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Guy Consolmagno: “When we realise that it is an exploration of the unknown, we understand that science and religion can help each other”

We talked with the Jesuit Brother and Vatican astronomer Guy Consolmagno about religion and science, the Church and astronomy, and his book “Would you baptise an Extraterrestrial”, published in Slovenian translation in 2020 by Družina publishing house.

Can you start by introducing yourself to our readers and telling us more about yourself?
I am an American, I grew up in Michigan. I graduated from MIT and got my PhD from the University of Arizona. I am a planetary scientist specialising in meteorites. My research looks at the physical properties of meteorites, their density, how they respond to heat and magnetism, and so on. We have achieved a great deal in this field at the Vatican, where we have a wonderful collection of meteorites, including more than a hundred pieces donated by a French nobleman a hundred years ago. This has enabled us to carry out research on the physical characteristics of meteorites and to draw up tables that are used by everyone today.

How did you end up in the Vatican as an astronomer and scientist?

I became an astronomer and planetary scientist many years before I joined the Jesuits. When I was 30 years old I had what you could call a crisis of faith, not faith in religion, but faith in science. I began to wonder why I was doing astronomy while many people in the world were starving. So I left science and joined the US Peace Corps. I spent two years in Kenya, where I realised how attractive astronomy is to people from Kenya and from outside the Western world. Curiosity about space is universal. It is one of the things that makes us human. This inspired me to come back to learning astronomy again. So for four years I taught astronomy at a wonderful little school in Pennsylvania. But I wanted to achieve something more than just teaching, to achieve something more for others.
Did you then decide to join the Jesuit Order?

I joined the Jesuit Order in 1989, but as a brother, not as a priest. I did not feel called to be a priest. Basically, I am a “nerd”. If people confide their problems to me, I am quite useless, I don’t know what to say to them. With time, I have learned that that you don´t have to say anything, you just listen. The Jesuits are brothers among whom we find people with special talents, such as painters, sculptors, but also cooks or cleaners. My talent is astronomy. So I joined, thinking that I would teach astronomy at one of the many Jesuit universities in America. However, one of the commitments I made as a brother when I joined is obedience. Then I was told that I would go to Italy, to the Vatican, where I would live in the Pope’s summer residence, where there is a collection of thousands of meteorites, which are my speciality, and where I would have to eat terrible Italian food and suffer a boring landscape, which I somehow survived (laughs). I have now been living there for almost 30 years. And in 2015, Pope Francis appointed me as Director of the Observatory.

So you are the Director of the Vatican Observatory and also the President of the Vatican Observatory Foundation…

Astronomy has been linked to the Church since the Middle Ages. It was one of the sciences you had to know if you wanted to study theology. It’s all about cosmology, how the universe works, how it’s put together. Of course, a lot has changed in this field over the last thousand years, and we know a lot more today. Nevertheless, there is still interest in these questions, mainly because the Church recognises that the universe is God’s creation; the better we understand the universe, the better we understand God. St Paul said as much in his letter to the Romans. Since the beginning of time, God has revealed himself in the things he has created. The modern observatory has existed since 1891.

But for what purpose was it founded?

Pope Leo XIII had two aims; firstly, to show the world that the Church supports science, since at the end of the 18th century her enemies claimed that she was opposed to science. However, if you read its history you see that this was not the case. Not even in Galileo’s time. However, the story of him was twisted to make it work that the Church was opposed to science. What she did to Galileo was wrong, but it had nothing to do with science. And secondly; to show the world that the Vatican is a country independent of Italy. In fact, that is our task today. When I arrived thirty years ago, my instructions were: do good in science. Today, as Director, I tell this to the new members. We have a dozen astronomers from all over the world and we are trying to do good science.

Can you also tell us about the Vatican Observatory Foundation?

We do a lot of this in the USA through a foundation, of which I am the president, which raises funds for the research that we do there, because we have a modern telescope in southern Arizona, as well as for our workshops for religion teachers and for the summer school for young astronomers.We pay the tuition fees for 25 students from all over the world. Generally speaking, we raise funds to support science. We also collaborate with other scientists, and our observatory’s influence is quite strong in the world of science, mainly because we are not competing with other scientists for funding. This means that we can do research that others cannot do because they are deprived of funding if there are no quick results. We are doing research that is twenty years long and more.

A translation of your book “Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial”, which you wrote with the Jesuit Brother Paul Mueller, has been published in Slovenian translation by Družina. What are the main topics of the book?

We astronomers get a lot of letters from people interested in astronomy. But in the Vatican we receive twice as many letters. Sometimes someone asks me to pass something on to the Pope, which of course I can’t do (laughs). But we have noticed that certain questions are repeated over and over again. It can be quite tiring, because they are not questions with easy answers. Some questions we answer over and over again and yet we keep getting them. We have found that these are questions that do not have easy answers, but are also very interesting because of the assumptions of the people who ask them. That is how this book, which focuses on six specific questions, came about.

So the book is divided into six different themes. Which ones?

