The Vatican Is Looking for God in the Stars
Pope Francis urges deep space explorers not to fear the truth about what’s out there.
ROME—If you think faith and science can’t share common ground, think again. Experts in both realms met last week at the Vatican Observatory to prove their theory that you can’t have one without the other. “If you have no faith in your faith, that is when you will fear science,” said Brother Guy Consolmagno the Vatican’s chief astronomer, whose works include such titles as “Would you Baptize an Extraterrestrial?”
Brother Consolmagno led the three-day conference called Black Holes, Gravitational Waves and Spacetime Singularities at the Vatican Observatory’s Castel Gandolfo labs outside of Rome, the former papal summer residence that is remote enough to allow for clear stargazing with minimal light pollution.
He challenged astronomers, cosmologists. and other experts in the field who also believe in God to “come out” and talk about the intersection of faith and fact. What he ended up with are talks like, “The Internal Structure of Spinning Black Holes” and “The Big Bang and its Dark-Matter Content: Whence, Whither, and Wherefore.” Not once in the whole program does the word “God” or “religion” even appear, which is rare for a conference sponsored by the Vatican.
The Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of Sciences is also absent from the scene, although it has sponsored similar events in the past to try to sort out the murky waters between hard facts and blind faith. The academy’s chancellor, Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, told The Daily Beast in 2013 that the two are not mutually exclusive. “If we don't accept science, we don't accept reason,” said Sánchez, “and reason was created by God."
On the question of climate science and climate change, Pope Francis is not only convinced, he’s vehement. After the election of Donald Trump’s climate-change-skeptic administration last year, the pope noted that politicians had “reacted weakly” to the needs of humanity on this score and deplored “the ease with which well-founded scientific opinion about the state of our planet is disregarded.”
Clearly, the Church has come a long way since it condemned Galileo as a heretic during the Inquisition.
Pope Francis is not the hard-core creationist some of his predecessors were (and many Evangelicals in America are). In 2014, he told a Pontifical Academy of Sciences conference not to always take the Bible literally. “When we read in Genesis the account of Creation, we risk imagining God as a magician, with a magic wand able to make everything,” Francis said. “But it is not so.”
“The Big Bang, which nowadays is posited as the origin of the world, does not contradict the divine act of creating, but rather requires it,” Francis said at the time. “The evolution of nature does not contrast with the notion of Creation, as evolution presupposes the creation of beings that evolve.”
In fact, it was Father Georges Lemaître, a Roman Catholic priest, who is credited with coming up with the first scientific equations and the “primeval Atom” that led to what we now know as the “Big Bang Theory” in the first place. The Vatican Observatory conference also honors his legacy. Lemaître, a Belgian who moonlighted as an astrophysicist, published an article in a scientific journal in about it in 1927, two years before Edwin Hubble gained widely accepted fame for the theory.
Lemaître had called his version a “cosmic egg,” which never really caught on. He was forced to straddle a tightrope in 1951 when Pope Pius XII started confusing Lemaître’s work with the Gospel, saying that the Big Bang actually represented the moment of God’s creation which, as any good Catholic knows from Catechism, took place in a matter of in six days, with God resting on the seventh day, the Sabbath, and that’s why most of us get Sundays off.
Lemaître never published his research again after that that.
“This fear of science people talk about is a myth,” Father Gabriele Gionti, one of the conference organizers said. “Lemaître always made a distinction between the beginnings of the universe and its origins. The beginning of the universe is a scientific question to date with precision when things started. The origin of the universe, however, is a theologically charged question that has nothing at all to do with a scientific epistemology.”
Brother Consolmagno is perhaps more open to interpretation. The MIT-trained head of the Vatican Observatory believes that science and faith don’t always have to overlap. “God is not a scientific explanation,” he told Religion News Service. “If you are using God instead of science to explain what happens in the world you are talking about the gods of the Romans and Greeks. We believe in a God that creates outside space and time and shows us everything he did. We experience God as a person, as a god of love.”
At the end of the conference, Pope Francis told those who gathered not to fear the truth about what’s really out there. “I am deeply appreciative of your work, and I encourage you to persevere in your search for truth,” he said. “For we ought never to fear truth, nor become trapped in our own preconceived ideas, but welcome new scientific discoveries with an attitude of humility.”