We’ve spent the last several weeks talking about lots of incredible contributions to science made by Catholic thinkers, clergy and lay people alike. All of this is great, but some people might still be unsure of the Church’s position on science and religion. They might say that the fact that there were some Catholic scientists who made some incredible discoveries doesn’t necessarily back up the fact that the Church is supportive of scientific exploration. That’s a really valid concern, so the story of the person we’re talking about today will hopefully help to address it.
Father George Coyne is a mathematician and astronomer who was the director of the Vatican Observatory for almost thirty years. The Observatory, which was first established in 1582 after Pope Gregory XIII helped to reform the world’s calendar, traces its “modern” roots to 1891 — needless to say, it’s been around for a long time! In the late 19th century, Pope Leo XIII declared that a papally-supported scientific research lab was needed, “so that everyone might see clearly that the Church and her Pastors are not opposed to true and solid science, whether human or divine, but that they embrace it, encourage it, and promote it with the fullest possible devotion.”
Made up of a headquarters near Rome and a dependent research arm in Tucson, Arizona, the Observatory leads studies focused on everything from stellar astronomy and planetary sciences to cosmology and the exploration of exoplanets. For his doctoral work, Fr. Coyne led a spectrophotometric study of the lunar surface; since then, he’s done research on cosmic dust and high-energy interactions between stars — he even has an asteroid named after him.
The Observatory helps to educate the public on issues of science and religion not specifically related to astronomy. Their website has an entire section dedicated to “science and religion frequently asked questions,” and their explanations for the intersection of faith and religion are some of the most informative and most delicate out there. It’s an excellent resource for explaining the Catholic church’s very pro-science position to naysaying family and friends.
For example, they explain what the Church teaches about creation. As Catholics, we reject a literal interpretation of the Bible; we instead acknowledge the Bible as a timeless document whose messages mean different things over time. Certainly, we take the Bible seriously, as it teaches that the universe was made by God, “in an orderly fashion, who found that his creation was good, and indeed so loved the world that he sent his only Son.” By studying the physical universe, we become closer to God, who did the creating. The Bible teaches us who made the universe; the science explains how.
Questions ranging from why the Church cares about astronomy and planetary research to suspicions that the Church is using the Observatory to look for extraterrestrial life (spoiler alert: they’re not) are answered by their work — an incredibly concrete example of the Church’s intense commitment to scientific advancement.
--Claire Kosewic, Staff Bulletin Writer
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