[Editor’s Note: Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno is the Director of the Vatican Observatory, originally established in the 18th century and re-established in its present form in 1891. Consolmagno is seen by many as the point man for the Vatican on science, speaking regularly on the relationship between faith and reason. The Vatican Observatory Foundation even runs a blog. Recently, Consolmagno spoke at the Sheen Center in New York on ‘Jesuits and Jedi: Science and Spirituality in the Age of Star Wars.’ After the event, he spoke to Charles Camosy.]
Camosy: At the Sheen Center event I learned a bit about about your history and how you ended up as “the Pope’s Astronomer.” Can you give Crux readers some of that background?
Consolmagno: It would take a book! (The book is called “Brother Astronomer”…)
I grew up in an ordinary Catholic household of the ’50s and learned my science and religion from the Sisters of Charity at Our Lady Queen of Martyrs. I went to the University of Detroit Jesuit high school, thought about being a priest but realized I didn’t have the personality for it, and wound up at MIT mostly because of their science fiction library!
In my thirties I had a crisis of faith; not faith in my religion, but in science. So rather than “wasting my time” studying the moons of Jupiter, I joined the Peace Corps. My students in Kenya were fascinated by science, though, and their enthusiasm reminded me that astronomy is one of those foods for the soul that make us more than well-fed cows.
After teaching at a small college – a delight – I joined the Jesuits as a brother thinking I could teach at a Jesuit college. Instead, they sent me off to Rome for more astronomy … and in 2015, Pope Francis named me director of the Observatory.
You’ve said that studying the cosmos is an act of worship. Can you say more about what you mean by that?
Worship is a way that we come closer to God; and that’s what we do when we study the cosmos. I do not rely on the Bible to tell me the answers to my scientific questions, but I do rely on the authority of Scripture to be reassured that those answers can be found and are worth pursuing.
In particular I am inspired by the psalmist who wrote “The Heavens proclaim the glory of God” and St. Paul who reminds us that “from the beginning of time, God has made Himself known in the things He has created. We get to learn God’s personality by getting used to His way of making creation work… a way that is elegant, rational, and full of joy!
There are lots of misunderstandings about the relationship of science and the Catholic Church, especially historically. What are one or two misunderstandings that you think are particularly important to correct?
When people say the Church is anti-science, my reply is “name three” … as in, give me three examples. They always start with Galileo, which usually means they know nothing about Galileo … his life and times, his arguments, or the nature of the opposition against him. They’ve never read what he wrote, or what his friends wrote, or what his foes wrote. Some might mention Giordano Bruno; a brief glance at Bruno’s Wikipedia entry is usually an eye-opener for them. And then they can’t come up with a third example. (The church never condemned evolution, for example; and two popes, Pius XII and John Paul II, specifically endorsed it.)
Meanwhile, the list of prominent scientists who were Catholic ranges from Albert the Great and Roger Bacon, to Ampere, Volta, Pasteur, Mendel, and Lemaitre … and, for that matter, Copernicus and Galileo! Again, you can search Wikipedia for a list of Catholic Nobel Prize winners.
One of my favorite parts of the Sheen event was your thoughts on artificial intelligence in machines. Do you think it is possible that a such a machine should ever be considered a person?
In principle, why not? In practice, it’ll be a long time before something we produce with metal and semiconductors can do the job. My suspicion — I could be wrong! — is that digital computers as such will never be able to replicate the human brain; it’s the wrong design style, I suspect. I am reminded of the quip that the human brain is the still most sophisticated computer available to us, and what’s more, it’s one that can be produced by unskilled laborers.
You’ve written a book titled Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial? Well…would you?
Only if she asks.