Dear Friends of the Kolbe Center,
When speaking of the end times, Our Lord Jesus Christ warned us to prepare for deceptions so seductive that we will require a special grace from God to overcome them. He told His disciples:
For there shall arise false Christs and false prophets, and shall show great signs and wonders, insomuch as to deceive (if possible) even the elect. Matthew 24:24
While we do not believe that we have reached the days of the Final Antichrist, immediately prior to the end of the world, we can see a foreshadowing of those days in current events—including the way that gifted, sincere, and devout Catholics are deceived by false prophets who clothe their errors and even their blasphemies in orthodox Catholic terminology. Since none of us is exempt from Our Lord’s warning, I would like to devote a few of our newsletters to examples of prominent, gifted, intelligent and devout Catholics who were nevertheless deceived by the Arius of the twentieth century, Fr. Teilhard de Chardin. (We will not use these newsletters to expose the errors of Teilhard’s “new Christianity” based on evolution, as we have already exposed those errors elsewhere.) Nevertheless, we hope that these newsletters will help all of us to be on our guard against the diabolical deceptions that caused even some of our most gifted older brothers and sisters to stumble. This newsletter will focus on the American writer Flannery O’Connor and on her fondness for the writings of Fr. Teilhard de Chardin.
Flannery O’Connor is rightly considered one of the most gifted American writers of the twentieth century. As Bridget Kurt writes on the “Simply Catholic” website, “Flannery O’Connor is considered the greatest American short-story writer of the 20th century. She won three O’Henry Awards while she was alive, and she was honored posthumously with the 1972 National Book Award after her death in 1964.” Kurt provides an excellent summary of her career as a writer:
O’Connor attended the prestigious University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop for graduate school where her skills as a powerful and talented writer would land her a contract with a publishing firm. Her prayer journal from graduate school reveals a writer striving to excel in her craft and to improve her relationship with God. She prayed, “please let Christian principles permeate my writing and please let there be enough of my writing (published) for Christian principles to permeate. I dread, Oh Lord, losing my faith.” During this time, she would form important relationships with leading literary figures of her day. Just when she was achieving prominence as a young writer in New York City, O’Connor’s diagnosis of lupus eventually compelled her to move back home with her mother on the family farm, called Andalusia, in Milledgeville.
Her years at Andalusia would be her most productive as a writer despite suffering from the debilitating symptoms of lupus, as well as living under the same roof as her often overbearing mother. And she often found life in the parochial Georgia town to be stifling. The town, and O’Connor’s keen observation skills, would prove to be fertile ground in the creation of characters who face startling moments of truth in which their illusions of pride and self-righteousness are often destroyed in moments of violence. Wrote O’Connor, “I have found, in short, from reading my own writing, that my subject in fiction is the action of grace in territory largely held by the devil.”
Contemporary literary scholars have occasionally tried to portray O’Connor in more liberal ways. But like the Catholic faith itself, O’Connor cannot be easily described as “conservative” or “liberal.” O’Connor’s letters and daily prayer life demonstrate adherence to traditional Catholic morals and theological tenets.
A few years ago, a journalist tried to assert that because O’Connor was a close friend with a woman who was a lesbian, O’Connor must have been a lesbian herself. O’Connor’s letters describe homosexuality as an “impurity,” and although she maintained respectful and sincere friendships with women who were lesbians, she did not condone or engage in that lifestyle. Sessions relayed the story of O’Connor being invited to a “commitment ceremony” of two lesbian friends in New York City in the 1950s. O’Connor politely declined and explained to them that she believed that marriage was a sacrament between a man and a woman.
Throughout her adult life, O’Connor attended daily Mass and went to confession frequently. But being a devout Catholic didn’t mean that she was oblivious to the social changes occurring in American culture in the 1950s and 1960s. Sessions explained that O’Connor’s short story “A Stroke of Good Fortune,” in which a woman is trying to ignore the fact that she is pregnant, was in response to the flippant way she heard secular New Yorkers discuss abortion when she was a young writer there. Highly moved by Hannah Arendt’s essays on the Holocaust and Arendt’s concept of “banality of evil,” O’Connor expressed concern for a culture where the devaluing of human life was acceptable. In the story “The Displaced Person,” O’Connor reflects the Catholic commitment to social justice and concern for refugees. In the stories “The River” and “The Lame Shall Enter First,” O’Connor critiques secular humanists who seek solutions to human problems that ignore God and disregard the innate yearning that all individuals have for a relationship with the divine.
