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.

Specola Vaticana
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e.mail: staff@specola.va


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