A quick check of science history shows that Catholic priests played a key role in many areas, from Albert the Great in 13th-century physics to Father Gregor Mendel in 19th-century genetics.
Not surprisingly, churchmen have excelled most in study of the heavens. The Vatican Observatory has been their inspiration and guide.
“The purpose of the Vatican Observatory is simple: to show the world that the church supports good science,” says Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno, executive director of the observatory, which can be traced to the 16th century. “But over the years our mission has grown deeper. I have come to realize just how much that good science is actually itself an act of worship. We give glory to the creator by learning to appreciate, deeper and deeper, this creation.”
One of the oldest astronomical institutes in the world, the observatory can locate its start in the 1580s, when Pope Gregory XIII formed a committee to investigate data involved in the reform of the calendar. On the committee was a Jesuit mathematician named Father Christoph Clavius. The Jesuits, a relatively new group at the time, have remained at the helm of Vatican-sponsored astronomy.
The popes began building telescopes around Rome, including in the Tower of the Winds within the Vatican. The early observatory project reached a high point in the mid-19th century with Jesuit Father Angelo Secchi, who became the first to categorize stars by what kind of light they emit. Father Secchi’s work became a foundation of modern astronomy.
Alert to the scientific tradition, and hoping to counter the nagging false accusation that the church is hostile towards science, Pope Leo XIII in 1891 formally re-established the Vatican Observatory. A telescope was mounted on a hill behind St. Peter’s Basilica.
In addition to Jesuits, scientists came from other religious orders, including Barnabites, Oratorians and Augustinians.
Research done there included an international effort to map the entire sky. Eventually, growth and electric lights prevented astronomers from viewing faint stars.
In the 1930s, Pope Pius XI had the observatory moved to the papal summer residence at Castel Gandolfo in the Alban Hills southeast of Rome. Modern telescopes and gear for analysis were installed. The Jesuits eventually ordered new telescopes and have carried on important work based on Father Secchi’s discoveries. The observatory collected famous astronomical books by Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo. The meteorite collection is still being studied and yielding insight.
Increased nighttime light in Rome became a problem even at Castel Gandolfo. In 1981, the Vatican founded an observatory in Tucson, Arizona. The Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope sits atop Mount Graham, built with pioneering lightweight stable mirrors. Last month, the telescope was spared by a fire in the area, though some related gear may have sustained heat and smoke damage.
In Rome and Arizona, the observatory convenes scholars for institutes and holds summer schools for interested students. Several Oregon priests have attended.
“Just as one gets to know a poet by studying their poetry, or a painter by spending time in front of their art, so we too come closer to our creator by taking the time to contemplate this creation,” says Brother Guy, who is based at Castel Gandolfo. “Contemplation can be simply sitting among the stars; or it can be actually looking more closely at this star or that, with fine instruments to uncover the details of how those stars work.”
Brother Guy, whose research explores the connections between meteorites and asteroids, says that every person is called to worship with the talents God has given him or her. For scientists, he says, research is a vocation and a way to bring glory to God.
Jesuit Father Christopher Corbally, an astronomer who works at the observatory in Arizona, says it is important that the church continue doing distinguished science.
Father Corbally, who often says that science improves his faith, adds that everyday Catholics should care about the Vatican Observatory.
“The regular guy in the pew loves to look up into the sky at night when he can get out of town and say ‘Wow,’” Father Corbally says. “That is what the church is doing — making it possible to feel that ‘wow.’”