The first one is quite obvious; it deals with the beginning of the universe and the big bang theory. It is fascinating that people, even scientists, confuse the Big Bang with the creation of the universe. However, it is not the same thing. God actually created space and time and the laws of physics that made the big bang possible. However you think creation happened, God made it possible. Georges Lemaître, the author of the Big Bang theory, was, after all, a Catholic priest. He understood it well and spent a lot of time explaining it to both scientists and people of the Church. The Big Bang does not prove that Genesis is right or wrong.

What are the other topics that you deal with?

The second question is about Pluto. It came as a shock to many when astronomers changed its status. They thought, “Hasn’t science already fixed it?”. But science is not the definitive book of facts. We are constantly finding new things that shed new light on things we have always observed. That is how religion works. Your faith in God must be based on love. Certainly do not think that your partner is a person about whom you know everything and cannot learn anything new. If you believe that, your marriage is dead. The same applies to our relationship with God. If we think that it is definitive and written in a book and that we will find nothing new in it, then we cannot increase it. So in talking about Pluto, parallels between religion and science come up. I might also mention that the Vatican was also involved in the decision about Pluto.

You mentioned Galileo earlier, is he also included in your book?

Among the two other issues that come up again and again and are included in the book is the story of Galileo. I can only say that probably everything you know about Galileo is wrong, although the truth does not show the Church in a better light either, but it was a different problem. History does not understand Galileo very well, because he was a very complicated person. Then there is the question of the Star of Bethlehem. Some people think that the aim of the Vatican Observatory is to decipher the Star of Bethlehem, which, of course, is not true. All we know about the star is that it is a story from the Bible. We may ask why is this so, why did Matthew tell this story? Is he describing an actual historical event or a metaphor for Christ as King of the universe? We cannot know, but we do know that it is a story that has fascinated people for two millennia. It is interesting to ask why. It is a story that draws us to the Christ child. If we focus only on the star and not on what the star is showing us, we have missed the point of the story. But there are many interesting theories about this that are included in the book.

What answer, if it is not a secret, do you offer the reader, given the title of the book itself?

Of the last two chapters, one is about the end of the universe, which we cannot know what it will be because we have no information from the future. It’s science fiction, which I love, so I enjoy these stories, but I don’t take them too seriously. Finally, there is the question that inspired the title, ‘Would you christen an alien?’. The wonderful thing about this question is that not only do we wonder if aliens exist and if they are intelligent, but also what baptism actually is. Why do we get baptised? Would it be appropriate to baptize an alien and under what circumstances? This prompts reflection on what it means to be human, regardless of the possible existence of extraterrestrials. All these questions encourage reflection on our assumptions that we are not even aware of when we ask questions.

In today’s modern world, where “progressive” values prevail, many argue that the Church and science are on opposite shores. What is your reaction to such claims?

I am sitting before you wearing a white clerical collar and a Massachusetts Institute of Technology ring. As you can see, there is no conflict in me. Whoever claims that there is a conflict must explain my existence or that of Father Lemaître, who is the father of the Big Bang theory, or that of Gregor Mendel, the pioneer of genetics, or that of James Clerk Maxwell, who was a devout Anglican and at the same time the inventor of electromagnetism and all modern physics.

In fact, many important scientists were also people of faith…

Given all the eminent scientists who were also believers, one has to ask why does this myth persist? Who is spreading it and why? I myself think that a little scepticism is not a bad thing when we are talking about things that are common knowledge. There is also a certain innocence about it, for example, the way we teach children about science or religion from great books. If you had stopped learning about science and religion when you were 12, you would have thought it was two books competing with each other. But that is not the case. Science is about things we don’t know. If it was just something we learn from books, it would be boring. The same is true of religion; it is not just about what we can learn from books. It is about love, which would be dead in that case.

Can science and religion work hand in hand without any contradictions?

Once we realise that it is about exploring the unknown, we understand that science and religion can help each other. The real task of a scientist is not to give answers, but to ask new and better questions. The true task of a believer is not to solve mysteries, but to recognise them, to think about them and to live with them. Science can protect religion from superstition. It is easy to invoke religion to explain things we do not know, but it is a false religion. It is easy to appeal to science as the ultimate truth, but science only progresses when it realises that its previous truths are not true, that they are incomplete. Truth is the goal of science, which it never reaches, and the same is true of the understanding of God and religion. Science and religion are not contradictory, but it can happen that one piece of science contradicts another piece of science. Then we realise that we are about to learn something new.

Today, the world is facing many crises, from the war in Ukraine and the energy crisis to the crisis triggered by the corona virus. How do we stay afloat in such a turbulent world?

When I look up at the stars at night, I start to see my own problems differently. It gives me hope. When I go to church and pray, it also gives me hope. Science and religion represent large groups of people who support each other in the pursuit of goals that are unattainable for all of us. But together we can do wonderful things. We can build, not just a cathedral of stones, but a cathedral of ideas. We can literally go to the moon when we work together. That is the power of science and religion, as groups of people with a common goal. Every time we fail, we learn something new. That is progress for science. As a Jesuit brother, every time I sin, I realize how deeply God loves me, even though I am not perfect. It is important that I accept his love. I try to be better, not because God loves me, but because I love God. This means that every crisis is an opportunity and every difficulty is a chance to learn more about the universe and to get closer to God.

By Andrej Sekulović

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