Inside USD

How to See God in the Stars

Friday, April 17, 2009

physics-april-09-002Guy Consolmagno is an astronomer. For the Vatican. And he sees no contradiction in that.

He made the case in a recent talk at the University of San Diego that, throughout history, popular culture hasn’t done a good job of telling the full story about the relationship between science and religion, especially the role of the Catholic Church.

In an entertaining and wide-ranging discussion, Consolmagno, an M.IT.-trained scientist and Jesuit brother, cited examples ranging from stories about Christopher Columbus — “Nobody (including the church) thought the world was flat,” — to modern-day examples from best-selling novels like “The Da Vinci Code.”

Consolmagno cited a passage from the book regarding the Vatican’s Astronomy Library: “ … rumored to contain more than 25,000 volumes, including rare works of Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Newton and Secchi. Allegedly, it was also the place in which the Pope’s highest officers held private meetings … those meetings they preferred not to hold within the walls of the Vatican City.”

Consolmagno then cut to a slide of the actual library — an ordinary-looking room with books and folders piled high on metal shelves — drawing laughter from the audience.

Far from being in conflict, science and faith are complementary, he said. In fact, science requires several philosophical — “dare I say religious” — assumptions, Consolmagno said, citing that there is an objective universe that makes sense and can be understood, and that the information is worth knowing not because of the technology or benefits it provides but because it helps answer the mysteries of the universe.

Consolmagno, a former Peace Corps volunteer, recalled the awe and joy of villagers seeing the heavens through a telescope for the first time, the same sensation that people have everywhere, he said.

“God created the universe,” but “my science tells me how he did it,” said Consolmagno,  author of five books including “God’s Mechanics: How Science and Engineers Make Sense of Religion.”

Consolmagno, who is the curator of the Vatican’s meteorite collection, also talked about the church’s role in promoting early knowledge and scientific research through the medieval universities, a legacy that continues to this day. The priestly black robes students wear at graduation “come out of the clerical tradition,” he noted. “It was the church that insisted people have to know these things.”

Of course much of the church’s legacy was obscured by episodes like the condemnation of Galileo in the early 17th century for promoting the heliocentric theory that the sun, not the earth is at the center of the universe, he said.

“The church was wrong. It should not have done that,” he said, but added that reasons for the condemnation are more complicated and murky than is popularly known. And scientific research supported by the church continued. Fewer than 20 years later, two Jesuit brothers using telescopes completed the first map of the moon that included its most prominent crater named “Copernicus,” he noted.

By the early 20th century, Western society also was embracing notions of technological progress and scientific theories like evolution that helped promote erroneous theories like eugenics — the notion that white, northern European cultures were superior to other cultures. The church’s opposition to this dangerous and misguided use of Darwin’s theories helped give rise to the notion that it was anti-science, he said.

“Every heresy is based on an important truth,” said Consolmagno. Myths that continue to this day — such as eugenics or creationism — often have more to do with the beliefs and fears of those people or groups advocating them rather than actual science, he said. “What they’re really talking about is not science but sociology,” he said.

Consomagno’s talk on April 7 was sponsored by USD’s Center for Catholic Thought and Culture, and the university’s science departments.

— Liz Harman

Watch the video:

To learn more about the Vatican’s astronomy work, go to

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