Why is the Vatican interested in astronomy?


Initially it was for a practical reason, to reform the Julian Calendar, like so many national observatories that were started, e.g., to improve navigation at sea; later at the establishment of the present form of the Vatican Observatory in 1891, for an apologetic purpose, in the sense of defending the Catholic Church’s positive regard for science; now to join in doing good science in a way that is economically possible, given the Vatican’s other concerns, as part of the consequence that the Incarnation of Christ applies to all human activity.

By the 1890s, a change had happened in the way science was done throughout the world. Science used to be the work of noblemen, doctors, and clergymen; who else had the free time and education to dedicate to studying nature? Indeed the mundane work of a scientist — gathering and sorting data — is still called “clerical” work to this day. It was work done by clerics: by the clergy. But in the 19th century, as science became more and more of a technical (hence secular) job, a belief grew among many people that science and religion might be opposed. To counter that trend, Pope Leo the XIII decided to establish a scientific institute that would show the world that the church is not opposed to science, but, in fact, embraces and supports it.

Since not all science could be supported at once, the Pope chose a couple of astronomers to carry on this work. Why astronomers? Going back to the ancient and medieval universities you find that astronomy was one of the subjects a student was expected to know before going on to learn theology and philosophy. A long history exists of astronomy, the study of the universe, as a wonderful connection point between the philosophical and scientific yearnings to understand who we are and where we come from.





What is the mission statement for the Vatican Observatory?

From Leo XIII’s letter Motu Proprio establishing the Vatican Observatory in 1891, his intent was to show 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 dedication.” In other words, it was to counteract claims of obscurantism on part of Church.

Nowadays, its mission is simply to do good science, for its own sake and within the worldwide community of scientists, and thus to be a bridge between Church and Science. Where in the 19th Century, the Church felt it had to tell scientists that they shouldn’t be afraid of religion; now, our mission is to remind churchgoers that there’s nothing to be afraid of in science. Too often a choice of science or religion has been given to the people in the pews. People know their religion and are comfortable with it, so that’s their choice. As a result, some people are being forced away from science, which is a tragedy since studying creation is a marvelous way of getting to know the Creator.

Pope John XXIII once said that our mission should be that of explaining the Church to astronomers and astronomy to the Church. We are like a bridge, a small bridge, between the world of science and the Church. Along this bridge, there is one who goes in one direction and one who goes in the other. As Pope Benedict XVI recommended to the Jesuits on the occasion of their most recent general congregation, we should be “men on the cutting edge.” Thus the Observatory has this mission: to be on the frontier between the world of science and the world of faith, to give testimony that it is possible to believe in God and to be good scientists.






Is the Church looking for something in space: aliens to baptize, or a “sign from above” so to speak?
No — despite some people’s suspicions!






Does your astronomy ever come in conflict with your religion? Don’t you have to believe in what the Bible says about how the universe was made?
As we show in several chapters of this book (see especially “The Popes and Astronomy”), whole of Catholic tradition has been to reject this kind of biblical “literalism”.

The Bible is not a science textbook. When it was written, the idea of “science textbooks” didn’t even exist. And to confuse it with a science book does the Bible no honor. Great works of literature, philosophy, or theology are studied as intently today as when they were written, but no scientist actually learns science today from reading, say, Newton’s original works. Science books go out of date only a few years after they are written and must be constantly revised. By contrast, the Bible is timeless. Thus, you can see that the Bible is fundamentally different from a science book.

We do take the Bible seriously. It teaches us that the physical universe was made by God, in an orderly fashion, who found that His creation was Good, and who indeed so loved this World that He sent His only Son. This motivates us to study the physical universe, in order to become closer to its Creator. The Bible tells us who made the Universe; science tells us how He did it.






