A Look at the Vatican Observatory and Faith and Reason
By Rob Langenderfer
May of 2016 started out in a very interesting way for enthusiasts of science. On May 3, 2016, the Assistant Director of the Vatican Observatory, Fr. Paul Mueller, spoke at Mellow Mushroom Pizza in Hyde Park as part of a Theology on TAP series. He began his talk by discussing the history of the Vatican Observatory. The observatory had been in existence since 1582 when one takes the term observatory to mean astronomical research, which was inspired by Pope Gregory XIII’s desire to understand the implications of the reform of the calendar, which had occurred that year. There were several different observatory buildings at different times, sometimes several being in use simultaneously. Mueller pointed out how almost all royal courts in the 1600s and 1700s had observatories, and the Vatican, with its control at the time of most of present-day Central Italy as part of the Papal States, was fitting into that tradition by having an observatory. When the papacy lost the Papal States in 1870 after Italy was unified, having an observatory was still a reminder to the world that it considered itself royalty.
Mueller denied that there was any inherent conflict between faith and reason. Since God created both, they must ultimately be in harmony with each other. He noted that the Galileo affair was for Catholics like Darwinism and evolution was for some branches of Protestants, a well-publicized single exception to the general peace between science and reason that has been present. He pointed out how a priest-scientist was the first formulator of the Big Bang Theory. He also noted how he would place God outside the realm of caused events because God created everything and had always existed. Later, after his formal talk was concluded and I asked him whether there was anything in Church doctrine that would preclude the possibility of extraterrestrial life (as a friend of mine and myself had a lengthy argument about that one time with me arguing that there was nothing in Church teaching that denied the possibility of alien life and my friend arguing the opposite and I was curious about Mueller’s thoughts on the issue), Mueller noted that denying the possibility of alien life would in effect be limiting God and he would not do that. In fact, Mueller had co-authored a book with his boss, the director of the Vatican Observatory, Brother Guy Consolmagno, S.J., PhD, Would you Baptize an Extraterrestrial?...and Other Questions from the Astronomers’ In-box at the Vatican Observatory, which came out in 2014. Consolmagno had also written several books on his own, including 2007’s God’s Mechanics: How Scientists and Engineers Make Sense of Religion, 2000’s Brother Astronomer: Adventures of a Vatican Scientist and 1998’s The Way to the Dwelling of Light and edited the 2009 collection The Heavens Proclaim: Astronomy and the Vatican.
Mueller was a very down-to-earth person and a compelling speaker. A good number of people turned out for his talk. It truly was an enlightening experience and it led one to many further questions on the topic and resources from which they can be investigated.
Again, thanks to SBK member, Rob, for the review.