Religion and science: the road between truth and understanding

Br Guy Consolmagno SJ at the Vatican Observatory
Br Guy Consolmagno SJ at the Vatican Observatory

Last week’s edition of the BBC’s The Sky at Night astronomy programme featured the Vatican Observatory in Rome, managed by the Jesuits.

Presenter Chris Lintott asked Br Guy Consolmagno SJ, Director of the Vatican Observatory, why the Vatican is interested in astronomy.  “Why is anyone?” was Br Consolmango’s answer, pointing out that the Vatican, indeed any religious organisation, can share the impulse of curiosity and intellectual enquiry in and with a secular world.

“Space is a place we can ask bigger questions,” he observes, “Science is not a book of answers, any more than religion is.  It is the conversation.  Science cannot solve or answer all our questions, and religion is in the business of suggesting questions. Religion and science share the road between truth and understanding”.

The programme also explored the story of Fr Angelo Secchi SJ, Director of the Observatory for 30 years in the nineteenth century.  He was responsible for moving the observatory to the roof of the Jesuit  Church of St Ignatius at Camp Marzio in Rome.  Fr David Brown SJ explained how Secchi  did ground-breaking work in the use of spectroscopy (splitting the light spectrum into different colours) to determine the chemical make-up of stars and start to classify them .

Fr Gabriele Gionti SJ explained his complex work on resolving incompatibility between the rules of quantum physics and general relativity occurring at the moment of the Big Bang.

The programme also told the story of how Pope Gregory XIII used astronomical observations to introduce the Gregorian calendar in 1582, how the Church made mistakes in its treatment of Galileo, and how the Observatory led the way in a project to photograph the whole of the night sky – at the time (1891) the biggest astronomy project in the world, and whose results are still be referred to by scientists today.

The programme is available on iPlayer until 9th July

Astronomy and Belief - article by Guy Consolmagno SJ on Thinking Faith