Would the discovery of extraterrestrial intelligence – aliens – affect your faith?
The first and most important fact we have to confront in the whole question of “extraterrestrial intelligence” is this: we don’t know. Of all the planets we’ve found orbiting other stars, it’s not clear if any of them are suitable places for life as we know it. On none of them, nor indeed anywhere closer to us in our own Sun’s system of planets, have we ever found evidence that completely, uncontrovertibly, proves life originated in some place other that just here on Earth. As far as we know for sure, we could be alone.

Fr. Ernan McMullin, a philosophy professor at Notre Dame with a background in physics, has discussed the possible impact on Christian theology of discovering extraterrestrials, and he concludes only that it would certainly inspire theologians to develop new ways of thinking about topics like original sin, the immortality of the soul, and the meaning of Christ’s redemptive act. But, as he points out, there is already a voluminous literature, and hardly a consensus, on these points among theologians even today, without ETs!

Giuseppe Tanzella-Nitti, an astronomer and Opus Dei priest who teaches theology at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome, comes to the same conclusion. He has written a lengthy entry on Extraterrestrial Life in the Dizionario Interdisciplinare di Scienza e Fede (The Interdisciplinary Dictionary of Science and Faith, of which he was an editor). But at the end, he concludes by saying (in my translation of his Italian), “the last word on the question of extraterrestrial life will not come from theology, but science. The existence of intelligent life on planets other than the Earth neither rules in, nor rules out, any theological principle. Theologians, like the rest of the human race, will just have to wait and see.”

The mere possibility of intelligent life elsewhere puts a human (or at least, human-like) face on the far better established astronomical observation of the enormity of our universe. For us Catholics, the thoughts that come from contemplating this question, in the absence of any firm answers, should lead us to focus on realizing God’s greatness and His special love for us.






Do you report your findings directly to the Holy See?
Our scientific work is published in the regular international journals of astronomy, refereed by our fellow astronomers. At the end of each year, our accomplishments for the year are written up (in Italian) in an annual report and presented to the Holy See. (An expanded version of this annual report, in English, is available on our web site at this link:








What is the pope’s involvement in the Vatican Observatory? Does he have a personal interest in astronomy?
Not specifically; however, all the recent Popes have had an interest in the general field of science and theology, i.e., interdisciplinary studies. Pope Pius XII was something of an amateur astronomer himself.






How expensive is it for the Vatican to support an astronomical observatory? Where does your funding come from?
The Vatican Observatory is a branch of the formal government of the Vatican City State. Its budget makes up about one half of one percent of the total annual budget of the state — about the same proportion as the NASA budget in the US government. However, since the members of the Observatory are Jesuit priests and brothers living in community under a vow of poverty (the daily stipend per astronomer to cover regular living expenses like food and shelter is less than 20 Euros per day), this money goes a lot further and supports a lot more research than would be possible at a traditional observatory.

The Vatican Observatory Advanced Technology Telescope is funded separately from the rest of the observatory. The original funds to build the telescope came from private donors, and the annual budget to run the telescope comes from the Vatican Observatory Foundation, which maintains an endowment supported by private donors.






Is the Vatican Observatory recognized and accepted by the international astronomical community?
Yes. Since its inception, the Observatory has worked in close collaboration with other astronomers around the world. One of its first, and largest, projects was participation in the international program organized by the Paris Observatory to make a photographic map of the sky, known as the Cart du Ciel. Every major European observatory that volunteered to participate was assigned a region of the sky to photograph; the Vatican Observatory was welcomed, even though many states at that time did not yet recognize the Holy See as a nation independent of Italy. The well-respected international journal of spectrochemistry, Spectrochimica Acta, was established at the Vatican Observatory in the late 1930s and printed by the Vatican in the years following World War II, when facilities for producing scientific journals were affected by the scarcities after the war.

Vatican Observatory astronomers, like astronomers everywhere, work in collaboration with colleagues from outside their home institution. Today, our collaborators come from countries all over the world, including the United Kingdom, France, Finland, Lithuania, Poland, South Africa, Brazil, Argentina, Chile… and, of course, Italy and the United States. And the Observatory has sponsored international meetings in both Rome and Tucson on subjects like cosmology, galactic evolution, stellar classification, and meteoritics.
One sign of the degree of respect that the international astronomical community has for the observatory is that throughout its history members of the observatory have been elected by their peers to offices within a number of astronomical societies. Organizations where Vatican astronomers have held office include the American Astronomical Society, the Division for Planetary Sciences, the Meteoritical Society, and the International Astronomical Union.







