Vatican stargazers clear up image

Mars observation enables church to space itself from Galileo debacle

CASTEL GANDOLFO, Italy — As the pope slept downstairs, Brother Guy Consolmagno maneuvered the viewing deck into position, stopping when he reached the large telescope pointing heavenward through the open ceiling.

“Anyone see Mars?” he asked the four off-duty Swiss Guards standing around him. They strained to find the bright spot that had poked out from behind the clouds just moments before.

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“Ah, yes, perfect. There it is,” Consolmagno said from behind the eyepiece. “Not bad, all in all.”

It was just before midnight on a recent Friday at Castel Gandolfo, Pope John Paul II’s lakeside summer residence and the home of the Vatican Observatory. The Swiss Guards had the night off, and Consolmagno, a 50-year-old Jesuit astronomer from Detroit, had invited them up to the viewing deck to gaze at an event they will not see again in their lifetime.

Mars is closer to Earth than at any time in the past 60,000 years, shining brighter than any other celestial body except the moon and Venus. Last week, at its nearest, Mars was 34.6 million miles from Earth and it will not be that close again until 2287.

All of which means lots of nighttime viewing activity for the pope’s stargazers–the Jesuits who run the observatory and who have battled to correct the notion, spawned by the Galileo affair nearly 400 years ago, that the Roman Catholic Church is hostile to science.

The Vatican Observatory, founded by Pope Leo XIII in 1891, is one of their prime exhibits, generating top-notch research from its scientist-clerics and drawing academics to its meteorite collection, which includes bits of Mars and is considered one of the world’s best.

Without conflict

“Simply by being an astronomer and a Jesuit, I’m saying all I need to say about science and religion,” said Consolmagno, a meteorite specialist. He wore a T-shirt with a star chart for his stargazing, but changed into clerical garb for an interview and photos.

“The fact that I exist means there is obviously no conflict. The fact that the Vatican is paying for this first-class research means they don’t see any conflict.”

But 400 years ago, there was plenty of conflict.

Galileo Galilei, who was born in 1564 and died in 1642 made the first complete astronomical telescope and used it to gather evidence that the Earth revolved around the sun. Church teaching at the time placed Earth at the center of the universe.

The church denounced Galileo’s theory as dangerous to the faith, but Galileo defied its warnings. Tried as a heretic in 1633 and forced to recant, he was sentenced to life imprisonment, later changed to house arrest.

The Galileo affair gained mythical proportions in the late 19th Century when authors such as Andrew White, the first president of Cornell University, wrote about the “warfare” between theology and science, arguing that religion was an obstacle to the triumph of scientific progress.

The Catholic Church, in reality, had a long history of supporting science, particularly astronomy, said Rev. Sabino Maffeo, the retired director of the Castel Gandolfo observatory and author of “In the Service of Nine Popes: 100 Years of the Vatican Observatory.”

As early as the 1500s, Pope Gregory XIII and mathematicians made solar observations that confirmed predictions about the equinoxes in the Gregorian reform of the calendar, he wrote.

Early observatories

Starting in the 1700s, the papacy established three observatories in and around Rome.

Pope John Paul II has been a keen supporter of the modern Vatican Observatory, although he hasn’t been able to use the big telescopes for several years because of his health, Consolmagno said.

A year after he became pontiff in 1978, the pope created a commission to review Galileo’s condemnation. After reporting its findings, the pope declared in 1992 that the ruling against Galileo was an error resulting from “tragic mutual incomprehension.”

A year later the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope was dedicated on Mt. Graham, 75 miles east of Tucson, Ariz. It has been used for observations ranging from galaxy structure to stellar evolution.

Consolmagno said the Vatican has come a long way since the Galileo debacle, establishing first-rate science departments at Catholic universities and constantly updating its observatory, which for many years was in Vatican City .

In the 1930s, it moved to Castel Gandolfo, in the Alban Hills about 15 miles southeast of the capital, because Rome’s city lights were getting too bright.

But eventually Rome’s lights encroached on Castel Gandolfo, too, hence the choice of Arizona for the new telescope.

Consolmagno said the hunger for the unknown that inspires astronomers is the same “transcendent yearning” for God that theologians speak about.

Today, he said, the church’s main challenge is not to convince scientists that there is nothing wrong with religion, but “to convince religious people that there’s nothing wrong with science.”

Such lofty issues were not on the minds of the Swiss Guards up on the viewing deck.

“I’ll be able to tell my grandchildren I saw Mars,” said one. “You could see the details. Molto bello.”


(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
Associated Press
Aug. 31, 2003
Nicole Winfield, Associated Press
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Religion News Blog posted this on Sunday August 31, 2003.
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