The Catholic Church Supports Science…Plus 9 More Things You Should Know

Two Jesuit scientists list must-know facts about the Vatican-owned observatory.

Brother Guy Consolmagno, SJ and Father Paul R. Mueller, SJ are scientists at the Vatican Observatory, the official astronomical research institute of the Catholic Church. They co-wrote Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial? . . . And Other Questions from the Astronomers’ In-box at the Vatican Observatory. We asked them to give us 10 must-know facts about the Vatican’s astronomers.

1. The Catholic Church supports science.

If God really is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, then the scientific pursuit of truth is just part of the wider pursuit of God. And the Vatican Observatory is part of that. Indeed, the origins of science can be found in the medieval universities, founded by the Church, and in the belief that God expresses himself in the things he has created — to quote St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans.

2. The Observatory has been around, in various forms, since the middle ages.

The Church has always needed access to good and accurate astronomical knowledge for theological and liturgical reasons — such as establishing the correct date for Easter. Our modern Gregorian calendar was established in 1582 by Pope Gregory XIII, on the advice of his astronomers. But even back then, the study of astronomy was not only for practical reasons; it was also seen as a way of lifting the soul to the heavens that “proclaim the glory of God.” The present-day Vatican Observatory was established by Pope Leo XIII in 1891.

3. The astronomers of the Vatican Observatory are members of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits).

The first Jesuit director of the observatory was Fr. Johann Hagen, appointed in 1906, who worked with astronomers from many different religious communities. In the early 1930’s Pope Pius XI asked the Jesuit order to take responsibility for staffing the Vatican observatory. Today, Jesuit members of the staff (including those in studies) hail from eight countries on five continents — lacking, at the moment, only representatives from Australia and Antarctica. These Jesuits are members of a common research staff, working together as astronomers in the lab and with the telescopes. But they also live, pray, and eat together, as Jesuits in a common religious community. In addition to these staff astronomers, there are other astronomers from all around the world, men and women, religious and lay people, who are officially affiliated in an “adjunct” way with the Vatican Observatory.

4. Vatican astronomers have advanced degrees from some of the world’s finest universities.

Their degrees have come from Oxford University, Cambridge University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Chicago, the University of Padua, the Paris Observatory, and others. They have received the same training and undergo the same testing as any other professional astronomer. Furthermore, they have collaborated with astronomers — observing together, writing papers and books together — from every major astronomical center in the world.

Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial
Courtesy of Image Books, a division of Penguin Random House.

5. Vatican astronomers are respected and honored by their astronomical peers.

Members of the observatory have been elected as officers of important professional associations of astronomers, such as the American Astronomical Society (AAS) and the International Astronomical Union (IAU). Fr. Chris Corbally recently served as president of the IAU Division IV, which organizes the study of stars; and just this year, Vatican Astronomer Br. Guy Consolmagno S.J. (himself a former chair of the AAS Division for Planetary Sciences) was awarded the prestigious Carl Sagan Medal by the AAS. In the citation for the award, the AAS noted that Br. Consolmagno “occupies a unique position within our profession as a credible spokesperson for scientific honesty within the context of religious belief.” The award is named for late astronomer Carl Sagan, the popular author who wrote and hosted the 1980 television series Cosmos.

6. The Vatican Observatory sponsors a summer school for advanced students in astronomy.

Twenty five students (from more than 100 applicants) finishing their undergraduate studies or beginning graduate work meet for four weeks at the observatory headquarters, in the hills outside of Rome, for intense study of some particular aspect of astrophysics. Topics have ranged from cosmology and the evolution of galaxies to astrobiology and extra-solar planetary systems. The instructors include some of the most prominent astronomers in the world. The students, many from the developing world, are selected solely on the basis of their ability and interest in pursuing a career in astronomy. The only other criterion is that no more that two students (in a given school) can come from the same country.

