Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1955)

Was the Jesuit priest and scientist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin really a racist, fascist, and even genocidal opponent of human dignity? I had thought that, at least among educated Catholics, this question was almost dead, and that holdout pockets of hostility might be vanishing for good, especially after several recent popes admiringly cited Teilhard’s cosmic vision for its theological beauty and Eucharistic power.

But my optimism was premature. In a December 2016 article in Philosophy and Theology titled “Dangerous Tendencies of Cosmic Theology: The Untold Legacy of Teilhard de Chardin,” John Slattery writes that “from the 1920s until his death in 1955, Teilhard de Chardin unequivocally supported racist eugenic practices, praised the possibilities of the Nazi experiments, and looked down upon those who [sic] he deemed ‘imperfect’ humans.” Slattery, a recent graduate of Notre Dame’s Department of Theology, claims that a persistent attraction to racism, fascism, and genocidal ideas “explicitly lay the groundwork for Teilhard’s famous cosmological theology.” This, he informs us, “is a link which has been largely ignored in Teilhardian research.”

A more recent article by the same critic in Religion Dispatches (May 2018) is entitled “Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s Legacy of Eugenics and Racism Can’t Be Ignored.” In it, Slattery hangs his case on eight stray citations from Teilhard’s letters and other scattered writings. Most of the quotes present what were speculative inquiries on the part of Teilhard—questions that countless other thoughtful people have asked, including many Catholics—rather than systematically developed theses for public consumption. Their style is provocative and interrogatory, not declarative. Exactly what Teilhard really meant by them is, in every single case, highly debatable.

And yet Slattery holds these excerpts out to us as undeniable evidence that Teilhard’s true “legacy” is one of hostility to Catholic affirmation of human dignity, racial justice, and concern for the disadvantaged. Still more important, however, is Slattery’s claim that it was Teilhard’s commitment to these evils that grounds and undergirds his “cosmological theology.” Nothing could be more preposterous.

Slattery doesn’t deny that the bulk of Teilhard’s religious writings are uncontroversially Christian and in tune with Catholic teaching. Yet he ignores this fact in defining what he calls Teilhard’s “legacy.” Though he surely knows that most readers will be unfamiliar with the man and his thought, he has decided to expose them first to what he considers Teilhard’s most sinister side. In the process he takes a thimbleful of quotes out of context, posts them on a blank background, and says nothing substantive about the remaining 99.9 percent of Teilhard’s work. Failing to take into account the general architecture of Teilhard’s thought always leads to the kinds of exaggeration and distortion that Slattery commits.

He begins by reciting the best-known of Teilhard’s treasurable remarks: “If humanity ever captures the energy of love, it will be the second time in history that we have discovered fire.” Noting that millions who tuned into the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle heard these lines recited in a moving sermon by Episcopal Bishop Michael Bruce Curry, Slattery remarks that listeners who “swooned” over them were unaware of the poisonous roots of Teilhard’s religious worldview. He proceeds to reveal the rot he finds in a package of eight passages cherry-picked from Teilhard’s voluminous letters and writings. I shall condense the most offensive of these below, but I want to begin my response to Slattery by summarizing what other students of Teilhard’s work consider to be his real legacy. Only after becoming acquainted with his core ideas can we interpret rightly what Slattery finds so offensive in Teilhard’s work.

Seasoned Teilhard scholars are aware of the questionable remarks he points to; but the seeming offensiveness of such comments fades into the shadows when we read them in terms of the fundamental principles guiding Teilhard’s scientifically informed vision of the world and God. Here are four of these fundamental principles:

The universe (as science has demonstrated) is still coming into being. Hence the world is not yet perfected. Theologically, this means that creation remains “unfinished,” and that humans, who are part of this universe, may contribute significantly to its making. The opportunity to participate in “building the earth” is a cornerstone of human dignity. (It is also a teaching of Vatican II.) The fact that our creativity can sometimes lead to monstrous outcomes does not absolve us of the obligation to improve the world and ourselves. Taking advantage of this opportunity is sometimes dangerous, but it is also essential to sustaining hope and a “zest for living,” Teilhard maintains. Moreover, nothing “clips the wings of hope” more severely than the now obsolete theological idea that the universe was completed once and for all in the beginning, and that there is little or nothing we can do to make it new.

