Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955), a Jesuit, anthropologist and prominent spiritual figure, experienced the powerful tensions of a complex twentieth century marked by wars, ideological controversies and major discoveries. Among Teilhard’s readers was Joseph Ratzinger. Teilhard’s name appears six times in Introduction to Christianity, a 1968 work by Ratzinger that has already become a classic. In fact, the Jesuit paleontologist’s name is one of the most frequently mentioned in this book, which continues to fascinate for its freshness and novelty within the Christian tradition. Like it or not, Ratzinger admired Teilhard. From his earliest writings he regarded the Jesuit as a key author for Christian aggiornamento in the modern world. In the words of the theologian-turned-pope we can accept that the “synthesis” proposed by Teilhard remains “faithful to Pauline Christology, whose profound thought is clearly perceived and restored to a new intelligibility.”
It is through Ratzinger’s writings that we can see how the reception of the Teilhardian vision was also present in Vatican II, albeit somewhat marginally. As a leading figure at the Council, Ratzinger was of the view that there was a certain evidence of Teilhard’s thought in the draft of the famous pastoral constitution Gaudium et Spes, especially with regard to “the Teilhardian theme” that “Christianity means greater progress.”
In inaugurating the Second Vatican Council, John XXIII well summarized its pastoral objective: to return to the sources and adapt the Church’s response to the modern world. It was, in essence, to “bring the modern world into contact with the life-giving and perennial energies of the Gospel.” As Supreme Pontiff, Benedict XVI quoted these words of his predecessor, St. John XXIII, revealing his interpretation of the Council as a constructive dialogue between the Church, history and the “world of culture” in general. Having a “renewed awareness of the Catholic tradition,” Vatican II sought to take “seriously […] the criticisms underlying the currents that have characterized modernity,” in order to discern them, transfigure them and engage in dialogue with them. In doing so, “the Church accepted and refashioned the best of the emphases of modernity,” while laying “the foundation for an authentic Catholic renewal and a new civilization, the ‘civilization of love’.”
We therefore understand that the theologian pope did not affirm the continuity of Christian Tradition in a reactionary or fundamentalist way. It is true that for him continuity through traditio was important, indeed fundamental, as was the unity of the Church. But the so-called “hermeneutics of continuity” is never involved without renewal or “reform,” and is in no way reduced to the simple succession of magisterial statements from the popes.
For Benedict XVI, continuity is not the repetition of a dead letter, because Tradition is alive and is found in dialogue. For if, as Paul VI affirmed in the encyclical Ecclesiam Suam, “the Church becomes dialogue,” continuity must be built as part of a life that flourishes in contact with the different cultures that human beings have known throughout history.
In this way, the continuity proper to the living Tradition of the Church goes beyond the rich encounter between Athens and Jerusalem. It is not only about continuity between reason and faith, between philosophy and revelation, or even about continuity between different periods of human history. Of course, all this was very important to Ratzinger. But his relationship with Teilhard also allowed him to see a cosmic continuity in which human beings walk toward the fullness of their existence in an integral way, that is, blossoming in all the dimensions of their being and culture.
Revisiting Ratzinger’s references to Teilhard throughout his work, we can see that rather than universal and modern reason, it is love and beauty that are central to the pope’s theology.