The Pope’s Astronomer

February 06 2023 | by

“WHAT is the stars?” says Captain Boyle in one of the key lines in Act I of Juno and the Paycock, Irish playwright Sean O’Casey’s work. The play tells the story of the Boyle family eking out an existence in the tenements of Dublin in the early 1920s. In the midst of this grim reality, Captain Jack Boyle recalls pondering the heavens during his days in the Merchant Navy.

People have stared at and speculated about the heavens since antiquity. Gazing up at the night sky and contemplating the stars was a favourite pastime of St. Ignatius Loyola, inspiring him to think about humanity’s place in the created universe. “Part of that time he would spend in writing, part in prayer. And the greatest consolation he used to receive was to look at the sky and the stars, which he did often and for a long time, because with this he used to feel in himself a great impetus towards serving Our Lord.” (Autobiography, n.11)


Jesuit Brother


One of St. Ignatius’ contemporary followers, Brother Guy Consolmagno, is the current director of the Vatican Observatory, which was founded by Pope Leo XIII in 1891. An astronomer and physicist with degrees from the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and a PhD from the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, he has taught at Harvard College Observatory and at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

In 1983 he joined the US Peace Corps to serve in Kenya for two years. Recalling that decision in an address at Maynooth University in Ireland last November, Brother Guy said he had begun to question the point of his work in astronomy. However, finding himself based in a remote village in western Kenya, armed with just a small portable telescope, he discovered that the impoverished locals were just as interested as he was in seeing the stars and the moon. “Seeing the craters on the moon through the telescope, everybody in this village in the remotest part of Western Kenya was going, ‘Oh, wow!’ Because that’s what human beings do. That’s why we do astronomy – because it makes us human. Because it’s an invitation from the Creator of the universe.”


Faith & Science


The things they ask the Pope’s Astronomer was the intriguing title of Brother Guy Consolmagno’s talk in Maynooth. He explained how many of the discussions he has with people pivot back to the question of whether science and religion are opposing forces. With good humour, breath-taking intelligence and a deep faith, the American Jesuit stressed that contrary to popular belief, science and faith are not opposing forces, but can help us in understanding the universe and our place in it.

Asked to explain the interaction of science and faith in a soundbite, Brother Guy responded, “My religion tells me God made the Universe; my science tells me how he did it.” When science is done right, he said, “It is a source of joy, and I feel in the presence of God. I’m experiencing God the Creator in the science I do, looking into how creation happens. Since the beginning of time, God has revealed himself in the things he is making.”


Burst of joy


In your lecture, you said, let science challenge theology. Why?

It is very easy to become complacent in the way we think about things, and the joy of science is that you keep discovering new data which challenge the way you thought you understood things. Theology has to be prepared to be challenged because that is when it comes alive. That is when it gets questions that make it look at things that it knows are true, but look at them in a new way. Science is one way that this can be done

It is important to remember that even the best science becomes obsolete. If science didn’t improve itself then it would be sterile, it would be dead. I think the challenges of modern science are wonderful spurs to asking theological questions. When you do it right, science is a source of joy, and that is what I feel in the presence of God. I am experiencing God the Creator by looking into how creation happens. I think God’s way of telling me he loves me is when he invites me to do the puzzle. That burst of joy, knowing that God is present is his reward for getting the science right. That is the prize.


God is logical


If God created the universe the way that we think he did, how come he didn’t say that in Genesis?

Because Genesis is not a book about cosmology. The account in chapter 2 of Genesis doesn’t even agree with the account in chapter 1 of the same book! Genesis is a book about God. What it says about cosmology is about 2,500 years out of date. But what it says about God is repeated over and over again in Scripture. It doesn’t matter how we think the world was put together. What matters is the constant story that we learn about who the God was that created this universe.

So what do we know? “In the beginning,” – God is already there before anything is created. God is not part of nature. God is not part of space and time. God created space and time. “In the beginning, God said…” so he is deliberately creating; it is not happening by accident. It is happening by choice. “In the beginning, God said, Let there be light.” We are not talking about the sun and the moon – that does not happen for several days! So what are we talking about? We are talking about the ability to see what is going on. Nothing is done in the dark – nothing is hidden or secret. Everything is done out in the open.

The universe is made in a way that is systematic. There is a logical order. God is logical. The word logos in the opening of the Gospel of John means ‘word’, but it is also the root for our word for logic. In the beginning was logic, and logic was with God and logic was God. What a powerful thing to say about human reason: it is the image and likeness of God.

What is the point of Genesis? What is it all leading up to? The Sabbath – the day when we stop worrying about feeding our stomachs and feed our souls; the day when we kick back and wonder what are those stars? Why do we have stars? Why do I wonder why we have stars? The astounding thing about the universe is not that it is logical, but that it is beautiful.


Uses of poetry


You have suggested that anybody who wants to be a scientist should study poetry. Why?

I said that for a practical reason and for a deeper reason. Science ultimately is a human act and astronomy is not about stars and planets – it is about what human beings have thought about stars and planets. And because we are talking about things that are bigger than our words can contain, we ultimately have to use poetry. Even scientific equations are a form of poetry. Poetry stretches your imagination which is allowing you to see the universe in a way you have never seen before. In a practical sense, poetry trains you to look for what is unusual, for what is standing out, for what made you stop and think.

The hardest part of science isn’t necessarily solving the problem, but recognising the existence of the problem and identifying the problem, and that only comes when you are suddenly aware of something that didn’t fit the preconceptions, just as the choice of an unusual word in a poem draws attention to itself and makes you say, “the poet is really trying to get my attention here.”


Faith needed


Is Pope Francis open to your research and your insights?

Pope Francis has been very close to us in a number of ways. He has a background in chemistry – so he knows the science first hand. He is tremendously supportive of us as an intellectual apostolate, but he also supports our summer school. On top of all that, he wrote Laudato Sì, which is one of the most brilliant encyclicals that I have ever read because it combines the technological challenge of the ecological crisis with the human challenge of human sinfulness and reminds us that it is at the root of climate change, and that it is never going to be solved just with technology. In a sense the encyclical gives us hope because we know how to deal with human sinfulness even as it recognises that it is never going to go away. That combination of science, technology and humanity together is a vision that most people most of the time forget – especially us scientists.


You have warned against fundamentalism – not just scientific fundamentalism which would seek to deny any place for theology or religion, but also religious fundamentalism.

Fundamentalism is always driven by fear, and the one thing that Jesus tells us, especially after the resurrection, is “do not be afraid.” Don’t be afraid of being wrong; don’t be afraid that you are going to mess it up; don’t be afraid that somehow God is not going to love you if you get it backwards; don’t be afraid to do the things that you feel called to do. If you are artificially limiting what you are doing – then you are the fellow who is burying the talent in the soil… that is not what we are called to do, and it certainly shows a lack of faith in God.


Updated on February 06 2023