To create is to unite. The world comes into being—and becomes new—by a process of unification. Scientifically understood, the emerging cosmos becomes intelligible only by gradually bringing increasingly more complex forms of coherence out of its primordial state of diffusion and atomic dispersal. As the universe in the course of time becomes more complex, it also becomes more conscious. Theologically, this principle is implied in Christian hope as summed up in Jesus’ prayer that “all may be one” and in the Pauline expectation that everything will be “brought to a head” in Christ, “in whom all things consist.” Teilhard stated explicitly that his whole theology of nature is consistent with the expectations of the Apostle Paul and the Fourth Evangelist: “Lord make us one.” His true legacy lies in his rich Christian sense of a universe converging on Christ and being brought into final union in what he called God-Omega.

True union differentiates. As the creative love of God brings increasing unity to the unfinished universe, it is God’s will that the diversity of creation increases as well, including the emergence of free and unique human persons. In Christ, God seeks to become continually more incarnate in the world not via an order imposed on it, but by a differentiating, liberating, and personalizing communion with it. Many distortions of Teilhard’s intentions, including Slattery’s, stem from a failure to understand what Teilhard means by true union. As we shall see, to miss the deeply Christian motif of differentiating union in his writings is to do him grave injustice.

The world rests on the future as its sole support. As we follow the course of cosmic history from its remote past into the future, Teilhard observes, we discover a “law of recurrence” in which something new, more complex, and (eventually) more conscious has always been taking shape “up ahead.” Scientifically speaking, we now know that subatomic elements were organized around atomic nuclei; atoms were gathered into molecules; molecules into cells; and cells into complex organisms, some of which made the leap into thought. The most important kinds of emergence can occur, however, only if the elements allow themselves to be organized around a new and higher center, one that lifts them up to a more elaborately differentiated unity. To experience true union, true being, true goodness, and true beauty, therefore, we must allow ourselves—like Abraham, the prophets, and Jesus—to be grasped by the Future.


Most of us do not take the blemishes in our religious classics to be foundational or legacy-defining. If we are fair, we can usually find in the main writings of saints and scholars the very principles that demolish those defects.

Only after becoming familiar with these four principles can we rightly decide whether Teilhard was a racist, a fascist, an enemy of the disabled, and a genocidal monster. Let me examine these charges in turn.

Was Teilhard a racist? Slattery notes that in 1929, while working in China, Teilhard had asked: “Do [the Chinese] have the same human value as the whites?” and went on to speculate that racial “inequalities” might be less cultural than “natural.” If he were here today to respond to Slattery’s accusation, I think Teilhard would point out that almost all evolutionists are aware of the paleontological evidence of a variety of lines of human descent. And they would understandably wonder whether and to what extent genetic “inequalities” may still remain, in humans as with other species.

For Teilhard, at least, the term “inequality” does not imply a lower value for some peoples than others in the eyes of God, but rather has more to do with “differentiation” as set forth in the third principle I cited above. Acknowledging differences among races and among our evolutionary ancestors poses no theological problem, since “true union differentiates.” In fact, Teilhard’s understanding of the overriding unity of the “human phenomenon” is loving and expansive; he even includes extinct hominid forms within the category of “the human.” Finally, he locates the metaphysical basis of human unity not so much in our murky biological past as in the future communion of all creation with the God who is coming. Moreover, as he goes on to say in the same passage that Slattery cites, “Christian love overcomes all inequalities, but it does not have to deny them.” Surely these are neither the ideas nor the sentiments of a racist.

