The ‘Pope’s Astronomer’ puts science and faith in harmony at Canisius visit
(Editor’s Note: Be sure to click on the audio link below to listen to a one-on-one interview of Brother Guy Consolmagno by Western New York Catholic Audio’s Michael Mroziak in the studios of the Catholic Center, hosted prior to Brother Guy’s lecture at Canisius University.)
Since 2015, Brother Guy Consolmagno, SJ, has served the Catholic Church as its director of the Vatican Observatory. Monday, Oct. 23 at Canisius University, he spoke of his work observing the cosmos, celebrating God’s greater creation while doing so.
“My religion gives me the reason to do the science. Because I’m doing it not for my own glory, not to win prizes, not to get a promotion, to get tenure, any of those things. I’m doing it because God asked me to do it,” said Brother Guy before an audience of more than 100 guests. “He said, this is a way that you can give glory to Me and, oh yeah, show the world that you can have fun doing science for its own joy while you’re wearing a collar like this. Maybe that’s a lesson more people need to learn.”
Celebrating God through astronomical studies is only part of Brother Guy’s work bringing faith and science together. He also speaks frequently to dispel some of the lingering misconceptions that the Catholic Church is “anti-science.”
The visit was sponsored by the Permanent Chair of Polish Culture at Canisius University, which welcomed Brother Guy to Buffalo to coincide with its celebration of the 550th anniversary of the birth of Polish mathematician and astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus. Copernicus’ most famous published work proposed that it is the sun at the center of the solar system, and not the Earth.
While this revolutionized how astronomers understand the heavens, Copernicus’ model wasn’t perfect. It didn’t entirely explain the movements of planets because it assumed them to circle the sun in perfect circles. The later work of Galileo Galelei, Johannes Kepler, Tycho Brahe and Sir Isaac Newton helped fine tune the current solar system model.
Brother Guy told his audience Copernicus’ work also didn’t draw the ire of the Church, as some historians have portrayed it.
“I remind you that soon after that, the Church had the Council of Trent, which lasted for 20 years, and looked for heresies in every possible place, because of course, this was during the Reformation. And with all of their hunger to find heresies, the Copernican system was never discussed,” Brother Guy said. “Nobody at the time thought that there was anything wrong with the Copernican system. In fact, the Gregorian reform of the calendar that we heard about relied on Copernicus’ observations.”
Brother Guy is greatly respected in his field, even by many who do not share his Catholic faith. He chaired the Division for Planetary Sciences of the American Astronomical Society from October 2006 to October 2007, and was awarded the Carl Sagan Medal in 2014 for Excellence in Public Communication in Planetary Science.
Catholic leadership and influence are nothing new to astronomy, despite the claims by opponents that the Church is “anti-science.” Astronomy was one of the core subjects at Church-backed universities centuries ago. The scientist who first proposed the idea of the universe expanding with the “Big Bang” was Father Georges Lemaître, a priest who taught physics at the Catholic University of Leuven.
The Vatican Observatory is headquartered in Rome, but operates its Advanced Technology Telescope in Arizona, which recently celebrated its 30th anniversary. Brother Guy spends time at both locations throughout the year. He was first assigned to the observatory in 1993, four years after joining the Society of Jesus.
He recalled his first instruction when getting the job: do good science.
“The whole point of a Vatican observatory is to show the world that the Church supports real science, good science, the same science that gets published by everybody else in the same journals as everybody else,” he said.
LISTEN: WNY Catholic Audio’s Michael Mroziak interviews Brother Guy Consolmagno on faith and science.