Is one of the roles that the Vatican Observatory plays in astronomy that of verifying what other astronomers are telling the public in order to make sure what they are reporting to the public is actually true?
No, not formally. The watchdog for astronomers is the astronomical community itself, and so by being part of that community the Vatican Observatory astronomers join in that watchdog role. For example, we join in refereeing papers by other astronomers before they are published in the main journals, just as our papers are so refereed; and we write book reviews and critiques along with the rest. And because we are not competing with other scientists for funding from their national agencies, we are often asked to review funding proposals and serve on review panels to determine how monies from American funding agencies such as the National Science Foundation and NASA, and various European space agencies, should be allocated.







The second letter of Peter reads, “But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and the works that are upon it will be burned up.” (2Pet. 3, 10) What does science have to say about this vision? Is it true that there is a possibility the Earth could be destroyed by a gigantic meteorite?
First, remember that it is always problematic to try to treat a piece of Holy Scripture, out of context, as if it were a science book. Note that the verses immediately following the one quoted continue, “Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of persons ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be kindled and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire!” In other words, the intent of the author is to teach us not about giant meteorites, but about how to live our lives.

That said, what does science tell us about the end of the Earth? We know for certain that our planet has a finite lifetime. (To quote scripture again: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”– Matt 24, 35)
From observing other stars, we understand that a star like our Sun can only shine for about ten billion years (see the images on page XX), and we are already halfway through that lifetime. Likewise, from observing the surfaces of other planets (where evidence for impacts is not worn away by wind and water) we know that space debris like meteorites and comets do hit planets all the time. As Fr. Kikwaya describes in his chapter (page XX) even today we are being rained upon by cosmic dust, and larger rocks (see page XX) fall occasionally as well, to be collected and studied in our labs as meteorites.

Is it possible that Earth could be hit by an object big enough to wipe out most of life on the surface of this planet? Not only is it possible, it is certain. We know it has happened in the past, most famously with the extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. It is not a likely event – the odds are one in a hundred million of it happening in any given year – but it is not impossible. It would not take a particularly large asteroid to cause such damage. A body only a few tens of kilometers across could obliterate any place where it hit, and stir up enough dust to cut off sunlight over the whole earth, thus freezing the rest of us to death.
Only in the past twenty five years have astronomers been begun systematically to chart the motions of small bodies in the solar system to see if we are at any immediate risk. There are easily a hundred thousand asteroids in our solar system big enough to cause serious damage if they hit us, but virtually all of them are in orbits that never come close to the Earth. The biggest risk may well come from comets, orbiting so far from us most of the time that we don’t even know of their existence. We probably wouldn’t see such a killer comet until it would be too late to do anything about it.

However, if you are worried about dying from a comet impact, there are two things you should do: quit smoking, and wear your seat belt. Smoking, and car accidents, are far more likely to kill you than any rogue comet!






Many people have tried to identify the star of the Magi, spoken of in the second chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, with comet Halley (last seen in from Earth in 1986). Is this a true identification?
We don’t know what the star of the Magi was, though many people have attempted to identify it with a particular comet, or a supernova, or a conjunction of planets. Halley’s comet itself would have appeared in the year 12 BC, which is probably too early to serve as an explanation for the Star. Furthermore, comets were usually seen as unfavorable signs by the ancients, not consistent with something signifying the birth of a King.
For all we know, the description in Matthew’s Gospel – the only source we have for the Magi – might be entirely symbolic. However, as Pope Benedict recently pointed out in a homily on Epiphany (see page XX), such symbols are important not in themselves but for the truths that they stand for. It is the birth of the Christ Child, not the star, that matters.