No conflict between science and faith for the Vatican's chief astronomer

November 23, 2017 — "God created the universe; this I get from my faith," says Brother Guy Consolmagno.

"But my science tells me how he did it."

Consolmagno sometimes gets some strange looks when he tells people about his job as the director of the Vatican observatory, chief astronomer of the Catholic church. They want to know how he can straddle the seemingly disparate worlds of science and faith.

But for Consolmagno, it's never been an issue. The MIT PhD holder has been a Jesuit since the early '90s, and he doesn't see any incompatibilities at all. In fact, one of his main duties as director of the observatory is to reinforce the message that the church is not anti-science.

"To me, the hard thing is to try to figure out where people are coming from when they think there's a conflict, because I've lived with both of those so happily," he said.

Controversy is born

For many, the notion of the Catholic Church's supposed anti-science stance stems from its treatment of Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei, who popularized the heliocentric model of the solar system.

Galilei was famously condemned to house arrest for the remainder of his life after being found to be guilty of heresy by the church in 1633.

But Consolmagno maintains that the entire affair had much more to do with politics than theology.

"Everything you know about Galileo is probably not true, [but] the truth does not make the church look any better," he said.

There are numerous theories as to why he was tried, ranging from political fallout from the Thirty Years War to Galileo personally insulting the pope.

"There are [hundreds of] biographies of Galileo, every one telling you a different story about what happened," he said. "If nothing else, that tells you we don't really understand what happened to him."

Galileo facing the Roman Inquisition
Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei faces the Roman Inquistion in this 1857 painting by Cristiano Banti. (Wikimedia Commons)

Dispelling the myth

Either way, the church found itself looking to shake the anti-science image toward the end of the 18th century — and it was desperate to be seen as an independent political power too.

So, the Holy See established its own national observatory in 1774.

"Having a national observatory that would be recognized by other national observatories was a sign of nationhood," Consolmagno said.

Though light pollution in Rome is now too intense to allow for useful observations from the original site, the observatory is still involved in active astronomical research through partnerships with other researchers and observatories around the world.

Eyes on the skies

As director, Consolmagno sees communication and education as important parts of his job. He's on a mission to remind the world that the church embraces science and that science isn't political.

But it wasn't always a straight path for him. He remembers questioning the purpose of his work as a 30-year-old MIT post-doctorate grad.

"I'd go to bed at night wondering, why am I doing astronomy when people are starving in the world?" he said.

So, he quit. He joined the Peace Corps, figuring he could be a more useful servant of God in that way. But everywhere he went, he found people were fascinated with the stars.

"It finally dawned on me: that thing you may have heard, we don't live by bread alone? It's literally true," Consolmagno said. "As human beings, we have to feed our soul. We have to feed our curiosity."

"We have to be more than just well-fed cows. We have to be able to look at the sky and not just appreciate the beauty, but to be able to wonder about it."

Consolmagno hosted a talk Wednesday night at UBC on just that subject. It's entitled "Why Do We Look Up to the Heavens?"

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