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The Vatican's Space Observatory Wants To See Stars And Faith Align

A view of the telescope domes on the roof of the Vatican Observatory, at the Apostolic Palace in Castel Gandolfo, in 2015.
A view of the telescope domes on the roof of the Vatican Observatory, at the Apostolic Palace in Castel Gandolfo, in 2015.

CASTEL GANDOLFO, Italy — At a time of growing diffidence toward some new scientific discoveries, the one and only Vatican institution that does scientific research recently launched a campaign to promote dialogue between faith and science.

It's the Vatican Observatory, located on the grounds of the papal summer residence in Castel Gandolfo, a medieval town in Alban Hills 15 miles southeast of Rome.

The director, Brother Guy Consolmagno, is giving this reporter a guided tour of the grounds. We drive along a cypress-lined road, admiring majestic gardens and olive groves nestled near the remains of a palace of the Roman Emperor Domitian, before reaching a field with farmworkers and animals.

"This is the end that has the papal farm, so you can see the cows the papal milk comes from," Consolmagno says as he points out the working farm that provides the pope at the Vatican with vegetable and dairy products.

(Pope Francis, known for his frugality and habit of not taking vacations, decided not to use the papal summer villa, which he considers too luxurious. But he ordered the estate become a museum open to the public.)

For most of its history, the Catholic Church rejected scientific findings that conflicted with its doctrine. During the Inquisition, it even persecuted scientists such as Galileo Galilei.

In the Middle Ages, it became apparent that the Julian calendar, named for Julius Caesar and established in 46 B.C., had accumulated numerous errors. But it wasn't until 1582 that the Vatican Observatory was born with the reform of the Gregorian calendar (named for Pope Gregory XIII) that, based on observation of the stars, established fixed dates for religious festivities.

Consolmagno takes pains to rebut the anti-science image of the Catholic Church. He cites the 19th century Italian priest Angelo Secchi as a pioneer in astronomy and the 20th century Belgian priest Georges Lemaître, known as "father of the Big Bang theory," which holds that the universe began in a cataclysmic explosion of a small, primeval superatom.

Run by Jesuits, the Observatory moved to this bucolic setting in the 1930s, when light pollution in Rome obstructed celestial observation.

One domed building in the papal gardens houses a huge telescope dating from 1891. It's called Carte du Ciel — map of the sky — and it stands under a curved ceiling that slides open. Consolmagno says, "It was one of about 18 identical telescopes that were set up around the world to photograph the sky, and every national observatory was given its own piece of sky to photograph." He adds, it was "one of the first international projects of astronomy."

A native of Detroit, Consolmagno studied physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, volunteered with the Peace Corps in Africa and taught physics before becoming a Jesuit brother in his 40s. He has been at the Observatory for three decades. His passion for astronomy started with a childhood love of science fiction.

"I love the kind of science fiction that gives you that sense of wonder, that reminds you at the end of the day why we dream of being able to go into space," Consolmagno says.

A passionate Star Wars fan, he tells this reporter proudly, "even Obi-Wan Kenobi came to visit" the Observatory, pointing to the signature of actor Alec Guinness, who played the role in the original movie trilogy, in a visitor's book from 1958.

Top scientists teach at the Observatory's summer school. And scientists and space industry leaders have come for a United Nations-sponsored conference on the ethics and peaceful uses of outer space. It cooperates with NASA on several space missions and it operates a modern telescope in partnership with the University of Arizona.

<strong>Left:</strong> A visitors' book signed by actor Alec Guinness in 1958. <strong>Right</strong>: A photo of a prelate decades ago reclining to view the telescope.
/ Sylvia Poggioli/NPR
<strong>Left:</strong> A visitors' book signed by actor Alec Guinness in 1958. <strong>Right</strong>: A photo of a prelate decades ago reclining to view the telescope.

"But where we still need to work is with the rest of the world," says the Observatory director, "the people in the pews, especially nowadays. There are too many people in the pews who think you have to choose between science and faith."

To reach those people, the Observatory recently launched a new website and podcasts exploring issues such as meteorites hitting the Earth or how to live on the moon.

And an online store sells merch — hoodies, caps, tote bags and posters of the Milky Way.

In just a few months, says the director, visitors to the website have doubled.

As to how the faith-versus-science culture wars can be resolved, Consolmagno says what's most important is that he wears a collar — he is a devoutly religious person who also considers himself an "orthodox scientist." "That fact alone shatters the stereotypes," he says.

Another American at the Observatory shattering stereotypes is Brother Robert Macke, curator of the collection of meteorites — rocks formed in the early days of the solar system.

Holding a dark rock a few inches long, he says it was formed 4.5 billion years ago — providing clues on how the solar system was formed.

"In order to understand the natural world," he says, "you have to study the natural world. You cannot just simply close your eyes and ignore it or pretend that it is other than it is. You have to study it and you have to come to appreciate it."

Consolmagno — asked how the study of the stars interacts with his faith — says astronomy doesn't provide answers to theological questions, and scripture doesn't explain science. "But the astronomy is the place where I interact with the Creator of the universe, where God sets up the puzzles and we have a lot of fun solving them together," the director says.

And he believes the recent dark period of the pandemic has weakened the arguments of those who are skeptical of science.

"Because people can see science in action, science doesn't have all the answers," he says. "And yet science is still with all of its mistakes and with all of its stumbling is still better than no science."

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