The “he” in this case is Fr. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, SJ, the French Jesuit, anthropologist and theologian. In a conversation this past week I heard his theological writings referred to as “dangerous, particularly for young minds.” It turns out that this was a paraphrase of a 1962 condemnation of de Chardin’s writing by the Holy Office (now Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith):
“Several works of Fr. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, some of which were posthumously published, are being edited and are gaining a good deal of success.
“Prescinding from a judgement about those points that concern the positive sciences, it is sufficiently clear that the above-mentioned works abound in such ambiguities and indeed even serious errors, as to offend Catholic doctrine.
“For this reason, the most eminent and most revered Fathers of the Holy Office exhort all Ordinaries as well as the superiors of Religious institutes, rectors of seminaries and presidents of universities, effectively to protect the minds, particularly of the youth, against the dangers presented by the works of Fr. Teilhard de Chardin and of his followers.”
In 1981 this “monitum” (“warning”) was still treated as in force, though it was not quoted directly, only referred to.
I am open to some discussion about de Chardin. I am only familiar with him in passing, but what I have seen makes me wish I had the time and energy to read him more closely. He was probably the first Catholic theologian to take evolution seriously, both as a physical reality and for its metaphysical implications. He may indeed have gotten things wrong, but it seems to me that he was gloriously wrong in parts, and engaging with these errors and correcting them would be a profoundly enriching exercise.
My real reason for this post, however, is to question this notion of being “dangerous to young minds.” Look more closely to whom the 1962 warning was issued: university presidents, rectors of seminaries, and religious superiors (presumably responsible for the formation of their brethren. In other words: college aged men and women in religious studies, some or all of whom will obtain advanced degrees. (I am passing over high school students in minor seminaries; they are a mere bagatelle.) That such students should not be required, indeed should not be allowed to read “dangerous” works strikes me as profoundly contrary to the goal of their education. As a teacher, I want my students to engage with texts that are on the edge—indeed, at times, over the edge. They don’t have to agree with them (indeed very often I don’t agree with them), but nevertheless it is important to engage these kinds of arguments and points of view. This is true whether or not the arguments contradict the teachings of the Church. In fact, I would argue that it is more important when they are contrary to what we hold most dear. If faith is to be more than unquestioned formulas mechanically repeated, it needs to be challenged.
“Unfortunately, the Vatican’s view of today’s laity seems to be captured in the odious term “simple faithful.” In a well-publicized paper given at St. Michael’s College, Toronto, on April 15, 1986, Cardinal Ratzinger put it straightforwardly: “The Church’s main job is the care of the faith of the simple. A truly reverential awe should arise from this which is the internal rule of thumb for every theologian.” Moreover, Cardinal Ratzinger has made this the governing rule for ecclesiastical authorities as well. Their primary responsibility is to protect the simple faithful against theologians who criticize in any way whatever an official teaching of the church. “The care of the faith of the ‘little ones,'” he insisted, “must always be more important than the fear of some conflict with the powerful.”
This careful protection of the “simple faithful” seems to presume that they will all remain simple and must be protected in this “innocence.” There is no sense that the responsibility of the theologian (and the bishop) is to help educate and elevate the faithful so that they can engage more fully and deeply with their own faith. Simply telling them that they cannot read a theologian or engage with certain ideas does them a great disservice. As St. Paul said,
When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. (1 Cor 13:11)
Protecting the “simple faithful” keeps them as children rather than helping them put away “childish things.”