, anti-disability, and misogyny dominated the populations of the United States and Europe. Leaders in science and industry coupled such racism with Darwin’s conception of evolutionary progress to produce horrific decades of enforced eugenic practices.

The hellish nadir of such practices was the mass experimentation on and extermination of millions of so-called “imperfect” people in Nazi Germany. The vast majority of the victims were Jewish, but the ranks of the oppressed included disabled persons, gays and lesbians, and political dissenters. Once the death camps were discovered in the mid-1940s, the Western world buckled in shock and horror. People fled from discussions of eugenics, sterilization practices quickly fell out of style, and anti-Semitism began to recede. But not, unfortunately, for everyone.

The first recorded instance of Teilhard’s views of racial superiority appear a decade before WWII, in 1929, while Teilhard was on one of his first scientific expeditions in China. He writes:

Do the yellows—[the Chinese]—have the same human value as the whites? [Fr.] Licent and many missionaries say that their present inferiority is due to their long history of Paganism. I’m afraid that this is only a ‘declaration of pastors.’ Instead, the cause seems to be the natural racial foundation…Christian love overcomes all inequalities, but it does not deny them.

Teilhard would have found little pushback to this scientifically racialized view of humanity in 1929, and yet it’s helpful to remember that he’s writing some of his most famous theological works at this time.

Four years later, as the Nazi party began its rise in Germany, Teilhard reflected on the moment:

I hate nationalism and its apparent regressions to the past. But I am very interested in the primacy it returns to the collective. Could a passion for ‘the race’ represent a first draft of the Spirit of the Earth? It is to this last one…that I have always given my faith.

Two years later in 1936, he clarifies that his Omega Point—the divine unification of the whole universe—specifically rests upon the inequality of races:

The philosophical or ‘supernatural’ unity of human nature has nothing to do with the equality of races in what concerns their physical capacities to contribute to the building of the world.…As not all ethnic groups have the same value, they must be dominated, which does not mean they must be despised—quite the reverse…In other words, at one and the same time there should be official recognition of: (1) the primacy/priority of the earth over nations; (2) the inequality of peoples and races. Now the second point is currently reviled by Communism…and the Church, and the first point is similarly reviled by the Fascist systems (and, of course, by less gifted peoples!).

One year later he codified these related musings into an essay entitled “Human Energy,” in which he aggressively pursues a Gattaca-like focus on intentionally selecting biologically perfect future humans via all methods available:

For a complex of obscure reasons, our generation still regards with distrust all efforts proposed by science for controlling the machinery of heredity, of sex-determination and the development of the nervous systems. It is as if man had the right and power to interfere with all the channels in the world except those which make him himself. And yet it is eminently on this ground that we must try everything, to its conclusion.

He continues with a reflection that strongly suggests, for lack of a better word, genocidal practices for the sake of eugenics:

What fundamental attitude…should the advancing wing of humanity take to fixed or definitely unprogressive ethnical groups? The earth is a closed and limited surface. To what extent should it tolerate, racially or nationally, areas of lesser activity? More generally still, how should we judge the efforts we lavish in all kinds of hospitals on saving what is so often no more than one of life’s rejects?…To what extent should not the development of the strong…take precedence over the preservation of the weak?

Besides their obvious objectionable nature, Teilhard’s views withstand two troubling tests: first, he defends them boldly in the face of his respected Christian colleagues who disagree; second, he persists in such views despite the shocking revelations of what took place in the concentration camps and death camps of Nazi Germany. One of Teilhard’s early biographers recounts a 1947 public debate with Gabriel Marcel, the famous French Catholic existentialist, where Teilhard persists in arguing for forced eugenical practices:

Once in a debate with Gabriel Marcel on the subject of ‘Science and Rationality,’ [Teilhard] shocked his opponent by refusing to permit even the appalling evidence of the experiments of the doctors of Dachau to modify his faith in the inevitability of human progress. ‘Man,” [Teilhard] asserted, ‘to become full man, must have tried everything’ …He added that since the human species was still so young…the persistence of such evil was to be expected. ‘Prometheus!’ Marcel had cried…’No,’ replied Teilhard, ‘only man as God has made him.’

The absolute right…to try everything right to the end

Teilhard’s insistence on a super-human, of not just spiritual but physical existence, dominated his thought over the last decade of his life—well after the death camps permeated the public consciousness. First, in a 1949 essay entitled “The Sense of the Species of Man,” Teilhard closely ties his conception of the Noosphere to a deliberate “neo-sense” of the species that necessitates forced biological advancement.

From this there follows, as a first priority, a fundamental concern to ensure (by correct nutrition, by education, and by selection) an ever more advanced eugenics of the human zoological type on the surface of the earth. At the same time, however, and even more markedly, there must be an ever more intense effort directed towards discovery and vision, animated by the hope of our gradually, as one man, putting our hands on the deep-seated forces (physico-chemical, biological and psychic) which provide the impetus of evolution….There is no future for man, I repeat, without the neo-sense of the species.

