Encouraging study of the heavens, theologically and practically

Encouraging study of the heavens, theologically and practically

The Vatican Observatory in Castel Gandolfo is one of the oldest astronomical institutes in the world. “The plan [for the Observatory] is simply that everyone might see clearly that the Church and her pastors are not opposed to true and solid science, whether human or divine, but they embrace it, encourage it, and promote it with the fullest possible dedication,” Pope Leo XIII wrote in his 1891 encyclical Ut Mysticam. Below, author Michael C. Canaris on a visit to the Observatory.
Photo above courtesy of the Vatican Observatory

“The Heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge.”

So begins King David’s 19th psalm. This week, my postgraduate ecclesiology class here in Rome had a chance to ponder this exultation anew, as well as the church’s ongoing interpretation of it, when we visited the Vatican Observatory in Castel Gandolfo.

Former Loyola University Chicago professor Paul Mueller, S.J. now serves as the Superior of the Jesuit community at the Observatory, whose members are divided between the Italian papal summer residence in the hills outside the eternal city and the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope in Mount Graham, Arizona.

The co-author of a popular book on science and religion titled “Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial?” Father Mueller gave us an amazing tour and presentation of the history of the Observatory, as well as its many current initiatives. (This was a personal thrill for me, as I’ve often given his book to friends as Christmas presents!)

The most common civil calendar in use around the world today is the Gregorian calendar, named after Pope Gregory XIII, who introduced it in 1582 as a correction to the earlier Julian calendar. Thus, the church has long had both theological and practical reasons for encouraging study of the heavens.

The current iteration of the Vatican “Specola” (Observatory) traces its roots to mathematician Christoph Clavius at the Roman College in the 1500s and astronomer Angelo Secchi in the 1800s. Today, the scientific and administrative staff strives to recognize publically not only such central public figures in their history, as well as the popes who served as patrons for their explorations, but also the teams of workers and especially women religious who labored in tedious anonymity compiling and maintaining their meticulous observations and stellar maps over the course of many decades.

The current crop of Vatican scientists, who study everything from meteorites to photometry to quantum physics to the philosophical underpinnings of the scientific method, are widely respected experts in their particular fields of study, even among purely secular academic colleagues. From its earliest inception, radio wave technology has also been deeply interwoven into these conversations, since Guglielmo Marconi was a personal friend of Pius XI.

Today, advanced astronomy students are welcomed to summer sessions in Castel Gandolfo for extended academic programs in astrophysics. These groups always have the opportunity to be granted an audience with the Holy Father.

In his 1891 encyclical Ut Mysticam, Pope Leo XIII wrote: “The plan [for the Observatory] is simply that everyone might see clearly that the Church and her pastors are not opposed to true and solid science, whether human or divine, but they embrace it, encourage it, and promote it with the fullest possible dedication.”

The Vatican Observatory Foundation (www.VOFoundation.org) has been organized to help the general public learn about and support the mission of the Observatory. The Catholic Astronomer blog has regular updates about their projects and initiatives.

During our conversations Father Mueller asked for prayers, as a massive 6000-acre forest fire was raging in the American southwest while we were visiting Castel Gandolfo, but has since been contained within feet of the complex on Mount Graham. As of this writing, potential smoke and heat damage to the telescopes is yet to be determined, but looks to be minimal.

Collingswood native Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D., teaches at Loyola University, Chicago.

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