Was Teilhard a fascist? While he asserted his loathing for nationalism, he did pronounce himself “very interested in the primacy it returns to the collective,” and pondered further: “Could a passion for ‘the race’ represent a first draft of the Spirit of the Earth?” It is important to understand such musings properly. When Teilhard expresses interest in the fascist experiments of the twentieth century, far from approving them, as Slattery sneakily implies, he is simply observing that such movements feed parasitically on the pervasive cosmic tendency toward union as set forth above in the second principle. The evil in fascism, Teilhard understood, consists of its failure to heed the third principle, namely, that true union differentiates. If we are honest, we can recognize the intoxicating spirit of unification even in its most twisted forms; but true unity promotes differences. Contrary to Slattery’s accusation, Teilhard always considered fascist and communist experiments as evil insofar as they failed to look beyond uniformity, homogeneity, and ideological conformism to the true unity that differentiates, liberates, and personalizes.

What about Teilhard’s regard—or alleged disregard—for the dignity of the disabled? Slattery quotes him:

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?

Slattery tendentiously glosses this passage as “a reflection that strongly suggests, for lack of a better word, genocidal practices for the sake of eugenics.” Yet notice again that what Teilhard is putting forth are questions rather than declarations. In these questions we find him struggling for a moral vision consistent with the four pillars of his religious cosmology, especially with the fact that the universe is still coming into being. In an unfinished universe, somehow human moral life must include our striving to intensify vitality, complexity, consciousness, and beauty. Teilhard is not “putting down” the disabled as Slattery claims; and those who have read Teilhard more fully and fairly know that he never equates “life’s rejects” with “God’s rejects.” Far from being indifferent to the suffering of the disabled, he consistently fosters a vision of life that offers them hope and a deeper sense of dignity. Teilhard shows how our sufferings can be “divinized,” and insists that all the broken twigs on the tree of life contribute creatively to its richness. As he reflects with quiet empathy on the incessant suffering of his invalid sister, for example, he develops a Christian theology of suffering that gives the disabled a place of paramount importance in the larger scheme of things. Accusing him of moral insensitivity to the disabled is simply wrong.

Finally, and proceeding from the charge that Slattery levels above, we must ask: Was Teilhard a eugenicist? He did write that “our generation still regards with distrust all efforts proposed by science for controlling the machinery of heredity...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.” In judging this idea as morally reckless, however, Slattery ignores the fact that for Teilhard it is always—and only—within the constraints of a responsible moral vision rooted in Christian hope, and in the principles listed above, that we must be ready to “try everything.” Teilhard is looking in the age of science for a more adventurous, world-building, and life-enhancing moral life than we can find in classical religious patterns of piety.

Because humans are part of nature, and nature remains far from finished, it is legitimate to wonder to what extent humans may morally participate in their own and the world’s continuous creation. In doing so, may we justifiably tamper with our genetic heritage as well as that of other living beings? Perhaps Teilhard was at times incautious and too optimistic about human potential in this domain. Yet the efforts of Slattery and others to burden him with a tainted worldview need to be resisted.

I do wish that Teilhard had expressed himself more clearly at times. I wish too that he had been more ecologically sensitive, less Eurocentric, a bit more Darwinian and less Lamarckian, more aware of gender issues, more attuned to the ambiguities of technology, and so on. Well, I wish too that John Chrysostom and Martin Luther had purged their preaching and prose of every trace of anti-Semitism, and that Thomas Aquinas had given us a deeper understanding of human sexuality. My point, of course, is that most of us do not take the blemishes in our religious classics to be foundational or legacy-defining. If we are fair, we can usually find in the main writings of saints and scholars the very principles that demolish those defects. Surely we can and should read Teilhard’s vast body of writings no less leniently. Teilhard’s reflections and principles put forth a theologically and morally rich framework within which we—and he—should be able at least to ask the hard questions without having to be accused of ethical monstrosity.

 John F. Haught is Distinguished Research Professor at Georgetown University and author of The New Cosmic Story: Inside Our Awakening Universe (Yale University Press, 2017).

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Published in the February 8, 2019 issue: View Contents
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