Flannery O’Connor stated that her Catholic sacramental view of life is what shaped her writing. She believed that God works in often disruptive and mysterious ways to bring his prodigal children back to him in unexpected moments of grace. By appreciating and reading how O’Connor described her stories, Catholics can better understand why it is essential that we restore her to our educational tradition and literary canon.
The Four Deceptions of Flannery O’Connor
As Kurt demonstrates, Flannery O’Connor was a devout, intelligent, gifted Catholic author. Yet towards the end of her life she obtained eight books written by and about Teilhard de Chardin and wrote several reviews of his work, apparently smitten by his writings. She wrote that he was “the most important non-fiction writer”; “a great mystic”; “a very great man”; and “a great Christian” “whose vision of Christ was as real as his love of science.”
How was this possible? How could so intelligent, devout, gifted, and perceptive a writer as Flannery O’ Connor be so deceived?
By studying O’Connor’s writings on Teilhard, one can discover four deceptions that led her to grossly misjudge Teilhard’s character and work. By examining them one at a time, we hope that we can learn from her mistakes and help others not to fall into the same deceptions.
First Deception: “We Live in a Scientific Age”
O’Connor’s first deception was to accept the premise that we live in a “scientific age” and that “modern science” gives us new insights that allow us to understand our Faith in a new and deeper way. This is the theme that runs through the faith-destroying Dutch Catechism—more accurately dubbed the Dutch “Cataclysm,” in terms of its effect on the faithful—which was given to me to prepare myself for reception into the Church by the Jesuit priest in charge of Catholic campus ministry when I was a freshman at Princeton University in 1972. According to Fr. Schillebeeckx and his co-authors of the Dutch Catechism, “modern science” helps us to understand our faith in a new and deeper way by calling into question most of the traditional doctrines of the Church, including the existence of angels, the historical reality of Adam and Eve, Original Sin, the bodily resurrection of Our Lord, the intrinsic evil of contraception, and many other traditional doctrines. Nevertheless, Flannery O’Connor accepted the false premise of the Teilhardians that “modern science” helps us to understand our Faith in a new and deeper way. Of Teilhard she wrote:
Now, about Teilhard. The Phenomenon of Man is not a book about animals in the first place but about development. There is nothing in it about animals except the section on the development of the primates. The man is a scientist, writing as one. This is a scientific age and Teilhard’s direction is to face it toward Christ (Habit of Being 387-88).
Flannery O’Connor implies that the “science” of evolution is true and that therefore Teilhard did a great service by not rejecting the Catholic Faith but reinterpreting it in the light of evolution. However, her first premise is false, because the science of evolution is not true. Therefore, Teilhard did the faithful a great disservice by turning them away from God’s revelation of how He created all things to follow a naturalistic fantasy.
Second Deception: Evolution Gives Meaning to Suffering
In some ways the second deception was much more subtle than the first one, but that may make it all the more essential that we understand and expose it. Flannery O’Connor struggled with various forms of physical and psychological suffering because of hereditary disease. As one author explains:
Before her tragic death at the age of 39, Flannery O'Connor had written two novels and thirty-two short stories, as well as commentaries and reviews. She died from Lupus, the same disease which shortened the life of her father. , , By reading Teilhard de Chardin and his thoughts on ‘passive diminishment’, (those afflictions that you can’t get rid of and have to bear), Flannery seems to have been able to accept her lupus and her disability and its consequences. She saw her disability and death as a mysterious stage in her evolution as a spiritual being. Her sickness and pain also opened new outlooks for her as a writer. . . Flannery could joke about her disease as from this letter to a friend:
You didn’t know I had a Dread Disease didj’a? Well I got one. My father did of the same stuff at 44 but the scientist hope to keep me here until I am 96. I owe my existence and cheerful countenance to the pituitary glands of thousands of pigs butchered daily in Chicago, Illinois, at the Armour packing plant.
To another friend:
I have never been anywhere but sick. In a sense sickness is a place more instructive than a long trip to Europe, and it’s always a place where nobody can follow. Sickness before death is a very appropriate thing and I think those who don’t have it miss one of God’s mercies.
The writings of Teilhard de Chardin profoundly shaped O’Connor’s attitude to the mystery of suffering and its relationship to the goodness of God and to human goodness. In The Habit of Being, she reflected:
Pere Teilhard talks about ‘passive diminishment’ in The Divine Milieu. He means those afflictions that you can’t get rid of and have to bear. Those that you can get rid of he believes you must bend every effort to get rid of. I think he was a very great man. (Habit of Being 509).
