June 1, 2006

Vatican Scientists Gaze at Stars in Arizona

By Alan Elsner

MT. GRAHAM, Ariz -- From his vantage point atop the highest peak in southern Arizona, Father Jose Funes is lining up the Vatican telescope for a night of observation, probing the processes that lead galaxies to form and stars to be born.

Funes, an astronomer and a Jesuit priest, is one of a dozen scientists, most of them Jesuits, associated with the Vatican Observatory Research Group that operate the Arizona telescope and engages in advanced astrophysics, cosmology and galactic and extragalactic research.

Few Catholics and even fewer Americans are aware that the Vatican has a telescope in Arizona or even that the Catholic Church engages in scientific research. But the priests see themselves bridging the gap between science and religion.

In the process, they have emerged as a powerful voice against "creationism" and the theory of "intelligent design," which holds that certain forms in nature are too complex to have evolved through natural selection and must have been created by a "designer" who might be called God.

Like all the priest-scientists, Funes said he kept his astronomy and religion separate.

"When I teach at the University of Arizona, I tell students, 'I am a priest, a Jesuit, but my class is a science class ... and Science is about natural, not supernatural causes,"' he said.

Funes, who heard a call from God when he was studying astronomy in college in his native Argentina, is mapping the formation and evolution of galaxies within 100 million light years of Earth. By the time the project is completed, he will have observed about 400 galaxies.

Despite the well-known 17th century clash between Galileo and the Inquisition over whether the Earth revolved around the sun, the Catholic Church has a long history of encouraging science and especially astronomy, said Father Chris Corbally, the British-born vice director of the Vatican Observatory.

Angelo Secchi, a 19th century Jesuit, is known as the father of astrophysics while what became known as the Big Bang theory was first proposed in 1933 by another priest, Georges Lemaitre.


In 1891, Pope Leo XIII established the Vatican Observatory just behind St. Peter's dome in Rome, specifically to demonstrate that the church was not hostile to science.

By 1935, the electric lights of Rome made star gazing in the Vatican impossible, so the observatory moved to Castel Gandalfo, site of the papal summer retreat. By the 1970s, light pollution had spread there as well so the decision was taken to establish a research base in Arizona.

The telescope on Mt. Graham, a 10,700-foot peak, was inaugurated in September 1993, taking advantage of the dry, clear desert air that makes the site a perfect place for astronomy.

It was the first telescope in the world to use a mirror spun from a ceramic mold, a technique pioneered at the University of Arizona. A few yards away, the university has its own much larger double telescope with two giant mirrors that act like binoculars that can pull in images sharp enough to read a newspaper 5 miles away.

Corbally said it was possible that priests were naturally drawn to a study of the heavens, but their religious faith had no effect on their science.

"The methodology I use is the same as the non-Jesuit colleagues with whom I work," he said. "But does being a Jesuit affect my appreciation of the science? Of course it does. It is a joy to work and understand the created universe, the Creator's universe."

Father Bill Stoeger, a cosmologist who also holds degrees in theology and philosophy, said there might sometimes be some tension but there was no conflict, between his dual callings.

"If we believe that God is creator, then God is in some way reflected in what God creates," he said.

"We learn a little bit about God from scripture but a lot about God from creation -- which includes ourselves, nature, art, the beauty and goodness of the universe and its tragedy," he said.

Polls have consistently shown a large number of Americans are skeptical not only of the theory of evolution but also of the Big Bang theory of the birth of the universe, that has gained overwhelming support in the scientific community.

For example, according to a 2005 Pew Research poll, 42 percent of Americans believe that "life on Earth has existed in its present form since the beginning of time."

Stoeger called the faith of those who believe in the literal account of creation as described in the Book of Genesis as belief based on ignorance.

"Their theology is very primitive and they have no adequate means ... to integrate their (religious) tradition with the real world," he said.

Corbally said a split between science and religion was dangerous for society and the world. "Having truths in opposition is hurtful. We live in a world in which we have to understand nature in order to live with it correctly," he said.