In 1951, just four years before his death, he continues to emphasize the need for both public and individual eugenical practices, selecting on racial lines as well as many others:

We must recognize…the vital importance of a collective quest of discovery and invention no longer inspired solely by a vague delight in knowledge and power, but by the duty and the clearly-defined hope of gaining control (and so making use) of the fundamental driving forces of evolution. And with this, the urgent need for a generalized eugenics (racial no less than individual) directed, beyond all concern with economic or nutritional problems, towards a biological maturing of the human type and of the biosphere.

Teilhard even wrote to the director of UNESCO, strongly dissenting to the famous proclamation “The Equality of the Races” by pointing out to UNESCO “the scientific uselessness as well as the practical danger” of this document. “Of course,” Teilhard writes, “it’s not a question of ‘equality,’ but of ‘complementarity in convergence’…which does not exclude the momentary prominence of certain of its branches over others.”

Finally, just two years before his death, the Jesuit writes a vitriolic letter to a friend, venting frustrations on the failure of the Church to fully embrace eugenics. “Why is it,” he writes, “that there is no ‘Scientific Commission’…along with a ‘Biblical Commission’”? Such a commission could encourage the world to embrace three important eugenical ideas: “the optimum rather than the maximum in reproduction”; “a gradual separation of sexuality from reproduction”; and, in horrifying final words, “the absolute right…to try everything right to the end—even in the matter of human biology.”

At this juncture, one must ask why no scholars before this essay have written at length on the depths of Teilhard’s commitments to eugenics, sterilization, and racial superiority. Some early scholars of Teilhard did not comment simply because they supported Teilhard’s views, like Robert Speaight. My research would indicate that the vast majority of Teilhard scholars in recent decades have either disregarded Teilhard’s words as harmlessly misguided or simply assumed one could accept the general principles as long as they stood qualified. I doubt whether any of Teilhard’s champions today, however, know the full extent of the Jesuit’s commitment to eugenics as laid out in this essay.

Three final points must be made. First, it should seem obvious that I strongly object to Teilhard being named a Doctor of the Church, though I don’t object to the Vatican removing Teilhard’s previous censures—if those censures were based on scientific ideas alone.

Second, even though this essay contains the largest collection to date of Teilhard’s writings on the relationship between forced human perfection and cosmic theology, I have no doubt that there is more to be found.

And third, in order for Teilhardian scholarship to continue in light of this essay, academics, clergy, and laypersons alike must be vigilant in reconsidering our own cosmic theologies in relationship to eugenics.

As for Teilhard’s own work, I want to be sure to point out that Teilhard wrote several important works before the appearance of eugenics in his writing. These include famous works such as The Mass on the World and Divine Milieu, which I urge people to consider in their mystical insights into the relationship between nature and divinity. Bishop Curry’s use of Teilhard’s vision of “fire” at the Royal Wedding comes largely from The Mass on the World, completed in 1923!

Sadly, it also seems indisputable that the mature formulations of some of Teilhard’s most famous ideas—e.g., the Noosphere, the Omega Point, the divinization of the species—rest upon philosophies infused with conceptions of eugenics, racial superiority, sterilization, and limitless science.

Postscript

I would like to append a brief note to the longer work published Monday here at RD. First, it was not lost on me as an academic that none of the quotes were credited to their place in the Teilhard canon. To find an extended version of this essay, with many more quotations and full citations, you must download the original academic paper found in the journal Philosophy and Theology. However, since this article is beyond a paywall for most readers, I have included here below the references for each of the main quotations in the article.  

Finally, I wish to assure the reader that I do not write this essay out of malice or spite, but a sense of profound duty to the call of Christianity to serve the poor, and because I believe fully in the responsibility of historians to know the full picture of whom they write, praise, and utilize in modern thought. I was introduced to the French Jesuit by one of his most reverent followers and one of my dear friends, Fr. Thomas King, SJ, a longtime professor at Georgetown University and a mystic in his own right. Fr. King published much on Teilhard and, through the inspiration of the French Jesuit, introduced me to the intersection of evolution, theology, and science.  King’s favorite work by Teilhard, Mass on the World, remains mine as well, and I consider it one of the most profound mystical-theological works of the 20thcentury. 

With that, please don’t hesitate to contact me with questions, concerns, or invitations to discuss this with a larger group, at www.johnslattery.com.

Citations of major quotes from Teilhard:

“Do the yellows…”: Günther Schiwy, Teilhard de Chardin: sein Leben und seine Zeit. 2. (München: Kösel, 1981): 105.

“I hate nationalism…” :  Günther Schiwy, Teilhard de Chardin: sein Leben und seine Zeit. 2. (München: Kösel, 1981): 261.

“The philosophical…”: Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Letters to Léontine Zanta. Translated by Bernard Wall. (London: Collins, 1969): 117.

“For a complex of…”: Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, “Human Energy” in Human Energy. (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971): 127.

“What fundamental attitude…”: Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, “Human Energy” in Human Energy. (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971): 132-3.

“Once in a debate…”: Mary Lukas and Ellen Lukas, Teilhard (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1977): 237-8.

“From this there follows…”: Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, “Activation of Energy,” in Activation of Energy. (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971): 202-3.

“We must recognize…”: Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, “The Convergence of the Universe,” L’activation de l’énergie. (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1963): 308.

UNESCO/Scientific Commission: Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Letters from my Friend Teilhard de Chardin: 1948-1955. (New York: Paulist, 1980): 59, 172.

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