Did you know that the Catholic Church runs an astronomical observatory? So many popular reports portray “Galileo vs. the Church” as an example of fundamental conflict between science and religion. Yet Galileo himself did not see an inherent conflict between astronomy and the Bible (see Ted Davis’ introduction to Galileo in this post and following posts in his excellent course Science and the Bible). The Catholic Church has a strong tradition of intellectual inquiry, including in scientific areas. By 1758, the Church removed Galileo’s and Copernicus’ works on heliocentrism from the list of banned books. The Church’s support for science continues today, including recent statements from Pope Francis on evolution and climate change.
By the 1890s, the Catholic Church founded the Vatican Observatory, a center for astronomical observations and research. It continues to this day as a respected center for research, as well as a living example that science can be a fully Christian vocation. I’ve written about science as a Christian calling here, and Francis Collins is one of many top scientists today who live out their faith as they pursue scientific inquiry. The Vatican Observatory has not only exemplified this vocation, but made it known to the world.
The new leader of the Observatory, Jesuit and planetary scientist Guy Consolmagno, was recently interviewed in the leading journal Science. He reminds us of the scientific contributions of Catholic monk Gregor Mendel (genetics) and the Catholic priest Georges Lemaître (cosmology), and explains why, even in a suffering world, astronomical research is part of what it means to be human. When asked “Does God get in the way of doing good research?” he replied, “God is the reason we do astronomy.” Check out the interview here.