Astronomy & God: An interview with director of Vatican Observatory

CHICAGO — Renowned astronomer and director of the Vatican Observatory Brother Guy Consolmagno is the main speaker at this year’s Lay Centre benefit evening at Georgetown Visitation, located in Washington, D.C., Jan. 30.

The American Jesuit brother will speak on the theme, “The Heavens Proclaim: Science as Worship”.

The annual benefit will begin with words of welcome by Lay Centre director Donna Orsuto, followed by Vespers at 6:30 p.m., presided by Very Rev. Frank Donio, S.A.C., D.Min., director of the Catholic Apostolate Center. Brother Guy Consolmagno’s lecture begins at 7:45 pm and will be preceded by a reception.

Ahead of his presentation in Washington next week, Brother Consolmagno, who also serves as the president of the Vatican Observatory Foundation, agreed to this brief interview for our blog.

Georgetown Visitation is located at 1524 35th St., NW, Washington, DC

For more information on the benefit evening, please write to nelindsay@aol.com. Reservations are necessary as seating is limited. If you cannot attend the event, but would like to support the work of the Lay Centre, please go to the Lay Centre website (www.laycentre.org) and click on donate.

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Brother Guy Consolmagno

  1. What is the connection between astronomy and faith, and how can astronomy help belief?

Astronomy does many things to bring us closer to God. First, it reminds us that God made a beautiful universe, one that reflects his own glory. Astronomy reminds us that this universe, which we can see above our head every night (and even in the day if you consider the sun and sometimes the moon), is bigger than all of our petty problems and concerns. Astronomy helps us put our own lives in perspective. The stars shine on the good and evil alike; that means we should not inflate our sense of importance if we think we’re good (we’re not) nor should we ever despair that God does not love us because we are so wicked (we aren’t). And looking at the stars inspires us humans, in a way that no other creatures we know of can do, to contemplate the bigger questions: who are we? Where did we come from? Why are we here?

  1. When did the conflict between science and faith/religion develop? What occurred in the scientific and faith communities for this conflict to occur?

There was no conflict between science and religion during the Renaissance; an awful lot of scientists during that time, and through the Enlightenment, were clergymen: you can see that just by paging through the table of contents of the scientific journals of those days to see who was writing the articles found in them. A lot of Galileo’s friends, and rivals, were clergy. And Galileo himself stayed a good Catholic even after his mistreatment.

The Enlightenment, which I think of as the adolescence of human thought, did introduce a lot of simple and glib ideas about the nature of truth and science. But ironically, just as those ideas were being shown to be naive and woefully inadequate to deal with the physics revolution of the end of the 19th century, they became adapted by certain political classes for their own purposes. Thus you had Evolution, which is a perfectly good description of how species change, taken over by people who wanted to use its ideas to justify social inequality and, worse, eugenics. And you had religious fundamentalists, fearful of losing their faith, deciding that science was the source of their greatest challenges.

But mostly it’s tied into the politics of the day, in both Europe and the United States. For instance, people in America who would bash religion by claiming it was anti-science were actually using that as an excuse to exclude immigrants from southern and eastern Europe. One finds echoes of that even today in the anti-Islam stance of many of the so-called New Atheists.

The meme is propagated today by the same sides, the people who fear for losing their faith and the people who desperately want to be taken seriously as “scientists” but who fear that their reputation would not survive a whiff of religion. Of course such a stance is inimical to both true religion and true science.

  1. What is the mission of the Vatican Observatory? Why was it founded and what is its status in the scientific community?

We were founded in 1891, just as this conflict was beginning to take hold in the popular mindset, in order to show the world that the Church supports science. In fact we are very well respected in the scientific community, by fellow scientists of all beliefs and none. Many of our members have been voted into high offices in the International Astronomical Union and the American Astronomical Society.

  1. How would you assess the relationship between faith and science currently, and how can Catholic scientists and the Church encourage a rapprochement between faith and science? 

Our real challenge is not with the scientists; they understand that there is no conflict between science and religion. Rather, the challenge to us is to reach the ordinary person in the pew, who may not know much about science except that they’ve heard it is somehow against their religion. In a sense, we are missionaries for science to our fellow believers.

And we can’t do it alone. Every member of a parish who is a practicing scientist should be brave enough to make that known… and sponsor events with the various clubs and youth groups of the parish to show how they find the glory of God in creation, whether it is holding astronomy nights in the church parking lot (a good way to point out that most parking lots are horribly over-lit) or visits to local nature reserves.

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