It would seem that O’ Connor sees modern science’s ability to use “the pituitary glands of thousands of pigs butchered daily” to extract a palliative treatment for a hereditary illness as a wonderful confirmation of the fact that we live in “a scientific age,” and that we have a Christian duty to embrace the advances of modern science and to “bend every effort to get rid of” our defects. However, behind the Teilhardian version of “taking up the Cross” lies the conviction that perfection has never been part of our past, but only lies in the future, at the Omega Point, so that when we accept the infirmities that modern science cannot (yet) remove or alleviate, we participate in our own evolution and in the evolution of the whole cosmos to that final state of perfection.
The perversity of this new Teilhardian Way of the Cross becomes fully apparent in a memoir that Flannery O’ Connor considered one of her most important writings—her account of the saintly child and victim soul Mary Ann Long.
As author Ann Ball explains in her book Young Faces of Holiness, Mary Ann Long was one of four children from a poor family in Kentucky:
Misfortune had followed the family, leaving it in poor circumstances. Mary Ann’s mother was ill and could not care for a sick child. At the age of three and a half, in spite of x-rays, radium, and the removal of her eye, Mary Ann was diagnosed as incurable at the tumor clinic in Louisville. The hospital could no longer keep her. The family doctor advised her parents to send her to Our Lady of Perpetual Help Home, which was run by the Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne, in Atlanta. The thought of sending their dying child so far from home and to strangers was terrible to her loving parents. However, no other option was financially possible, so they reluctantly agreed to let her go there until her mother could regain her health.
From the time of her arrival at the home, Mary Ann entrusted herself to the care of the sisters and devoted herself to trying to cheer up the other residents. Mary Ann had been brought up without any church affiliation, but when the sisters suggested to her parents that she be baptized into the Catholic Church, they gave their permission, and Mary Ann received the life of grace in the home with the help and support of many of the other patients. As the sisters instructed her in the Faith, Mary Ann’s sanctified soul embraced the mysteries of creation, redemption and sanctification, and received the grace to long for Heaven as her true home.
Once Mary Ann wistfully questioned Sister Loretta about heaven, suggesting that it would be light and she would be able to see with both her eyes. “When I get to heaven,” she said, “I will have two good eyes and I’ll run around heaven and be able to see everyone in heaven at once!”
Sister Loretta told her, “Heaven is everything that is perfect and is our true home, but this must not make us forget our work here, the things God put us here to do.”
The tiny four-year-old shocked Sister by her immediate grasp of this definition. Mary Ann said, “You mean we make it so bright and cheerful here that everyone will know what it’ll be like in heaven?”
Catechesis on Creation and the Origin of Evil
During the period that Mary Ann spent at the Home, the Baltimore Catechism was recommended to teachers by Bishops throughout the United States, so there is little or no doubt about what the Dominican Sisters taught her about creation and the original perfection of mankind before the Original Sin. In the Teacher’s Guide to the Baltimore Catechism that was recommended by dozens of Bishops throughout the United States prior to Vatican II, teachers were instructed to teach their students the traditional reading of the sacred history of Genesis:
In the beginning God created all things: something particular on each of the six days of creation . . . The chief things created [were] . . . Plants and trees . . . [and] men . . . The sun, moon, stars, etc. . . . All these are the works of God’s creation. All these he has called into existence by merely wishing for them.
The Teacher’s Guide to the Baltimore Catechism emphasized that God created Adam body and soul and Eve from Adam’s side on the sixth day of creation to show that holy marriage was of divine institution, permanent and indissoluble. Mary Ann would have been taught that God placed our first parents as the king and queen of a perfectly beautiful, complete and harmonious universe, a universe completely free from human death, deformity or disease. In the words of the Teacher’s Guide:
God placed our first parents in Paradise, a large beautiful garden, and gave him power over all other creatures. Adam gave all the animals their appropriate names and they were obedient to him. Even lions, tigers and other animals that we now fear so much came and played about him. Our first parents, in their state of original innocence, were the happy friends of God without any sorrow or suffering.
Like Catholic children throughout the United States, Mary Ann would also have been taught that it was the Original Sin of Adam that brought death, deformity, disease, struggle for existence, and misery into the world; but that God promised a Redeemer who would come to take away the sins of the world and restore everything back to its original goodness and to an even more wonderful perfection at the end of time. The Baltimore Catechism taught that after four thousand years the Second Person of the Holy Trinity became man and suffered and died for our sins, rose from the dead and founded the Holy Catholic Church, so that those, like Mary Ann, who accept the Lordship of Jesus and are incorporated into His Mystical Body can cooperate with Him through the Holy Spirit in the great work of restoring all things in Christ, so that God’s Will can be done “on earth as it is in Heaven.”
