Saturday, April 12, 2008

Teilhard, the Skull and Vatican Embarassment

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the French Jesuit preist, palaeontologist and evolutionist who is remembered in science for correctly interpreting the evolutionary significance of Peking Man is the subject of a science biography by Amir Aczel entitled "The Jesuit and the Skull". While Teilhard's science credentials are impeccable, he is best remembered in his attempt to integrate Catholic belief and science in a mystical way. For doing this,Teilhard was not allowed to publish any of his works when he was alive. The Jesuits and the Vatican ordered the embargo.

The Teilhard science bio is one of the recent books that have been published looking at the relationship of science and faith. Many of these books were written by Jesuits, the most notable are those by Guy Consolmagno SJ. While Aczel (a non Jesuit and a Scientist) tried to deal with the same subject and tried to capture the two sides of Teilhard's life,he so fails miserably. Aczel unlike Consolmagno did not have theological training and so wasn't able to reflect on the relationship of faith and science.

Nonetheless Aczel does a good job in placing Teilhard and the Peking Man fossils in the historical context. Teilhard's development as a evolutionist is handled very well but when Aczel had to deal with Teilhard's mysticism and evolutionism, he fumbles. Aczel couldn't really grasp the theology that is needed.

The fossils were lost in World War II and the discussion of their fate leads the reader away from appreciating Teilhard's position in science and faith. Perhaps this should have been the subject of a separate book.

But Aczel does a commendable treatment of the Teilhard-Lucille Swan relationship. Swan was a woman acquaintance but as their friendship deepened, Teilhard had to deal with his vow of celibacy. Aczel's treatment of this often stereotyped relationship of a priest with a woman displays a non-judgemental sensibility and respects the reason why a woman is attracted to a man and why a man may have to stand by his vow.

Aczel in the beginning chapters recounts that in the course of his research on Teilhard's life,the Jesuits tried to prevent him from seeing some documents for fear of embarrasing the Vatican. Perhaps the Vatican should really come to grips with its discomfort of evolutionary theory. Despite what John Paul II has started in this regard, the present dispensation in Rome has tried to "turn back the clock". This is so emblematic of Benedict XVI's papacy.

Teilhard's books were published after his death since he willed the manuscripts to a woman friend, Jeanne Mortier. She wasn't under obedience to Rome and had the manuscripts published.The most famous of Teilhard's books is the "Phenomenon of Man". I have read this book years ago and it was a heavy read. His books had much influence in the Post Vatican II Catholic Church. Once frowned upon by the Popes, Pope John Paul II felt it opportune to quote from Teilhard.

For those who want to have an introduction to Teilhard, Aczel's book is recommended.

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