The Vatican's Space Observatory Wants To See Stars And Faith Align For a long time, the Catholic Church rejected scientific findings that conflicted with its doctrine, even persecuting Galileo. Now the Vatican looks to promote its observatory as a bridge to science.
NPR logo

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

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/1003231191/1003713918" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
The Vatican's Space Observatory Wants To See Stars And Faith Align

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

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/1003231191/1003713918" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

For most of its history, the Catholic Church rejected scientific findings that conflicted with its doctrine. During the Inquisition, for example, it even accused scientists such as Galileo of heresy. But an hour's drive south of Rome, there's the one and only Vatican institution that does scientific research. As NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports, the Vatican Observatory recently launched a campaign to promote dialogue between faith and science.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Brother Guy Consolmagno, director of the Vatican Observatory, drives through the majestic gardens and olive groves of the papal summer residence in Castel Gandolfo. The observatory, whose roots go back to the 16th century, is nestled among cypresses near the remains of a Roman villa.

GUY CONSOLMAGNO: This is the end that has the papal farm. So you can see the cows that the papal milk comes from.

POGGIOLI: Run by Jesuits, the observatory moved to this bucolic setting in the 1930s when light pollution in Rome obstructed celestial observation. A huge telescope dating from 1891 stands under a dome ceiling.

CONSOLMAGNO: And it was one of about 18 identical telescopes that were set up around the world to photograph the sky, one of the first international projects of astronomy.

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

CONSOLMAGNO: 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.

POGGIOLI: Some of the world's most important scientists come to teach at the observatory's summer school. It has hosted scientists and space industry leaders for a U.N.-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.

CONSOLMAGNO: But where we still need to work is with the rest of the world, 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.

POGGIOLI: To reach those people, the Vatican Observatory recently launched a new website and podcasts exploring issues such as meteorites hitting the Earth or how to live on the moon. As to how the faith-versus-science culture wars can be resolved, Brother Guy says what's most important is that he wears a collar, a devoutly religious person who is also an orthodox scientist.

CONSOLMAGNO: That fact alone shatters the stereotypes.

POGGIOLI: Another American at the observatory shattering stereotypes is Brother Bob Macke, curator of the collection of meteorites, rocks formed in the early days of the solar system.

Pointing to a dark rock a few inches long lying on his desk, he says it was formed 4 1/2 billion years ago, providing clues on how the solar system was formed.

BOB MACKE: In order to understand the natural world, 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.

POGGIOLI: Brother Guy 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.

CONSOLMAGNO: 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.

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

CONSOLMAGNO: Because people can see science in action. Science doesn't have all the answers. And yet science is still - with all of its mistakes, with all of its stumbling, is still better than no science.

POGGIOLI: Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Castel Gandolfo.

Copyright © 2021 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.