In Pursuit of Truth: The Vatican and astronomy

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The Catholic Church teaches a beautiful and absolute synergy between faith and reason.  In fact, we believe that we can know with certainty at least the existence of God solely from reason and the natural world.

CCC 32:

The world: starting from movement, becoming, contingency, and the world’s order and beauty, one can come to a knowledge of God as the origin and the end of the universe.

As St. Paul says of the Gentiles: For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made.

And St. Augustine issues this challenge: Question the beauty of the earth, question the beauty of the sea, question the beauty of the air distending and diffusing itself, question the beauty of the sky. . . question all these realities. All respond: “See, we are beautiful.” Their beauty is a profession [confessio]. These beauties are subject to change. Who made them if not the Beautiful One [Pulcher] who is not subject to change?

The book of Wisdom 13:5 says this:

For by the greatness of the beauty, and of the creature, the creator of them may be seen, so as to be known thereby.

So the natural world is one way we can come to know the Creator. Because of this, throughout history, the Church has greatly valued the pursuit of truth through the natural sciences.

For the Church, this pursuit of truth is not simply motivated by curiosity or intrigue. And it’s not solely for our own technological advancement, convenience of society or curing of disease. Those are all part of it and are noble ends in themselves. But for the Church, this pursuit of truth is more akin to the pursuit of a lover after his beloved. We desire to know everything about the Creator as possible because that enables us to love Him that much more deeply.

Many, surprisingly, are surprised to find out just how much the Catholic Church and the Vatican have contributed to the advancement of the scientific knowledge of mankind. It is truly remarkable. And it continues to this day.

One particularly significant way the Church has done so is through Astronomy. I recently read a very interesting book called The Heavens Proclaim: Astronomy and the Vatican. I had no idea the Vatican was, still in our modern era, right there on the cutting edge and still contributing and leading crucial research in this area.

Just to list a few highlights, back in the day the Vatican worked with the Astrographic Catalog, building the map of the heavens, proofs of the Earth’s rotation, Spectroscopy, The Green Flash, the use of the first computers, development of the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope (VATT), and much more. A Vatican priest, Fr. Secchi, is even known as the Father of Stellar Spectral Classification – which is what helps us map out the distant structure of our Milky Way galaxy.

And even as recent as 2000 and 2007 the Vatican organized international conferences for the global scientific community on the formation and evolution of galaxies. “The study of galaxies is crucial when trying to connect our knowledge of the universe as a whole with the formation of stars and planets” (p.99).

Anyway, the point is that the Vatican has a bunch of geeky, brilliant clergy working there that are still getting it done and leading the way on many fronts within the scientific community. And even if you have no idea what Spectroscopy is, you’ve gotta admit it’s pretty neat that the Vatican does.

The book gets technically fairly in depth. But it covers a huge variety of topics, from general to specific. And it has a lot of absolutely beautiful color photographs from our awe-inspiring universe. So if you’re interested in that kind of stuff, it’s definitely worth a read.

A copy of this book, The Heavens Proclaim: Astronomy and the Vatican, was provided to me by The Catholic Company for review.  You can pick up a copy here.

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Brian Byrne January 8, 2010 at 10:06 am

Another example is perhaps Monsignor Georges Lemaître who “proposed what became known as the Big Bang theory of the origin of the Universe, which he called his ‘hypothesis of the primeval atom’.”

See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Georges_Lema%C3%AEtre

Pax et bonum

david brierley January 8, 2010 at 10:17 am

Reading the articles that are creative and interesting, most are speculative,without fact. Whenever I read Catholic blogs, there is never any articles related to the Paedophile priest problem, nor any catholics speaking out or against this vile and unholy practise. How many children were violated on christmas day in the name of catholicism. and logically there were violations. religion can be fun but not with preditory catholic paedophile priests eyeing up the next child victim. My Dad was an Orphan victim.

CARLOS January 11, 2010 at 12:13 am

Speculative without fact? which part? The vatican and it’s contribution though out history in science is fact. The press may paint a picture of a different effect of The Church though out art, science and history but if you research the facts you will see things differently. The problems with the world are enormous. The problems with man and woman are enormous. Lets look at the elephant in the room. It’s man’s fallibility that is the problem. We as man and woman do bad things and we need redemption & forgiveness and man’s heart searches for it. God has revealed himself to us and has given us this path for redemption & forgiveness.
All human hearts and souls search for the beginning and the end and everything in between. The Catholic Faith gives us the tools to take on the search.
When men or women do bad things it does not mean that God is bad. It is the choice of the man or woman. It’s the choice of the Man or Woman how his or her life will be lived. That is the will of God. Live your life how you will. He has granted us free will.
Do not attach your bad deeds to God . God will forgive though. don’t forget that.

Matthew Warner January 11, 2010 at 8:49 am

Good points, Carlos and Brian!

David, I understand your pain. But I would urge you to look around a bit more. That topic has been covered extensively by the Church faithful and particularly by most dioceses. I would also ask that you please be more sensitive to not smearing all Catholic priests with a common misconception of the issue. The sexual abuse scandal that occurred in the Catholic Church is, very unfortunately, just as – if not more – common in other denominations and in the population in general than it is in the Catholic Church. That’s not an excuse for the behavior. But it’s important to be fair. And the Catholic Church comparably has done more than just about anybody else in addressing the problem, accepting responsibility and working towards healing and further safety for children.

Here’s a good read on it.

Kaylan January 21, 2010 at 7:58 am

Wow, loved this article. I especially like how you said:
“..we believe that we can know with certainty at least the existence of God solely from reason and the natural world.”

I am a big science fan and never find it contradicts my Faith at all. In fact, it just strengthens it when I realize how powerful, awe-inspiring God is through the created world!

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