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March 14, 2016 | Volume 91 Number 10


Worship of God said compatible with science

During his presentation at Immaculate Conception Church in Hampton March 4, Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno, director of the Vatican Observatory and the president of its Observatory Foundation, disputed the perception that religion and science are at odds, and presented the idea that “doing good science” is worshipping God.

His address was part of the Bishop Keane Institute Lecture Series, a ministry of Immaculate Conception Church that strives to bring the leading voices in Catholic thought, ministry and education to Hampton Roads.

Brother Guy, who is from Detroit, earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree from Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1974 and 1975 respectively, and a doctorate from the University of Arizona in 1978, all in planetary science.

Along with more than 200 scientific publications, he is the author of six popular astronomy books including “God’s Mechanics: How Scientists and Engineers Make Sense of Religion” and “Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial? and Other Questions from the Astronomers’ In-box at the Vatican Observatory.”

In 2014, he received the Carl Sagan Medal from the American Astronomical Society for Planetary Sciences for excellence in public communication.

Speaking on “The Heavens Proclaim: Astronomy and the Vatican,” Brother Guy told the sold-out crowd of 500 people that science and religion are ways to discover how we interact with the universe.

“If you believe in the universe that God so loved that he sent his son, then not only are you going to want to study the universe because it’s kind of cool, but because it’s an act of worship,” he said. “It’s an act of getting closer to the creator and getting closer to the universe.”

During his presentation, he maintained that the Catholic Church has embraced and promoted science for centuries. In medieval universities, for example, astronomy was one of the prerequisite courses for theology or philosophy, and in 1582 Pope Gregory XIII enlisted the help of astronomers and mathematicians in reforming the calendar. Brother Guy pointed out that the Catholic Church can claim renowned scientists such as Jesuit Priest Father Angelo Secchi, an astronomer in the 1800s considered the father of astrophysics; and Georges Lemaître, a Belgian cosmologist and Catholic priest who in 1931 first proposed what is now known as the Big Bang theory. He added that Jesuits and missionaries traveling the world were scientists in that they described culture and catalogued things in the environment of the places they visited

Nevertheless, by the end of the 1800s the myth that science and religion negated each other was underway, partly because of politics but also due to technological advances such as the use of electricity and steam engines which convinced some that one day all problems would be solved with technology.

He said that in 1887 in an effort to prove that the Church supported science, Pope Leo XIII celebrated his Ordination Jubilee with a scientific exhibition featuring the discoveries and instruments that priests in outlying areas had made.

Additionally, the pope created a Vatican observatory in 1891, with telescopes on the Tower of the Winds, then on walls surrounding the Vatican, and in the 1930s on the roof of the papal palace in Castel Gandolfo.

By the 1980s light pollution rendered those telescopes unusable, so the Vatican built a large state-of-the art telescope in Arizona.

Today there are 11 people “doing science” at the observatory, studying such things as planets, stellar clusters and string theory. The scientists collaborate with other astronomers throughout the world.

“Just studying the universe is a great way to remind yourself that there’s more important things in life than what’s for lunch,” Brother Guy said. “Astronomy is something that leads all of us to something bigger than ourselves.”

Noting that creation stories throughout the Bible differ from each other “in the nuts and bolts in how the universe was created,” he said all the stories agree that God intentionally created the universe, looked at it at every step of the way and said “this is good stuff.”

“It’s not how the world was put together; it’s who did it that’s the new and important part of Genesis,” he said.

Brother Guy explained that because God created the universe, it means God predates the universe; he is not a part of the universe and does not exist in space and time but rather outside of space and time.

In the Q&A period that followed his lecture, Brother Guy said he’d like to go on the International Space Station if given the opportunity.

His favorite planet in the solar system is earth which has a “wonderfully weird chemistry,” and the most intriguing astronomical fact that affected him theologically or philosophically is that God exists.

When asked if he believes in extraterrestrials, he responded enough to keep looking for them, and if he found them, it wouldn’t destroy his faith.

“If there are lots other creatures in relationship with God, that would be wonderful,” he said.

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