VATICAN KEEPS EYE TO THE HEAVENS
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.
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."