This is the second in a multipart series of essays on the process of updating church doctrine. The first, on the concept of the magisterium and women’s ordination, is available here—Ed.
In recent weeks I reread the expertly researched book by Amir Aczel titled The Jesuit and the Skull (Riverhead Books, 2007). Aczel recounts the astonishingly busy life of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881–1955), who has been a controversial figure for decades. Teilhard was a well-trained paleontologist with substantial experience excavating and interpreting fossils. His special interest was human evolution. He was also a faithful Jesuit priest who reported to superiors in Lyon, France, though his work eventually spanned the globe.
Teilhard’s professional work made him a popular lecturer, and as he was convinced of the science behind the long evolution of mankind, he began to lecture in the early 20th century about how the Genesis stories were not to be taken literally. The stories were communicating important religious ideas, such as that the Earth was not infinitely old but had a beginning, and that God created humans in his image, perhaps not in the anatomical sense but rather emphasizing the mental attributes of free will and personhood. But Teilhard dismissed any notion that there ever was a single human man named Adam who was the father of all.
Because the fall of Adam due to Original Sin that perpetuated through all of Adam’s descendants was invoked by Catholic Church authorities as the key reason why God had to send Jesus to be our Savior, Teilhard got into trouble with the church early on by trying to invent “workarounds” concerning Original Sin. Personally, I was amused years ago to learn of this aspect of Teilhard’s work, since my experience is that human nature is certainly flawed enough—by strong tendencies toward greed, dishonesty, vanity, selfishness, laziness, envy, and other vices—so there is unquestionably no lack of sinfulness that might exempt humanity of the need for some corrective advice and even salvation!
It is hard for us to realize in the 21st century that as recently as the 1950s, many of the clergy in the Catholic Church believed that Genesis must be taken in large part as literally true. Though Teilhard gave public lectures that were well attended, the Jesuit authorities in Lyon, and subsequently also in Rome, thought that the drafts of his books contained serious heretical positions, and they refused to allow their publication. Teilhard was disappointed but was always obedient to his superiors, and he tried to modify his draft texts to make them more acceptable. It turns out that his several books were only published posthumously starting in 1955. Because Teilhard was not merely a paleontologist but also a philosopher and mystic, today some of what he spoke of in lectures sounds very odd to the modern ear. It is not really science, but a blend of science with mysticism.
Worried that Teilhard’s ideas were stirring up trouble in Europe, the Jesuit superiors decided to assign him to work in Peking, China (today’s Beijing), in 1923, where he likely would never be heard from publicly again. In an ironic twist, once in Peking, Teilhard became involved in excavation of a cave in Zhoukoudian near Peking where some “dragon bones” had been found by local Chinese. Then, unexpectedly, Teilhard became one of the important leaders of the project when the Canadian professor Davidson Black died in 1934. The team unearthed spectacular 500,000-year-old remains of about 40 ancient humans, including a few partially or nearly complete skulls, along with stone tools and evidence of use of fire. These specimens, first called Peking Man and later known as Homo erectus, were acclaimed around the world to be hugely important; they provided some of the greatest advances in the understanding of human evolution up to that time. Scientific societies then showered Teilhard with many opportunities for more excavations and grants, and he toured the globe giving lectures at scientific meetings.
The church had to recognize that the theory of evolution was well-supported scientifically. Perhaps with a stinging memory of the bad publicity the church had received when they forced Galileo to recant his belief that the Earth revolved around the sun (they had put Galileo under house arrest for years), by 1950 the Vatican decided to soften its criticism of hypotheses about human evolution. Pope Pius XII published in August 1950 the cautiously worded encyclical Humani generis, which still mentioned Adam but stated that it was not forbidden for experts and teachers to discuss theories of evolution.
Over time, the church has become more comfortable that evolution has shaped the anatomy and physiology of the human body, and perhaps the human mind, but the provision of a soul to each individual was viewed as a specific act of God. On October 31, 1992, Pope John Paul II formally expressed regret for how the Galileo affair was handled, and at times he also spoke positively about Teilhard and about evolution being a tool of God to shape life.
My purpose in relating the Teilhard story is not to embarrass the church, but to remind us that the modern world has in the past and continues today to give the church opportunities to adapt to new information and views. As a non-expert, I am not schooled in the best ways that this adaptation of the church may be carried out, but in the next installment I will turn to a final example that is of interest. ♦
James Magner, MD, is an endocrinologist and scientist who spent years studying the biochemistry and physiology of the pituitary hormone, TSH, and providing medical supervision for several projects within the pharmaceutical industry. He is an avid chess player and expert poker player who placed 27th in the world in 2015. Dr. Magner is married and has two adult daughters. Seeking Hidden Treasures, his third book and debut collection of fiction, was published in 2019 by Archway Publishing. He is a member of the board of directors of Today’s American Catholic.