Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, SJ, visionary priest, paleontologist, and writer, is an important landmark figure in twentieth-century French Catholicism. Especially from 1950 onward, Teilhard also significantly impacted the Catholicism of the United States. The period of 1959–1972 was the crucial age during which Teilhard’s writing and thought were first available in North America; over five hundred primary and secondary works concerning him were published in the US during these years. This period was also the decade of the counterculture, the Second Vatican Council, and the dissolution of the immigrant subculture of the church in the United States.
A full-scale study of the U.S. reception of Teilhard de Chardin in this early period contributes not only to an awareness of the thought of this important figure and the impact of his work, but also further develops an understanding of U.S. Catholicism in its religious and cultural dimensions during these years, and provides clues as to how it has further unfolded over the past several decades. The manner in which this reception occurred, including the intensity of this phenomenon, happened as it did at this particular point in the history of both the United States and the Catholic Church because of the confluence of the then developing social milieu, the disintegration of the immigrant Catholic subculture, and the opening of the church to the world through Vatican II. Additionally, as these social and historical events unfolded within U.S. culture during these dozen years, the manner in which Teilhard was read, and the contributions which his thought provided changed. At various points his work became a carrier for an almost Americanist emphasis upon progress, energy and hope; at other times his teleological understanding of the value of suffering moved to center stage. Most importantly, Teilhard wrote concerning humanity’s desire for the divine, and strove to place that desire for unity within the context of both religion and science. In the end, it has been his attempts to leap the interstice between the secular and the sacred, particularly in terms of his Christology, that remain of value today, and which have had, and which continue to have impact upon U.S. Catholic theology.