7. The Vatican Observatory is part of a rich history of Catholic priests who made fundamental advances in astronomy.

In the 1860s, Fr. Angelo Secchi, SJ was the first to propose a spectral classification of stars, and pioneered the study of solar activity. (A modern NASA instrument monitoring the sun from space is named in his honor.) In the late 1920’s, Fr. George Lemaître was the first to propose what has come to be called the Big Bang theory — the theory that the universe has expanded from an initial small, hot, dense state. In 1957, Fr. Lemaitre attended a meeting hosted by the Vatican Observatory, where he became close friends with Fred Hoyle, a rival astronomer who opposed the Big Bang theory.

8. The Vatican Observatory has its own modern telescope in Arizona, on Mt. Graham.

The Observatory has four older telescopes at its headquarters in Italy at Castel Gandolfo — two of those telescopes are located atop the Pope’s summer vacation home. But due to light pollution, this site is no longer suitable for modern research. So, the Observatory now maintains a modern telescope: the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope (VATT) atop Arizona’s Mt. Graham, at an elevation of 10,500 feet. The mirror at the heart of the VATT was the revolutionary prototype for a whole new generation of telescope mirrors that led to a great leap forward in ground-based astronomy over the last 20 years. A fun fact: this mirror was cast by a University of Arizona professor, Dr. Roger Angel, in a lab set up within a former synagogue on campus . . . so it can be said that the Vatican’s mirror was made by an Angel in a synagogue.

9. Vatican astronomers study everything from cosmic dust to string theory.

Their specialties, which they pursue in collaboration with various professional colleagues, include stellar evolution, galactic evolution, theoretical cosmology, spectroscopy, planetary geology, meteoritics, astronomical instrumentation, the study of exo-planets, and the study of the history and philosophy of science.

10. Vatican Astronomers are pioneers in the modern study of meteorites.

The Vatican has one of the largest collections of meteorites in the world, most from the nineteenth-century collection of the Marquis de Mauroy of France. Since the 1930s, this collection has been under the care of the Vatican Observatory. These include samples now recognized to be pieces of the moon and Mars. Over the last 20 years, Jesuit scientists at the Observatory have developed rapid, inexpensive, and non-destructive ways to make physical measurements of these samples. Data from the Vatican Observatory meteorite lab, and the Vatican Observatory techniques applied to other collections, now provide standards that are used worldwide to interpret the physical state of planets and asteroids, and model their formation and evolution.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

  • Laurence Charles Ringo

    I’m pretty sure Galileo would have been astonished to know that. (You knew it was coming. )

  • ThereseZ

    so predictable, Laurence. You know the right story, right? That the Church asked him not to publish his opinions in advance of more facts, and he said no, and published a book that also contained swipes at the Church, who had been supporting him while he did his science. And so they took the free apartment and food and servants away from him and declared their rejection of him? And that he died a faithful Catholic, receiving all the sacraments of the Church? Ten seconds of research….ten seconds….

  • Martin Hughes

    The thought of a scientific research organisation whose membership is confined to a certain religious organisation – a strange criterion for the recruitment of investigators, surely? – makes me shiver slightly: it symbolises not support for science but an attempt to keep science under control.
    The underlying question is that of the ‘Two Books’ theory, as some call it, of which Galileo was by common consent an eloquent exponent, especially in his Letter to the Duchess Christina. The Two Books are Reality, a communication from God to be expounded by minds that are rational, and the Bible, a communication from God to be expounded by minds that are faithful – my choice of words, not his. It has been claimed that the TB Theory is now Catholic orthodoxy, having been set forth in the 19th century document Providentissimus Deus, which (it is further claimed: can’t say I’ve read either myself) is indebted without acknowledgement, both in ideas and wording, to Galileo’s Letter.
    We often hear appeals to (in effect) the TB Theory when we are told that scientists have no authority on questions of faith and individual scientists are praised for accepting this with due humility. The parallel point would be that churchmen, popes and all, have no authority or right to state a corporate opinion, on matters of science. No doubt some unequivocal statements to this effect can be found, though I think that such words stick in the throats of many apologists, particularly the great cloud of Catholic apologists who continue beating up on poor old Galileo.