With this traditional catechesis, Mary Ann had no doubt about the perfect goodness of God or about His personal love for her. When the Sisters taught her the Way of the Cross, she was filled with compassion for the sufferings of Jesus on her behalf. She also learned from the Sisters and visiting Priests how to unite her sufferings with His, offering them up to God the Father with Him for the conversion of sinners. A couple of times, Mary Ann’s parents tried to bring her home, but the neighborhood children stared at her deformity and made her feel extremely uncomfortable, so she returned permanently to the Dominican Sisters. As Ann Ball explains:
The retreat master of the nearby Trappist monastery paid a visit to her soon after her first attempt to live at home. She told him about her family and about the bad children who had stared at her there. He asked her, “Mary Ann, do you want to help those children to become good? They haven’t been taught to be good and they need help.” After Mary Ann indicated how willing she would be to help, the priest explained to her how she could express her disappointments, hide them, and offer them as a gift to Baby Jesus to help these children. She never forgot the lesson . . .
Flannery O’Connor Encounters Mary Ann Long
This was Mary Ann’s situation at the Home, when the sisters contacted the noted author Flannery O’Connor and asked her to write something about their saintly child-resident. At first, O’Connor rejected the invitation, because she feared that “pious children” would be dull and saccharine. Eventually, by contemplating the goodness that Mary Ann expressed through her deformed face and that she cheerfully put into practice by serving her fellow patients, O’Connor became fascinated by Mary Ann’s goodness and resolved to write about it. Unfortunately, for her readers, Flannery O’Connor’s perspective on Mary Ann’s goodness was profoundly influenced by the evolutionist theology of Teilhard de Chardin. In her memoir of Mary Ann, O’Connor reflected:
The modes of evil usually receive worthy expression. The modes of good have to be satisfied with a cliché’ or a smoothing down that will soften their real look. When we look into the face of the good, we are liable to see a face like Mary Ann’s, full of promise (Memoir 5, MM 215).
No one in his right mind would disagree that it is easier to portray evil (at least superficially) in a believable and interesting way than it is to believably portray heroic goodness and sanctity. But such portrayals do exist in literature, like the portrayal of Fr. Zosima and Alyosha in the Brothers Karamazov and the portrayal of Archbishop Jean Baptiste Lamy of Santa Fe in Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop. Under the influence of Teilhardian evolutionary theology, O’Connor sees goodness as something that is produced in the crucible of suffering, but she does not see it as a manifestation of the perfect goodness of God in the baptized believer who is being transformed by one degree of glory to another into the perfect image and likeness of Christ, here and now, through correspondence with grace and through the sacraments. Authentic Catholic spirituality invites us to “be perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect” through transformation in Christ who is truly and substantially present with all of His perfections in the Blessed Sacrament. Teilhardians know nothing of this.
Teilhard helped Flannery O’Connor to find meaning in her sufferings by seeing them as a necessary part of her evolution as a spiritual being. But did Teilhard really help O’Connor to understand and embrace her sufferings in an authentically Catholic Christian way? No, he did not! The great saints and spiritual writers of the Church never fail to counsel suffering souls to unite their sufferings to the sufferings of Christ that they might say with St. Paul in his letter to the Colossians:
I rejoice in my sufferings, and I make up with is lacking in the sufferings of Christ for the sake of His Body the Church (Colossians 1:24).
In Teilhard’s “new Christianity” the soul finds meaning in suffering not by uniting her sufferings to the sufferings of Jesus but by seeing them as a necessary part of one’s own evolution and, simultaneously, of the evolution of the whole universe to the Omega Point. Teilhard states plainly that he does not believe in an original perfection of the universe that Our Lord came to restore through His Church or in a personal transformation in Christ that will find its fulfillment in the perfection of Heaven. His primary—if not his sole—focus is on the Omega point in this world, which will be achieved by evolution, willy-nilly, with or without our cooperation.
Since this newsletter has already grown quite long, I will stop here and finish my account of the third and fourth Teilhardian deceptions of Flannery O’Connor in our next newsletter. Through the prayers of the Mother of God and of all the Saints, may God grant to the Pope, the Bishops, the priests, the religious, and all the lay faithful, the wisdom to hold fast to all of the doctrines of the Faith and to reject Satan’s seductive counterfeits!
Yours in Christ through the Immaculata in union with St. Joseph,