If you ask Guy Consolmagno, science and religion are two things that go together quite nicely. Brother Guy, as he’s known, is a Jesuit priest from Ohio. He’s also the director of the Vatican Observatory based in Rome.
We talked with Consolmagno ahead of his trip to Hopkinsville, Kentucky — the town sits smack-dab in the path of totality and has adopted the nickname Eclipseville — where he planned to watch his first-ever total solar eclipse. Brother Guy had a conversation with The World’s religion correspondent, Matthew Bell.
Matthew Bell: So, hold on a minute. The Vatican employs an astronomer?
Guy Consolmagno: We’ve actually got a dozen of them, and the one joke is that [the Vatican] couldn’t afford a particle accelerator. Astronomy is a great way to use science to introduce people to the idea that the universe is bigger than what’s for lunch, that there’s more to life than your immediate day-to-day needs. And that’s what religion tries to do, as well.
The history of the Vatican Observatory goes back to the reform of the calendar. We don’t have to do that anymore. That was solved in 1582. Today, we exist simply to be a sign to show the world that the church not only embraces science, but supports science. It pays for science. Science is a good thing. The people we have to give that message to more often than not are the religious people, because I’ve often found that scientists know that already.
The one story that people know about, of course, is how Galileo was condemned by the church.
There are a lot of fascinating scientific arguments that really only in the last couple of years people have dug into the original literature enough to see. This is interesting, not only for what happened to Galileo, but it’s a lesson for us as scientists today.
How do we decide what’s right and what’s wrong? And how do we carry forward with our ideas? Galileo was right. We know that now, as far as he went. He couldn’t have imagined a universe 13.8 billion light years and expanding. But certainly to know that the old medieval model was wrong, he was completely right about that.
And yet, there were good scientific arguments. There was also a whole world of politics going on. Galileo didn’t exist in a vacuum. He was there at the height of the Protestant Reformation. His trial occurred 20 years after he had great success selling his books and becoming the Neil deGrasse Tyson of the 17th century, but it was also right at the height of the Thirty Years’ War, and you have to think that maybe that had something to do with why they decided that having dangerous ideas was politically unpopular. All of that occurs even today.
One of the great things about learning the history of astronomy is that you can then reflect back on the astronomy that’s done today and be a little less cocky about where we are right now.
How does something like this solar eclipse highlight for you the glory of God’s creation?
First of all, anyone can see it. You don’t have to have a PhD. You don’t have to have NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope. And the fact is that a total solar eclipse is so surprising and so beautiful.
But, built into all of that, is also the science. We can predict this sort of thing. And during this eclipse, we can see a whole realm of solar activity in the corona that normally is blocked out, because the sun blinds us to it. Then there’s the fact that you can use this eclipses to test the theory of general relativity. So, it’s got everything! It’s got excitement, deep science, wonderful history, and anyone can enjoy it.
But how does a total solar eclipse fit into your theology?
Well, you have to be very careful. You cannot use scientific works to say, “ [...] and therefore, there is God.” God doesn’t come at the end of your science. God doesn’t come at the other end of the telescope. But if you already believe, if you’ve already accepted the reality of this universe and the fact that it can’t explain itself, and that there’s something outside of the universe, and we’ll call that God — if you accept that this is the God that we’ve encountered in the history of scripture, and you look at the universe already knowing that whatever is going on out there, that is indeed the expression of this God, then whatever you find out there is a way of finding out about God.
You get to know somebody by knowing the things they make, the choices they make. And the fact that this eclipse is so beautiful, the fact that it’s even possible! It’s a remarkable coincidence that the moon also happens to be in the sky almost exactly the same size at the sun appears in the sky, so that the one can completely block out the other, without blocking out too much or too little.
Is that proof of the existence of God? Of course not. It’s a coincidence. But maybe it’s a divine coincidence. It’s just one of those lovely tricks of the universe that has to make you smile.
Does this eclipse fit into the Catholic worldview or into the ideas behind Pope Francis’s teachings on the environment in any interesting ways?
There is such an expression of happiness that comes when you watch something like an eclipse. It can be so predictable and, at the same time, so surprising. The fact that you find such richness in something as mundane as the orbits of planets speaks to me to a universe that’s full of joy and ultimately full of love.
If the universe, as G.K. Chesterton once described in “Orthodoxy,” is not our stern mother, but our sister, one that we’re supposed to love and dance with, then this also means that this universe and this world deserves all the care we can give it and all the love we can give it. It’s not something to be exploited.
Have you made any interesting connections with people of different faiths, or no specific religious faith, around this summer’s solar eclipse?
Anytime astronomers get together, you’ll find people of every faith, no faith, and people changing their faith every which way. At the Vatican Observatory, we have an advanced telescope at a big beautiful building in Safford, Arizona. And one of the best photographs we have from there was taken by a man who happens to be a staunch atheist. He’s not a member of our observatory, but he let us use the photograph because he likes what we do.
Astronomy is a place where people can get together, where suddenly there aren’t left-wingers, right-wingers, or communists and capitalists. Everybody lives under the same sky.
Are there any special rituals or prayers from the Catholic tradition for an event like this?
Not really. The only prayer I can think of when I’m doing astronomy is the one sometimes referred to as “The Astronaut’s Prayer.” Apparently, when Alan Shepard was about to be launched as the first American astronaut, the people in Houston heard him muttering. The cleaned-up version is, “Dear God, don’t let me screw up.”
That’s a prayer I think we can all say. But there’s no particular ritual. We don’t worship the moon or the sun. The sun, the moon, the stars; they’re all created as much as you and I are created. That’s why we can refer to them as our cousins, you know, “brother sun, sister moon.” But we’re also recognizing that this doesn’t degrade who we are. It makes us appreciate all the more what they are.
What are some of the historic connections between Islam and the Catholic Church in terms of the science of astronomy?
Certainly, the history of astronomy in the West, which was carried forth by the medieval universities where astronomy was one of the four subjects everybody had to learn before they could get their doctorate in philosophy or theology, all of that astronomy came to us from the Arabic and Islamic world.
We wouldn’t have the astronomy we have without the background in astronomy from the Muslim world. Likewise, I think we can give back to them the things that we have been able to do in the West because of the accident of history that allowed us to do astronomy while other parts of the world were struggling.
To my mind, my religion gives me the reason to do the science. It tells me that the universe is worth studying. It tells me that the universe can be understood. It tells me that there are laws to what’s going on; it’s not a bunch of nature gods or a dragon eating up the sun, or something like that. Islam has exactly the same belief. These beliefs come out of the scripture that we have in common.
They’re about a God who created the universe deliberately from a place outside of the universe and then looked at it and said, “This is good.”
What about climate change? This is something that Pope Francis has been very clear about. In America, there are a lot Christians who are skeptical. When you see something like the eclipse getting so much attention, how much do you hope that this might get people to think differently?
I do hope so. We need people from all parts of the political spectrum. The issue shouldn’t be whether or not the climate is changing, but rather what to do about it.
I’ve got friends on the left who are really good at identifying problems, but really terrible at coming up with solutions. We need people from every walk of life to help figure out what to do. We need everyone’s input on this.
It’s tragic when people have removed themselves from this conversation. No one is right all the time. Science is a community that corrects itself all the time. We need all voices to deal with the fact that the climate is changing.