Last summer, an invitation went out to the dioceses of the United States to join the Vatican Observatory Foundation for a five day workshop on faith and astronomy for priests and Catholic educators. This was their first time offering such a workshop. Among the 60 clergy applied, 25 were accepted, including myself. As a amateur astronomer, this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. So in late January, I packed my bags and headed to Tucson, AZ. That’s right, Tucson, not the Vatican.
The Vatican Observatory actually has two large observatories, one at Castel Gandolfo and the other on Mt. Graham near Tucson, AZ. As it turns out, the mountains near Tucson have some of the best skies in the country for astronomy, thus there are many observatories near by, Kitt Peak National Observatory being the most famous. Now, the immediate question arises, “Why does the Church have an observatory, let alone two?” Originally, the Vatican Observatory was founded to help Pope Gregory XII reform the calendar which occurred in 1582. Since the 1930’s, the Jesuits have been given the stewardship of the two current observatory. The goal of the Vatican Observatory is simply to do great astronomy in harmony with our faith. To understand the heavens is to come to understand something about our creator.
The Faith and Astronomy Workshop (FAW) included mostly priests, but also deacons and lay teachers. Participants were from all over the United States. We were led by Br. Guy Consolmagno, S.J., astronomer, author, researcher, former Vatican Observatory Curator of meteorites, planetary scientist, new President of the Vatican Observatory Foundation, and recent winner of the Carl Sagan Medal for Excellence in Public Communication in Planetary Science.
Each day consisted of a talk by a scientist followed by lively discussions, lunch, and then a trip to a local lab working on an astronomical project. Then we would return to the Redemptorist Renewal Center where we were based for Mass, dinner, and an evening of star gazing through various telescopes. The labs we visited were working on various satellite missions. One created a special camera for a satellite currently orbiting Mars and taking optical surveys. Another group was in the process of designing a space vehicle(called OSIRI-REX) that will be launched toward the asteroid “Bennu,” land on it, and bring back samples. We also visited the University of Arizona’s Steward Observatory Mirror Lab who is currently building the mirrors for the soon-to-be constructed Magellan Telescope. Due to the distance and snow in the mountains, we did not get the opportunity to visit the actual location of the Vatican Observatory nor any other observatories.
The lectures topics we heard included methods on teaching the constellations to children as well as the philosophy of science in an age of “new atheists.” Br. Guy gave a talk on the current issue of physics, metaphysics, and cosmology. A caution he offered revolved around common arguments that involved what he called “the God of the gaps,” whereby we ascribe to God all things in science that we do not yet understand. The issue is that once we do understand those natural processes, then what does that say about God? Br. Guy reminded us that we are not Deists who believe in a God who created everything and then backed off to watch everything unfold like a divine watchmaker. Furthermore, God is not a natural phenomena or power akin to gravity. God is totally holy, completely other, separate from creation, and supernatural. Therefore, any attempts to prove the existence of God by scientific means is doomed to fail, for physics cannot and is not meant to make such an explanation. From the earliest times, we have believed that God is supernatural and outside of creation, yet intimately involved in the events of creation and, in particular, involved with us. So, any perceived conflicts between faith and science are simply erroneous perceptions. Both faith and science have the same goal: the Truth. And since God is real, can be known, created all the laws of the cosmos, and is completely consistent within himself, there can be no contradictions or conflicts between faith and science. Indeed, they collaborate in the search for the Truth. One asks how to things happen (physics and astronomy) and the other asks from whom they exist and what meaning do they have (theology and philosophy).
The Faith and Astronomy Workshop, hosted by the Vatican Observatory Foundation, will be held again, beginning on January 16, 2016. We need to encourage more clergy and Catholic educators to take advantage of this new opportunity being offered by our Church. We, as Catholics, need to truly understand the theological, philosophical, and scientific fields being discussed in today’s culture. We need to enter into the cultural debate and help assist in the quest for the Truth. After all, as the now long canceled TV show The X-Files would say, “the truth is out there.” We Catholics simply need to encourage more of the faithful to take up physics, astronomy, as well as theology and philosophy.
For a astronomy geek like me, it was an amazing experience. I look forward to sharing the work of the Vatican Observatory in my preaching and other public speaking opportunities. It was truly a thrill to be able to meet Catholics doing serious astronomy and spend time with clergy and laity who are as passionate about this science as I am.