Jesuits staff Arizona mountain observatory

By Kirsten Scharnberg   Tribune national correspondent  August 7, 2006

ATOP MT. GRAHAM, Ariz. -- It was starting to seem that the goal of the church outing was to literally ascend to the heavens.

Mile after slow, winding mile, a line of vans steadily advanced up the side of the rugged mountain. When the bumpy, rudimentary road dead-ended at a closed gate, a priest jumped out of the lead vehicle, unlocked it and waved the caravan through.

There, more than 10,000 feet above the vast Arizona desert, appeared an unlikely sight: one of the most advanced telescopes on Earth, a piece of equipment containing a mirror so fragile that some had joked it would require divine intervention to haul the mirror to the peak of Mt. Graham without damaging it.

Even more unlikely was the small plaque indicating the telescope's primary owner--the Vatican, an institution known for its focus on an ancient religion, not cutting-edge science.

Though few Americans know it, the Vatican has for more than 100 years funded and staffed world-class observatories, first in Italy and, since the early 1980s, in Arizona, where the height of Mt. Graham and the dark desert nights are ideal for telescope use. Assigned to the observatories--technically as the pope's personal astronomers--are men who not only hold advanced astronomy and mathematics degrees but who are Jesuit priests. Their scientific findings are formally presented to church officials in Rome once a year.

"Our work is to be good scientists as well as good Catholics," said Rev. Christopher Corbally, the vice director of the Vatican Observatory Research Group, who was giving a Catholic church group a tour of the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope one morning earlier this summer.

The Vatican, which still fights its image as the institution that tried Galileo during the Inquisition for endorsing the idea that Earth was not the center of the universe, has said the observatory's mission is to serve as a bridge between religion and science.

"Many see the disciplines of science and theology as mutually exclusive," said Rev. Bill Stoeger, one of the Vatican astronomers.

Biblical interpretations

In fact, the claims of the pope's astronomers have been the sort that may make Christians who advocate a literal interpretation of the Bible squirm. One Vatican astronomer announced several years ago that the star of Bethlehem probably never existed. And virtually all of the pope's astronomers have come to the conclusion that God could not have created the universe in just six days about 10,000 years ago, as some literal interpreters of the Bible believe.

"People often ask me: `Do you believe in the Big Bang or in creation by God?'" Stoeger said, "and my answer is, `Yes.'"

Stoeger's position is illustrative of the complex relationship between faith and science. Though Catholics are not typically fundamentalists in their reading of the Bible, the hot-button issue of evolution has recently touched off the kind of debate inside the Vatican that has been going on inside Protestant denominations for years.

If there is a ground zero in the intersection of faith and science for the Roman Catholic Church, it is at the peak of Mt. Graham, which is about 150 miles northeast of Tucson.

Corbally, the priest-astronomer leading the recent tour, was not the slightest bit daunted or stuffy as he explained how the complicated telescope works and why the church cares about his work and how science can deepen religious faith and understanding. He even made a few pope jokes, pointing to a balcony that allows astronomers access to the outside of the telescope and saying, "Hey, when you're in a business where the pope might drop by, you've got to have a balcony."

The people taking the tour--members of a local church group for which Corbally acts as the spiritual leader--listened transfixed as he explained the history of the Vatican Observatory. The church, he said, in the late 1500s ordered Jesuit scientists to reform the Julian calendar, which was too long and thus threw off the dates of religious holidays. With new astronomical data, the Gregorian calendar, still used today, was born.

"That's why the church chose this science, not something like medicine, originally," Corbally said. "But the commitment to it over the years has endured because of a desire to create a bridge between good science and good religion."

The Vatican's initial observatories were in Rome and then in the Italian countryside, but both were essentially rendered obsolete when the bright lights of Italy's largest city made night observing virtually impossible. In 1993, the Vatican Observatory, in collaboration with the University of Arizona's Steward Observatory, completed the telescope on Mt. Graham. (The arrangement gives the Vatican 75 percent ownership and responsibility for the telescope, and the university 25 percent.)

Corbally spoke to the tour group as an expert with a doctorate in astronomy. At other times he spoke as a committed clergyman, saying that the more he unravels the complexities of the universe, the more he sees the brilliance of its creator.

"Our knowledge only increases our understanding of God," said Corbally's colleague Stoeger, who has made it one of his missions to explain how the spiritually minded also can be scientifically minded. He went on to explain that many Catholic theologians view the creation account found in Genesis as a story that reveals not a literal historical fact but the essential truth that God created everything, including all the mechanisms that allow for evolution.

Opinion polls indicate Americans might not be predisposed to consolidate the scientific view of evolution with their own church-influenced views. According to a November 2004 Gallup Poll, almost half of the U.S. population believes that human beings did not evolve but were created by God, as stated in the Bible, essentially in their current form about 10,000 years ago. That dovetails with a 2005 Pew Research poll indicating that 42 percent of Americans believe "life on Earth has existed in its present form since the beginning of time."