VATICAN CITY — The Jesuit director of the Vatican Observatory, who has worked as an astronomer and planetary scientist at the Vatican for more than 20 years, told journalists Monday that faith and reason are hardly at odds.
“If you have no faith in your faith, that is when you will fear science,” Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno said May 8.
He spoke to journalists at a press conference ahead of a May 9-12 summit on “Black Holes, Gravitational Waves, and Space-Time Singularities” in Castel Gandolfo, at the Vatican Observatory, just outside Rome.
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“The Vatican Observatory was founded in 1891 by Pope Leo XIII to show that the Church supports good science, and to do that we have to have good science,” Brother Consolmagno said, explaining the reasoning behind the conference.
The hope is that the encounter will foster good science, good discussion and even friendship. Among the speakers will be a Nobel Prize winner in physics and a Wolf Prize winner.
Among the topics of papers being presented at the conference are strong evidence for an accelerating universe; Black hole perturbations: a review of recent analytical results; and “Observing the Signature of Dynamical Space-Time Through Gravitational Waves.”
“Those of us that are religious will recognize the presence of God, but you don’t have to make a theological leap to search for the truth,” Brother Consolmagno said. “There are many things we know we do not understand. We cannot be good religious people or scientists if we think that our work is done.”
The summit is also taking place in recognition of the work of Father Georges Lemaître, the Belgian physicist and mathematician who is widely credited with developing the “Big Bang” theory to explain the origin of the physical universe.
Addressing common misconceptions surrounding the Big Bang, such as the idea that it did away with the need for a Creator, Brother Consolmagno said, “The creative act of God is not something that happened 13.8 billion years ago. God is already there, before space and time exist. You can’t even say ‘before,’ because he is outside of time and space.”
The creative act is happening continuously: “If you look at God as merely the thing that started the Big Bang, then you get a nature god, like Jupiter throwing around lightning bolts.”
“That’s not the God that we as Christians believe in,” he continued. “We must believe in a God that is supernatural. We then recognize God as the one responsible for the existence of the universe, and our science tells us how he did it.”
The organizer of the conference, Jesuit Father Gabriele Gionti, said Father Lemaître always distinguished between the beginnings of the universe and its origins.
“The beginning of the universe is a scientific question, to be able to date with precision when things started. The origin of the universe, however, is a theologically charged question.”
Answering that question “has nothing at all to do with a scientific epistemology,” he added.
Brother Consolmagno explained, “God is not something we arrive at at the end of our science. It’s what we assume at the beginning. I am afraid of a God who can be proved by science, because I know my science well enough to not trust it!”
“An atheist could assume something very different, and have a very different view of the universe, but we can talk and learn from each other. The search for truth unites us,” he added.
He suggested that, to demonstrate that the Church and science are not at odds, those who are both churchgoers and scientists should make that fact more known to their fellow parishioners.
He suggested some practical ideas, such as setting up a telescope in the church parking lot or leading the parish’s youth group on a nature hike.
The Church, in a sense, developed science through the medieval universities she founded, he explained. For example, English Bishop Robert Grosseteste, a 13th-century prelate and chancellor of Oxford University, helped develop the scientific method and was often cited by Roger Bacon.
“If there is a rivalry” between the Church and science, Brother Consolmagno said, “it’s a sibling rivalry.”
“And it’s a crime against science to say that only atheists can do it, because if that were true, it would eliminate so many wonderful scientists.”